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The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking & Seven Other Essays on the Position

The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking by Eric Marty 175

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking

& Seven Other Essays on the Position

By Eric Marty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 Eric Marty

All Rights Reserved.

 

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 3

Foreword 4

Chapter 1 6

Chapter 2 58

Chapter 3 85

Chapter 4 103

Chapter 5 134

Chapter 6 155

Chapter 7 160

Chapter 8 167

About The Author 175

 

 

Foreword

This book is a collection of essays the first of which seeks to identify and explain the critical components that make up elite quarterback play at the NFL level (Chapter 1). A central theme of the book is that the skills needed to play quarterback at an elite level are largely nonphysical and intangible, rather than physical. But when searching for prospects, NFL teams put a disproportionate emphasis on prospects’ physical skill sets. As a result, the overall quality of NFL suffers and true franchise quarterbacks are at an absolute premium.

The book is written in the vein of scholarly criticism on the quarterback position and is intended for critical and educational purposes. All sources are cited, and stats came from NFL.com unless otherwise noted. I do not own any of the images (though I did put together the graphs, charts, and drawings). I invested much time and energy into this book and tried to support my opinions with as strong of 3rd party evidence as possible.

Understand the majority the content was written shortly after the 2013 NFL season where Seattle’s talented defense toppled Denver’s Manning led offensive juggernaut in the Super Bowl. Then 37-year-old Peyton Manning, in his second season after returning from a neck surgery inspired hiatus, proceeded to throw an NFL record 55 touchdown passes and post an incredible 115.1 quarterback rating. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers were also at the top of their games. Russell Wilson was coming off of two years of sustained success (and just won a Lombardi Trophy) and was beginning force people to consider the idea that he was an elite NFL quarterback. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were just beginning their regressions after stellar opening salvos in their first few seasons as NFL starters. The first tier of franchise quarterbacks was without question the quartet of Brady, Brees, Manning, and Rodgers. Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, and Eli Manning were the next best thing. Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore were going to be NFL sophomores, Mark Sanchez had just been cut by the Jets, and Johnny Manziel had just announced he was ready for the NFL and leaving College Station early. Save for a few edits; the content remains unchanged. Any major changes or additions are prefaced by “2016 UPDATE.”

Finally as my own editor, I apologize in advance for any uncaught mistakes and/or typos the reader must endure.

Chapter 1

The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking

 

The game is changing…But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket.” – Joe Montana

(Bell, J. (2014, January 16). Bell: Joe Montana has some advice for 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. USA Today.)

 

Ask a NFL general manager, coach, scout or fan to build the perfect quarterback and it would sound something like, “I want the arm of Jay Cutler, the speed of Robert Griffin III, the scrambling ability of Russell Wilson, the quick release of Aaron Rodgers, the size of Ben Roethlisberger, the pocket presence of Drew Brees, and accuracy of Peyton Manning.” When trying to build an elite quarterback, those are the physical attributes that come to mind. The talk is about arm strength, size, athleticism and scrambling ability because those elements catch the eye. Now even hand size seems to affect whether or not a quarterback is fit for the NFL. But what if I told you elite quarterbacking does not really involve any of that?

What if elite quarterback play in its purest form, at its highest level is simple and benign. That it has little to do with deep outs rifled through rapidly closing windows or Houdini-like escapes from the pocket and much more to do with the checking of a play or the checking down of a football. That elite quarterbacking entails analyzing a defense for vulnerabilities, working concisely through a progression to locate an open receiver, then successfully delivering the ball. When executed correctly the process typically culminates in a relatively unspectacular throw to a loosely covered receiver. Even completions to vertical routes (seams, go’s, corners) can look almost unspectacular because elite quarterbacks are throwing at open receivers working against single coverage. In the instances that the defense is able to cover up the quarterback’s primary receivers elite quarterbacks do not hold the ball, they unhesitatingly check the ball down to their running back a few yards away. That is it. When you see a quarterback finding and throwing on time to open, single covered receivers or checking the ball down in rhythm to uncovered backs you are watching elite quarterback play. It often looks simple, maybe even easy, but most assuredly it is not.

It is so easy to get fixated on the quarterbacks that can make highlight reel plays with their arm and legs and reach the subsequent conclusion that those are the special players. That the ones with the ability to be great are the quarterbacks that can throw a ball 70 yards in the air, or pull the ball on the zone read and run 50 yards for a score. Think about the best play you have ever seen a quarterback make. Was it Donovan McNabb’s 14-second scramble and subsequent bomb against the Cowboys in 2004 on Monday Night Football Steve Young’s stumbling 49-yard game-winning touchdown run against the Vikings in 1988? What about Aaron Rodgers 2013 week 17 miracle, evading the blitz then firing a laser to Randall Cobb on 4th and 8 with 46 seconds left for a 48-yard game winning touchdown that ended the division rival Chicago Bears’ season and put the Packers in the playoffs? But for every singular SportsCenter highlight, a quarterback still must continue to make good decisions and execute for the majority of the other 60-70 snaps. Manning did not lead his offense to an NFL record scoring output of 37.9 points a game (Denver’s average in 2013) by making a few spectacular plays. He did it by executing play in and play out over the course of 60-70 snaps a game to be elite. If a team has a quarterback that makes the right play consistently he is a much better player than the special talent who can on occasion make an incredible play, but inconsistently makes the right play.

Just how easy is it to get enamored by talent and playmaking ability? In 2004, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank and his front office made Michael Vick the highest paid quarterback in the NFL (higher than Peyton Manning). Blank was quoted saying, “Michael is arguably the NFL’s most exciting football player” (Winkeljohn, M. (2004, December 24). $130 Million Contract Makes Vick Highest-paid NFL Player. Atlanta Journal-Constitution.). Disregarding Vick’s ensuing off the field issues, he was an inconsistent player who later admitted that during his time in Atlanta, he did not work out or watch much film (Tamari, J. (2010, September 29). For Vick, small adjustments yield big results. The Inquirer.). Vick’s best year in Atlanta was an unimpressive 81.6 Quarterback rating, and incredibly that was the only season of his six in Atlanta over 80. As a benchmark, in 2013 Minnesota’s starting quarterback Matt Cassel’s also posted an 81.6 Quarterback rating. In response Minnesota drafted a quarterback in the first round of the next draft.

However, Vick’s on the field ability to turn a handful of plays each game into Sportscenter-worthy highlights fooled fans, critics, coaches, management, and his owner into a disastrous conclusion; that early 2000’s era Mike Vick was an above average NFL quarterback. Though in truth and the clarity of hindsight, he absolutely was not. Blank (like many others) mistook style for substance, and naively thought those flashes of brilliance somehow equaled consistent execution. When the reality of Vick’s game was that the flashes covered up the inconsistent play of an incompetent NFL quarterback.

Elite quarterbacking demands consistency; getting to the right play, against the right defense, and executing post snap again and again and again. Elite quarterbacking is personified every time Brees speeds through vertical progression only to check the football down for a positive play, Manning sniffs out a blitz and checks to a receiver screen, or Brady flips the direction of a run play to give it a better chance of success. Those are a few real world examples of what elite quarterbacks do. Here are the five elements that when executed consistently at a high level encompass the pinnacle of modern quarterback play:

The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to have total command of the offense while gathering and processing large amounts of information and using that information to make accurate snap decisions in the 25-40 seconds before the snap of the football.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to see accurately, completely, and without distraction from the pocket.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to get the football into the hands of other skill players by working through pass progressions quickly, decisively, and correctly.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to consistently deliver the ball to open receivers with functional accuracy.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to protect the football and minimize turnovers.

 

Over the last five years, four players in the world exemplified the NFL’s elite class of quarterbacks because their ability to execute those five elements snap in and snap out. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning (yes, it was clear that finally, during the 2015 season his physical skills had finally deteriorated to a point where he was no longer elite, but for this book, pre-2015 Manning will be the subject), and Aaron Rodgers. Others float in and out of the conversation in a given year like Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, and Eli Manning. Russell Wilson has been in the conversation now for a few years. Cam Newton’s growth as a passer, and MVP season also suddenly thrust him into the elite level conversation. But based on level and longevity, it is the foursome of Brady, Brees, (pre-2015) Manning, and Rodgers that have undoubtedly composed the cream of the NFL quarterback crop for the last five plus years. Their ages, sizes, physical tools, and styles vary drastically, but those four players are the best because of their ability to execute the five elements at a higher level and with more consistency than their peers.

 

Breaking Down the Five Elements

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to have total command of the offense while gathering and processing large amounts of information and using that information to make accurate snap decisions in the 25-40 seconds before the snap of the football.

 

At the conclusion of a play, the play clock is reset to forty seconds. NFL quarterbacks bound by that constraint as they attempt to orchestrate innumerable events, make a series of snap decisions, formulate a plan, and get the ball snapped before the giant glowing clock at the end of the field hits zero. The first thing a quarterback must do is receive the new offensive play call and communicate it (with a huddle or without one). This includes the required personnel grouping, formation, and any motions or shifts that will take place. Then he must monitor that the correct personnel gets on the field and that his skill players are lined up in accordance with league rules and the called formation. It is not just enough to communicate the call; a quarterback must sense if there is even the slightest bit confusion amongst his players. When a housewife with obsessive-compulsive disorder walks into a room, with one look she knows if anything is out of place and acts swiftly to rectify the situation. A quarterback must have the same ownership and awareness of his side. If a play call comes in wrong, if a player is lined up incorrectly, or if he senses confusion in any one of his teammates, a quarterback must be able to recognize the problem and remedy it instantly – before his 40 seconds runs out.

