Russell Wilson had a down year in 2022. This work will try to answer the question of whether it was the beginning of his decline (Father Time always wins) or whether he can bounce back as others have. To do this we are going to look at other QBs who have used their legs as a big part of their game during their careers. Many of them led the league in QB rushing at least once during their careers. Those quarterbacks are (in no particular order):
- John Elway
- Doug Flutie
- Mark Brunell
- Steve McNair
- Rich Gannon
- Warren Moon
- Kordell Stewart
- Randall Cunningham
- Michael Vick
- Steve Young
- Fran Tarkenton
- Donovan McNabb
Skip to the end if you just want the conclusions and don’t really want to read through all this.
Before we get into the history lets look at some other pertinent data. All QBs eventually decline. Some, like Tom Brady, are able to play well into their early (or even mid) 40s. Generally the guys who are able to continue playing at a high level are the “pocket passers”, like Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning. If we look at the passer rating by age of a number of Hall of Fame (or close) QBs we find this
Only two “mobile QBs” are in that graph above - Moon and Elway. That might be because the league was not very conducive to running QBs in the past - they tended to be anomalies much more so than they are now. In fact if you look back at the history of the league you can find how many “running QBs” there were in a given season.
308 rushing yards was chosen because it puts you in the top 200 all-time for QB rushing yards in a season (counting kneel-downs, of course, which the league still stupidly counts as a run for -1 or -2 yards). As you might expect QB rushing yards and QB rushing TDs are a much greater part of the league total now than they were.
For this one I only went back to 1990, but you can see the trend. Beginning in roughly 2010 or 2011, QB rushing TDs and QB rushing yards started becoming a much larger part of the league total. Cam Newton entered the league in 2011. Russell Wilson entered the league in 2012. Russ is currently 3rd all-time in QB rushing yards (behind Vick and Newton). However, most of the guys in the top 10 in QB career rushing yards, really stopped using it as a big part of their game once they got into their 30s. For guys like Elway and Young, running with the ball was a last resort at that point in their careers; they much preferred to buy time in the pocket with their legs and then throw the ball. This meant that someone else took the hit. During his career Russ has been adept at both running with the ball, and buying time behind the LOS with his legs to set up deep throws.
I should also point out that there are guys in the top 20 in QB career rushing attempts who were not “running” QBs - mainly because of the stupidity with counting kneel-downs: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Alex Smith, and Ryan Fitzpatrick are all in the top 20. Tom Brady finished his career with almost as many rushing attempts as Steve Young and more rushing attempts that Fran Tarkenton. But if you look at actual rushing attempts, his career value drops from 693 to 428. Brady had 265 kneel-downs in his career for -257 yards (some were counted as no gain). Because of the kneel downs, Brady had a 1.6 yards per carry average on his rushing attempts during his career, but on his actual runs he averaged double that (3.2).
Back to Russ though - let’s look at the rushing attempts by age keeping in mind that a chunk of these could be kneel-downs for QBs on winning teams.
What should be painfully obvious is that even “running QBs” really curtail their runs once they hit their mid 30s. The only real exceptions are Young, and Flutie (maybe Newton if you want to heavily weight his 31-year old season).
But now we’re going to flip the equation and look at how these guys threw the ball, seeking years that were “down” to see how any of those listed at the outset were able to bounce back, if they were.
But even before we do that we need to see “how bad was it?” In other words, how far below his “normal” performance was Russ’ 2022?
|% below average||5%||-2%||7%||5%||45%||-26%||7%||0%||0%||17%||44%||-29%|
Relative to his average season 2012-2021, Russ had a huge dropoff in passing TDs (45 %) and QBR (44 %), while having a significant drop in completion percentage (7 relative %) and a huge jumps in interceptions (26%) and sacks (29%). Relative to most regular seasons, Russ ‘ 15 games started was pretty close so adjusting these are per game started won’t make to much a of different one way or the other. So now let’s focus on other older “running” QBs to see if any of them had down years late in their careers and were able to bounce back.
We’re starting with John Elway because this a Denver Broncos blog, and as such, any QB discussion should start with John. At the age of 32, Elway had his worst season as a full-time starting QB in the NFL. It was the 1992 season and John would only start 12 games and throw for a paltry 10 TDs while tossing 17 INTs. Tommy Maddox would start the other four games (and the team would go 0-4 in those starts).
