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Some NFL quarterbacks can move, all right, but in the wrong direction

Some NFL quarterbacks can move, all right, but in the wrong direction
Robert Griffin III (10), Colin Kaepernick (7) and Johnny Manziel (2) are struggling quarterbacks who are better on the move than in the pocket, a dangerous proposition in the NFL. (Getty Images and AP)

There's a great scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" when an old miner is testing Kid's accuracy with a pistol, asking him to take aim at a small object on the ground about 20 feet away. Kid stands still, draws a bead, misses badly.

He then says to the unimpressed miner, "Can I move?"

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"Move? What the hell you mean move?"

Suddenly, Kid draws the gun, drops to a knee and fires two shots right on the money.

That pretty much sums up the wilting quarterback careers of San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and Washington's Robert Griffin III.

These guys are much better when they move, a risky proposition in the NFL, and none has made a successful transition to a safer, traditional, dropback passer.

Kaepernick was benched this week in favor of Blaine Gabbert, Griffin was already on the bench and the only reason Manziel is playing is Josh McCown is injured.

Each of them is moving all right, but in the wrong direction. They are cautionary tales that underscore how incredibly difficult it is to make the transition from being a quarterback who relies on his legs to challenge defenses, to one who can pick apart an opponent with precision passing.

Griffin, Kaepernick and Manziel played in college systems in which their legs were a weapon. It wasn't so much that they had to run for 100 yards per game, but that the threat was there. In his freshman year at Texas A&M, for instance, Manziel ran for a staggering 1,410 yards.

That meant every time they had a running back with them, they were essentially in a two-back formation. Defenses were forced to put eight players in the tackle box to account for all the gaps. That, in turn, limited the amount of coverages defenses could play.

With defenses loading up to stop the run, and handcuffed in the secondary, these dual-threat quarterbacks had all sorts of time and space to throw. Receivers were frequently wide open. It's the kind of stuff we saw in Griffin's rookie season in Washington, before his initial knee injury, and in Kaepernick's first two seasons in San Francisco. Manziel came later and never really achieved liftoff in Cleveland.

But being a successful pocket passer in the NFL calls for far greater accuracy and anticipation than that. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, they typically aren't throwing to wide-open receivers. They're throwing to holes where only the receiver can make the catch. They're not throwing to where the receiver is, but to where the defender isn't.

Those aren't the kind of skills a quarterback can easily develop, particularly on the fly and at the highest level. It's as if they took some Spanish courses in college, and now they're expected to speak fluent French.

So why did they get away from running in the first place? Primarily, it's the threat of injury, something that unfolded on a big stage at the end of Griffin's rookie season, when he stayed in a playoff game against Seattle after being hobbled. A second hit turned a bad knee injury into a devastating one.

The threat of that type of injury has cooled not only the teams on that style of offense, but the quarterbacks and their agents. It's tough to get that big-money second contract if the guy's playing on a bad set of wheels.

Still, there are quarterbacks who have struck a balance between running and passing. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has built a tremendous career around his ability to extend plays with his legs, and he's big and strong enough to get off passes with one or more defenders hanging on him.

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Carolina's Cam Newton is a leading most-valuable-player candidate through the first half of the season, even though his numbers aren't much different than Kaepernick's. Newton has made the big plays when he has had to, though, has a tight end in Greg Olsen who's playing at an All-Pro level, and is backed by a smothering defense.

And Seattle's Russell Wilson has gotten to consecutive Super Bowls in part thanks to his ability to wheel away from would-be tacklers and find open receivers, and to bite off big chunks of yardage with his feet. The Seahawks haven't tried to turn him into a cookie-cutter pocket passer. It seems just about every big play Wilson makes comes after a defender has already gotten a hand on him.

"The genius is how to figure out how to get them into broken plays all the time," said Rick Neuheisel, who was Baltimore's offensive coordinator before he was coach at UCLA. "Therein lies what they've done with Russell Wilson. They've almost scheduled broken plays."

The Tennessee Titans did that with the late Steve McNair. They had two basic protection calls for the offensive line. One was designed to block everyone. The other was a five-man protection that left unblocked the farthest defender to McNair's right, so that player had a free run at the quarterback.

The theory was that McNair could make that man miss, then could find a target in a field flooded with receivers, or pull down the ball and run himself.

He was better when he moved.

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