The Pre snap Process – Owning the System

To efficiently execute the first part of the pre snap process, a quarterback must be the master of his offensive system. He cannot be confused at all by the call himself. In order to operate with maximum effectiveness, a quarterback must possess complete comprehension of each new play call. This is a challenge because NFL play calls are notoriously wordy and playbooks voluminous. They are like this for specific reasons, mainly because it allows coordinators to control every detail of a play from the base play to the formation, motions, shifts, specific routes, and any other subtle variations. The one player that needs to hear and understand everything is the quarterback. The other ten players just need to hear the language that pertains to them. It is almost as if the quarterback says a multilingual phrase and when he speaks your language, that is the only part that applies to you. It is imperative that a quarterback is fluent and understands the larger system so that they can take adjustments and new plays in stride. In the NFL new plays go in weekly and old plays are redressed. If a quarterback understands the overarching system and terminology, then variations become much easier to grasp. Most teams employ a vast encyclopedic offensive playbook. A minority like the Peyton Manning era Colts, run a much smaller number of formations, plays, and variations. When Manning’s former Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore was brought on as consultant during the Mark Sanchez-Brian Schottenheimer era in New York, he said that the first time he saw the Jets offensive playbook it made him feel like he and Manning had run a mom-and-pop operation with the Colts (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.).

The breadth and complexity of what an NFL quarterback must be ready for was infamously captured in a television interview with former NFL coach Jon Gruden and Heisman Trophy and national championship winning quarterback Cam Newton on “John Gruden’s QB Camp” (ESPN, 2011):

JG: You know, some of this verbiage in the NFL, I don’t know how it was at Auburn, but it’s – it’s long. You’ve got the shifts, the plays, the protections, the snap count, the alerts, the check with me’s. I mean, flip right, double-X, Jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter. What would be a little verbal? Any recollection on that?

CN: Um.

Newton eventually went on to say “36” could be an entire play call in the Auburn offense, and that “simple equals fast.” Newton could have offered a more eloquent response to Gruden’s question (you would assume that there was a longer play call than 36 in the Auburn playbook and that as the former starting quarterback there, you would hope Newton would be able to pull it from his memory) but that is not the point. The point is that with the way many NFL teams call plays and with the sheer volume of plays and terms, it can be very difficult for quarterbacks to completely grasp and comprehend the language and in turn fully recall and understand the concept of a play. As a result, the task of mastering an NFL playbook in a year, (or months or even weeks) for a rookie quarterback, free agent quarterback changing teams, or a veteran quarterback that must work with a new offensive coordinator can be daunting and difficult to accomplish. Because of the high degree of difficulty, a quarterback must work relentlessly to master a playbook and maintain that mastery. Gruden went on to give Newton this counsel:

The number one challenge you’re gonna have right away is the verbiage. And just getting comfortable with what we’re calling formations, what we’re calling routes. The alerts. The language. Speaking the language. You’re gonna move to France, and you’re gonna have to speak French, pretty quick. And that’ll be one of the big challenges.

The success and ever increasing popularity of no-huddle systems (particularly in Denver and New England) has resulted in some teams slimming down their terminology (Bedard, G. (2012, October 9). With 1 word, Patriots’ no-huddle an NFL marvel. The Boston Globe.). Short may sound simpler but not necessarily. Shorter play calls can make play memorization and recall easier or more difficult depending on one’s perspective. The downside to shorter play calls is that it requires players to memorize more instead of essentially giving each position a specific instruction. The same play for the Patriots might be called, “Carolina Right” while the Packers call it, “East Right Flop, V-Right, Y-Left, Fake 396 Bag, V-Hinge, Z-Puck” (Nagler, A. (2012, April 12). NFL Play-Calling Nomenclature Needs to Be Reined In. bleacherreport.com.). The Patriots ask each one of their players to arbitrarily memorize their assignment on that play including motions and shifts while the Packers play call (which would need to be communicated via a huddle) spells out each individual assignment and each motion and shift. One trend in no huddle offenses is assistant coaches signaling directly position groups. Chip Kelly’s teams do this along with numerous college teams (Kapadia, S. (2013, March 15) How the Eagles Are Calling Plays Under Chip Kelly. phillymag.com.). While the quarterback gets the whole play relayed into their headset, individual assistant coaches signal to specific position groups. One assistant coach signals the run or protection scheme to the offensive line, another assistant coach signals formation, alignment, and routes or blocking assignments, and so on.

Regardless of how the play is called or communicated at the end of the day name is just a name (“Pro Right Old Brown Shoe”) and the quarterback must be able to memorize and master each play. This includes the schematic details, possible adjustments (alerts), and what defensive looks make the play good and bad. This mental burden can be extremely taxing on young quarterbacks, veteran quarterbacks in a new system, and/or quarterbacks who have a limited mental capacity. Additionally, some guys will not prepare as manically as they should. And then there are other factors like job insecurity, fatigue, pressure, crowd noise, J.J. Watt lined up just yards away, and other stress inducing variables making a quarterback’s job that much more difficult whether in practice or games.

Mark Sanchez elaborated on the cause of some of his struggles in 2009 and clearly not completely mastering or comprehending the Jets’ system was an issue:

There were times last year when I didn’t know exactly what [Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] wanted. Or [Schottenheimer] had no idea exactly what I was going to do. And that’s not good (Bishop, G. (2010, August 26). Sanchez and Schottenheimer Form a Crucial Jets Bond. New York Times.).

When a play is called the quarterback must immediately have total recall of the play, comprehension of the play design and how it attacks a defense, and understand what the play is good and not good against. If not the results will be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.

Diagnosing a Defense

Once a quarterback has communicated the call and has his unit lined up, he can fully turn his attention to the defense. Based on the system (huddle or no huddle), how quickly and efficiently the coaches got the new call in, and how efficient and effective the quarterback and offense are at communicating personnel, formation, and play there could be significant time remaining on the play clock or just seconds to examine the defense and snap the ball before the play clock expires.

When a quarterback first looks across the line of scrimmage at the opposing defense it is imperative that he understands what the current situation is and the personnel and formation his offense is in. If he has prepared properly for the opponent, each situation and offensive formation should provide a starting point of expectation for the defense:

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p<>{color:#000;}. Against this formation, we expect them to align like this (4-4 under front with a 1-high shell, 3-4 front 2-high shell, bear front with a 1-high shell) and play this (cover-3, cover-2 man, cover-4) coverage.

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p<>{color:#000;}. In this situation (1st and 10, 3rd down, red zone, goal line) we expect them to do this (blitz, play man, play soft zone, only rush three defenders)

For example, if a quarterback is playing the Pete Carroll’s Seattle defense in most situations, against most offensive formations they should expect the Seahawks to align in an even front with an eight-man box and a 1-high shell. Conversely Lovie Smith’s defenses were known for their even front, with a seven-man box, and 2-high safeties. Against a Rex Ryan defense, you can bet on 3rd and 6+ you are going to get an unconventional front with multiple defenders standing up at or near the line of scrimmage and an overload blitz coming off one side. By using expectation as a starting point, quarterbacks can mentally prepare for the most likely defenses, confirm expected looks, and be quick to recognize and react to variances.

As a starting point, a quarterback can evaluate pre snap whether or not the defense appears to be matching expectations or aligning abnormally (determined by scouting reports, game plans, and film study). Ideally he also should be aware of the opponent’s personnel grouping (and whether or not that presents any advantages or disadvantages)(it should be noted in the NFL coaches can communicate and give their quarterback the defensive personnel via the helmet radio making it easier for a quarterback to be aware of personnel and mismatches than at the high school and college levels where he would have to see that information himself), the alignment of the defensive front, the location of the linebackers, the technique of the cornerbacks, and the depth and location of the safeties. All that information needs to be processed to see whether it matches or deviates from expectation. Upon observation, a quarterback might say, “Over front with a two-safety shell, just like we expected” or, “Oh $!&% they are in a bear front.” One reason expectation is a great starting place for a quarterback is so he will be in unison with the play caller.

A simple example of this would be if an offensive coordinator called ‘power’ (a run play) against a team that usually plays an even front with 2-high safeties on first down. But instead, the defense breaks tendency and come out in a bear front which is very difficult to run power against it. Suddenly the offense is in a bad play call.

Power vs. Bear. No one can get to weak side inside linebacker.

An aware quarterback understands that the defense has deviated from expectation, understands that running the called play, or running the ball against a bear front in general, will be difficult and consequently checks the play to something else, for example, a quick slant concept.

Now the offense has a much better chance of success. An aware quarterback does more than just observe a deviance, he asks why and then applies the new information to what his offense is trying to do. “Why did they jump into bear on first down? Probably because they have been getting gashed by first down runs. OK, I need to audible and get us to a play that will have a better chance of success against.”

Against NFL defenses that try to disguise or play several different coverages out of the same initial alignment, comparing a defense with your expectation can be even more imperative. Brady described his pre snap observation like this:

I kind of look at everything. You look at how deep the safeties are, where the corners are playing, the leverage of the corners. Obviously how they’re defending the slot receiver, where the linebackers are, how they balance up the front of the formation. Do we have any advantageous looks to run the ball? It’s hard to say, at this point it’s like trying to say, ‘when you’re driving down the street, what are you looking at?’ I’m looking at my front, I’m looking in the side mirrors, I’m looking at the radio, in my rearview (Kelley, D. (2013, September 13). The advantages and disadvantages of the no-huddle, hurry-up offense in the NFL. sbnation.com.).

Brady’s description of his pre snap process in centralized around the idea that he can use the alignment and technique of individual defenders as clues in solving the larger puzzle of what defense his opponent is actually in. Motions, shifts, and snap counts can also be used as tools to garner additional information. Manning loves to use motion late in the snap count to determine what a defense is really in, especially if he is getting a well-disguised or ambiguous look. In the 2013 AFC championship game, New England’s defense consistently lined up as if they were playing cover-2 man. They had a safety deep on each hash (a 2-high shell) and they aligned defenders with inside leverage just a few yards off the ball over each receiver as if in man coverage. Manning repeatedly motioned his H-back (sometimes across the formation, sometimes the H-back started across the formation then returned to his original alignment) to sniff out when the Patriots were and were not actually in man coverage.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

This is a great example of a quarterback in complete control of his offense with elite situational awareness. It should be noted that motion in the hands of an elite quarterback is a powerful tool. Motion in the hands of an unaware quarterback is a tree falling in the forest; maybe the defense moved, maybe the defense gave away their true intention in the way they adjusted to the motion, but the quarterback did not notice. In an interview on NFL Networks “The Top 100 Players of 2011,” all-pro cornerback Darrell Revis described the difference between Brady pre snap and other quarterbacks:

The guy is calling out the coverage we are doing, he’s calling out blitzes, and not to knock any other quarterbacks but – some of them don’t do that.