Elway had hurt his shoulder during the first game of the season, but tried to play through the pain. The injury caused him to lose a little “heat on his fastball” and throws that in previous years would have been caught be his receivers (the Elway cross) or go through the hands of defenders were turning into picks.
Elway’s passer rating in 1992 was the second worst of his career (65.7). His TD:INT ratio was the second worst of his career as were many other stats. His only worse year was his rookie season.
Elway was able to bounce back very strong in 1993 to have arguably on his best seasons as a passer. He had a career high in passing yards (4030 - which would be his only season above 4000 passing yards) and was only two off his career best in passing TDs with 25. His interception rate was a career best 1.8 percent and his passer rating of 92.8 was just a tad below his career best which he set in his final season of 1998 (93.0).
Because of his shoulder injury in ‘92, Elway hardly ran the ball that year (34 carries for 94 yards with 2 TDs), but he carried the ball more and for more yards in 1993 (44 for 153). John would continue to use his legs sparingly but effectively during the last four or five seasons of his career. His high point in terms of rushing in his later years was the 1996 season when he ran 50 times for 249 yards and four touchdowns. He also had the famed “helicopter” ran for a first down in the Super Bowl which after the 1997 season.
Doug Flutie got back into the NFL at the ripe old age of 36 after his sojourn in the CFL. He had the majority of his NFL starts after this re-entry, but only had three seasons where he was a team’s primary starting QB and all happened in his late 30s. It’s hard to say if he had a “down” year, because he only had two seasons where he started more than 10 regular season games at QB in the NFL.
Flutie is interesting to think about because of his height (he was shorter than Russ) and his ability to create with his legs even late in his NFL career. Flutie ran for 476 yards at the age of 37 during the 1999 season. He did this on 88 rushing attempts. I doubt we ever see a 37 year old NFL QB ran 88 times again. To put that in perspective, Jalen Hurts ran the ball 145 actual times in 2022 (he had 20 kneel-downs). Lamar Jackson has the most ever for a QB. He had 157 actual carries in 2019 (19 kneel-downs). Jackson was 22 when he did it - fifteen years younger than Doug Flutie.
Mark Brunell is a QB that most Bronco fans who are in their 30s or older will remember as the QB who started for the Jaguars in that crushing 1996 playoff upset. What many Bronco fans might not remember is that Brunell was a fairly prolific runner early in his career. He led all QBs in rushing yards in both 1995 and 1996.
Brunell was still the regular starting QB for the Jags into his early 30s. He hurt his throwing elbow early in the 2003 season and only was able to start three games that year at the age of 33. The Jags were able to ride rookie QB Byron Leftwich that season which made Brunell expendable. He wound up in Washington for the 2004 season where he had his worst NFL season as the primary starting QB at the age of 34 (he played through an injury to his throwing elbow). His passer rating was 63.9 and he threw only 7 TDs while tossing 6 picks and only completing 49.8% of his throws.
He bounced back fairly well the next season at the age of 35, starting 15 games throwing 23 TDs passes with only 10 picks while also running 40 actual times for 111 yards yards (0 rushing TDs). Injuries and ineffectiveness would lead to diminishing returns for Mark after the 2006 season. He would start 9 games in 2007 and then only start one more game in his career before retiring after the 2011 season.
Similar to Elway, McNair had an injury-plagued season in his early 30s. At the age of 31, he was only able to start eight games because of an injured sternum. That season, 2004, would be his worst or second worst season in most stats. He only threw 8 TDs that season to go with 9 INTs and his passer rating of 73.1 was the second lowest of his career.
He would make the Pro-Bowl after the 2005 season in which he threw 16 TDs with only 11 INTs and had a (normal-for-him) passer rating of 82.4. The 2005 season would be his final in Nashville. He also did not use his legs very much that season only running the ball 29 actual times for 139 yards and 1 TD.
You might be sensing a trend that older running QBs have down years when they try to play through injury, like Russ did in 2022.
Rich Gannon had two stints as a primary starting QB in the NFL, his second began at the age of 33 when he started ten games for the Chiefs in 1998. He then moved the the fRaiders where he made the Pro-Bowl four straight years and twice was named first team All-Pro. He first down year was at the age of 38 in 2003. He would never be able to regain his level of play from the 1999-2002 seasons. He would retire after the 2004 season. So he is our first QB who never recovered once the decline hit, however, his decline hit at the age of 38.
