NFL’s next big trend? It might be the two-QB formation

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Philadelphia Eagles QB coach Press Taylor said Monday he thinks one of the next big NFL developments could be the implementation of multiple quarterbacks on the field at the same time.

Of course, the idea isn’t exactly new. In fact, it’s not even new to the Eagles, really, who unleashed one of the great trick plays in league history with the “Philly Special,” where Trey Burton (a one-time college quarterback) hit Nick Foles (an actual NFL QB) for a touchdown pass right before halftime of Super Bowl LII.

And it has been happening to a degree lately on the college level, as well as in youth football, for some time now – even back to the single-wing days. But in the slower-to-change NFL, these types of developments are notable because they represent a possible shift in long-held thinking and a break from convention.

Those developments often are met in the NFL at first with suspicion. But if they work for a few teams, they’re then followed by mimicry. Often by more than one team, hoping to catch the wave.

“I think at some point, one of the big things will be having multiple people on the field who can throw the ball,” Taylor said Monday. “That’s something going forward … You’ve seen the ‘Philly Special,’ you’ve seen all different versions of double passes.

“I think at some point I can see something like that coming into play. I’m not necessarily saying that [the Eagles will be] doing anything like that. I just think that can be something that’s pushing the envelope.”

And it appears that other NFL teams are buying into this idea. Or are at least willing to give it their own try.

The Los Angeles Chargers drafted QB Easton Stick in Round 5 and have been mum on his immediate plans, but it appears he’s got the ability to be used in multiple ways.

The Baltimore Ravens – now fully unconventional with Lamar Jackson running the offense – drafted Trace McSorley in Round 6, and he “has a chance to have a big role,” said head coach John Harbaugh, as a possible trick-play specialist with great running skills plus the ability to throw.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed undrafted Nick Fitzgerald, the SEC’s all-time leading QB rusher, to toy with the idea of being a multi-tool gadget.

Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier did a nice job of detailing the NFL’s flirtation with this concept, from Kordell Stewart to Pat White to – you bet – Tim Tebow. Maybe Eric Crouch entered the league at the wrong time. The “Wildcat” came and went. This sort of thing rarely has lasted. It has cycled through the NFL periodically, like short-area comets, before drifting off into the ether.

But every few years, it also always seems to come back around for another pass. Or a run. (That’s football punnery, folks.) Will it stick? That’s the big question. While we wonder about that, though, it’s hard not to notice a notable chunk of the NFL giving it the old college try.

“You get these guys coming out of college that were dual-threat quarterbacks who had to transition to receiver and different things like that,” Taylor said. “It’s just a way to get your best players onto the field and threaten the defense in the most ways possible.”

The New Orleans Saints often will put quarterbacks Drew Brees (9) and Taysom Hill (7) on the field regularly together. (Getty Images)
The New Orleans Saints often will put quarterbacks Drew Brees (9) and Taysom Hill (7) on the field regularly together. (Getty Images)

How Taysom Hill might have changed the model

Credit should go to the New Orleans Saints, who now have successfully implemented a two-QB package with Drew Brees and Taysom Hill, as key envelope pushers. Other teams have tinkered with trick-play packages and multiple QBs on the field together. Look no further than the semi-awkward usage of Jackson by the Ravens before he unseated Joe Flacco as the starting QB.

But the Saints took this idea to a new level last season. That Brees will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer is not insignificant; the Saints were willing at times to take the ball out of his hands and put them into those of a second-year, undrafted quarterback in Hill who entered last season with zero NFL yards from scrimmage. That’s commitment to a cause.

Hill wears No. 7. He’s listed on the Saints’ roster as a QB. But he’s become so much more than that.

Starting in Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons, Saints head coach Sean Payton enhanced his reputation as a mad offensive scientist willing to try just about anything at any time when he unleashed his “Taysom Hill package,” with Hill running the ball three times for 39 yards. Hill would go on to play a total of 182 offensive snaps in the regular season. Payton’s five-snap experiment worked so well in that Week 3 game that he found as many ways to get Hill involved as possible.

With each week there seemed to be even more wrinkles. In fact, in Week 8 the Saints had three quarterbacks – Brees, Hill and Teddy Bridgewater – on the field at the same time in the red zone against the Minnesota Vikings.