Revis confirms the theory that some quarterbacks are hyper-aware, and others lack awareness.

There are additional variables a quarterback needs to be aware of beyond just observing the structure of a defense pre snap. Most notably dominant defenders that must be specifically accounted for (double teamed, or ran away from) or matchup issues created by a great offensive player (who is lined up in coverage for the defense, and does he have safety help?). For example, if you are quarterbacking for the Lions and you see that there is no safety on the hash to Calvin Johnson’s side, you better be aware enough to get him on some sort of vertical route.

Once a quarterback has gathered his information, he must process it. One of the biggest reasons a quarterback needs be fluent in his offense is so that once he has analyzed the defense he can make effective snap judgments on whether or not the current offensive play is a good one. He must be so prepared that the second he hears the call, it paints a clear picture in his head of what everyone is doing, and he must have a thorough understanding of what the play is and isn’t good against. To use the above example again, if your quarterback does not understand that he needs to check out of the power against a bear front, or that a basic mirrored curl-flat combination is not good against cover-2, your offense is going to struggle.

If a quarterback does not possess that type of mastery, often a play is in trouble before the ball is even snapped.

Stay or Kill

What a quarterback is asked to do pre snap varies greatly by system in terms of both regurgitating a play call (huddle, no-huddle, and verbiage) and responsibility at the line of scrimmage. Most veteran quarterbacks are asked to identify the middle linebacker to set the protection scheme or let linemen know whom they need to account for in the running game. Centers will often perform those duties for inexperienced quarterbacks. The traditional method of NFL play-calling from the huddle involves a ‘stay’ or ‘kill’ system. The stay/kill system is a simple fail safe designed to allow offenses that huddle a chance to audible at the line of scrimmage within the confines of their system (without having to learn additional code words). Two plays are called in the huddle. It could be two runs, two passes, or one of each. At the line of scrimmage after assessing the defense, the quarterback must decide to run the first play or get to the second. He keeps the first call on versus a favorable look by yelling, “stay, stay!” Alternatively, versus an unfavorable look, he changes the second play by yelling “kill, kill!” In the book, Collision Low Crossers (2013), author Nicholas Dawidoff captured this exchange between Jets’ Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterback Mark Sanchez the evening before the game:

At the hotel Friday night, [Schottenheimer] instructed Sanchez, “Early in the game I don’t want you standing up there taking a lot of time with kills. So whatever it is, go with your gut and we’ll make it happen, and if something isn’t right, we’ll live with it.”

Sanchez was given two options by his coach. Other quarterbacks (notably Manning) have more options (though earlier in his career it was reported that Manning was typically given three plays to choose from at the line of scrimmage in the Colts no huddle system). In the latter half of his Colts career and now in Denver, presumably, the entire playbook is open to Manning at any given time. And the system is designed to allow him that power. But regardless of the system, it is less about how a play gets called and more about how good a quarterback is at getting his offense into the right play based on his pre snap assessment.

One huge benefit of using a no-huddle system with elite quarterbacks like Brady and Manning is that it allows them more time to work at the line of scrimmage. They have more time to assess, more time to decide, and more time to act if they want to change a play. There are additional advantages too, by going quickly, defenses must line up faster, substitute less, and potentially disguise less. Once an offense has shown the ability to snap the ball quickly, they can begin to vary their tempo. Manning and the Broncos would line up quickly but then call a false snap count in an attempt to get the defense to show their true intentions or risk being caught out of position in a disguise. New England Head Coach Bill Belichick elaborated on the issue caused by offenses using different tempos:

Because what they do with the cadence, they make it hard for you to do that. Sometimes they run up and snap the ball real quickly, so it forces you to get lined up. Other times they go up there and they delay and check the play and get into a formation that kind of makes you declare so they can see what you’re in and then get to the play they want to get to and go at a very slow pace. It’s hard to over-disguise because if they go quick then you could be way out of position. [Peyton] does a real good job of that, of changing the tempo to kind of force the defense to show what they’re in so he can get to it (patriots.com. (2013, November 22). Bill Belichick Press Conference Transcript. patriots.com.).

It does not matter whether you are going quickly in the no huddle like Manning and the Broncos or huddling every play like Brees and the Saints. What matters is a quarterback’s awareness, and that his awareness allows him to adequately prepare and plan for the post snap possibilities. If a quarterback has (even partial) recognition of what the defense is doing, he can make more effective decisions pre snap and more accurately anticipate what will happen post snap and how the offensive play will play out against that certain defensive look. Great quarterbacks are usually able to comprehend a defense’s true intention. If they do not fully understand that intention, they, at least, have enough of an idea to narrow the possibilities. When a quarterback has recognition and subsequent comprehension the game becomes much simpler because he can now anticipate what will happen post snap.

Applying Filters

On a pass play, a quarterback has as many as five targets to choose from. Realistically there has never been a quarterback in history that could get through a five receiver progression on a regular basis. There also probably has never been an offensive line capable of protecting long enough for that to happen repeatedly. Great quarterbacks use their awareness and recognition as a filter, so they do not have to look at five different receivers. This is extremely important, so I will repeat it. Great quarterbacks do not read or try and look at all five receivers, they apply a coverage filter to the play and based on the coverage, look for two or three specific routes:

In the old days, a passer like Johnny Unitas would visualize the field in a holistic—even analog—way, scanning the field for an open receiver, not unlike the way you might see a play in a Thanksgiving Day pickup game. With bigger, faster players executing more complex defenses, giving the quarterback less time to throw and more opportunities to make a mistake, a modern quarterback like Manning takes a different, digital, approach, breaking down a pass play into smaller, binary segments (Ramirez, A., & John, A. S. (2013, November 22). The Science of Peyton Manning. Popular Mechanics.).

On a given play Manning knows that against a 2-high coverage he is going to work a certain progression of receivers, against a 1-high coverage he is going to work another couple receivers, against man he is going to work another combination, and if he gets blitzed then he has another route or two that he plans to get to. In a given play one route or concept may be a part of a couple different answers. One of Manning’s favorite plays involves a ‘Levels’ concept with a Curl-Seam concept on the opposite side. Simply put he has a 1-high beater and a 2-high beater.

Levels combined with Curl-Seam and the four filters:

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p<>{color:#000;}. 2-high shell: Levels, working the Dig to the In off of the alley defender.

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p<>{color:#000;}. 1-high shell: Curl-Seam, Peaking the vertical route to the curl to the flat.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Blitz: Throw the In right now.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Can work either side, knowing that his progression will probably take him to the Curl or In.

Great quarterbacks make plays that simple for themselves. They are not going to read the whole field and scan for all five receivers. It is too much to see and would take too long. Instead, their thought process is simply if you do this, I am looking here to here. If you do that, I am looking here to here.

How Much Does a Quarterback See?

A great litmus test for a quarterback is the blitz. Can he recognize it and is he capable of taking the necessary steps to beat it? Or is a quarterback unaware that he is even getting blitzed until it is too late and he is laying on the ground. I had an epiphany watching a Seahawks preseason game several years ago. I was sitting in the 300 level watching then back up Charlie Whitehurst play. It was third and five, and before the snap, the safety started creeping down over the nickel defender covering the slot receiver. From my vantage point it was easy to spot, under center, it is always a harder. But none the less this was a pretty basic nickel blitz that every high school, college, and NFL player has seen. I saw the blitz develop and instinctively anticipated the ball being thrown quickly in response. But instead of recognizing the blitz pre snap and checking the play or beating it by getting the ball to the quickest throw, Whitehurst hung in the pocket squeezing the ball, waiting on a deeper sideline route that didn’t break open before the blitz got to him and he was sacked. As a result, the Seahawks were punting. That is when it hit me – the NFL quarterback I was watching didn’t even realize he was getting blitzed.

Understand when a defense blitzes they are taking a calculated gamble. They are hoping that by sending five or six rushers, they can get to the quarterback before he is able to get the ball out of his hand to a receiver. The longer a quarterback holds the ball, the greater the chances the blitz is successful. The greatest fear of a defensive coordinator is the ball coming out of the quarterback’s hand quickly. Because by rushing five or six the defense has significantly compromised their pass coverage. If they are playing man behind the blitz, then those defenders are working pretty much in isolation with limited or no support for their teammates. If they are playing zone coverage behind it, traditional seven-person zone coverages become five or six-person zone coverages which are riddled with holes and force the few defenders left in coverage to cover increased amounts of space. A blitz looks great when the quarterback holds the ball and the pocket collapses. A blitz looks ineffective and vulnerable when the quarterback recognizes it and gets the ball out against the compromised coverage.

Haves and Have Not’s

Recognizing defensive looks and reacting accordingly sounds simple, but so many quarterbacks do not have the ability and awareness to do it. Brady was named by his peers as the best player in the NFL in 2011 (and was third on the 2014 list) on the NFL Networks’ “The Top 100 Players of 2011” list. Future hall of fame linebacker Ray Lewis was interviewed about what makes Brady so great. Much of what he had to say focused on Brady’s pre snap recognition:

It’s a chess match. Because he understands every coverage, he understands every defense, and if you give it away too early, then the game is like checkers then for him.

That’s what makes it so frustrating playing him because he always finds a way of finding throws and mismatches one way or another.

In his book, Collision Low Crossers, Dawidoff recorded Brady’s now teammate, and former Jet defensive back Darrelle Revis talking about what that moment feels like when an elite quarterback reads your defense pre snap:

Along the sideline Revis was doing his Tom Brady imitation, scanning the defensive set and then changing the call based on what he’d deciphered. “It’s very frustrating when Tom Brady gives you the Look,” [Revis] explained. The Look meant, said [Revis], “Oh! Okay! I got it.” Then he imitated Peyton Manning peering out at the defense and noticing a weak man coverage defender like Lito Sheppard on the field “Peyton, he’s up there, sees Lito, says, ‘Okay!’”(Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.).

