Michael Vick showed a lack of both humility and history when he declared himself the NFL’s original running quarterback.
“I was the guy who started it all,” Vick told ESPN.com. “I revolutionized the game. I changed the way it was played in the NFL.”
The reality is, running quarterbacks have been a part of the game of football since long before Vick was born, and when Vick declares himself the first of the rushing quarterbacks, he’s forgetting a fraternity of great dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL stretching back decades. Here are some of the most significant running quarterbacks in NFL history, listed chronologically:
Frank Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy at Georgia in 1942, and the Lions took him with the first overall pick in the 1943 NFL draft. As a rookie Sinkwich led the Lions in both rushing and passing, and in his second season he was named league MVP, after a season in which he was third in the NFL in both passing yards and rushing yards, and second in the NFL in both passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. Sinkwich spent a year out of football in 1945 while he served in the military, and he was never the same player after suffering a knee injury during his service.
Tobin Rote, who played for the Packers and Lions in the 1950s, finished his career with 3,128 rushing yards and had one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history in 1956, when he led the league in pass completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns, while also rushing for 398 yards and finishing second in the league with 11 rushing touchdowns. Rote did all that in a 12-game season, and his combined 29 touchdowns passing and rushing were the most for any player in any 12-game season in NFL history. Rote spent the early 1960s playing in the Canadian Football League, then returned to play for the Chargers in 1963, and although he was no longer the running threat he once had been, he had one of his best passing seasons and was named MVP of the American Football League.
Fran Tarkenton, who was drafted by the Vikings in 1961, is still viewed by many as the greatest mobile quarterback in NFL history. Few quarterbacks ran in the 1960s, and Tarkenton was saddled with a head coach in Norm Van Brocklin who had been a pocket passer and didn’t want his quarterbacks running the ball. But Tarkenton still managed to top 300 yards running in seven of his first eight NFL seasons, to run for 3,674 yards in his career, and to put together some of the most sensational highlight reel runs of any quarterback ever to play the game.
Greg Landry in 1971 became the first NFL player to pass for 2,000 yards and run for 500 yards in the same season, and then in 1972 he topped 2,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards again. (No one else would do it until Randall Cunningham in 1987.) In 1971, Sports Illustrated proclaimed that Landry’s ability to run and pass gave the Lions “the pro offense of the future.”
Bobby Douglass was such a terrible passer (career completion rate: 43.0 percent) that he didn’t last long as a starting quarterback. But in his only full season as a starter, in 1972 in Chicago, he did things that no quarterback had done before. That year Douglass carried 141 times for 968 yards and eight touchdowns, stunning totals for a quarterback. Although Douglass only started 53 games in his career, he totaled 2,654 rushing yards.
Randall Cunningham was a jaw-droppingly good athlete who played the quarterback position far differently from anyone else of his time. No NFL quarterback in the 1980s ran for 500 yards in any season, except for Cunningham — who did it every season from the time he became the Eagles’ starter in 1986 until 1991, when he got hurt and played only one game.
Steve Young was the first quarterback to show he could be a consistently great passer while also consistently using his feet to make plays. In 1991 Young led the league in passer rating and led all quarterbacks with 415 rushing yards. He finished his career with 4,239 rushing yards.
Steve McNair was the subject of intense debate during his college career at Alcorn State about whether there was a place in the NFL for a quarterback who ran as much as he did, and if McNair hadn’t paid off as the third overall pick of the 1995 NFL draft, Vick probably wouldn’t have been the first overall pick of the 2001 NFL draft. McNair ran for 674 yards in his first season as the Titans’ starter, and although he relied much less on his feet and much more on his arm later in his career, he retired with 3,590 yards and 37 touchdowns on the ground.
All those quarterbacks came along before Vick, and when Vick says, “I was the guy who started it all,” he’s not giving enough credit to the rushing quarterbacks who came before him.
What Vick can say, however, is that he’s the best running quarterback in NFL history. There have been other great running quarterbacks, but no one who put together Vick’s blend of pure speed and field vision. Vick is the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards for a quarterback (5,857) and yards per carry (7.1).
What Vick can also say is that he changed the way rushing quarterbacks are perceived. Vick’s success in the NFL paved the way for NFL teams to embrace the running skills of younger quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. In fact, Vick’s lasting legacy may turn out to be that he doesn’t remain the greatest rushing quarterback ever for long. Some young quarterback may soon surpass Vick’s accomplishments as a runner — and that quarterback will get that chance because Vick showed just how successful a running quarterback can be.