Top 10 Greatest Running Quarterbacks in NFL History by Lloyd Vance

With Eagles QB Michael Vick recently becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rushing yardage quarterback.  To celebrate this milestone, Taking It to the House has ranked their Top 10 running quarterbacks in NFL history

Recently in the Philadelphia Eagles’ close 31-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills, there almost was a milestone that was lost amongst Philly fans’ agnst from their team’s turnover-filled defeat.  With a 53-yard, third-quarter burst, Eagles star quarterback Michael Vick pushed past the player formerly known as the “NFL’s Ultimate Weapon”, Randall Cunningham, to beome league’s top career rushing quarterback – former record was 4,928 yards.

I know in an era where the National Football League is enamored with passing statistics while being labeled a “Passing League First” that most fans would much rather watch pocket passers, like Packers QB Aaron Rodgers or Patriots QB Tom Brady picking defense apart with their arms.  But in all this pass-happy frenzy around the NFL – already through Week 6 of the 2011 season there has been ten 400-yard passing perfomances – Vick’s accomplishment should be celebrated.  Believe it or not, there once was a time where quarterbacks, like former Packers great Tobin Rote in the 1950’s, had to carry their team’s load as both their primary passer and runner.
There is no douobt that Vick is the fastest quarterback in NFL history – has been timed at 4.3 at a Falcons rookie camp in 2001 – but is he really the greatest NFL running quarterback ever.  The statistics probably are in the former 4-time Pro Bowl player’s favor, but I have compiled my Top 10 NFL Greatest Running Quarterbacks to fuel the debate.
1) Michael Vick – Unequivocally there has never been a more explosive quarterback outside the pocket than Vick.  The former first overall selection in the 2001 NFL Draft has the speed and cutting ability of any elusive running backs, which has caused many sleepless nights for NFL Defensive Coordinators.  Vick set the NFL single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,039 yards in 2006, when he was a member of the Atlanta Falcons.  The crazy thing is that Vick basically took half the time it took for Cunningham to compile his rushing record.  Randall needed 16 seasons to amass his standard with Vick only needing  9 seasons to break the record.  With 5,002 career rushing yards, Vick even has outrushed a lot of memorable running backs (Christian Okoye, Mercury Morris, Ronnie Brown and others) and is the first quarterback to rush for over 5,000 career yards in NFL History.  I am just wondering could we be watching the NFL’s first 8,000-yard rushing quarterback.  And don’t think he can’t beat teams with his arm too.  In 2010, he became the first NFL quarterback to throw for over 3000 yards and rush for over 500 yards in the same season.

2) Randall Cunningham – The first quarterback to really showcase game-breaking running ability on a consistent basis was Rockin’ Randall.  Fueled by his motto, “I’ll be Scrambling”, Cunningham gave defenses fits once he broke out of the pocket.  The former 1985 second round pick amasssed an incredible 4,928 rushing yards on an NFL quarterback record 775 rushes in his 16-year career that included two Most Valuable Player awards.  Cunningham often times was asked by his former head coach Buddy Ryan to give him “Just two big plays a game”, but everyone knows the former UNLV All-American did that much and much more.  Often times, the player who was annointed by Sports Illustrated as the “NFL’s Ultimate Weapon” had to carry the Birds’ offense almost by himself without the luxury of a steady running back or a quality offensive line.  In 1990, Cunningham led the Eagles in rushing and produced the third-highest quarterback total of 924 yards.  In his 122-game Philadelphia career, Cunningham rushed for 4482 yards and 32 TDs with an amazing 6.6 ypc.

3) Steve Young – Though many remember former Niners’ great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young as a surgical passer, who still holds the NFL career quarterback rating record… you can never forget his running exploits too.  A great athlete blessed with a rocket left arm and a sprinter’s speed, the former USFL posterboy quarterback was an amazing runner.  Young was such a great runner that in college at Brigham Young University, some of his coaches toyed with the idea of making their fast quarterback into a safety.  Luckily for the future Super Bowl MVP, he stayed at quarterback on his way to Canton.  Early in his career, Young had to use his running prowess to literally run for his life behind a “porous” Tampa Bay Bucs’  O-line.  After being traded to the San Francisco 49ers, former head coach Bill Walsh set about making Young into a more complete quarterback, which led to some heated conversations about the free-wheeling quarterback, at the time, leaving the pocket too early.  The gold-jacket clad Young still holds the NFL record for the most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (43) finished plus he had additional 4239 rushing yards and a 5.9 ypc.
4) Donovan McNabb – Please don’t make the mistake of calling the former Syracuse great, a “Running Quarterback”.  Even though McNabb will tell you that he is more than just a runner, much of his 13-year career has been defined by his ability to extend plays with his legs and running outside of the pocket.  With onus of “making the Eagles’ offense go” firmly on his shoulders, often times due to head coach Andy Reid’s inability to surround him talent at the wide receiver position, McNabb was a force running the football when plays broke down.  In his career that looks to be winding down in 2011, as he is playing for struggling Minnesota Vikings, Donovan showed speed, elusiveness, and power in his running that produced 3459 yards and 29 TDs.  Though it looks like McNabb’s career is winding down and will fall short of Canton, he will definitely be remembered as one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history…whether he likes it or not.

5) Steve Grogan – When you see old pictures of Grogan playing with a neck brace it is hard to envision him as one of the NFL’s best running quarterbacks ever…. But he is.  Displaying toughness at the quarterback position that would rival any sign-caller in the NFL’s 92–year  history, Grogan produced 2,176 rushing yards and 36 rushing TDs (4th overall in New England franchise history) in his career.    The former Patriots great still holds the NFL’s record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season (12 in 1976).  A gritty player, Grogan led the 1978 Patriots in setting the NFL’s single season team rushing record of 3,156 yards — only season an NFL team has had 4 players rush for over 500 yards apiece — that still stands some 33 years later.  In 1978, the hard-charging running quarterback rushed for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns.