Gannon is included because he ran for 529 yards and 4 touchdowns during the 2000 season. While he did not lead the league in QB rushing (Donovan McNabb did) he was second that year.
Warren Moon didn’t enter the NFL until he was 28 years old (he played in the CFL like Flutie). While he is not remembered as being a “running QB” that is mainly because he used his mobility to elude rushers so that he could make throws. He is only credited with 1739 career rushing yards but he did finish his career with 22 rushing TDs (currently tied for 37th all-time among QBs).
Moon’s prime was the late 80s and early 90s with the Oilers and the Vikings when he made eight straight Pro-Bowls. An injury in the 1996 season caused him to miss half the season and he had a down year with only 7 TD passes and 9 INTs which led to a passer rating of 63.7 - well below his career average. This was at the age of 40.
The next season he was able to start 14 games and had another “normal year for him. He was 41 at the time and it would be his second to last season as a team’s primary starting QB. He started 10 games for the Seahawks in 1998 and then only started one more game in his NFL career.
Moon was ahead of his time in that he was playing some of his best football in his mid to late 30s much like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have done recently.
The former CU Buffalo, Kordell Stewart, was the bridge between the running QBs of the 80s and 90s and the running QBs who played in the early 2000s.
Stewart entered the league in 1995 and didn’t become a full-time starting QB until 1997 at the age of 25. While his career didn’t last long into his 30s (he only started 12 games after the age of 29), he is included here because of the toll that running with the football early in his career took of his body.
Slash had his best season at the age of 29 in 2001 with the Steelers, but the pounding that he took on his 96 rushing attempts that season (537 yards and 5 TDs) really hampered his ability to run and throw for the rest of his career.
He was never a great passer, but after the season he threw only 13 TDs and 18 INTs before retiring after the 2005 season.
Randall Cunningham was the first truly great African American QB in the NFL. He’s still 9th all-time on the sack career list, but his 72 sacks in 1986 still stands as the second most ever (and probably always will, David Carr’s 76 in 2002 was the most ever).
Cunningham was a very effective runner, but his ability to run was a supplement to his passing. He used his quickness to escape pressure and buy time for throws. He had two season early in his career with more than 100 rushing attempts, but by the time he hit his 30s, he rarely ran with the ball.
This was partly the result of the beating that he had taken in his 20s while running with the ball. He was only able to start more than half the regular season games twice after the age of 30 - once with the Eagles in 1991 at the age of 31 (14 GS) and once with the Vikings at the age of 35 in 1998 (14 GS). He was credited with 35 carries for 132 yards and 1 TD in 1998, but I’m guessing half of those were kneel-downs. Cunningham, who probably should be in the Hall of Fame, was throwing to Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Chris Carter. Few QBs have ever had the joy of throwing to two future Hall of Fame WRs during the season, but Gannon is one of them (Jerry Rice and Tim Brown).
Cunningham made first team All-Pro in 1998, but would only start 11 more games in his NFL career after that season, retiring (again) after the 2001 season. Randall had enough of a down year in 1995 that he retired after the season (at the age of 33). Given that his 1998 season was the best of his career, he is a good historical data point for Russ. However, I sincerely doubt that Russ has two future Hall of Fame receivers to throw to in 2023.
Michael Vick was on a career trajectory for the Hall of Fame he had not gotten his career derailed by the penal system. Similar to Kordell Stewart, he was not a great passer, even in his prime, but he made up for it with his ability to create offense with his legs. From 2002 to 2006 he had four seasons with over 100 carries and probably would have had five if he hadn’t missed most of the 2003 season with injury. His 1039 rushing yards in 2006 still stands as the 3rd most ever for a QB in an NFL regular season and at the time it was the most (Justin Fields in 2022 and Lamar Jackson in 2019 both surpassed it).
Vick missed the entire 2007 and 2008 seasons while in prison. Andy Reid caught some flack for bringing the dog-killer to the Eagles in 2009 as the backup QB behind Donovan McNabb (Vick started one game).
Vick allowed the Eagles to move on from McNabb and he become the full-time starter in 2010 at the age of 30. From a combined passing and running standpoint, 2010 would be Vick’s best season. He threw 21 TD passes with only 6 picks while rushing for another 9 TDs. It would be Vick’s only career season with a passer rating of greater than 100. One has to wonder how much of that was due to Andy Reid’s play-calling. Reid seems to be able to spin straw into gold at QB.