Hill averaged nearly 13 offensive snaps a game (lined up as a QB, a receiver and even as a tight end) for the final 14 games, finishing the season with 37 rush attempts, seven pass attempts and seven targets as a receiver. In the Saints’ two playoff games, Hill ran three more times, threw a pass and caught a TD pass in the NFC championship game.

Hill also tied for the Saints’ lead in special-teams snaps with 343 last season, ran back 14 kickoffs and even blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown against Tampa Bay. Suddenly, the Saints found a way to unleash a backup QB on game days and not have him merely holding a clipboard while taking up an active roster spot.

Brees might have been hesitant to break his own rhythm during the game at first, but it appears as if he bought into the idea of making the most of his versatile teammate in various ways.

“It's kind of a learning process, you know,” Brees said last season. “And I think having this weapon now is really intriguing, because Taysom is so versatile, he can do so many things. We’re still just kind of scratching the surface. We’re still just kind of learning what we can do with all that stuff.”

What these new weapons can and must do

Because of 46-man gameday rosters, NFL teams only have so much they can do with their players. It’s a lot easier to find uni-taskers in college, where teams can dress 80 or so players on gamedays. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The NFL has used variations of trick plays and more open-ended offensive packages involving the long line of college quarterbacks who transitioned to wide receiver in the NFL. Some, like Hines Ward, never looked back; in 2017 NFL regular-season games, he attempted only two passes. Others, such as Atlanta Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu, still throws a few passes per season. He currently leads all active passers with at least five NFL attempts in passer rating at a perfect 158.3 (Sanu is 7-for-8 passing for 233 yards and four TDs in his seven-year career.)

But that’s not exactly innovation. What the Chicago Bears did last season is closer example of what more free-thinking teams are doing, and their success last year could help boost this possible trend in a way.

They became one of the more fun teams in football last year when new head coach Matt Nagy unleashed a dizzying array of trick plays during a 12-4 season. Backup QB Chase Daniel occasionally lined up alongside starter Mitch Trubisky, including on this TD pass in a rout of the Buccaneers in Week 4. The play even had a cool nickname: “Willy Wonka.”

Nagy also called on non-QBs to throw passes, such as RB Tarik Cohen (with no time left in regulation to tie the game) and WR Anthony Miller (to Daniel, making his first start with the team). OT Bradley Sowell caught a TD pass against the Rams and now is being tried as a tight end. DT Akiem Hicks, who rushed for a touchdown last season, was one of seven Bears players to receive offensive snaps last season.

Perhaps there’s a blend of what Payton did with his quarterbacks and what Nagy did with a big chunk of his roster that could be more of what we see sweeping through the league this season and beyond. But a big part of this might have to include these players having a duty that goes beyond chicanery, such as Hill becoming a core special teamer. That might be the key to making it stick. It’s something, for instance, that Tebow appeared reticent to do much of when he got his NFL shot.

McSorley is no stranger to being used in two-QB formations from his Penn State days, and he started out as a defensive back, so the possibilities in Baltimore could be pretty diverse. The Ravens could keep Robert Griffin as Jackson’s de facto backup, even if McSorley earns his way onto the field more, perhaps on both offense and special teams.

And like McSorley in Baltimore, Stick likely isn’t going to be Philip Rivers’ backup in Los Angeles, as they have Tyrod Taylor and Cardale Jones on the roster. So if Stick is going to, well, stick on anything but the practice squad, he’ll have to show that his decent speed (4.62 40-yard dash) and exceptional short-area quickness (6.65 3-cone drill) can be utilized in other ways until his quarterbacking is up to NFL snuff.

Other true quarterbacks such as Danny Etling in New England and Fitzgerald in Tampa Bay, who are practicing as personal protectors on the punt team, might be doing it as a way to stick on the active roster. That appears a little different than the New York Giants’ approach with former Syracuse QB Eric Dungey, who is being moved to tight end.

Whether this type of position change becomes a verifiable trend or not remains to be seen. But it’s clear that this season there will be a lot of experimentation with finding roles for athletically gifted quarterbacks as complements to the regular starters. It’s not yet a thing most teams have embraced, but they certainly appear to be warming up to the idea of it being a thing.

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