When I began my NFL career in 1961, I was a freak. The reason was simple: I played quarterback and I ran. There were no designed runs in our playbook, but I would scramble out of the pocket when a play broke down -- nowadays, that likely would be called "extending the play." When I ran forward for yardage, it was never the design of the play, but just something that happened when nothing else worked.
It was not a skill set that was embraced. Plenty of people mocked it, and the rest wrote it off.
So at a time when a quarterback running was crazy and extending the play with scrambling was just unheard of, I led all quarterbacks in rushing seven of my first eight years in the league. I was in the top five each of my first 10 years. But the others on those lists were not runners -- because nobody ran! John Unitas was among the leaders in multiple years! Bart Starr, John Brodie and others -- none was a mobile guy.
As the game has evolved over the past 50 years, we have seen a lot of guys play quarterback who could run. Roger Staubach. Randall Cunningham. Steve Young. Mike Vick. And every time we get someone like that, the experts rush out to proclaim that this is the wave of the future. But in each instance, it turned out that we yet again had just one or two gifted athletes who defied convention. The revolution never happened.
Watching the NFL this season and the playoffs so far, I am convinced we are witnessing a seismic shift at the quarterback position.
When Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards last weekend, he set the single-game rushing record for a quarterback. We have Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton. There's Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill and even Andrew Luck. Teams are not just encouraging quarterbacks to run when necessary, they're designing entire offenses around running quarterbacks. The zone-read offense is a real force to be reckoned with at the NFL level.
As recently as 2009, my career high of 376 yards rushing from 1966 (and totals from several other seasons I had, too) would have led the league, when David Garrard was tops with 323. This season, Griffin led quarterbacks with 815 yards, and Newton was right behind with 741. Wilson was at 489, and Kaepernick put up 415 in just half a season!
To be a successful quarterback in the NFL, you have to be able to throw at an NFL level (sorry, Bobby Douglass). That has always been the most important thing, and it still is. If you can't throw, then running for a few yards isn't going to help you win. But all these guys can throw. They aren't wide receivers or running backs thrust by accident or desperation into the role of quarterback. They are all dangerous passers who just so happen to run like gazelles.
That is a nightmare for a defensive coordinator. You think the Falcons aren't scared of what to do about Kaepernick this week? You think the 49ers aren't glad they don't have to figure out how to stop Wilson again?
This isn't just a unique player going against the wind; this is a tidal wave of talent changing offensive thinking in the league. Every general manager is out there now, looking for the next runner, looking for a guy who can scramble, extend the play. GMs are looking for all those things that for so long they dismissed or failed to fully understand.
I've been smiling a lot this NFL season. It took 50 years, but things have completely reversed from the way they were when I entered the league. I look out every week and get to see quarterbacks who not only have the ability to run, but coaches who embrace it. The cat is out of the bag, and no one will be able to put it back in now.
Fran Tarkenton is Minnesota Vikings analyst for TwinCities.com and the Pioneer Press. He is a former Vikings quarterback and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also is an advocate for small businesses and the founder of OneMoreCustomer.com.