Quarterback (commonly abbreviated to QB) is a position in American and Canadian football. Quarterbacks are members of the offensive team and line up directly behind the offensive line. Quarterbacks are the leaders of the offensive team, responsible for calling the play in the huddle.
In modern football, the quarterback is the leader of the offense. The quarterback touches the ball on almost every offensive play, and his successes and failures can have a significant impact on the fortunes of his team. Accordingly, the quarterback is among the most glorified and scrutinized positions in team sports. Prior to each play, the quarterback tells the rest of his team which play the team will run; after the team is lined up, the center will pass the ball back between his legs to the quarterback (a process called the snap). On a running play, the quarterback will then hand or pitch the ball backwards to a running back. On a passing play, the quarterback will try to throw the ball downfield to a wide receiver, tight end, or running back. Additionally, the quarterback can run with the ball himself. This could be part of a designed play like the option run or quarterback sneak, or it could be an impromptu effort to avoid being sacked by the defense.
Depending on the offensive scheme by his team, the quarterback's role can vary. In systems like the triple option the quarterback will only pass the ball a few times per a game, while the spread offense as run by schools like Texas Tech requires quarterbacks to throw the ball in most plays. The passing game is emphasized heavily in the CFL, where there are only three downs as opposed to the four downs used in American football. Different skillsets are required of the quarterback in each system - quarterbacks that perform well in a spread offensive system, a popular offensive scheme in the NCAA and NFHS, rarely perform well in the NFL, as the fundamentals of the pro-style offense used in the NFL are very different from those in the spread system. while quarterbacks in Canadian football need to be able to throw the ball often and accurately. In general, quarterbacks need to have physical skills such as arm strength, mobility, and quick throwing motion, in addition to intangibles such as competitiveness, leadership, intelligence, and downfield vision. The absence of a star quarterback can by itself greatly damage his team's play. For example, the Indianapolis Colts, among the most successful franchises in any sport during the 2000s with quarterback Peyton Manning, had a 2-14 record in 2011 because of his injuries. By contrast, a non-star quarterback on a winning team may be called a "game manager" if he avoids making mistakes that prevent his team's defense and rushing offenses from succeeding.
In the National Football League (NFL), quarterbacks are required to wear a uniform number between 1 and 19. In the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), quarterbacks are required to wear a uniform number between 1 and 49; in the NFHS, the quarterback can also wear a number between 80 and 89. In the Canadian Football League (CFL), the quarterback can wear any number from 1 to 49 and 70 to 100. Because of their numbering, quarterbacks are eligible receivers in the NCAA, NFHS, and CFL; in the NFL, quarterbacks are eligible receivers if they are not lined up directly under center.
The quarterback position dates to the late 1800s, when American Ivy League schools playing a form of rugby union imported from England began to put their own spin on the game. Walter Camp, a prominent athlete and rugby player at Yale University, pushed through a change in rules at a meeting in 1880 that established a line of scrimmage and allowed for the football to be snapped to a quarterback. The change was meant to allow for teams to strategize their play more thoroughly and retain possession more easily than was possible in the chaos of a scrum in rugby. In Camp's formulation, the "quarter-back" was the person who received a ball snapped back with another player's foot. Originally he was not allowed to run forward of the line of scrimmage:
A scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball puts it on the ground before him and puts it in play while on-side either by kicking the ball or by snapping it back with his foot. The man who first receives the ball from the snap-back shall be called the quarter-back and shall not rush forward with the ball under penalty of foul.
The exchange between the person snapping the ball (typically the center) and the quarterback was initially an awkward one because it involved a kick. At first, centers gave the ball a small boot, and then picked it up and handed it to the quarterback. By 1889, Yale center Bert Hanson was bouncing the ball on the ground to the quarterback between his legs. The following year, a rule change officially made snapping the ball using the hands between the legs legal. Several years later, Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago invented the lift-up snap: the center passed the ball off the ground and between his legs to a standing quarterback. A similar set of changes were later adopted in Canadian football as part of the Burnside rules, a set of rules proposed by John Meldrum "Thrift" Burnside, the captain of the University of Toronto's football team.