In a November 2013, press conference Bill Belichick elaborated on what Peyton Manning does pre snap and why it makes the Bronco’s offense so difficult to defend:

He sees the blitz, calls a [receiver] screen to Demaryius Thomas and he goes 75 yards for a touchdown. You can be in whatever you want to be in, but if they have a play to beat it, and it’s well executed, which it frequently is with Denver, you’re just playing right into their hands. They’ve been waiting all day to run the play against that situation. You tell them, ‘OK, here we are, we’re going to be in cover-2 zone, go ahead and run your best play,’ well they will (patriots.com. (2013, November 22). Bill Belichick Press Conference Transcript. patriots.com.).

Lewis, Belichick, and Revis all gives the same answer as to why elite quarterbacks are so tough to defend. Because they excel at recognizing what defense they are facing (even when defenses try to disguise it) and can get their offense into a great play for the situation. As a result, it leaves defenders and defensive coordinators feeling exposed, as if no matter what they try, the opposing quarterback saw it and is one step ahead.

Now contrast that with the language that Schottenheimer used when preparing Sanchez, “I don’t want you standing up there taking a lot of time with kills. So whatever it is, go with your gut and we’ll make it happen, and if something isn’t right, we’ll live with it.” Belichick is elaborating on how difficult it is to defend elite quarterbacks because they seem to always have their guys in a great play. In stark contrast, Schottenheimer is stuck with a quarterback who struggles that same area. Instead of encouraging him to get the offense in great play for a given defensive look, he just implores him to snap the ball and the offense will “live” with the results. That does not sound overly optimistic – or effective.

Why the Disguise?

Ultimately the reason defenses are trying to disguise and hide their actual defense is so that quarterbacks cannot plan for the actual defense they are getting. There are very few defenses in NFL history that can just brazenly line up showing their exact alignment and coverage and say call your best play – we’ll still win. Recently Seattle’s 2013 defense was that good. That roster was able to line up in their base defense and dominate the best offense in history to win a championship. But that was an anomaly.

Rarely are even good NFL defenses capable of that on a weekly basis (much less in the Super Bowl), so consequently they disguise and bluff and try to prevent offenses from getting to their best plays against that certain defense. In that same November press conference, Belichick was asked about disguising defenses against Manning. Here was the question and answer period that ensued:

Q: How much pre-snap disguising can you do with Peyton Manning?
BB: You better do a good job of it or it’s going to be a long day. You have to.
Q: Does it come to a point where you say, ‘We better stop disguising and just get into what we’re trying to get into’? 
BB: I mean, you can do that. It’s just a question whether you can hold up in it or not. I’d say the odds of that aren’t great, to be honest with you. I mean, usually when he sees what it is, he gets to the play he wants to get to. I would say they’ve hit a lot of big plays on plays like that…You tell them, ‘OK, here we are, we’re going to be in cover-2 zone, go ahead and run your best play,’ well they will. Or ‘We’re going to be in man-free or we’re going to be in blitz or we’re going to be in man-under two-deep, what are you going to do about it?’ They can usually do something about it… If you tell them what you’re in, I think you’re probably not going to like the way it’s going to end up (patriots.com. (2013, November 22). Bill Belichick Press Conference Transcript. patriots.com.).

The longer a defense can obscure its true intentions the less time a quarterback has to process the information and formulate a plan. This becomes even more important against elite quarterbacks because not only do they excel in pre snap recognition, but they also excel in post snap execution.

The best case scenarios for a defense is that they are able to fool an elite quarterback into leaving a play on against a defense they never would otherwise. Or a defense might be able to fool a quarterback into working a route concept or progression against a coverage they would not normally. The worst case scenario for a defense is that it tips its hand, or a quarterback is not fooled. Either way, the quarterback recognizes what the defense is truly in and reacts accordingly. When a player like Manning sees through a bluff and recognizes the defense is playing cover-2, he gets his offense into their best cover-2 beater.

Defensive coordinators countered by asking their players to disguise the defenses. The inherent issue with this tactic is that what is romantically dubbed ‘disguising’ a defense is really lining up multiple defenders out of position. A critically important part of sound defense is being lined up correctly and in position to execute individual assignments. That is why defenders are often cheating and creeping pre snap towards the spots where they need to be, lest they get caught too far out of position and blow their actual assignment because they were too dedicated to faking a false one. A defender must find the balance between disguising the defense as long as possible and getting properly aligned to play his actual assignment when the ball is snapped.

Seeing Through Disguises

So how do great quarterbacks recognize when they are getting a false look? The most effective way is by lining up quickly without a huddle and then varying tempo and using freeze counts. If defenders think the ball is about to get snapped quickly by a no-huddle offense, they have to scramble just to get lined up properly to the new offensive formation before the ball is snapped. Logistically they do not have many other options. But by just simply lining up the defense has forfeited the ability disguise coverage, which is exactly what the offense wanted. When a quarterback is snapping the ball quickly, typically there is less defensive disguising for him to sort through because of the logistical challenges defenses face just getting a call in and lining up in such short period of time, much less trying to disguise their defense too. And then comes the freeze count. The offense lines up quickly and the quarterback gives a false count complete with a “go, go.” But the center does not snap the ball. When executed well, the false count helps a quarterback see exactly how defenders are truly aligning and make decisions accordingly.

The second way a quarterback can decipher a disguise is by using motion. Are you showing man coverage? What happens when a player motions from one side of the formation to the other (as Manning used earlier to sniff out a Patriot disguise) – a defender ran with him? The defense is most likely really in man. No defender ran with him? Then defense is probably in zone.

The third way a quarterback can try and see through a disguise is by recognizing when something is out of place. Defenses that disguise well disguises in unison. They are a group of 11 synchronized liars. Belichick elaborated on this:

It’s got to be coordinated as a team… You can’t have one guy disguise one thing and somebody else disguising something else. A good quarterback would probably be able to figure out what you’re trying to do and see that one guy is way out of position. You have to be very well coordinated (patriots.com. (2014, January 20). Bill Belichick Press Conference Transcript. patriots.com.).

When a coordinated defense bluffs cover-2, the safeties are deep, cornerbacks have outside leverage, and linebackers are cheated into the box – exactly how they would play their cover-2. Then just before the snap, the corners move to inside leverage, one safety drops down the line of scrimmage to replace a blitzing linebacker while the other safety rotates to the middle of the field. Suddenly that cover-2 became a three deep three under, the five-person pressure at the last moment before the ball was snapped. However when playing an elite quarterback if a cornerback lines up and with the wrong leverage, or a safety starts creeping down too soon, or a defensive end is aligned too tight, or any other tell is apparent, warning bells may start going off in the quarterback’s head. If that happens, the element of surprise is lost, and a good quarterback will adjust the as necessary.

Disguising and disguising well is further complicated by the enormity of the task of simply playing sound defense out of base looks. Defensive coordinators already have a difficult time just getting their players lined up correctly to each offensive formation. Imagine how much more work, effort, and practice time it takes to make sure in addition to knowing actual assignments and alignment, everyone also knows what defense to fake and can bluff it in synchronization.

The final way an elite quarterback can determine what defensive look and coverage they are actually getting is by snapping the ball. A quarterback will not always be able to tell what’s exactly going on pre snap even with the use of motion and observing the alignment of individual defenders. But once the ball is snapped, disguise or no disguise, defenders have to tell the truth, they have to go to their responsibility. So for example, teams prefer to play Peyton Manning out of a 2-high shell. But there are only so many things a defense can do when they are 2-high, and it is also weaker against the run because they can only stop the run initially with seven defenders. A defense can show 2-high safeties until the very snap of the football, but once the ball is snapped if the defense is shifting to a 1-high defense the safeties have to roll. They cannot hide it any longer. Manning and other elite quarterbacks are so good that they see (and often anticipate) that post snap movement, process it, react, and adjust their plan accordingly before they have finished their pass drop. A great example of this took place in the Denver’s 2013 conference championship game. Denver ran a fairly simple pass concept.

(Image Credit: NFL Game Pass)

To the right they ran Post and a Dig to attack a 2-high defense and on the left, they ran a deep out with the H-Back chipping the defensive end then releasing to the flat to attack 1-high coverages. The running back stayed in on the protection which in addition to the H-Back check releasing served as the Denver’s answer to any blitz look (they could handle up to seven rushers). Initially, New England appears to be in a 2-high defense.

(Image Credit: NFL Game Pass)

On the snap of the ball however, the defender over the slot blitzes and one safety drops down to replace him while the other safety rotates to the middle of the field declaring post snap that New England is actually playing a 1-high defense.

(Image Credit: NFL Game Pass)

From the endzone, you can see immediately on the snap, Manning’s eyes go to the backside safety to see whether or not he is staying on the hash or rotating.

(Image Credit: NFL Game Pass)

He knows exactly what he is looking for, and as soon as he sees the safety moving to a 1-high position, Manning goes to the out route. He knows that against a 1-high coverage the cornerback has deep responsibility whether in man or zone. Therefore, the cornerback must back up, giving Manning a chance to throw the out in front of him.

(Image Credit: NFL Game Pass)

The receiver wins on the route, and 37-year-old Manning delivers a functionally accurate football, and the Broncos have a 17-yard gain. This is elite quarterbacking personified. People in the stadium and watching the game live on TV probably didn’t even think twice about the play. Certainly it was not a SportsCenter highlight. But it was an elite quarterback executing to perfection, reading coverage (despite the disguise), applying the correct filter, and delivering a functionally accurate ball to the deep out route.

This is why formulating a strategy pre snap is so important. After analyzing the defense and making a decision to leave the play on, modify it, or audible to a different play completely, the quarterback must use the information he gathered as a starting point for what he thinks will happen post snap. I call it simply ‘having a plan.’ A cognizant quarterback will create multiple if-then scenarios and push them to the forefront of his mind. Going back to Manning’s Levels with Curl-Seam the thought process should be something to the effect of, “If they stay 2-high, I am working the Dig to the In off the alley player. If they roll to 1-high safety, I’m peaking the Vertical to the Curl to the Flat, if they blitz I am throwing the In.”

