Top 10 Running Quarterbacks in NFL History
Remember when running Quarterbacks were avoided like the plague? Bring us life Lamar! It’s a new day in the NFL. It wasn’t until pioneer Fran Tarkenton’s scrambling ability opened the door for a new style of Quarterback. The running Quarterback. More recently guys like Mike Vick or Lamar Jackson have mastered this style with more and more young players inspired by this exciting style of play. This list looks back at the 10 best running Quarterbacks in NFL history.
#10 Running Quarterbacks – John Elway
John Elway is far from the first name that comes to mind when thinking about the best running Quarterback in NFL history, and rightfully so. He was not very fast, and was a far better passer than he was a runner. But did you know that he has 33 career rushing touchdowns? This is only 3 fewer than Mike Vick.
Elway’s most iconic play as a runner came when he was 37 years old. With everything on the line in the Super Bowl and his Broncos in dire need of a first down, Elway pulled off one of the most magical runs in NFL history. He scrambled to his right only to find 2 defenders in his way. Instead of taking the easy way out, Elway dove head first in the air towards the defenders who hit him into a full 360 degree spin over the first down marker.
You don’t look at his runs and think, “Wow is he athletic?” but I promise you that you won’t be able to think of someone who wanted it more.
#9 – Steve McNair
Now a laughing stock, it wasn’t long ago Jeff Fisher was considered to be one of the premiere coaches in the NFL. It takes an elite Quarterback to make that happen and that Quarterback was Steve McNair.
Air McNair was known for his cannon of an arm, but what made him extra special was his ability to improvise with his running ability. This wasn’t just his ability to gain yardage with his feet, but more his ability to extend plays and gain those yards through the air. This was seen at the highest stage of football.
It was his iconic Super Bowl game in which he was a yard short of winning. Leading up to that point, he was the best player on the field. McNair was a one man wrecking crew setting the record for most rushing yards in a Super Bowl game while also extending many plays with his feet.
#8 – Donovan McNabb
A dominant dual sport athlete coming out of Syracuse, Donovan McNabb was drafted 2nd overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. They immediately saw a return in their investment. McNabb led the Eagles to five divisional playoff games and came just short of bring the city its first Super Bowl.
This is another player who would be more than willing to gain yards with his legs, but his main priority was extending the play for a big throw down field.
His most memorable moment was his 4th and 26 conversion against the Packers with under a minute to go in their 2003 divisional playoff game. In what is a nearly impossible play to convert, McNabb threw a rocket down the middle of the field converting the first down only by a couple of inches.
#7 – Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson isn’t even in the top 5?! Crazy right? Now before you bring out your pitchforks, consider this. Lamar Jackson only has a single full NFL season under his belt. After RG3’s rookie season, many were willing to crown him immediately, but I think very differently in the context of an all-time list.
Let me begin by saying Lamar Jackson is nothing we have seen before. I repeat, nothing we have seen before. I may have lived through the Mike Vick era, but i’m here to tell you that Lamar Jackson is faster and a better runner than Vick. It’s only fitting that Lamar Jackson shattered Vick’s single season rushing yard record without even playing in week 16. I’m a little premature, but Lamar Jackson will be the MVP this season and if Jackson continues on the pace he is on, he will shatter many more records and be awarded many more MVP’s.
That being said, his ability as a passer is what it’s really going to boil down to if he wants to be considered with the best.
#6 – Fran Tarkenton
If you are in complete shock that Fran Tarkenton is ahead of Lamar then you need to brush up on your history and i’m here to help. This is after all the pioneer for running Quarterbacks. The man who invented the running Quarterback.
Fran is the prime example of someone who did not want to rack up rushing yards himself. Tarkenton mastered the ability to extend plays behind the line of scrimmage and in turn find the open man down field. Tarkenton prospered off his quickness and would constantly bob and heave making plays last way longer than they should have. It was common practice for defenders who attempted to tackle Tarkenton to stay on whatever side of the field they were on because they knew he would eventually find his way back to them. As a matter of fact there is a full highlight reel of long throws he made that were a result of him running side to side for 50 yards in the backfield.
Tarkenton is a 9x pro bowl winner and hall of famer. When he retired, he essentially held every possible Quarterback record. Sadly Fran Tarkenton wasn’t able to win a Super Bowl from his 3 appearances, but his impact as a pioneer to the running Quarterback is not unnoticed.