The change from a scrum to a line of scrimmage made it possible for teams to decide what plays they would run before the snap. At first, the captains of college teams were put in charge of play-calling, indicating with shouted codes which players would run with the ball and how the men on the line were supposed to block. Yale later used visual signals, including adjustments of the captain's knit hat, to call plays. Centers could also signal plays based on the alignment of the ball before the snap. In 1888, however, Princeton University began to have its quarterback call plays using number signals. That system caught on, and quarterbacks began to act as directors and organizers of offensive play.
Early on, quarterbacks were used in a variety of formations. Harvard's team put seven men on the line of scrimmage, with three halfbacks who alternated at quarterback and a lone fullback. Princeton put six men on the line and had one designated quarterback, while Yale used seven linemen, one quarterback and two halfbacks who lined up on either side of the fullback. This was the origin of the T-formation, an offensive set that remained in use for many decades afterward and gained popularity in professional football starting in the 1930s.
In 1906, the forward pass was legalized in American football; Canadian football did not adopt the forward pass until 1929. Despite the legalization of the forward pass, the most popular formations of the early 20th century focused mostly on the rushing game. The single-wing formation, a run-oriented offensive set, was invented by football coach Glenn "Pop" Warner around the year 1908. In the single-wing, the quarterback was positioned behind the line of scrimmage and was flanked by a tailback, fullback and wingback. He served largely as a blocking back; the tailback typically took the snap, either running forward with the ball or making a lateral pass to one of the other players in the backfield. The quarterback's job was usually to make blocks upfield to help the tailback or fullback gain yards. Passing plays were rare in the single-wing, an unbalanced power formation where four linemen lined up to one side of the center and two lined up to the other. The tailback was the focus of the offense, and was often a triple-threat man who would either pass, run or kick the ball.
Offensive play-calling continued to focus on rushing up through the 1920s, when professional leagues began to challenge the popularity of college football. In the early days of the professional National Football League (NFL), which was founded in 1920, games were largely low-scoring affairs. Two-thirds of all games in the 1920s were shutouts, and quarterbacks usually passed only out of desperation. In addition to a reluctance to risk turnovers by passing, various rules existed that limited the effectiveness of the forward pass: passers were required to drop back five yards behind the line of scrimmage before they could attempt a pass, and incomplete passes in the end zone resulted in a change of possession and a touchback Additionally, the rules requires the ball to be snapped from the location on the field where it was ruled dead; if a play ended with a player going out of bounds, the center had to snap the ball from the sideline, an awkward place to start a play.
Despite these constraints, player-coach Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, along with several other NFL figures of his era, was a consistent proponent of the forward pass. The Packers found success in the 1920s and 1930s using variations on the single-wing that emphasized the passing game. Packers quarterback Red Dunn and New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers quarterback Benny Friedman were the leading passers of their era, but passing remained a relative rarity among other teams; between 1920 and 1932, there were three times as many running plays as there were passing plays.
Early NFL quarterbacks typically were responsible for calling the team's offensive plays with signals before the snap. The use of the huddle to call plays originated with Stagg in 1896, but only began to be used regularly in college games in 1921. In the NFL, players were typically assigned numbers, as were the gaps between offensive linemen. One player, usually the quarterback, would call signals indicating which player was to run the ball and which gap he would run toward. Play-calling or any other kind of coaching from the sidelines was not permitted during this period, leaving the quarterback to devise the offensive strategy. Substitutions were limited, and quarterbacks often played on both offense and defense.
The period between 1933 and 1945 was marked by numerous changes for the quarterback position. The rule requiring a quarterback to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage to pass was abolished. Hash marks were added to the field that established a limited zone between which the ball was placed before snaps, making offensive formations more flexible. Additionally, incomplete passes in the end zone were no longer counted as turnovers and touchbacks.
The single-wing continued to be in wide use throughout this, and a number of forward-passing tailbacks became stars, including Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins. In 1939, University of Chicago head football coach Clark Shaughnessy made modifications to the T-formation, a formation that put the quarterback behind the center and had him receive the snap directly. Shaughnessy altered the formation by having the linemen be spaced further apart, and he began having players go in motion behind the line of scrimmage before the snap to confuse defenses. These changes were picked up by Chicago Bears coach George Halas, a close friend of Shaughnessy, and they quickly caught on in the professional ranks. Utilizing the T-formation and led by quarterback Sid Luckman, the Bears reached the NFL championship game in 1940 and beat the Redskins by a score of 73–0. The blowout led other teams across the league to adopt variations on the T-formation, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Rams and Detroit Lions. Baugh and the Redskins converted to the T-formation and continued to succeed.