If a quarterback is unsure of the actual coverage, he needs to be prepared for more than one scenario. If a quarterback is able to ascertain what the defense is really in, or at least narrow it down to one or two possibilities, it makes planning much easier because only one or two contingencies are involved. Being mentally present and having a plan might not sound tough in isolation, but with all the other responsibilities and distractions, the play clock winding down, and the defense moving around pushing those if-then scenarios to the forefront of the brain can be a challenge for many quarterbacks.

The Pre snap Process in the Form of the OODA Loop

The most applicable term I can apply to the pre snap process is ‘situational awareness.’ United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA Loop, which he applied to aerial combat scenarios. Boyd believed that decision making occurred in a cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. Boyd believed through the use of the system, and the improvement of a pilot’s ability to get through the process, pilots could become more successful in aerial combat scenarios. And his pilots were, they improved their kill ratio to 10 to 1 over the more capable enemy Mig-15’s by then end of the Korean War (Hightower, T. (2007, January 1). Boyd’s O.O.D.A Loop and How We Use It. tacticalresponse.com.). The OODA loop provides an excellent way to organize a quarterback’s pre snap process:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Observe

**
p<>{color:#000;}. What are the current circumstances?

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Down and Distance

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Time

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Score

**
p<>{color:#000;}. How has the defense aligned in response to the current offensive formation and situation?

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Front

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Linebackers

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Cornerbacks

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Safeties

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Orient

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Is this what I expected? Do I recognize this? Is this typical or atypical for this team?

**
p<>{color:#000;}. What defense do I think it is?

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Are there any indications of a disguise or blitz?

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Notable personnel matchups that may affect decision making?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Decide

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Based on the assumed defensive look I should…

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Leave the play on and apply the four filters(2-high, 1-high, blitz, man)

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Adjust, or change the play completely to a new play and then apply the four filters (2-high, 1-high, blitz, man).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Act – Snap The Football and repeat the process.

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Observe

***
p<>{color:#000;}. They did stay 2-high? Yes or No?

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Orient

***
p<>{color:#000;}. The alley player carried 1.

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Decide

***
p<>{color:#000;}. I need to find 2

***
p<>{color:#000;}. 2 is open.

**
p<>{color:#000;}. Act

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Throw 2 the ball.

The ability of an elite quarterback to comprehend the call, communicate it to his teammates, monitor their alignment, and get through the OODA loop (or however a coach terms the pre snap process) efficiently and effectively is the foundation of his post snap success. A quarterback who fails to consistently and effectively complete any part of the pre snap process will struggle post snap.

Elite Quarterbacks and Special Agents

A great example of how the mind of an elite quarterback should work is a highly trained officer or agent. Matt Damon’s character Jason Bourne demonstrates the mindset perfectly in the original Bourne Identity movie:

I come in here, and the first thing I’m doing is I’m catching the sightlines and looking for an exit… I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking (IMDB. (2002, January 1). The Bourne Identity Quotes. imdb.com.).

The hyper-awareness Bourne describes is exactly the way elite quarterbacks gather and process information pre snap. Manning through film study, experience, and his ability to gather and process pre snap information is going to know when a safety is lined up a few yards closer to the line of scrimmage than he typically is when they show a 2-high shell, that the defense is over shifted to one side, or that a weak defender is lined up over a superior receiver.

The way elite quarterbacks recognize and process information reminds me of Jason Bourne, but for acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell they remind him of a different expert:

Manning reminds me of Tom Hoving, who I write about in “Blink”; he has spent a lifetime studying and handling and thinking about ancient Greek art. One day, the curator of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles showed him a statute they had just bought for $10 million, and Hoving took one look at it and blurted out: “It’s fake.” In that first split second, the statue struck him as wrong. And sure enough, Hoving was right. It was a fake. When we spend a lifetime studying something that closely, what we are doing is educating our unconscious. We’re developing and training our instincts so that we can glance at an unusual situation and instantly know what it means. That’s what Manning is doing by studying so much film. He’s educating his on-field instincts (Merron, J. (2009, January 1). Interview: Malcolm Gladwell. espn.com.).

When Manning looks at a defense that is trying to lie to him, one can only believe that often his instincts are screaming “it is fake!” They really aren’t playing cover-2 (or whatever the case may be). In Belichick’s January 20th, 2014 press conference after the Broncos had eliminated New England from the playoffs in the AFC championship game, Belichick once again elaborated on why Manning’s tremendous pre snap awareness made it so hard to defend the Broncos offense:

That’s one of the things that Manning does a great job with on that offense: depending on how you’re playing them, then he’s going to attack you based on what you’re doing. If you do certain things, he’s going to do certain things. If you do other things, he’s going to do other things… He’s going to run the plays that are good plays against what you’re doing: runs, passes, schemes, whatever they are. That’s what makes him a great, great, great quarterback. He’s very, very good at that. He does an excellent job of, particularly in the passing game, but he did it in the running game yesterday too, of getting his team in a good play. I would say that doesn’t happen every play; it’s not like he changes every play, I’m not saying that, but situational – red area, third down – sees a new look that he thinks he can take advantage of, there’s nobody better at that than he is (patriots.com. (2014, January 20). Bill Belichick Press Conference Transcript. patriots.com.). 

For so many NFL quarterbacks (rookies and veterans alike) it is such a difficult chore just to get the play called, the offensive lined up, and the ball snapped before the play clock expires that it impairs their ability to figure out what a defense is doing. For others even when they have time to study the defense pre snap, they just aren’t very effective at gathering and processing information. Maybe they can get the play called and offense lined up but then they just see the trees. They are not able to see the forest, the big picture of what the defense is doing and how that relates to what they have called on offense.

A hugely important element of reading defenses is being able to apply the week’s (and career’s) worth of film work and preparation on game day. I had a friend who was in medical school studying to be a surgeon. She mentioned to me how she naturally had strong “spatial ability” skills which she explained as the ability to look at a two-dimensional image on a video monitor and make it three-dimensional in her head and flip it around as necessary. She said that ability was an advantage that helped her excel in surgeries where she had to work off a television monitor while the instruments and camera were inside the patient. It struck a chord with me personally because during my career as a quarterback, when I watched film during the week from the wide 22 angle, I saw everything. I saw everything very completely and clearly. But that comprehension would not always translate when I had to view everything from the first person on-field perspective. I had a hard time matching up the three-dimensional first person image of the defense I was seeing on the field with the two-dimensional wide sideline image I had been studying all week.

The University of Texas Cockerel School of Engineering describes spatial visualization as, “the ability to see and think in 3-D” (UTexas.edu. (2014, January 1). The Cockrell School of Engineering. engr.utexas.edu.). I have to think a player like Manning excels at transferring the two-dimensional wide shot view he has studied all week and matching it with his first person three-dimensional field perspective on game days. Of course, there are other reasons why I struggled to process information pre snap. Sometimes I felt like I saw everything the defense was doing and foresaw every blitz. And other times my focus was not there and I hardly even looked at the defense pre snap. I would come off after the first drive and realize I never even looked at the safeties to figure out if they were in a 1-high or 2-high defense. Alternatively, maybe my eyes just got stuck on the defensive line and linebackers and I never even bothered to check where the safeties were. The latter happened more frequently later in my career as I became more involved with checking in out of running plays at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes I would be so enamored with the box I would not get my eyes up to the safeties and corners to see the whole picture. Consistently excelling at the entire pre snap process is difficult. Some quarterbacks get to a point where they can execute the entire process snap-in snap-out, while others are too distracted by non-essential information to be consistently good. In the 2001 movie Spy Game, Robert Redford’s character describes the give and take of situational awareness:

Every building, every room, every situation is a snapshot. I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m also checking the room, memorizing it. The people, what they’re wearing. Then I ask: “What’s wrong with this picture? Anything suspect?” You got to see it, assess it, and then dismiss most of it without thinking.

Through study, experience, and instincts, elite quarterbacks are in complete operational command of their offense and offensive system, hyper-aware at the line of scrimmage, get their offense in the best play for the situation, and formulate a post snap plan. Moreover, they can get all that done before the play clock expires.

 

#
p={color:#000;}. The ability to see accurately, completely, and without distraction from the pocket.

 

“I was given a gift: vision, being able to see. That’s probably the reason I was able to make it to the NFL being as bad as I was in every other category.” – Tony Romo (Price, S. (2013, December 2). Why Ya Gotta Hate? Sports Illustrated.)

 

Having eyes do you not see?” – Mark 8:18

 

Definitions

Vision: An athletic gift found in select athletes across team sports that is a requirement to be a great passer. It is the ability of great NBA point guards like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd to understand and anticipate the spacing and movement patterns on the floor to find open teammates and the means to get them the ball. Lionel Messi has it on the soccer field with the way he anticipates and sees the whole picture. Wayne Gretzky had it in the NHL. And to be a great passer, a quarterback must have the gift of vision as well.

 

Seeing From the Pocket: This is the ability of a quarterback to see clearly and without distraction from a pocket despite at times having their vision obscured by the bodies and distractions in close proximity.

 

Being Able to See from the Pocket and the Gift of Vision

It is impossible to be an elite NFL quarterback without being comfortable and capable of seeing from the pocket. To do so, a quarterback must be focused and determined enough in the pocket to maintain vision downfield without succumbing to distraction. The gift of vision is largely innate in quarterbacks, much like vision in running backs. For some there are recognizable patterns in the chaos of bodies moving at high speeds. They see the picture clearly and as a result are able to anticipate where and when the passing lanes and openings will materialize. For others, it just moves too fast and is too jumbled. Repetition and practice can improve and sharpen that innate ability, but if a player does not have it (or at minimum an adequate level of it), they do not have it. The idea that some quarterbacks cannot see from an NFL pocket might sound odd, but it is true. For some the game moves too fast. For others confines of the pocket, and the proximity of so many large bodies be distracting and unnerving. Trying to peer through five to nine giant humans inevitably means a defender or two will be obscured from vision, and this can make some quarterbacks hesitant and unsure.

