Did Michael Vick Really Revolutionize the Quarterback Position?

Michael Vick has been polarizing on - and off - the field, but was he the prototype for the quarterback position as we know it today?

All over the sports media these days, we see new reports of both the exciting playmaking ability and polarizing character of the Cleveland Browns’ new quarterback, Johnny Manziel. From the sounds of it, some think Manziel is the first of a new wave of quarterbacks in the league that will combine strong arms, quick decision-making, and even quicker feet in the rushing game. Johnny’s style of play seems to promise a revolution in the way the NFL works, because no one has really ever done it before.

Cut to a shot of Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Russell Wilson shrugging and asking, “Hey, what about us?”

Michael Vick would have raised an even bigger fuss than that, however. In a recent interview done with, Vick claimed, “I was the guy who started it all. I revolutionized the game. I changed the way it was played in the NFL.”

The 34-year-old Vick has set records in his career, having accumulated 5,857 rushing yards (most ever for a quarterback) and 27,346 total yards in his time in the league. He's still clearly a dangerous offensive weapon if used properly, but one must wonder about his claims to be the “pioneer of the running quarterback”. Was Michael Vick the first to integrate this kind of skill in his game? Was he the best to do so? And since being a quarterback is part of being a “rushing quarterback”, how does his passing match up to other rushers of this era?

You Say You Want A Revolution

Michael Vick was drafted with the first overall selection in the 2001 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons, and proceeded to instantly… play in only eight games during his rookie season. The now 11-year veteran of the NFL had a slow start to his career in terms of playing time, something that would plague him his whole career – he has played, on average, just over 12 games a season. Still, even in limited game action in his 2001 season, Vick was highly efficient as a runner: on only 31 carries, he racked up 289 yards on the ground for a yards per carry of 9.3. That’s extremely effective, even compared to the mobile quarterbacks in the league today. Even Cam Newton, the league’s most prolific rushing quarterback right now, has not yet surpassed 5.8 yards per carry in any season.

Still, at numberFire, we like to look at the numbers behind the numbers to gauge a truer effectiveness and efficiency than the box scores sometimes show. To do this, we use our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is a measure of how much a particular player’s actions affect his team’s expected chances of scoring on any given possession. In this case, we can look at specific kinds of NEP, particularly Rushing NEP (NEP accumulated solely on rushing plays) and Passing NEP (NEP accumulated solely on plays where the player passes the ball).

A History Lesson

In 2001, Vick’s rookie season, he posted a 27.63 Rushing NEP, the 22nd-highest mark of any quarterback over the last 14 years (since the year 2000). Not too shabby for a rookie, after all!

In fact, Vick would have a Rushing NEP under 20.00 only once in his first six years, in an injury-shortened 2003, which saw him play only five games. And he still accumulated a 16.40 Rushing NEP.

But was he the first quarterback to put up rushing numbers like this? We haven't generated NEP grades for legendary rushing quarterbacks who preceded Vick like Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, John Elway, or Randall Cunningham. However, we can look at Vick’s predecessors in 2000 and his peers in 2001 to see how he matches up, as in the table below. In 2000, six quarterbacks crossed the 20.00 Rush NEP threshold, a number that had not been surpassed until this past 2013 season. And in 2001, three more passed this mark. They are listed below with their total Rushes and Rush NEP score.

YearPlayerTeamRush NEP
2000Daunte CulpepperMIN24.05
2000Donovan McNabbPHI45.61
2000Jeff GarciaSF24.54
2000Kordell StewartPIT24.52
2000Rich GannonOAK35.85
2000Shaun KingTB25.74
2001Jay FiedlerMIA31.83
2001Michael VickATL27.63
2001Steve McNairTEN20.13

Vick’s rookie year rushing saw him bring in 27.63 Rushing NEP, but two players surpassed that mark before him, just in 2000: Philadelphia signal-caller Donovan McNabb and Oakland passer Rich Gannon. In 2001, even Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler accumulated more Rushing NEP than Vick, with a mark of 31.83. His 2002 campaign saw him post an even better 39.21 Rushing NEP, but McNabb surpassed him that year as well. In 2003, again, Vick only played five games due to injury.

It's therefore fair to say that NFL quarterbacks were putting up gaudy rushing numbers before Vick. But what about Vick in his prime? His 2004 season still stands as the single-best rushing year for any quarterback by our NEP metrics, ever. Vick, on 122 rushes, posted an absurd 68.31 Rushing NEP, which still stands clear of even Robert Griffin III’s 2012 rookie season by 10 points. Vick’s 2004-2006 seasons also hold as the most prolific three-year span of Rushing NEP by any quarterback with 171.65 Net Expected Points (Cam Newton’s 2011-2013 is second with 143.68).

Dual-Threat Prototype

I think it’s safe to say that, by our numbers, Vick did some serious damage on the ground, and probably more than anyone before him. Even in terms of efficiency, which we measure by dividing Rushing NEP per attempt, Vick’s 2001 season is tops among quarterbacks, and clears the second spot by a significant margin (Andrew Luck in 2013). In fact, Vick is the only player aside from Luck to possess more than one top-10 mark in Rushing NEP per attempt. He’s prolific, he’s efficient; what more could you want from him?

Well, maybe a more accurate throwing arm. Vick is very similar to the 49ers Steve Young in his running ability, the fact that he’s a lefty, and, well, that’s about it. In seasons where he attempted at least 300 drop backs, Vick has only posted a positive Passing NEP three times out of seven. That’s without even considering his horrendously ugly rookie year (113 passing attempts, -52.93 Passing NEP) and an injury-shortened 2003 (100 passing attempts, -9.79 Pass NEP). The chart shows the top-five rushing quarterback seasons that also posted positive Passing NEP scores.

YearPlayerTeamPassing NEPRushing NEP
2012Robert Griffin IIIWAS73.6359.29
2010Michael VickPHI56.8151.20
2011Cam NewtonCAR57.4850.28
2012Cam NewtonCAR57.4847.16
2013Cam NewtonCAR37.3046.25

It’s interesting to note that Vick only appears once, while Cam Newton checks in three times, and RGIII tops the table. In his prime, Vick was an elite rusher, and even his 2010 renaissance proved that he had the capability to be a complete quarterback. After him, we're now watching true dual-threat young guns like Newton, Griffin, and Colin Kaepernick improve upon their predecessors’ games and become great passers along with athletic runners.

Vick took the art form of quarterback rushing to a new level. I wouldn’t claim that he was the first elite rushing quarterback, but he was certainly the best of his time, and he should always be heralded as an important milestone in the evolution of the position.