Thanks in part to the emergence of the T-formation and changes in the rulebooks to liberalize the passing game, passing from the quarterback position became more common in the 1940s. Over the course of the decade, passing yards began to exceed rushing yards for the first time in the history of football. The Cleveland Browns of the late 1940s in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), a professional league created to challenge the NFL, were one of the teams of that era that relied most on passing. Quarterback Otto Graham helped the Browns win four AAFC championships in the late 1940s in head coach Paul Brown's T-formation offense, which emphasized precision timing passes. Cleveland, along with several other AAFC teams, was absorbed by the NFL in 1950 after the dissolution of the AAFC that same year. By the end of the 1940s, all NFL teams aside from the Pittsburgh Steelers used the T-formation as their primary offensive formation.
As late as the 1960s, running plays occurred more frequently than passes. NFL quarterback Milt Plum later stated that during his career (1957-1969) passes typically only occurred on third downs and sometimes on first downs. Quarterbacks only increased in importance as rules changed to favor passing and higher scoring and as football gained popularity on television after the 1958 NFL Championship Game, often referred to as "The Greatest Game Ever Played". Early modern offenses evolved around the quarterback as a passing threat, boosted by rules changes in 1978 and 1979 that made it a penalty for defensive backs to interfere with receivers downfield and allowed offensive linemen to pass-block using their arms and open hands; the rules had limited them to blocking with their hands held to their chests. Average passing yards per game rose from 283.3 in 1977 to 408.7 in 1979.
The NFL has continued to be a pass-heavy league to the present day, in part due to further rule changes that prescribed harsher penalties for hitting the quarterback and for hitting defenseless receivers as they awaited passes. Passing in wide-open offenses has also been an emphasis at the high school and college levels, and professional coaches have devised schemes to fit the talents of new generations of quarterbacks.
While quarterbacks and team captains usually called plays in football's early years, today coaches often decide which plays the offense will run. Some teams use an offensive coordinator, an assistant coach whose duties include offensive game-planning and often play-calling. In the NFL, coaches are allowed to communicate with quarterbacks and call plays using audio equipment built into the player's helmet. Quarterbacks are allowed to hear, but not talk to, their coaches until there are fifteen seconds left on the play clock. Once the quarterback receives the call, he may relay it to other players via signals or in a huddle.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry was an early advocate of taking play calling out of the quarterback's hands. Although this remained a common practice in the NFL through the 1970s, fewer QBs were doing it by the 1980s and even Hall-of-Famers like Joe Montana did not call their own plays. Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly was one of the last to regularly call plays. Among current NFL QBs, Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos has been known to call all, or nearly all, of his team's plays using a no-huddle offense—although late in his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, his center Jeff Saturday had equal say in making adjustments and calling audibles. Similarly, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco retains a high degree of control over the offense, particularly when running a no-huddle scheme.
Trends and other roles
In addition to their main role, quarterbacks are occasionally used in other roles. Some teams utilize a backup quarterback as their holder on placekicks. A benefit of using quarterbacks as holders is that it would be easier to pull off a fake field goal attempt, but many coaches prefer to use punters as holders because a punter will have far more time in practice sessions to work with the kicker than any quarterback would. In the Wildcat, a formation where a halfback lines up behind the center and the quarterback lines up out wide, the quarterback can be used as a receiving target or a blocker. A more rare use for a quarterback is to punt the ball himself, a play known as a quick kick. Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway was known to perform quick kicks occasionally, typically when the Broncos were facing a third-and-long situation. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, an All-America punter in college, was also known to punt the ball occasionally, and was assigned as the team's default punter for certain situations, such as when the team was backed up inside their own five-yard line.
As Roger Staubach's back-up, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White was also the team's punter, opening strategic possibilities for coach Tom Landry. Ascending the starting role upon Staubach's retirement, White held his position as the team's punter for several seasons—a double duty he performed to All-American standard at Arizona State University. White also had two touchdown receptions as a Dallas Cowboy, both from the halfback option.