There are two ends of the spectrum. To illustrate this idea I’ll compare Steve Nash’s court vision (in the NBA) to mine (at the YMCA). When Nash walked onto an NBA basketball court he saw everything. When I walk onto a YMCA basketball court I see nothing. Even when being pressured by the NBA’s best defenders Nash was able to see the complete picture on a court cramped by the biggest, longest, and most athletic basketball players in the world. When he drove into an NBA key full of 6’10 and seven-foot tall behemoths crowding all around him, obscuring his vision, he still clearly saw defensive rotations, cutters, open shooters, and most importantly the passing lanes to get his teammates the ball. Meanwhile, when I get on the court against teams comprised entirely of short, slow, out of shape guys – everything is a blur. I see nothing, and when I drive into the lane and try and pass the ball off to a teammate, it feels claustrophobic, and the passing lanes are crowded. For NFL quarterbacks, the same spectrum exists, there are quarterbacks who have the gift of vision and can make sense of the jumble of bodies and see patterns and throwing lanes materialize in the defense. And then there are those who do not have that ability.

Even if a quarterback has the gift of vision, he must learn to adapt it to an NFL pocket by growing his ability to see from the pocket. Many quarterbacks can excel in 7 on 7 when they have a full, unobstructed view of the defense. But when a quarterback must execute the same plays with five mammoth NFL offensive linemen trying to shield him from the oncoming four-man rush, seeing becomes much more difficult. The semicircle of gargantuan men in pads and helmets creates a physically obtrusive screen that the quarterback must peer determinedly past to see linebackers, defensive backs, and receivers.

When it comes to how a quarterback is able to see from the pocket, the prevailing idea is that a quarterback sees over linemen. This idea is criminally false. Notice in the previous paragraph I said a quarterback must peer past and not over. A quarterback looks through gaps between players to see downfield. That can be challenging because the giant bodies of linemen partially obscure and hide parts of the field and/or other players. The best analogy is that seeing from the pocket is like standing behind a tall picket fence and looking through the slats to see what is happening on the other side. Quarterbacks have to look through because even the tallest players are not tall enough to see over the fence.

(Image credit: Monmouth Football)

(Image credit: Monmouth University Football)

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

 

(NOTE: Much more on height and its importance can be found in Chapter 3)

As pictured above, lanes (gaps) between linemen let a quarterback see out of the pocket. It is imperative that quarterbacks move in the pocket to be able to see what the need to see from the pocket through those gaps. Drew Brees explains the idea of looking through gaps in the line in a 2010 interview:

To me, it’s not that big a deal, I don’t know what it’s like to be 6-5; I don’t know what those guys see. I do know what I have to do in order to prepare myself, how I need to move and slide, to find lanes and see my receivers (Battista, J. (2009, November 29). Saints’ Brees Debunks Notions of the Quarterback Prototype. New York Times.).

Height has long been a requirement when teams are evaluating quarterbacks because of concerns over their ability to see from the pocket (and passes being deflected). I elaborate on the erroneousness of this conclusion in a later essay, but for now, suffice it to say that being able to see from the pocket is a byproduct of an ability, not the result of being 6’3 or taller.

As quarterbacks of all heights peer past linemen and defenders it is very important to understand that the brain must connect the dots. During the 2-4 seconds a quarterback spends in the pocket there is no way he is going to be able to see and keep track of the 21 other players. He will not even be able to track all 11 defenders or even just the back seven (linebackers and defensive backs) that make up most pass coverages. This is only complicated because a quarterback in the pocket is trying to look through the visually obtrusive screen of linemen. At times, defenders and receivers alike will get hidden behind those giant linemen. A quarterback tries to see as much as he can, and then his brain has to complete the bigger picture by making judgments and conclusions from what was seen. Trent Dilfer the 6’4 first round draft pick in 1994 readily admits he had issues with obscured vision in the pocket even at his height:

You see pictures in your mind on the way back based on the keys you picked up, about how the play is unfolding out there, and that’s based on all your study and experience (Marshall, B. (2010, January 16). Brain power secret to Drew Brees success. The Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune.).

When a quarterback sees a safety rotation from a 2-high to a 1-high safety shell, he doesn’t see all 11, or even all seven back end defenders move. But he can make an educated guess and jump to conclusions based on what he did see, his experience, and his tape study about what the other defenders did and where they are. There is an element of risk involved and as a quarterback, you have to have guts to let a throw rip to a receiver that you believe be open even if you lost track or didn’t see a safety or underneath defender. Most of the time you’ll probably be right, but occasionally you’ll get one wrong (which usually results in an interception). Most often though, once a quarterback sees the shell of a coverage, his eyes then move to find the one or two defenders he needs to read on the play.

There are other factors that impact the vision of a quarterback. Most notably his courage and peripheral vision. The necessity for courage is clear. Imagine how badly Lawrence Taylor or J.J. Watt could maim you. Everyone knows football is a dangerous game. But it becomes even more dangerous when a defensive coordinator making upwards of a million dollars has designed play after play that sends the biggest, strongest, and most explosive men money can buy after you. This can unnerve a lot quarterback, and when a quarterback becomes unnerved in the pocket he loses vision downfield, and when he loses vision downfield, the play is pretty much doomed unless through sheer chance, he can scramble out of the pocket and get a completion.

Additionally, the perpetual closeness of oncoming defenders often induces quarterbacks who are well protected to flee from the safety of the pocket and run outside of the tackles where defenders can peel off blocks and chase the quarterback who is usually running for his life in the direction of the sideline. The irony, of course, is the quicker a quarterback gets rid of the ball, the less chance they have of getting hit or sacked. But discomfort can make a player act irrationally, so quarterbacks instead hold the ball and run outside of the pocket in pursuit of vision and safety rather than seeing determinedly from the pocket to find a receiver and get the ball out of their hand. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to play quarterback in the NFL.

There are additional influences that can deter a quarterback from wanting to hang in the pocket. But in spite of them, elite quarterbacks have the ability to see and see clearly from the pocket. Neither physical obstructions nor the pass rush can deter their willingness to hang in the pocket and keep their eyes downfield. What is most important is that while looking through that mess, elite quarterbacks are able to see what they need to see.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to get the football into the hands of other skill players by working through pass progressions quickly, decisively, and correctly.

 

The ability to get the football out quickly is the culmination of the first two elements of elite quarterbacking. Contrary to popular belief, what makes Brady, Brees, Manning, and Rodgers so special is not when the ball is in their hands, but their ability to get the ball quickly and decisively out of their hands. Elite NFL quarterbacks are point guards by another name. They are delegators and distributors. They understand that getting the ball to the superbly athletic skill positions around them is the best and most effective way to get first downs and score touchdowns. They understand that it is much harder to defend five players all over the field than a quarterback holding (or running with) the ball. They understand that the longer it takes for them to find an open receiver, the better chance the defense has of sacking them before they can distribute the ball. A fundamental football fact is that a sack reduces the chance of the opposing team’s scoring in any drive to 7%” (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.). Sacks are absolute drive killers, but hits and pressures also reduce a quarterback’s effectiveness substantially. In 2013 league-wide completion percentages dropped to 37.8% when a quarterback was hit compared to 63.0% when they weren’t. The interception rate increases as well from 2.7% up to 4.8% (Jahnke, N. (2014, May 19). Cumulative Effect: Hitting the QB. profootballfocus.com.). The ability to get the ball out quickly has extraordinary benefits.

Manny Being Manny

Because of their extraordinary success in 2013 people tend to forget that the Denver Broncos record-setting offense lost their starting center Dan Koppen in training camp and played the majority of the year with the other Manny Ramirez. What’s worse the greatest offense in NFL history lost their franchise left tackle Ryan Clady to a season-ending Lisfranc injury in week 2. Yet the Broncos offensive line hardly gave up a sack. The reason? Because Manning was the master of getting through a progression to get the ball out as quickly as possible. But Manning was not just a check down throwing machine in 2013; he was third in the NFL in yards per attempt. Even more remarkable Manning threw 29 touchdown passes in 2013 where the ball got out of his hand in less than 2 seconds (Palazzolo, S. (2014, June 16). QBs in Focus: Time to Throw. profootballfocus.com.).

Shoot First Quarterbacks

When you have a quarterback like Michael Vick or Johnny Manziel or Colin Kaepernick they must have the ball in their hands to be most dangerous. Which means the other five eligible receivers are often relegated to blockers and decoys. The equivalent is the Allen Iverson style of shoot first point guard play. The team might score the same amount of points but the other players’ roles are diminished, relegated to bit parts, and only called on when Iverson couldn’t score on his own. Where the teammates of Steve Nash and Chris Paul are all having career years, Iverson’s teammates were all thought to be marginal role players. One or two receivers might have a good year playing with Kaepernick or Vick, while four or five skill players will have career years every year while playing with Manning or Brady.

It is counterintuitive to think that if you have the best quarterback in the world, you want him to get the ball out of his hands as fast as possible – but that is what makes Brady, Brees, Manning, and Rodgers so great. That does not mean that the ball is constantly being pushed down the field, it means that passes are being completed at a high rate because when a player gets open within the confines of the concept the ball is most likely headed his way. For every spectacular throw into a tight window elite quarterbacks make they are making many more spectacular decisions that result in vertical throws to single covered receivers, short to intermediate throws to open receivers, or check downs to running backs even if they had to get to two, three or four in the progression to do so.

Getting Through Pass Progressions

There are primarily two different schools when it comes to reads. Some coaches teach sequential progressions (1-2-3-4), while others tell their quarterback to read defenders (read the cornerback, and if you don’t like it check the ball down to the running back). For example a quick passing game concept such as “double slant” may be read 1. inside slant to 2. outside slant in one offense, while another offensive coordinator runs the same double slant play but just tells his quarterback to read the alley player (flat defender) and make him wrong. Regardless of how an offense asks their quarterback to do it, great quarterbacks get through progressions judiciously, expeditiously, and correctly. (For consistency for this conversation we’ll use the progression based method.) What that means is when a quarterback hits the top of his drop and one in the progression is open, he gets the ball out to him immediately. If one is covered, he quickly gets to two in the progression. If two is covered, he is on to three without hesitation. This process continues until the quarterback has found an open receiver, and once he finds a receiver, he acts immediately to get him the ball.

