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Do the risks outweigh the rewards for dual-threat QBs like Cam Newton?

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Quarterbacks who can run and throw open up the playbook and increase a team’s chances of winning, but you’re risking everything with each designed run or last-second scramble.

Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Get you a man that can do both. A great proverb, profound for relationships and choosing a quarterback. In the same way one should aim for a boyfriend that looks good in professional clothing but is also able to pull off an Adidas tracksuit, NFL teams should aim for a dual-threat quarterback as their centerpiece.

Cam Newton is the current leader of that category. He’s the NFL’s MVP, Super Bowl runner-up, and one of the deadliest players that the league has ever seen. He can do both quite well — he finished last season with 3,837 passing yards and 35 passing touchdowns, while also rushing 132 times for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. In a season that Carolina began by losing their main passing targets, Newton’s all-purpose ability propelled them to previously unfathomable heights.

That should be the ideal for a quarterback. There’s understandably a lot of worship reserved for great pocket quarterbacks, the immobile deities like Tom Brady and the now-retired Peyton Manning — and for good reason. They are masters of their craft. Quarterbacks in this mold, who are that intelligent, accurate, and aware, are as just as rare as those who can pass and run like Newton. But there’s a whole new world, a grander threat available when the man under center can damn near run like a running back. Brady even fantasizes about this idea in his latest interview with NYMag:

“When I’m on the field, I sometimes think, man if I could just run away from everybody, how hard would this game really be?”

In some cases it’s a release valve — when defenses are focused on playing coverage, on taking away all available receivers while the pass rush finds a way to the quarterback. And in others it’s designed confusion — option plays for example. In Newton’s case, you get a combination of both, especially in the red zone where he can cause defenses to seize up from the anxiety of picking between the two poisons — either his passing or his running.

So, in the same way that a team would love a tight end who can block and catch effectively — Rob Gronkowski — or a running back who is prolific at his immediate job and receiving out of the backfield — David Johnson — teams should seek that value in quarterbacks. It’s as simple as, the more options available, the better.

Newton said that there had never been anyone quite like him before. "Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody had the intangibles that I've had. ... Hear me out. I'm just saying that so much of my talents have not been seen in one person."

But that’s not quite true. Nothing is new under the sun. Daunte Culpepper was bigger than Newton, 260 pounds to his 245, and just an inch shorter. In 2004, Culpepper had a season that could stand shoulder to shoulder with Newton’s MVP year: 4,717 yards in the air with a 69.2 percent completion rate compared to Newton’s 59.8, 39 thrown touchdowns to Newton’s 35, though Newton was much more effective as a runner — gaining over 200 more yards on the ground and scoring 10 touchdowns to Culpepper’s two.

But again, there’s nothing new. Culpepper rushed for 10 touchdowns just two years prior, in 2002, and gained almost the same amount of yardage on the ground.

Beyond Culpepper, 2015 Russell Wilson, 2012 Robert Griffin III, 2010 Mike Vick, 2000 Donovan McNabb, 1997 Kordell Stewart, and 1990 Randall Cunningham all had comparable seasons to Newton’s last year. And, of course, Steve Young, especially in the 1994 season, is often seen as the epitome of this type of quarterback. It was his record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback that Newton recently broke.

Other quarterbacks had similar seasons as well: Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, and Tyrod Taylor last year, Rich Gannon and Jeff Garcia in 2000, Steve McNair 1998 and ... Doug Flutie in 1999?

The point of this is not to admonish Newton or to fact-check him, but rather to show that we’ve known for a long time how deadly these dual-threat athletes are. They warp the game completely and make it near impossible for defenses to keep them in check without compromising their game-plan. They warrant a high level of attention, attention that makes it easier for offensive coordinators to exploit the defense. If you constantly need a linebacker to act as a spy, that leaves a chunk of the field open in the middle.

Yet, there’s still a lot of weariness to the concept of them. When Colin Kaepernick, who seemed destined to be the best of the bunch at one point, was struggling Steve Young emphasized that coaches needed to break these young runners so they could master the game from inside the pocket. Suggesting that Kaepernick and Russell Wilson at the time, ran out of fear and not as an intended and calculated option.

Which leads to the actual designation of dual-threat to certain quarterbacks. The term is often just code for black quarterbacks, which bears all the negative suggestions of physicality over intelligence. That they’re running backs who can throw and not quarterbacks with the ability to run.

This idea manifests itself in several ways: the black QBs running ability becomes a hindrance to their overall development, since high school and college coaches can just lazily draw up plays that rely on their physical abilities. So that when they get into the NFL, they struggle. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — you can run and throw, but we’ll make sure you run more and then say you can’t throw. Or that their white counterparts who are dual-threats are commended the same running out of fear, but the label itself is often withheld: Blaine Gabbert, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow.

A great example of this was Andrew Luck and RG3 coming out of college with pretty similar numbers, yet their categorizations were very different. Even though Luck is still very much a legitimate dual-threat and suffers the pains of it like RG3 did.

Which leads to the other big issue, dual-threat quarterbacks don’t last. The first week of the season saw Newton assaulted by the Broncos defense, illegally, to the point that he was often left writhing on the ground in agony. He was a target. Not just because he’s a QB or any nonsense about his antics, but also because he’s a QB who likes to run. Defenders take it upon themselves to teach those kinds of passers a lesson. They are sitting ducks.

Vick, McNabb, McNair, Kaepernick, RG3, Andrew Luck, Cunningham, Young, Culpepper, Rodgers, Wilson (recently), and anyone else who identifies as dual-threat is in grave danger by that distinction alone. When defenders see quarterbacks running, they take it as an opportunity to make a statement. Sliding and running out of bounds are great countermeasures but they are not perfect, nor would they stop a defender with his mind made up. It’s only 15 yards and a fine after all.

Then there’s also the potential knee injuries from running alone, especially now that defenders are encouraged to aim low in order to avoid concussions — a problem that ended Steve Young’s career.

Other positions and players are at risk for this generally by being involved in the game, but none is as important as the quarterback. As part of a game plan, a dual-threat quarterback is an embarrassment of riches on his own, but coaches also have to contend with the risk of impending injury. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that a dual-threat QB is also a routinely hospitalized one. Which usually means a wasted season, and the loss of the head coaching job.

It’s an enticing double-edged sword: dual-threats increase your chance of winning and opens up the playbook, yet you’re risking everything with each designed run or last second scramble. Staying in the pocket then is just to break them or help them understand the game better, but also for their protection.

So, Newton can say that there hasn’t been anyone like him, and from his success running and scoring touchdowns, he has a valid point. But that may not be only because of his rare combination of traits — there has been others like him before — but because there’s a short shelf life for quarterbacks like him.

Culpepper didn’t last too long, and watching defenders launch themselves into Newton, it seems that his career may sadly go the same route. His abilities make him dangerous and they also put him in harm’s way. Even if he’s big and strong, the body, the brain, and the legs can only take so much punishment.