For a long time, the play-action pass has been a devastating tool to use against defenses. At the simplest level, its basis for success is that it forces defenses into a two-reaction mode. The threat of the run, the very action of a perceived handoff, causes defenders, particularly in the secondary, to look into the backfield and react to the possibility of a run. When the handoff isn't made, those precious moments of indecisiveness create holes in the secondary. Defenders react first to the run, have to recalibrate on the fly and become exposed. Teams like Houston, with a great running game, feast on this. Matt Schaub's numbers on play-action are otherworldly, and not merely on deep balls.
But the play-action's effectiveness can also be mitigated. Defenders don't simply look to the quarterback to react to a play. For instance, they can steal precious split-seconds and key on the guards, who will tip off whether the play is truly a run by how they set up to block. This is a constant in the NFL. While fans focus on the quarterback to decipher where a play is going, defenses may already have adjusted pre-snap, and almost instantaneously post-snap, because they react to other signs.
On some huge plays for the Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow at quarterback, receivers have gotten extremely wide open. The tape shows why. Defenses find themselves in the almost impossible situation of entering a three-reaction mode. They can't just react to the fake handoff, and they can't just second react to the threat of the pass. They have to react a third time to threat of the run by the quarterback.
It's been similar for Cam Newton, who often runs for his touchdowns after first down. Last week, he ran for a score on second down three times. The multiple scenarios of pass, run or QB run plus the down make it impossible to react well. When you factor in the physical advantage of a run by a quarterback who is 240-plus pounds, implying you'd need more than just a "spy" -- or one man -- to key on the threat of a QB run, you create too many variables to defend well.
The question is this: Is it sustainable? Is the Newton or Tebow model of a quarterback who is always a run threat really something an offense can maintain at the NFL level? This isn't to say those two are the same, because we know Newton is far ahead as a passer, but the threat is what is important. The threat is what the defense must react to.
So can it stay this way? Is this the new trend for NFL quarterbacks?