The progression and number of reads vary drastically by offense, by pass type, by concept, and as a result of the defensive coverage. Where a quick game concept might have two progressions, a play action pass plays may have three or even four progressions (Comeback to flat to drag to backside post.) An average quarterback at any level can get through two progressions. A player becomes special when he can correctly and quickly get to three and really special if he can get to four. Turn on a Saints game and watch Brees’ ability to work through a progression without getting hung up. You see his head, eyes, feet and entire body track one receiver, then reset to the next receiver, then if needed to the next, and the next, until he has found and open target.

The reason quarterbacks who can get through three and four progressions are so difficult to defend is that even when a defense defends a concept extremely well, the quarterback can still get a completion and win the rep for his offense and team. For example if the defense plays the concept very well, manages to cover options one and two, the quarterback needs to get to three or else the defense is going to win on the play. If the defense executes so well, they covered one, two, and three but the quarterback was able to get to four before the rush got there, he got an improbable win for the offense on the play. Against an average quarterback, if a defense can take away his primary and secondary reads, that can be enough to stymie him. Elite quarterbacks however can still find ways to make positive plays within the framework of the progression and play design for their offense even when the defense defends a concept well. Put simply, elite quarterbacks win tough reps.

Filtering Routes

As discussed earlier, the information the quarterback ascertains pre-snap is pivotal in his ability to work through a progression, because the proper application of filters (1-high, 2-high, blitz, man) focuses the progression to just a few options. And even once he gets down to a two or three route progression the pre snap alignment of a defense might tell a quarterback whether he can anticipate the ball going to the first read or the opposite, that there is little chance of the ball going to the first read. The quarterback must confirm any pre-snap suspicions post-snap, but if a quarterback’s pre snap analysis is correct, it can drastically expedite his ability to properly work through a progression. Manning’s excellence in pre snap awareness was why he was able to throw 29 touchdowns in 2013 with the ball getting out in less than 2 seconds. Before the ball was snapped he was able to get a great idea of what was going to unfold post snap.

Football IQ and Its Impact on Progressions

Sometimes pre snap awareness is simple. For example, Manning recognizes he is getting blitzed, and that his best receiver DeMaryius Thomas consequently has single coverage with no safety help. Before the ball is even snapped, Manning knows that is where he is going with the ball. Other times applying pre snap awareness can be a bit more involved, but it continues to dovetail into the ability to get through a progression. For this discussion we’ll use a ‘double post’ concept, which I believe is best against a 2-high look, but still good against a 1-high look.

The read progression is 1. Inside post to 2. Outside post, 3. Ball route to the tight end if the look gets cluttered by inside linebackers getting depth. If five quarterbacks ran the play the same look and concept with the same progression should the results be largely the same? Yes in theory, but what changes is how fast a quarterback can get through the progression. A functionally intelligent quarterback will look at the defensive alignment and use that information to estimate possible outcomes and the probability of those outcomes. For example, if a quarterback is getting a 2-high shell that appears more like cover-4 with tighter, lower safeties, there isn’t nearly as much space to throw the inside post as there is against a safety playing deeper and wider in more of a cover-2 look.

 

But an intelligent quarterback can go deeper than that. He also understands that safeties playing cover-4 are reading the slot receiver (#2). If the number two receiver goes vertical, it’s his job to take him. So against a cover-4 defense, a quarterback knows the safety should by rule jump the inside post allowing him to throw the outside post.

The heightened awareness and football IQ should help a quarterback be much quicker coming off of the inside post route and getting to the outside post because he knows the probability of throwing the inside post is significantly lower versus a cover-4 look.

There are other factors that should speed the quarterback off his first read to the outside post (and then potentially to a check down). On his drop, the second a quarterback sees the inside post get a poor release and the alley player carrying, the inside post becomes dead (the odds of the inside post recovering to beat the linebacker and safety are slim). An aware quarterback should immediately check the safety as he gets to the outside post (scenario A).

If the safety stayed low, ball goes to the outside post. If he expanded and got depth then he needs to get down to his check down (scenario B).

An unaware quarterback may take longer to get off the doomed post route and that hesitation could result in not being able to get the ball out to two or three before the rush closes in.

How Passing Plays and Progressions Work

Passing plays are designed to put defenders in conflict. The staple curl-flat concept attempts to pick on the flat defender (usually a strong safety, nickel back, or outside linebacker) of a 1-high coverage.

If the he takes the flat route, the curl behind him should be open. If he sinks under the curl, the flat route should be open. Another classic two receiver route combination is ‘Smash,’ now the offense is trying to high-low the cornerback by running the outside receiver on a short hitch route in front of the cornerback and putting the inside receiver on a deeper corner (or flag route) route behind the cornerback. The cornerback has to make a choice, does he sit on the hitch and give the quarterback a chance to throw the corner route behind him or does the cornerback get depth and allow the quarterback to throw the hitch in front of him.

Progressions are guides to take advantage of the defender(s) in conflict. And when a quarterback is capable of getting through a progression, essentially what he is doing is getting away from the areas and routes that the defense has devoted itself to covering and getting to the areas of the field and routes that the defense has neglected to cover. Anyone can draw five squiggly lines on a white board and get a receiver open; that’s the easy part. The integral elements of any pass play are routes that put defenders in conflict and a sound progression that regardless of how the opponent decides to defend the play, will guide a quarterback to an open receiver. And then of course, finding a quarterback who can navigate the progression.

Having a Plan

An imperative part of being successful from the pocket and being able to get through a progression is what I call “having a plan.” This equates to mentally pushing the different possibilities and subsequent progressions to the forefront of the brain and having an idea of which filters you’ll need to use. If the defense stays 2-high, I’ll read this to this. If they shift to 1-high I’ll read this to this. If they blitz I’ll go here. If a quarterback walks up to the line of scrimmage and snaps the ball without being conscious of his plan at length, and pushing that plan to the forefront of his brain it becomes tough to get through a progression and he can get stuck when something unexpected happens. As a quarterback goes through pre snap cues, he can anticipate where the ball is going. But he can’t let his anticipation turn into assumption, lest the defense shift at the snap, or take away the receiver he thought would come open. For example if the defense rolls late from 2-high to 1-high, or one and two in the progression are covered, the quarterback cannot freeze, but must execute the contingency elements of his plan. In these instances, working the 1-high progression or getting to number three in the progression in order to get his offense a win on the play.

Power of the Progression

Why is it important for a quarterback to be given a progression, and for the quarterback to be able to get through a progression? It provides order to a chaotic environment and gives a quarterback a chance to execute consistently. A quarterback that just guesses and scans for open receivers may get completions sometimes but he won’t nearly be as effective or consistent as a player who diligently uses sound progressions. When an offensive coordinator designs a play, he can’t guarantee any one player will be open. But based on the coverage tendencies of an opponent and the techniques of their defenders he may have an idea of what will break open. Offensive coordinators can also design plays that likely will get a certain route (and player) open, but can never guarantee it. It is all predicated on how the defense reacts in a given instance. This is why a quarterback must be capable of getting through a progression and reacting to changing and unexpected defenses in real time.

The beauty of the read progression is it provides the answers to the defense. If they commit a defender to one in the progression, then two most likely be open. If they commit defenders to one and two, then three in the progression should be open and so on. The issue becomes only so many quarterbacks have the ability to work through more than two progressions at any level. Elite quarterbacks can, because of their ability to process information pre snap and see post snap, get through their progressions swiftly and unceasingly without getting stuck until they get the ball out their hand. And if the defenses blitzes blitz them, they saw it coming were prepared, had a plan, and got the ball out quickly. They knew where the ball needed to go and had instant answers, and that is why it is so hard to defend an elite quarterback.

 

#
p={color:#000;}. The ability to consistently deliver the ball to open receivers with functional accuracy.

 

Elite quarterbacks are exceptional because of their ability to find an open receiver – and then they don’t miss throws. It doesn’t matter if the receiver is open by five yards, five inches, or covered so tightly they need to be thrown open, elite quarterbacks are consistently accurate enough to get the completion. If a receiver is open on the move they are able to deliver the ball in stride so a catch and run is possible. If the receiver is on a hitch, curl, or comeback they deliver the ball to the chest or face so the receiver is able to secure it and start up field immediately. If a receiver is in traffic they throw the ball away from defenders, or even low if necessary so the receiver can make the catch and immediately get on the ground. There are five reasons an elite quarterback is consistently accurate.

First, they quarterbacks have a sound mechanical process that they can replicate over and over without deviance. This allows them to be consistently accurate. There may be variations in their styles and delivery but there are major similarities. Their footwork is good enough that it allows them to be on balance when they hit the top of their drop, and immediately transfer their weight into the throw directly at their target. When they set up in the pocket, they play with a solid base, and keep their feet moving, and resetting underneath them as they scan from progression to progression. While not all of them may be combine warriors, they are all good enough athletes that they can also make off-balance throws and throws on the run when necessary.

The second reason why elite quarterbacks are able to be consistently accurate is because they can anticipate when and where their receivers are going to break open. When a quarterback is doing a great job of processing pre snap cues and getting through progressions he is able to anticipate when, who, and where the open receiver will be and then be able to anticipate the subsequent throw. A quarterback who is struggling to find an open receiver is not able to anticipate because he is searching and even surprised when he finds a receiver open. Rather than anticipating opening receivers and anticipating throws, he is reacting to open receivers and reacting to make throws. Additionally the later a quarterback locates an open receiver the more likely he has worked into and out of that opening, or the defense has recovered. A quarterback that struggles to get through progressions and find open receivers is going to be less accurate in game situations.

The third reason elite quarterbacks are accurate is innate. Yes mechanically they are sound, but they also have the natural ability to put a football where they want it. I believe this also ties into the gift of vision. Elite quarterbacks just have a feel for the game, the spacing of players, the shifting lanes and windows that open and close, and ultimately for where to put the ball. They have the right touch for deep throws and they understand how to lead or stop players as necessary. Elite quarterbacks have that intangible quality that makes them accurate throwing routes on air and the gift of vision that allows them to be functionally accurate in games.