6) Fran Tarkenton – The “Mad Scrambler’ was a player before his time as he produced 3,674 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 675 carries, during the NFL’s “Statue” era of quarterbacks.  Often times running around trying to avoid getting “killed” by larger defensive lineman, Fran brought backyard football to the NFL.  Tarkenton now ranks fourth in NFL quarterback career rushing yards — behind Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, and Steve Young – but he will forever be known as one of the league’s fleetest of foot passers ever.  The former leader of Bud Grant’s Vikings was one of the main reasons Minnesota teams made three trips to the Super Bowl during his time there.  When the Georgia native left the NFL in 1981, he held held NFL career records in pass attempts, completions, yardage, and touchdowns; rushing yards by a quarterback; and wins by a starting quarterback.  The Pro Football Hall of Famer (Class of 1986) ran for a touchdown in 15 different seasons, an NFL record for quarterbacks.  Plus he and Tobin Rote hold the distinction of rushing for at least 300 yards in seven different seasons.

7) Steve McNair – His nickname may have been “Air” McNair, but there is no doubt that this former small-school star got it done with his legs too.  A former NFL Co-MVP, McNair rushed for an incredible 3590 yards  and 37 TDs in his 13-year career with a never-say-die warrior style of play.  Probably the NFL’s toughest player during his time in the league, the former Alcorn State star played through a myriad of injuries to always move the chains when his teams needed it the most.  McNair will probably be most remembered for leading the Tennessee Titans to within 1-yard of a Super Bowl victory in 2000.  But to me even more impressive was his breakout 1997 NFL Season.  That year, McNair led the nomadic Titans, who had just moved from Houston where they were formerly the Oilers, back to respectibility.  McNair led the team in rushing touchdowns with 8 and finished second to Pro Bowl running back Eddie George in team rushing as he finished with 674 yards — 3rd-highest total for a quarterback in NFL history.

8) John Elway – To me, Elway arguably is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history…period.  Say what you want about his Super Bowl record (2-4), Big John was a winner as shown by hisformer NFL record  148 victories.  A largerly forgotten part of Elway’s game was his great running ability.  Throughout his career, whether it was running for big-yardage as a youngster or displaying grit in a helicopter run and dive in the Broncos’ Super Bowl XXXIII victory, Elway had the legs to match is rocket arm.  He amassed 3,417 rushing yards – ranked 6th all-time for QB’s – and 33 TDs on 774 rushing attempts (2nd only to Cunningham by one carry.  Elway also should be remembered for being the best running quarterback in the postseason as he produced 461 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs in the playoffs.  He also holds the distinction of being the oldest player to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl at age 38 in Super Bowl XXXIII.  And his four total rushing touchdowns in Super Bowl games are the most ever by a quarterback.

9) Bobby Douglass – Contrary to what some people think, I am not old enough to have watched Douglass play.  But apparently there was a time where the former Chicago Bears sign-caller was the NFL’s version of Oklahoma wishbone wizard Jack Mildren.  Running with a tough purposeful style, Douglass definitely ran more like a fullback than a quarterback.  In 1972, Douglass set the single-season benchmark for quarterbacks by putting up  968 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns on 141 carries.  Though the record has since been broken by Michael Vick in 2006, the amazing feat of Douglass was that he produced his mark in a 14-game season by averaging an incredible 69.1 yards per game.  Though his NFL career would be termed spectacular, due to his deficiencies as a passer, Douglass will be remembered for producing 2654 career rushing yards and 22 TDs.

10a) Kordell Stewart – The player who became the NFL’s modern-day version of Jim Thrope, by “Doing It All” on the way to earning the aptly named nickname “Slash”, must be remembered as a game-breaking runner.  In 126 NFL games including 87 starts, Stewart produced 2874 rushing yards and 38 TDs (second only to Steve Young).  Though he never led the Steelers to a Super Bowl as a starter, Slash will forever be remembered as being an intregal part of the 1995 Pittsburgh team reaching the big game.  After starring as a dual-threat at Colorado, as a rookie Stewart helped the veteran-laden squad by lining-up as a quarterback, receiver, running back, and punter.  With 4.4 speed, Stewart was a threat all over the field for offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.  As a starter, Slash had his best year in 2001 as he passed for 14 TDs and ran for 5 more in making the Pro Bowl.

10b) Tobin Rote – Alright and you thought Bobby Douglass was “Old School”… well then I am gonna go Jurrasic with pick.  Rote was an incredible runner for the Green Bay Packers in the 1950’s.  He led the NFL in rushing yards by a quarterback six times (1951, 1954–58) and his 37 career rushing touchdowns rank 6th all-time among signal-callers.  Incredibly, even in the NFL’s 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust day, Rote is led his team in rushing yards 3 times and rushing touchdowns 5 times, The former two-time Pro Bowl player is the only quarterback to lead a team to an NFL (Detroit Lions) and AFL (San Diego Chargers) championship

Best of the Rest:  Doug Flutie, Greg Landry, Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett, Vince Evans, Daunte Culpepper and Kenny Anderson

You also have to keep an eye on current scrambling quarterbacks:  Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow, David Garrard and Vince Young



Lloyd Vance is the Editor  for Taking It to the House , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).  Lloyd can be reached on Twitter @lloydvance_nfl

Author: lloydvance

Lloyd Vance is a NFL Writer, Analyst, Draft Expert, Researcher, and Historian. He serves as a Senior NFL Writer and Correspondent for "Taking It to the House" covering the NFL on a daily basis. He is an Accredited Member of NFL Media and Philadelphia Eagles Media. Member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA), and The Maxwell Football Club

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