QBs in playoff field not running threats

For all the talk about running QBs taking over, signal callers known more for pocket presence crowd the playoff field.

Updated: January 2, 2006, 9:42 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In his 128 regular-season appearances, Peyton Manning has averaged fewer than two rushes per game and less than three yards per carry, and his résumé includes exactly one run of more than 20 yards on his 246 career forays outside the pocket.

Super pick: The Colts
ColtsSeahawksThe last time the Colts won a Super Bowl championship they were playing in another city and, quite frankly, in another era.

For those of you with short memories, the Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V, defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 17, 1971, on kicker Jim O'Brien's 32-yard field goal with only five seconds remaining in the contest. That "another era" allusion? Oh, yeah, O'Brien was a wide receiver by trade and only moonlighted as a kicker. And he was a straight-on placement guy, none of that soccer-approach stuff.

This year, the Indianapolis Colts, primed to move in a couple years into a state of the art, retractable dome stadium, and led by a quarterback who defines the passing game and doesn't have to moonlight as anything but the league's quintessential field general, will end the franchise's long drought.

It will be, given the tragic events of less than two weeks ago, an emotional victory for the Colts and grieving head coach Tony Dungy. But the passion this Indianapolis team will bring to the playoffs, the palpable desire to win for Dungy which was demonstrated in Sunday's season finale, will be only a part of their story.

Sure, the Colts will ride an emotional wave to Ford Field, even if the wave freezes on the way to Detroit. But the Colts will also ride a roster that, simply, represents the NFL's best assembled team. The shortcomings of the last few seasons, when Indianapolis fell shy of its Super Bowl goal, have been sufficiently addressed by president/general manager Bill Polian and by Dungy and his staff. There is no reason to really believe that, even with a bye, the Colts offense will be so rusty as to oxidize right out of the playoffs. The defense is good enough, at this point, to rise to postseason prominence.

Since 1990, when the league adopted the current 12-team playoff format, there have been 11 teams that won 14 or more regular-season games, and only four of those clubs went on to be crowned Super Bowl champions. The Colts, who won for the 14th time on Sunday to end a two-game losing streak, will raise the success rate.

To do so, however, Indianapolis will have to overcome a formidable playoff field. The dozen postseason entries for 2005 have an aggregate 138 victories, the most ever under the present format. For only the third time in 16 years, all 12 playoff teams have 10 wins or more. Four teams, the fifth most since 1990, have a dozen or more victories. Despite the stacked deck, the Colts will prevail.

Oh, yeah, over whom will they prevail. Not since 1993, and only twice under the 12-team format, have the top-seeded teams from each conference faced off in the Super Bowl. This will be the third time. Yep, never one to ignore the "chalk," and a sucker for the frontrunner, we think it will be the Seattle Seahawks representing the NFC in Detroit.
--Len Pasquarelli

That makes the Indianapolis Colts star and two-time league most valuable player one of the least productive running quarterbacks in recent NFL history. It also makes Manning a candidate to win a Super Bowl title, perhaps as early as in five weeks.

How come? Because over the last several playoff series, about the only running that the new-wave "athletic" quarterbacks who were supposed to take over the league seem to have done is scrambling to secure a prime perch in front of the big screen television, to view the postseason as a spectator. Guys who stand tall in the pocket, it seems, tend to stand tall in the playoffs as well. And the notion that the pure passing quarterback has become passé in the NFL seems to have been debunked, particularly when it comes to winning Super Bowl championships.

Uh, anyone seen the mercurial Michael Vick, the sport's most electrifying performer but a quarterback whose team will be home for the playoffs, sporting a Super Bowl ring? One of the guest panelists on "The Sports Reporters" on ESPN early Sunday morning termed Vick the leader of "the ongoing evolution" at the quarterback position.

What evolution? There is only one Vick and his rushing yards for 2005 were down by one-third over last season. The three quarterbacks who each rushed for over 200 yards in 2005 posted a combined starting record of 13-31. If anything, the supposed advance of the more athletic quarterback has become a de-evolution.