#5 Running Quarterbacks – Russell Wilson
It’s shocking how many people overlook Russell Wilson when talking about the best running Quarterbacks ever let alone today. The go to fan response is that Cam and Lamar need to be higher up on this list, but have you forgotten just how good Russell Wilson is and has become?
Russell Wilson only uses his running ability as a last option which usually doesn’t result in the highlight play every time which may be why he isn’t the fan favorite. That reason is why many don’t love him as much, but i’m here to tell you that is why he is so good. Wilson always has his eyes down field and is always looking to connect with a receiver down field.
He won’t rack up the rushing yards like Lamar or the rushing touchdowns like Cam, but I can safely say that he is the most complete Quarterback of the bunch. Russell Wilson has quietly become the best all-around Quarterback in the NFL today, and I classify him as a top 5 best running Quarterback ever.
#4 – Cam Newton
I’m not falling for recency bias on this one. Cam Newton may look to be on the decline entering his thirties, but it was only 4 years ago he had his historic MVP season. He was a victim of most scouts claiming he had bust written all over him going into his rookie season. They could not have been further from the truth. The result was him setting records going off for 4000 yards and 21 touchdowns in the air while also running for 700 yards and 14 touchdowns while winning Rookie of the Year.
Since then, he has become the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing Touchdowns for Quarterbacks which will not be touched any time soon. We now see the injury plagued Cam rumored to be leaving Carolina, but looking at his career so far as a whole. I think his ranking in the top 4 for running Quarterbacks is justified with room for him to rise.
#3 – Steve Young
Here is the reality of Steve Young and this ranking. He is the best Quarterback out of every player on this list and I say that confidently. That being said, when looking at him as a running Quarterback, I can’t put him ahead of the next two legendary running Quarterbacks.
When Steve Young joined the NFL, he was on the lowly Buccaneers who were fresh off their 12th straight 10+ loss season. With the team he only threw for 11 touchdowns compared to his 21 interceptions. With the 49ers, it was a completely different story.
Bill Walsh saw something in Young, so much so he was willing to part ways with Joe Montana to start the new era. It’s no easy task filling the shoes of who many deemed the greatest Quarterback of all-time, but Steve Young found a way. He won them a Super Bowl as the starting Quarterback and did so in a very heroic fashion. His playoff run against the Vikings is one of the greatest individual effort runs by any player ever let alone a Quarterback.
#2 – Randall Cunningham
The expression he could do everything on the field is used far too openly when describing players today. I refuse to use it lightly, but I will tell you Randall Cunningham could do everything on the field. He wasn’t like most running Quarterbacks.
From 91 yard punts to 95 yard bombs, Cunningham was more of a jack of all trades than a run first Quarterback. He was coached by Buddy Ryan for the majority of his career and the defensive minded coach used him more as a racehorse than a Quarterback. There was not an attempt to expand his game and it wasn’t until he joined the Vikings we saw how capable he was in the pocket.
At the age of 35 years old Cunningham was voted into the pro bowl after throwing for 3700 yards and 34 touchdowns.
It leaves me wondering just how dominant he could have been with the right coaching behind him. Regardless, Cunningham was the first to master the “running Quarterback”. It is a no brainer putting him in the top 2 on this list.
#1 – Michael Vick
Too quickly are people to dethrone Michael Vick with the first sign of a dominant Quarterback. I’m here to tell you that Michael Vick is still the best running Quarterback ever and it won’t be in the next decade that changes.
Vick’s record for most rushing yards by a Quarterback in a single season was broken by Lamar Jackson this season. While I can see Jackson taking the throne, keep in mind he only has 1 full season on his belt. Compare that to Michael Vick’s full body of work and it’s not even close.
This dominance started with the Falcons when Vick openly admitted to leaving game film in his car. His plan instead was to wing it, and he frequently made it work. That was how talented Vick was early in his career. He had a cannon of an arm and might have been the fastest player in the NFL, but his nontraditional style never led him to much playoff success.
Once he joined the Eagles after the dog fighting scandal, Vick was everything we had loved from before and even more. He wasn’t as fast as he was in his prime, but his ability as a passer improved drastically behind QB guru Andy Reid. We actually saw Vick do work in the pocket and it made you wish he had this drive early in his career.
If he had a coach like Andy Reid behind him his entire career, who knows what he could have accomplished. Even with dysfunction following him for most of his career, Mike Vick was is the best running Quarterback ever.
Thank you for reading this list! Whether you agree or not, I’d love to hear your opinion!
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