RENTON — Michael Robinson made the jump to pro football seven years too early.
A dual-threat quarterback at Penn State, Robinson converted to fullback while earning an NFL job with San Francisco after being drafted in the fourth round in 2006.
But now he’s taking handoffs from a play-making quarterback who also has running ability in Seattle Seahawks teammate Russell Wilson.
And his team faces another electric running quarterback in Colin Kaepernick when NFC West rival San Francisco travels to CenturyLink Field on Sunday.
“It’s evolution,” Robinson said. “I just think in eight to 10 years, everybody is going to look like Russell Wilson, RG3 (Robert Griffin III) and Andrew Luck. I think the league was afraid of it, to be honest with you. I think the league was afraid of paying a guy so much to take the hits a running back takes.”
Only the quarterback doesn’t have to get smashed. Because of the new safety rules implemented by the league to try to curb head injuries and protect defenseless players like the quarterbacks, smart runners can avoid the big hits that made offensive coordinators cringe in the past.
That fact, along with the proliferation of spread-option attacks in college, are two reasons the NFL has seen an uptick in quarterbacks who can make big plays with their feet as well as their arms.
“There’s a lot of things now that protect the quarterback,” Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “You can’t go after him when he’s in the pocket, even if he’s faking an option. It’s not like you can go up there and hit him, even though he’s giving the ball.”
Robinson provided a more blunt assessment of the NFL’s new safety rules.
“We’re about to start playing touch football, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m serious. Y’all think I’m joking. It’s coming.”
The option puts defenses at a disadvantage. Stack the box to stop a bruising runner like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch or Washington’s Alfred Morris, and the quarterback pulls the ball out and takes off untouched down the sideline.
Spread out to protect the perimeter, and the big back gashes you inside.
“It just becomes a numbers game,” San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Your typical run, the quarterback hands off and it’s now their 10 against your 11. Now, when he’s a potential runner, it’s their 11 against your 11 and they’re not even blocking one of the guys at the point of attack, so it actually becomes 11 against 10 if they do it right. So, the numbers are flipped.”
The change in approach offensively has been effective for the Seahawks.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Seattle’s offense has used the zone-read option on 26 running plays the past three games, while using it only five times through the first 11 games of the season.
In the past three games, Wilson has averaged 8.1 yards per carry when keeping the ball, and Lynch has averaged 13.0 yards per rush when taking the handoff.
Wilson has rushed 402 yards this season, with 274 of those yards coming in the past six games, including 92 yards and three rushing touchdowns last Sunday against Buffalo.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said one of the reasons he trusts Wilson running the ball is that Wilson makes prudent decisions, choosing to slide or run out of bounds instead of taking big hits.
“It’s becoming a big part of our offense,” said Carroll, with his team consistently running the option for about six weeks.
“I love when he runs it out of bounds, makes 6 or 7 yards, and then gets out and gets down on the ground when he has to. We don’t really have to encourage him much – he gets it.”
Wilson’s running ability also has been an asset on passing downs when he extends the play with his feet. Wilson has gained 156 of his rushing yards on scrambles.
“Obviously I can throw it and all of that,” Wilson said. “But to be able to extend the play, and be able to get 10 yards out of it, or 15, or even more sometimes, that’s a great asset to have for our offense. And it makes it tough on the defense.”
Kaepernick has brought a similar dimension to San Francisco’s offense, rushing for 379 yards this season and five touchdowns – including a 50-yard run at St. Louis that got the attention of Bradley.
“He has big-play capabilities,” Bradley said about Kaepernick. “Not only on the option stuff, but just extending a play on a pass. He’ll look to throw it. But if he has a chance to run it, he’ll do that, too.”
Bradley said it might take another year or two for defenses to catch up.
“Coaches are really going to have to plan for it now, and work on it during the offseason because they are seeing so much of it,” he said.
QBs on the run
A look at the top rushing quarterbacks in the NFL through 14 games this season:
Name Att., Yds, Avg., TD
Robert Griffin III, Redskins 112, 748, 6.7, 6
Cam Newton, Panthers 108, 647, 6.0, 7
Russell Wilson, Seahawks 78, 402, 5.2, 3
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers 533, 79, 7.2, 5
Michael Vick, Eagles 57, 307, 5.4, 1
Jake Locker, Titans 32, 256, 8.0, 1
Aaron Rodgers, Packers 50, 248, 5.0, 1
Andrew Luck, Colts 51, 233, 5.0, 5