Each year, the NFL changes.
Rules, coaches, players, and plays morph and mold with the turn of the calendar. At the center of it all is the quarterback. From running Packers sweep to the modern passing offenses we see on Sundays, quarterback development is meticulously tracked.
As another group of rookies is poised to lead their teams, they enter a league that continues to value quarterback mobility. A quarterback’s involvement in the run game can be a math changer as defenses prioritize stopping the explosive pass play. Even more than that, though, a quarterback’s ability to pick up yards on the ground during pass plays puts pressure on a defense and can make an offense deadly even when all the eligible receivers are covered.
The quarterback scramble comes into play when the quarterback is under pressure by the defense and they move forward, backward, or side to side. This is not by design; the movement is instead improvised to avoid a sack and extend the play to gain yardage should the opportunity arise.
Scrambles are by definition a play that yields positive yardage; if the quarterback was tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it would be categorized as a sack. This can create a bias within the sample as discussed later. The plot below shows the increasing trend of quarterbacks that scramble as well as total quarterback scrambles by season.
An Increasing Trend
The data reveals a compelling upward trend in both total league scrambles and individual quarterback scrambles per season. Defenses have increased their usage of two high safeties and more quarters-based coverages to combat the modern passing attack in addition to an increase in the amount of edge rushers who are able to cause conflict for an offense. This has created a scenario where quarterbacks must rely on their mobility and quick thinking to evade pressure and keep plays alive. The surge in quarterback scrambles is a demonstration of the resilience and resourcefulness of these quarterbacks.
Looking at the season’s scramble leaders from 2000 until 2022, we see a slow increasing trend. The trend bounces around a bit in the early 2000s before the 2010s. Since then, the leader for the total quarterback scrambles has been on a steady incline. This reflects that it is becoming an even more important aspect of the game.
The first player of note is Donovan McNabb, one known to frustrate defenses both by passing and running. With his leading 68 scrambles in 2000, he racked up 526 yards, 25 first downs, and 4 touchdowns.
Next, human highlight reel Michael Vick came out at the top with 73 scrambles, 655 yards gained, 33 first downs, and 3 touchdowns while leading the Falcons to the top of the NFC South during the 2004 season. Vick held the title of lead scrambler for many seasons after that, with a few new faces in the middle, until Russel Wilson entered the league in 2012.
His rookie season, Wilson’s 42 scrambles led to 419 yards and 3 touchdowns. Wilson was the front runner for the next two years as well, ultimately combining with a vaunted defense to propel his team to two Super Bowls including a victory in 2012.
More recently, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Fields led the way in 2021 and 2022. Mahomes’ 62 scrambles for 518 yards and 3 touchdowns helped the Chiefs win 12 regular season games. Fields scrambled 70 times in 2022, almost matching Vick’s highest, breaking records and racking up 642 yards and 2 touchdowns along the way.
Extending the play is not the only advantage of quarterback scrambles; it also allows for extending and sustaining offensive drives. In the competitive realm of the NFL, where games are decided by the slimmest of margins, keeping the team’s offense on the field can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Quarterback scrambles provide a means for prolonging drives, allowing teams to gain crucial first downs and advance towards scoring opportunities. By evading pressure, quarterbacks increase the chances of converting critical third or fourth downs, ultimately keeping the chains moving and maintaining control of the game.
The table above provides a glimpse into how quarterback scrambles can turn the tide of a game. It shows the total number of converted late downs over the last three seasons and the total number of these converted downs where quarterbacks took matters into their own hands and decided to scramble. The average Expected Points Added (EPA) on these plays is consistently positive.
Looking back a decade shows us significantly less quarterbacks that match the criterion to make the list. This validates the ever-changing nature of the quarterback position and how a new skill set has emerged.
Keep in mind that when a quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it is ruled as a sack, so failed scrambles may be noted as such. Therefore, when evaluating the performance of quarterbacks and considering the trade-off between sacks and scrambles, metrics like the ability to convert third downs or extend drives through successful scrambles can provide a more comprehensive understanding of a quarterback’s scramble effectiveness in the face of pressure. These scrambles can put pressure on offensive linemen but also be big wins for an offense.
Scrambles, Success Rate, and Sacks
Further, we can look at all the attempted scrambles again on these late downs and the success rate for each quarterback. The table below shows the number of attempted scrambles each quarterback has on 3rd and 4th down and the total times the scramble led to a first down. There is a high conversion rate here, especially for well-known quarterbacks who often have great success.
As quarterbacks extend the play and move in ways the offensive line does not expect, sacks begin to become more of a worry. The plots below from different seasons show sack rate against quarterback scramble rate. While there is an obvious uptick in the scramble rate each season, the sack rate stays pretty spread out. The linear trend suggests mobile quarterbacks get sacked more often.
As defenses try to win the first second of the snap with safety rotation, quarterbacks may be forced to hold onto the ball longer to decipher what is being presented. With match coverages turning defenders’ eyes away from the quarterback, an avenue opens up with scrambles. A successful scramble can energize the offense, leading to a momentum shift in crucial moments of the game. While the sack risks can still be very detrimental, the game and its players have evolved.
Teams are recognizing the impact these agile quarterbacks can have in extending drives and keeping the hopes of scoring alive. With each impromptu decision to take off and run, these quarterbacks showcase their adaptability, resourcefulness, and ability to seize opportunities. There is great promise for this dynamic style of play, and we can expect to see more thrilling quarterback scrambles as the league embraces this evolving dimension of the game.