Fran Tarkenton: The Guy People Know as the Original Scrambler
The mobile quarterback, the player that has frustrated defensive coordinators for generations. Today, many people think of Lamar Jackson or Russel Wilson. 15 years ago, everyone always thought of Michael Vick. 25 years ago, it was Randall Cunningham, and before him Warren Moon. But when it comes down to it, it all traces back to one man: Fran Tarkenton. Before Tarkenton, the mobile, scrambling quarterback did not truly exist. It was almost considered taboo for a QB to not generate a strong pocket presence and stay within that radius while playing the position.
While I do not have the mind of a football coach, I was back in the day an avid Madden player and I will tell you one thing: playing with Michael Vick on the Falcons was essentially a cheat code, a handicap, a means for an easy win. This was a video game we’re talking about. Going up against a player that was using Vick’s Falcons team was so frustrating because at the end of the day, there was always a cop out if you couldn’t find an open receiver: scramble for a 10-15 yard gain. But Vick was hardly the greatest to do so, he was just the first player of the type to be inserted into the video game franchise. I will always remember the 2004 NFC championship game down at Lincoln Financial Field and the whole buildup going into that week was how would the Eagles contain Michael Vick (to which they did so successfully to earn a spot in Superbowl XXXIX). But, coordinators had experience and film dealing with the mobile quarterback from those of the past. When it comes to Fran Tarkenton, there was no film on how to stop the mobile QB: he created the film.
Clearly, I was not around when Tarkenton was playing in the league; all I have to base my opinion and information on is what film I have gotten to see on the internet. As I watch the film on Tarkenton, it is so eerily similar to what I see every Sunday when the Seahawks are on. Now this is no knock on Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, or DeShaun Watson, but Tarkenton looks like a pioneer version of Russel Wilson, and that’s a pretty high compliment in my book. I am so intrigued to see how a quarterback not only created, but extended plays on his own two feet the way that Tarkenton did. Unlike players such as Vick and Jackson, Tarkenton had such a composed poise while amidst a scramble. Just like I see when I watch Russel Wilson, Fran Tarkenton looked to create windows and find open receivers by extending plays outside of the pocket, and not relying on picking up positive yardage through rushing.
As I watched the film of Tarkenton, you didn’t see a guy that abandoned the pass and switched gears to the rush when he exited the pocket; that was something you see more from the likes of Vick and Jackson. You can clearly see how frustrated defensive players were the second that Tarkenton exited the pocket: you see guys throw their arms up or quickly divert their line of sight on what angle to run in order to stop him. The defensive lineman of those days were nowhere near the athletes that they are today: D-lineman were not running sub 5.0 40 yard dashes with acceleration speeds almost comparable to those of running backs. In today's NFL, defensive ends are often the most athletic guys on the field, and staying in pursuit of the mobile quarterback in terms of strictly physical ability is not the problem, it’s the mobile quarterbacks’ ability to outsmart the opposing defense. Whether that was the case with Tarkenton or not, you can clearly see that he had a competitive advantage against defensive fronts the second he scrambled out of the pocket, and it is just so fascinating to see that this was the pioneer footage of the playstyle.
Amazingly, it was just opposing defenses that Tarkenton flustered, but his own coach as well. In our interview with Tarkenton, he explained how he and head coach Norm Van Brocklin had a tumultuous relationship over Tarkenton’s playstyle, as it differed heavily from Van Brocklin’s own playstyle during his time in the league. It would seem that Van Brocklin just flat out didn’t know how to utilize Tarkenton’s ability to extend plays using his feet, and did not know how to positively respond when Tarkenton exited the pocket. There was thought that when Tarkenton was traded to the Giants, it was because Van Brocklin just did not know how to utilize him, but Tarkenton would ultimately come out from the better end of the move and go to a franchise where some would anoint him a savior.
While Tarkenton did not achieve a victory in the Superbowl, it is obvious that he made such a bigger impact on the game than most superbowl winning quarterbacks. It has been a recurring trend where traditional coaches have not known how to utilize their mobile quarterbacks, most evident with Randall Cunningham’s years with the Philadelphia Eagles. But now...now we see a trend, a roadmap to success where good coaches are learning how to build their offense around their mobile QB’s strengths. By no means does this take away from the skillset and capability of pure pocket passers of this era such as Rodgers, Brady, and Brees, but now we see franchises coming out on top once they have learned how to use their talent. Unfortunately, guys like Vick and Cunningham were too premature for their time. I would love to see a prime Michael Vick playing in today's game with a coach that knows how to utilize him. However, we still have a great crop of QB to watch with the likes of the previously mentioned guys like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson (who I see having the most similar skillset to Fran Tarkenton), and each of these teams (with the exception of the Texans thanks to a coach/GM that didn’t know how to use his young mobile QB), and it was Fran Tarkenton that laid down the map for their success.