Three years ago, before Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Arizona’s Kyler Murray had taken an NFL snap, Kyle Shanahan explained his issue with mobile quarterbacks.
The 49ers’ head coach said QBs who could flee from pass rushers had difficulty developing as pocket passers. Shanahan illustrated his point by pointing to two immobile QBs, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Shanahan said their inability to escape danger forced them to develop the must-have qualities at the complex position: the ability to read defenses and throw downfield.
“I don’t think (Brady and Manning) were ever mobile when they were 7, when they were 18, when they were 30,” Shanahan said in July 2017. “I think they’ve always been guys who have to sit in there and look down the field and learn how to get rid of the ball. And if you’ve been doing that since you’re 7 years old to the NFL, you’ve had a hell of a lot more reps than this guy who’s been able to run around and make plays all the time.”
This week, Shanahan acknowledged the NFL’s QB landscape had changed over the past three years: Those guys who run around are now making a lot of plays — with their arms.
The NFL’s past two MVPs (Mahomes, Jackson) and its defending Offensive Rookie of the Year (Murray) are 25-or-younger QBs who can flee the pocket and fling it downfield. And they aren’t alone. Watson, 25, has been a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first two seasons as a starter and Allen, 24, is on pace to throw for more than 4,600 yards this season.
Shanahan noted the league now is dotted with young, speedy QBs who have grown up leading offenses that highlight their mobility but also develop them as passers. Instead of excelling in the triple-option or lining up in the Wildcat, for example, they have been in systems that provide more chances to play from the pocket, or to escape pressure, keep their eyes downfield and create big pass plays.
“I think there are a lot more coming up … guys (who) run around and make plays and have stayed at the quarterback position their entire career, starting in Pop Warner to high school, to college,” Shanahan said. “I think more offenses have incorporated a bunch of things that allow guys to develop as pocket passers, even though they’re unbelievable athletes and can make plays. … That’s why you can see that the league is finding more and more of those guys.”
Three years ago, the failed or stalled-out careers of mobile QBs such as Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick supported the idea that most QBs couldn’t do it all.
However, Jackson, Mahomes and Watson all rank among the NFL’s top 10 in both passer rating (minimum 500 attempts) and rushing yards among QBs since 2019. Allen, who ranks third in rushing yards over that span, is 12th in passer rating, just ahead of Brady.
That is, more QBs eventually could join what is now exclusive company: Steve Young, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, whom the 49ers will face Sunday, are the only players in NFL history who rank in the top 25 in career passer rating and QB rushing yards.
Wilson’s ability to run and throw has made him a leading NFL MVP candidate this season. If Wilson wins, he would become the third straight dual-threat QB to receive the award.
Wilson, who is on pace to throw an NFL-record 59 touchdown passes, might be approaching a level Shanahan imagined for Brady — if he had wheels.
“Tom Brady’s the best to ever play the game,” Shanahan said. “And if he could run and do all that other stuff and still be the same way he is, that would be impossible to stop. The more you can have both, the more things you can do as an offense and the less things the defense can do just having to defend everything.”
Will the changing landscape influence Shanahan’s future decision-making when it comes to QBs?
His current starter, Jimmy Garoppolo, is much like his previous QBs over the course of his career: Garoppolo has 137 career rushing yards and has averaged 1.4 yards per attempt.
The only QB the 49ers have drafted since Shanahan was hired is C.J. Beathard, who had minus-13 rushing yards as a senior at Iowa. Before trading for Garoppolo, the QB Shanahan planned to sign in 2018 was Kirk Cousins, who has averaged 6.3 rushing yards per game in his career.
Nine months ago, before Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan explained his plan to sign Cousins was a reason the 49ers didn’t strongly study Mahomes before the 2017 draft. Another reason: It was harder to project how Mahomes would transition to the NFL after he played in a spread offense at Texas Tech.
“I didn’t look into him, obviously, as much as I should have,” Shanahan said.
This week, Shanahan said if he had to pick “one way or the other,” he’d choose a pocket passer. But he added something that wasn’t among his thoughts on the topic in 2017: It wasn’t necessarily an either-or proposition — it’s possible for a QB to have it all.
“I always feel no matter who you are, especially when you get in those playoffs, eventually a team’s going to make you sit in that pocket and make you make some big throws to win a game,” Shanahan said. “So you have to have that ability. But anyone who (can run and throw) always has the chance to exceed everybody.”
Injury report: Safety Jimmie Ward (quadriceps) and inside linebacker Kwon Alexander (ankle) returned to practice and were limited. Ward has missed one game after he was injured in practice Oct. 22. Alexander has missed two games. The 49ers didn’t place Alexander on injured reserve because they said his high ankle sprain wasn’t severe.
Eric Branch covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Eric_Branch
Who: 49ers (4-3) vs. Seahawks (5-1)
When: 1:25 p.m.
TV:Channel: 2Channel: 40
Radio: 104.5, 680, 107.7