If quarterbacks are uncomfortable with the formation the defense is using, they may call an audible change to their play. For example, if a quarterback receives the call to execute a running play, but he notices that the defense is ready to blitz—that is, to send additional defensive backs across the line of scrimmage in an attempt to tackle the quarterback or hurt his ability to pass—the quarterback may want to change the play. To do this, the quarterback yells a special code, like "Blue 42," or "Texas 29," which tells the offense to switch to a specific play or formation, but it all depends on the quarterbacks' judgment of the defenses' alignment.
Also, quarterbacks can "spike" or throw the football at the ground to stop the official game clock. For example, if a team is down by a field goal with only seconds remaining, a quarterback may spike the ball to prevent the game clock from running out. This usually allows the field goal unit to come onto the field, or attempt a final "Hail Mary pass". However, if a team is winning, a quarterback can keep the clock running by kneeling after the snap. This is normally done when the opposing team has no timeouts and there is little time left in the game, as it allows a team to burn up the remaining time on the clock without risking a turnover or injury.
A dual-threat quarterback possesses the skills and physique to run with the ball if necessary. With the rise of several blitz heavy defensive schemes and increasingly faster defensive players, the importance of a mobile quarterback has been redefined. While arm power, accuracy, and pocket presence – the ability to successfully operate from within the "pocket" formed by his blockers – are still the most important quarterback virtues, the ability to elude or run past defenders creates an additional threat that allows greater flexibility in the team's passing and running game.
Dual-threat quarterbacks have historically been more prolific at the college level. Typically, a quarterback with exceptional quickness is used in an option offense, which allows the quarterback to either hand the ball off, run it himself, or pitch it to the running back following him at a distance of three yards outside and one yard behind. This type of offense forces defenders to commit to either the running back up the middle, the quarterback around the end, or the running back trailing the quarterback. It is then that the quarterback has the "option" to identify which match up is most favorable to the offense as the play unfolds and exploit that defensive weakness. In the college game, many schools employ several plays that are designed for the quarterback to run with the ball. This is much less common in professional football, except for a quarterback sneak, but there is still an emphasis on being mobile enough to escape a heavy pass rush. Historically, dual threat quarterbacks were rare, with Michael Vick being considered a rarity in the early 2000s. In recent years, quarterbacks with dual-threat capabilities have become more popular. Examples of dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL include Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
Two quarterback system
Some teams employ a strategy which involves the use of more than one quarterback during the course of a game. This is more common at lower levels of football, such as high school or small college, but rare in major college or professional football.
There are three circumstances in which a two-quarterback system may be used.
The first is a circumstance in which a team is in the process of determining which quarterback will eventually be the starter, and may choose to use each quarterback for part of the game in order to compare the performances.
The second, still occasionally seen in major-college football, is the use of different quarterbacks in different game or down/distance situations. Generally this involves a running quarterback and a passing quarterback in an option or wishbone offense. This strategy had all but disappeared from professional football, but returned to some extent with the advent of the "wildcat" offense. There is a great debate within football circles as to the effectiveness of the so-called "two quarterback system" Many coaches and media personnel remain skeptical of the model. Such teams like USC (Southern California), OSU (Oklahoma State) and smaller West Georgia have utilized the two quarterback system. West Georgia especially due the skill sets that their quarterbacks express. Teams like these use this situation because of the advantages it gives them against defenses of the other team, so that the defense is unable to adjust to their game plan.
The third is a starter/reliever system, in which the starting quarterback may be replaced later in the game if ineffective. This is distinct from a situation in which a starter is benched in favor of the back-up because the switch is part of the game plan, and the expectation is that the two players will assume the same roles game-after-game. This strategy is rare, and was last seen in the NFL in the "WoodStrock" combination of Don Strock and David Woodley, which took the Miami Dolphins to the Epic in Miami and Super Bowl XVII the following year.
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- Canadian Football League quarterbacks
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|Positions in American football and Canadian football|
|Linemen||Guard, Tackle, Center||Linemen||Tackle, End, Nose tackle||Kicking players||Placekicker, Punter, Kickoff specialist|
|Quarterback||Linebackers||Snapping||Long snapper, Holder|
|Backs||Halfback (Tailback), Fullback, H-back||Backs||Cornerback, Safety, Halfback||Returning||Punt returner, Kick returner|
|Receivers||Wide receiver, Tight end, Slotback||Nickelback, Dimeback||Tackling||Gunner, Upback|
|Formations (List) — Nomenclature|