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Mobile Quarterbacks and Injury Rates

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Mobile Quarterbacks and Injury Rates

The Injury Prone narrative is a myth as old as time in fantasy circles and sports as a whole. However, injury rates in the NFL are volatile and inevitable making the term inherently impossible to define. Nevertheless, one particular associated myth persists and it’is the idea that mobile quarterbacks are more likely to be injured compared to their less athletic counterparts. This has led to fantasy managers actively avoiding mobile quarterbacks and instead opting to draft statues like Tom Brady. Those people probably carry around extra socks, too. You know, just in case.

The bottom line is that mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and even Patrick Mahomes, who can run in his own right, are here to stay. Similar to the way a target is more valuable than a carry, quarterbacks who can run are far and away more valuable to fantasy than statues. The community is recognizing this advantage at a rapid rate, though, and they are no longer a luxury. Establishing the run is dead and so is waiting too long on a mobile QB. Even Mr. Late Round QB himself has acknowledged this shift in the landscape.

Note: by now the article has gone on long enough without a formal hat tip to the Konami King himself, Rich Hribar.

The Counterpoints

If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you know that I like to establish what I’m not saying. What I’m not saying is:

  1. Mobile quarterbacks are injured less frequently than statue quarterbacks.
  2. Running the football, as a whole, is less dangerous and results in fewer injuries than passing the ball.
  3. Pocket passers won’t stay healthy/are injury prone.

If at any point this article loses you, review points 1-3 for re-orientation.

The Math

Thesis: There is no evidence that mobile quarterbacks are injured more frequently or more severely than quarterbacks who rush less often.

The quarterback position is most susceptible to shoulder injuries by a mile. Next most common sites of injury are hands and ankles. Additionally, quarterbacks are injured more often than offensive linemen, linebackers, defensive linemen, and kicker/punters on a per 100 athlete exposure basis. So, what archetype is responsible for this injury rate? Rushing quarterbacks is a reasonable place to start looking but the argument quickly falls apart.

Below are the injury rates provided by our friends over at Sports Injury Insider. More specifically, my buddy John Verros, has provided some killer insights on the topic. Injury rates on all dropbacks that were non-scrambles, non-designed runs, and not spikes from 2016 to 2020 was 0.28%. That’s the baseline. Keep in mind the first chart includes every kind of dropback, including the times that nothing happens like an incompletion, throw aways, etc. At first, it might seem like staying in the pocket is safest. To a degree, that’s an accurate assessment. However, further analyzing the numbers is where the magic happens.

Sub-categorizing dropbacks ending in sacks and knockdowns, the observation is that the injury rates are actually highest at 1.4% and 1.56% respectively. It’s assumed here that knockdowns happen in the pocket. In contrast, “other runs” (otherwise known as designed runs) and scrambles both have lower injury rates per dropback. To summarize, passing that doesn’t end in a scramble or a spike has a 0.28% injury rate, designed runs 0.64%, scrambles 0.87%, sacks 1.4%, and knockdowns are 1.56%. Which is why injury rates for in pocket vs. out of the pocket as a descriptor can be deceiving. Not all QBs who scramble are considered mobile and a scramble can still end in a sack.

If you’re wondering what this looks like from a functional perspective, here’s the breakdown of QBs from 2016-2019 who were on the injury report and missed a game at least once during that time due to injury. This was only during the regular season. Players had to have started for 10 games in at least two NFL seasons. Missing games due to personal reasons, illnesses, etc were excluded. Does this create selection bias? Probably so. Does it limit the sample? Yes. The pay off is that only fantasy relevant QBs are included and the study has face validity. In other words, it measures what we say it’s measuring, which is missed time due to injury.

First, games missed per player instance was calculated. It’s possible for one player to count for an instance of missed games in 2016 and again in 2018. Next, instances of catastrophic/season ending injuries were calculated. Each season in which a QB was considered the starter but missed more than 6 games was accounted for. For example, Aaron Rodgers became the official starter in 2008. Each season after 2008 in which he missed more than 6 games was investigated. This process got tricky as players who were sent to IR had to be manually searched for since they would no longer be listed on the injury report. Then, players were grouped into the “mobile” group defined as at least 200 rushing yards per season. Less than or equal to 200 rushing yards per season was considered the “non-mobile” group. Here are the results:

  • 19 non-mobile QBs accounted for 16 season ending injuries

  • 19 mobile QBs accounted for 9 season ending injuries

What matters even more than the amount of season ending injuries is the qualitative perspective - the “how?”. In that same time period, here is the list of players whose season came to an end taking a hit while in the pocket:

  • Drew Brees

  • Derek Carr

  • Marcus Mariota

  • Carson Palmer

  • Sam Bradford

  • Joe Flacco

  • Jimmy Garoppolo

  • Tony Romo

  • Tony Romo again

  • Case Keenum

  • Alex Smith

  • Matthew Stafford

  • Alex Smith again

Here’s the list of players whose season ended due to contact while scrambling/evading the pocket:

The Outliers

There will be detractors to this philosophy who will list case studies like Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton. For the entire summary and misconception, read this. Otherwise, just know that Newton’s shoulder injury came while trying to make a tackle after an interception and the foot injury was non-contact on this play. As for RGIII, he already had a history of ACL tears and wonky (that’s the scientific term) motor patterns. His rushing style was reckless which is a threshold that is difficult to meet by my standards. As for the outlier of all outliers Lamar Jackson it’s reasonable to believe that the unprecedented exposures as a QB will lead to injury. Or is it? In 2019, L-Jax ran the ball 157 times not including kneels. Here’s how that breaks down on contact vs. no contact:

  • Tackled - 85

  • Ran out of bounds - 47

  • Slid - 15

  • “Shoe lace” tackled - 6

  • Untouched into the endzone - 4

In summary, a defender made contact with Lamar just 54% of the time. Even though athlete exposures do lead to greater risk, the quality of the hits matter as well. A sitting duck is more likely to end up in a cloud of feathers than a ball carrier bracing themselves for contact. The narrative that QB’s are somehow fragile is way off base anyway.

Lastly, if you’re an NFL fan worried about your rushing QB’s career longevity, consider this list of the most mobile QBs in NFL history and their career length:

  • Randall Cunningham — 15 seasons (ACL injury in the pocket)

  • Michael Vick — 13 seasons (primarily non-contact injuries)

  • Steve Young — 15 seasons (final concussion in the pocket)

  • Kordell Stewart — 15 seasons

  • Donavan McNabb — 13 seasons (ankle fracture on a sack, ribs on a TD run)

  • John Elway — 16 seasons

  • Steve McNair — 14 seasons

The Summary

The upside that the guys above had was undoubtedly in part due to their ability to move and run with the football. For too long the mobile quarterback has been overlooked for not fitting an antiquated “prototype.” This helped birth protections and advantages for the less athletic player. A phenomenon that occurs in no other sport. Moving forward, ulta-athletes will reap the rewards of those protections and help hoist the Lombardi for your favorite NFL team and fantasy squad.

So, what evidence exists that pocket passers are injured less frequently than mobile QBs? I’m not finding any.

Edwin completed his Doctorate of Physical Therapy education in 2020. His expertise is in all thing’s orthopedics, injury recovery, and he has a special interest in human performance. Edwin’s vision is to push injury advice past simple video analysis and into the realm of applying data from the medical literature to help fantasy players make informed start-sit decisions.