Generally speaking, Peyton Manning runs backward. The Broncos Quarterback finished the regular season with -31 rushing yards on an average of -1 yards per carry while leading an offense that scored more points than any team in NFL history. In what was to be the era of a read-option quarterback – an epoch defined by young sprinters like RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson – an apparently immobile 37-year-old stepped into the pocket and dominated.
Steve Young, the NFL's first double threat QB wasn't the least bit surprised. Young averaged at least 5 yards a carry for 14 years and he sees speed as an asset rather than a prerequisite. Though Super Bowl XLVIII will showcase Wilson and Manning's extreme styles, Young suggests that defenses and front offices will soon eliminate much of the distance between them.
"I think the defenses in the league had something to say about it," Young says of the rise of the rushing quarterback. "You can see that they said that they were going to put quarterbacks in jeopardy."
And that's precisely what they did. Michael Vick – no stranger to physical therapy – ended his season on the sideline. So did RGIII, whose ACL tear last year became a cautionary tale for rushers. Aaron Rodgers, not much of a runner, broke his collarbone after making a move out of the pocket against the Bears. According to Young, the toll taken on careers and records by these sorts of QB injuries is too steep for general managers to allow players like Wilson the freedom they might want at the line. The price is only getting higher.
Like Colin Kaepernick, who made $840,000 this year, Wilson, who made $526,000, is still laboring under his rookie contract. There are rumblings that Kaepernick's 2015 payday might eclipse Joe Flacco's post-championship $20.1-million windfall and – though Wilson likely won't see that kind of money – the Seahawks slinger will soon be closer to making Peyton's $18 million.
"Are you really going to make your $100 million franchise guy run the read option?" Young, whose career was ended by a violent sack in 1999, asks rhetorically. "These teams are risking guys that they're not really paying yet. But in a couple of years, those are the guys who are going to be making $100 million."
Though a Broncos victory won't trample the option era and a Seahawks win won't discourage even the slowest quarterbacks (Tom Brady runs a woeful 5.28-second 50), the contest will likely make a case for the middle ground that Young spent the nineties staking out. As defensive coordinators get smart and defensive linemen get faster, quarterbacks are going to have to use their legs and their arms with equal proficiency. Wilson, who is as strong throwing downfield as he is fast, may represent less of an outlier than Peyton, who throws so much the Broncos might end up needing a bullpen.
"I just feel like young players, especially mobile players, can use that to [become] an accomplished thrower from the pocket," say Young. "If they're just going to run this though? Long term they're not going to get it done."
None of this – as Young knows perhaps too well – is playing out in a vacuum. Peyton's success at MetLife Stadium has everything to do with his receivers and Richard Sherman, the Seahawk's spectacular cornerback. Similarly, Wilson won't be running if Running Back Marshawn Lynch can break through Denver's line or if Percy Harvin or Sidney Rice can get open. It's more likely that he'll end up doing a little bit of everything. That, says Young, is what the future looks like.