Vick’s 2006 was not a “down” season - it was fairly normal for Michael, but it was well below the play level that he showed in 2010 after two years out of the league. This is similar, but not the same, to Cunningham who played his best after being out of the league for a year.
2010 would be the fourth and final time that Vick would make the Pro-Bowl, and while he was the primary starter for the Eagles for two more seasons, he would never again attain the level of play that he had in 2010. That being said he was still gaining more than 40 yards on the ground per game at the age of 33 in 2013 which was his final season in Philly.
Much like Flutie and Moon, Steve Young did not start his professional football career in the NFL. He played the 1984 season in the original USFL and then was taken in the supplemental draft in 1984. After starting 19 games over two seasons for the Bucs, he ended up backing up Joe Montana for the 49ers. He wouldn’t get his chance to the be the primary starter for the 49ers until 1991.
1992 would be his first season where he began the season as the starter for the 49ers and Steve fit perfectly into the machine that Bill Walsh built - winning MVP, OPoY and making first team All-Pro at the age of 31. Young also led the league in QB rushing with 537 yards (with 4 TDs).
At the age of 34, during the 1995 season, Young was injured (concussions) and missed five games. His injury caused him to have a down year for him, and his 1995 season would be his worst as the primary starter for the 49ers.
He bounced back fairly well in 1996, but still missed four games with injuries. His 1997 and 1998 seasons (at the ages of 36 and 37) were two of his best in the NFL. His 42 total TDs (36 passing and 6 rushing) along with his 4700 yards of total offense both still rank in the top 20 all-time. There have only been 45 instances of a QB throwing for 36 or more TDs in a regular season and only 60 instances of a QB rushing to 6 or more TDs.
Fran Tarkenton was the original running AND passing QB in the NFL. For his time he was average height and weight (6’0”, 190 lbs), but he was not a tall QB for any era. His best season, and his only AP first team All-Pro selection, came at the age of 35 in the 1975 season. Prior to that he had a really down year at the age of 31 during his final season as the QB for the Giants. His passer rating of 65.4 and his 11 TDs with 21 INTs were both bad by NFL standards at that time and terrible by his own standards. That was the 1971 season.
He bounced back quite well once he returned to Minnesota. During the 1972 season he threw 18 TD passes with only 13 INTs but his days as a runner were mostly past. He only rushed for 180 yards that season on 27 carries. From 1961 to 1968 he had more than 300 rushing yards seven times, but he only topped 200 in a season twice after that. His high after the age of 30 was 202 in 1973 at the age of 33.
I’m not sure what caused Tarkenton’s down year at the age of 31 since he only missed only one game that regular season, but he definitely was able to bounce back from that down year.
Donovan McNabb while listed at 6’2” was another “short” NFL QB like Russ. McNabb was also very powerfully muscled like Russ (McNabb was listed as 240 lbs). Both QBs used/use their abilities to run with the ball to help them escape pressure. At the age of 29, McNabb had an injury that caused him to miss 7 regular season games (2005 season). While his 2005 season was not bad, it was disappointing coming off of his career best season in 2004 when threw 31 TD with only 8 INTs and had a passer rating of 104.7. That was season where he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl (and he famously threw up in the huddle during the game).
McNabb had a sports hernia in 2005 and tried to play through it, but it definitely hindered his play. He underwent surgery to repair it and returned with a really nice bounce back season in 2006 at the age of 30, however, his 2006 season was cut short when he tore his ACL. While he still could run after recovering from his ACL tear, he was never the same as a runner in the NFL.
As a passer though, he had his second best season in 2009 at the age of 33. The Eagles then moved on from him for Vick and he had one season as the primary starter for Washington but that would be his last. He started six games for the Vikings in 2011 before he retired after that season.
Conclusions and Takeaways
For those who didn’t want to read the whole article, this is the TLDR version. Most running QBs run less as they age. When they have a down year it is usually because they are playing through injury. Almost all were able to bounce back from their down year. Some even had career years after their down year in their early to mid 30s.
How will Russell Wilson’s passing stats in 2023 compare to his 2022 stats?
This poll is closed
a little worse
about the same
a little better