By the time the playoffs arrive, running quarterbacks are usually running on empty. On the flip side, it's more than coincidence that eight of the top 12 passers in the league for 2005 are headed to the playoffs.

"Let's face it, there aren't that many athletic quarterbacks, and that's just how it is," said Tampa Bay director of pro personnel Mark Dominik.

In the playoff version of NFL Darwinism, a lack of athleticism and inability to improvise are hardly fatal flaws. Fact is, survival during the postseason characteristically goes to the quarterback with the fittest arm, not the fastest feet. And for Manning, the premier pocket passer of the current era, that's a plus, as the Colts try to finally win the Super Bowl for which they also contended the past three seasons.

"You aren't going to win Super Bowls with your quarterback running all over the place," allowed Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. "You might make a play or two, but that's about it. Think about it, can you remember a big run by a quarterback in a Super Bowl? It's not very easy to do. Quarterbacks who win the Super Bowl almost always win it by making big passing plays."

In 39 Super Bowl games, there have been just 10 rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks, and Elway scored four of those. Of those 10 touchdown runs, the average score was for 2.6 yards and none was longer than six yards.

Want more evidence that Super Bowl rings are usually won by quarterbacks who stay in the pocket and not those who stray up field? Consider this: Not since 1997, when Elway rushed for 218 yards during the season, has the Super Bowl been won by a quarterback who posted even 100 yards rushing in the regular season. The last seven Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks averaged a microscopic 60.7 rushing yards during the regular season and none had more than 94 yards.

Given the dozen slow-footed slingers that comprise the starting quarterback pool for the 2005 playoffs, count on Super Bowl XL being won by a pocket passer.

The 12 starters for this year's postseason (and we are assuming that Byron Leftwich will replace David Garrard in the Jacksonville lineup for the playoffs) averaged 27.7 carries, 66.8 yards and 1.1 touchdowns during the season. Half of them rushed for fewer than 50 yards in 2005 and only three of them had a single rush of 20 yards or more. Heck, two of them didn't even have a single 10-yard run.

Peyton Manning
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Colts have shown what the no-huddle offense can do.

Only three of the starters -- Jake Plummer (Denver), Mark Brunell (Washington) and Matt Hasselbeck (Seattle) -- had more than 100 rushing yards. Rex Grossman of Chicago, who missed a combined 27 starts the past two seasons because of knee and ankle injuries, had no rushes for the season. Certainly the Bears starter understands the prudent nature of leaving the running offense to the guys paid to run the football, and remaining inside the pocket cocoon.

And he's not alone in that regard.

"It helps some to be able to run," said Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose three touchdowns on the ground in 2005 lead all playoff quarterbacks. "But traditionally, you don't get much (running) outside the pocket in the playoffs. It's a time when you try to play to your strengths. For most quarterbacks, running isn't a strong point, is it?"

None of this is to suggest that running teams won't win in the postseason, just that clubs want the running game to be led by the people paid to grind out yards, not those who earn big bucks for tossing the ball around. Quarterbacks are about flingin', not feet, and the playoffs of the last several years certainly reinforce that.

Defenses eventually catch up to running quarterbacks, as does age and wisdom, and that is obvious in this year's playoff starters. Brunell was once a terrific scrambler, and his 2,399 career rushing yards easily lead the rest of the 2005 playoff quarterbacks. Brunell, though, hasn't posted a 250-yard rushing season since 1997 and, at age 35, his legs aren't as spry as earlier in his career. Plummer hasn't exactly gone from being Jake the Snake to Jake the Snail, given that his rushing yards on average are only down by 11 yards during his three seasons in Denver, but he is hardly the scrambler he once was in Arizona.

"You get older," said Plummer, "and two things happen: You get a lot slower and you get a lot smarter."

Now, that is the true evolution at the quarterback position that seems to count the most in the playoffs. Manning actually ran for 157 yards and 148 yards, respectively, in 2001 and 2002, but has totaled just 109 rushing yards in the three seasons since. And in that stretch, the Colts star has emerged as a premier passer, a skill that, more than any feat of the feet, is apt to be his playoff calling card.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.