The NFC Championship game will provide a look at the past and a peek to the future of how the position of quarterback will be played in the NFL.
The Falcons (14-3) will be led by classic drop-back passer Matt Ryan, while San Francisco (12-4-1) will have dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick when the teams meet at noon Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“Seven years from now, you’re going to look back at this time and you’re going to say, ‘You know what? That was the period, over the two, three years, where the league changed its philosophy on how they evaluate quarterbacks,’” Fox NFL analyst Howie Long said Tuesday in a phone interview.
For the second consecutive week, the Falcons will face a running-passing quarterback. Seattle’s Russell Wilson rushed for 60 yards and passed for 385 yards, but Ryan and the Falcons prevailed 30-28.
In the other NFC divisional game, Kaepernick ran for an NFL-record 181 yards rushing and passed for two touchdowns in San Francisco’s 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Kaepernick, a second-year player, Wilson, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Carolina’s Cam Newton all are considered running-passing quarterbacks and have enjoy varying degrees of success.
While traditional quarterbacks are going the way of the dinosaur, the running-passing quarterbacks have given teams other options at the position.
“I think what it does is improve the numbers and possibilities of acquiring a quarterback out of the college ranks,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “That’s very enticing to team builders in this league. We all know how incredibly important it is to have a quarterback that you can win with. When you can increase the numbers and probabilities of snapping one of those out of the draft, the better it is.” After a trip to the Super Bowl and the retirement of Kurt Warner, Arizona repeatedly failed in its quest to find the classic drop-back quarterback. Despite building a staunch defense and having one of the league’s better receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have not been successful.
The Cardinals’ mistakes at the quarterback position eventually cost general manager Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt their jobs.
“It’s very good for the league that we’re open-minded enough as general managers and coaches to attempt to utilize quarterbacks that aren’t necessarily prototypical NFL quarterbacks,” Dimitroff said. “To me I think it’s a testament to the coaches and how they are utilizing the talents.” The success that Denver had with Tim Tebow at quarterback in 2011 opened some eyes around the league.
“(Coach) John Fox did a heck of a job in that situation,” Dimitroff said. “I think that opened up the door for a lot of coaches understanding that you can win with quarterbacks that aren’t necessarily the same prototypical, stand-in-the-pocket type players.” The 49ers went to the NFC Championship game last season with Alex Smith at quarterback. They traded three draft picks to move up nine spots in the second round to select Kapernick in the 2011 draft.
Kaepernick was the sixth quarterback taken, behind Newton, Jake Locker (Titans), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars), Christian Ponder (Vikings) and Andy Dalton (Bengals).
He was inserted into the lineup halfway through the season and has started only eight games.
“Putting Kaepernick in the lineup makes them so much more dynamic,” Long said. “We saw that last week. That read-option, when he pulled it down and (ran), that might have been a 10-yard run with Alex Smith. That’s a single or double. With Kaepernick it’s a home run. That’s the scary part.” The running-passing quarterback is an answer to all of the league’s exotic blitz packages.
“How many times did we see with Kaepernick see that free blitzer comes off the edge and just at the last second, he sensed it, spun out of it, broke contain, pulled the ball down, and the defense was in man-to-man,” Long said. “Forty-five yards later he was in the end zone.” Falcons defenders have faced Newton, Griffin and Wilson this season, with mixed results.
“It’s just kind of weird that all of the guys are in the NFC,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said.