The fourth reason elite quarterbacks are so accurate is because of the work they have put in on their craft. They have refined their mechanics, trained their feet to be able to throw from a consistent platform, and then they have thrown thousands upon thousands of footballs. All talk of innate and natural ability aside, they have put the necessary time, effort, and repetitions to become elite throws.

Finally elite quarterbacks are accurate because they expect to be. They play with confidence, with the mentality that if a receiver is open they will make the throw. It’s not empty confidence, it’s the confidence that is a byproduct of knowing they have great mechanics, and that they have put the work in. When Kobe Bryant misses a jump shot or Stephen Curry misses a three pointer they are shocked, but undeterred. They absolutely expect their next shot to go in. On the rare occasions that an elite quarterback does miss a throw they have the same mentality. They are shocked by the miss and come back to the next play with supreme confidence that the next throw is going to be perfectly on target. Sound mechanics plus thousands of repetitions equal consistent accuracy.

 

#
p={color:#000;}. The ability to protect the football and minimize turnovers.

 

Great teams win the turnover battle and great quarterbacks don’t turn the ball over. A player can’t be an elite quarterback if they are turnover prone. A quarterback’s ability to not turn the ball over is a reflection of his ability to perform the first four elements.

A quarterback’s ability to protect the ball starts with his mastery of the offense and pre snap situational awareness. A quarterback that excels in this area gets his offense away from bad which puts himself and his offense in better situations to succeed and by default not turn the ball over. When a quarterback recognizes a blitz look and checks out of a slow developing pass play, he is giving himself a better chance of getting the ball out of his hand quickly. Consequently, he is not stuck in a collapsing pocket with nowhere to go against the blitz. Turnovers typically come when a quarterback is under duress holding the ball (strip sacks) or just trying to unload the ball and forcing it into coverage. Remember in 2013 league-wide completion percentages dropped to 37.8% when a quarterback was hit compared to 63.0% when they were not and the interception rate increased from 2.7% up to 4.8% (Jahnke, N. (2014, May 19). Cumulative Effect: Hitting the QB. profootballfocus.com.). And the longer a quarterback holds the ball the more likely it is that any of those scenarios come to fruition. Quarterbacks also can affect ball security in the run game too.

When a quarterback is aware and capable of making sound decisions in the run game, the offense is running the ball against looks and numbers they can block. As a result, the running back is more likely to have running room (space and time) to react and prepare for contact. Whereas when a quarterback leaves a run play on against a bad or overloaded look, often a there are unblocked or unaccounted for defenders that are now able to hit the running back near or even behind the line of scrimmage. A quarterback isn’t responsible for his running back fumbling the football, but it helps the running back immensely when he is not being run into knockout shots or constantly being hit by unblocked defenders at the line of scrimmage.

A quarterback’s ability to get through a progression affects his ability to protect the ball the same way pre snap awareness does. If a quarterback struggles to get through progressions and get the ball out, then it’s more likely the rush will get there and potentially force a fumble or pressure him into a mistake. Additionally a quarterback working through progressions incorrectly is more susceptible to turnovers. When a quarterback makes sound reads they are throwing at receivers that are operating against single coverage and not in a crowd.

Finally accurate quarterbacks turn the ball over less. It is the concept of collateral damage. When police or military fire their weapons if their rounds hit the intended target, there is very little chance of stray bullets hitting innocent bystanders or other unintended targets. When they miss, the consequences can be catastrophic. When quarterbacks deliver accurate passes, the chances of the ball being intercepted as the result of a deflection (or a complete miss) decrease significantly. When a quarterback misses the receiver or throws the ball behind them, the chances of a turnover increase.

Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers

The cumulative result of the five elements performed consistently at a high level is elite quarterback play:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to have total command of the offense while gathering and processing large amounts of information and using that information to make accurate snap decisions in the 25-40 seconds before the snap of the football.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to see accurately, completely, and without distraction from the pocket.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to get the football into the hands of other skill players by working through pass progressions quickly, decisively, and correctly.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to consistently deliver the ball to open receivers with functional accuracy.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to protect the football and minimize turnovers.

In the last five-plus years, the four players that executed those elements most consistently and effectively were Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. Their size and physical attributes vary greatly but what they share is their ability to consistently execute all five elements, and that is what has made them the NFL’s elite group of quarterbacks.

Chapter 2

The Fallacy of Physical Tools

 

“The quarterback position is such a difficult position to evaluate because it’s part physical talent and part cerebral talent. The standard deviation in physical skill set is so small at the NFL level. But, mentally, there’s a bigger gap.” – Paraag Marathe, Chief Operating Officer of the San Francisco 49ers

(Ramirez, A., & John, A. S. (2013, November 22). The Science of Peyton Manning. Popular Mechanics.)

Definitions

Physical Skills: Tangible, measurable abilities of quarterbacks including speed, agility, arm strength, height, and weight. Accuracy can also be included.

Nonphysical Skills: The less tangible abilities of a quarterback-centered around the five elements of elite quarterbacks including but not limited potential ability to master an offense, pre snap situational awareness and processing, the ability to see from the pocket, the ability to get through progressions, the ability deliver a functionally accurate football, and the ability to protect the football.

Intangible Skills: A quarterback’s critically important but unseen attributes such as work ethic, willingness to prepare, leadership skills, competitiveness, ability to perform under pressure, physical toughness, and mental toughness (ability to respond to adversity).

NFL – The F Stands for Freak

The National Football League features 31 rosters stocked full of the biggest, fastest, and strongest athletes America can produce. More so than any other professional league in the world, you must have an extraordinary combination of height, weight, strength and athleticism to play at the NFL level. There is no other way to phrase it, the league is a collection of physical freaks. Even the kickers and punters have world class leg strength. An athlete cannot play defensive back without great speed, just an offensive linemen will never survive without 300 pounds paired with the swift feet of a ballet dancer. However in a league full of world class athletes there is one position that can be played by a very average athlete; quarterback. Think about it this way, what other position in football could a 37-year-old player coming off three neck surgeries with severely diminished physical abilities (extremely limited foot speed and agility, and noticeably diminished arm strength) set every major single-season record in the history of the position? As much as scouts, commentators, general managers, and coaches want to yammer on about height, weight, arm strength, hand size, and forty times, none of that really matters in a quarterback – just look at 2013 version of Peyton Manning. A NFL quarterback doesn’t need exceptional physical tools he just needs the ability to be consistently accurate coupled with the minimum required arm strength to get the ball to the open receiver. That is it. A quarterback doesn’t need his physical skill set to necessarily be an asset, just not a limiting factor. On any given Sunday I firmly believe that for the plays that went unmade because the quarterback lacked the physical ability to make them, exponentially more go unmade because the quarterback lacked the nonphysical skills to make them.

NFL Quarterback Skillsets Are Not Rare

Each spring leading up to the NFL draft coaches, scouts, general managers, TV analysts, media, and draft gurus promote the idea each that only a select few quarterbacks have the physical skillset necessary to be an NFL franchise-caliber quarterback and obsess over who has the best tangible physical tools. The irony is that being a franchise quarterback has much more to do with nonphysical and intangible skills than physical skills. Brady, Brees, and Denver-era Manning physically are not close to being elite level franchise quarterbacks. Yet they are, and it is because of their elite level intangible and nonphysical abilities. Rodgers has the best physical skill set out of the four, but without his intangible and nonphysical abilities he would be – Jay Cutler. The reality is that there are dozens of quarterbacks that come out of college each year with physical attributes good enough to play in the NFL (recent examples Zach Mettenberger, Logan Thomas, Tom Savage, Ryan Nassib, Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, Mike Glennon, and the list could go on forever). But while many have draft worthy physical skills, very few have draft worthy nonphysical skills and intangible abilities. The ones that do are the players NFL teams should be manically seeking. Until then quality quarterback play in the NFL will continue to be at a premium unless evaluators stop overvaluing seldom used physicals skills like arm strength and speed and start overvaluing nonphysical skills such as the ability to read coverages, see from the pocket, get through a progression, and the ability to accurately distribute the ball on time from the pocket.

The reason the physical skills need to be devalued is twofold. The first is that because of the quality of college football and the thoroughness of recruiting, quarterbacks are not getting NCAA Division I scholarship offers unless the school has verified a legitimate physical skill set. As a result, the pool of players with adequate arm strength to make 90% of the required throws in the NFL is much larger than popular belief. Take the 128 NCAA Division I FBS football programs and 122 NCAA Division I FCS rosters and assume there is one senior quarterback on scholarship per roster. Then add 162 NCAA Division II teams and you have a huge number of scholarship quarterbacks coming out of college every year that physically can throw a football. This is the first reason physical skills need to be devalued – a large pool of prospects have the necessary physical skills.

The Position is Not Played with the Legs

The second reason the physical skills need to be devalued is because, in the pro game, they are rarely used so consequently arm strength, size, and athleticism have very little impact on a quarterback’s’ success at the NFL level. While every other position in the NFL is based primarily on winning physical battles, a quarterback can play an entire game without being in a physical confrontation. Furthermore physical confrontation becomes even less likely the better a quarterback is playing and operating in his offensive system. On the marginal number of plays where a quarterback needs to make an athletic play it often is because they failed in the pre snap process, or to properly read the coverage or didn’t adequately get through the progression. On any given pass play, when the offense executes the quarterback should not even be touched much less have to outrun someone, break a tackle, or throw the ball forty yards on a line past triple coverage. Because of this what is needed to excel at the quarterback position is not 6 feet and 4 inches of height, 230 pounds, a 4.6 forty, or the ability to throw the ball a country mile. Rather a quarterback just simply needs to be able to read a defense, get through a progression and functionally deliver the ball to the receiver (however much arm strength that takes on a given throw) before the pass rush arrives. If a quarterback can do that on a consistent basis against NFL defenses they can play quarterback in the league regardless of height, arm strength, or speed. If a player can do it on an extremely consistent basis, he has a chance to be elite regardless of his physical tools.

How Often Do Quarterbacks Need Extraordinary Physical Ability?

The million dollar question that no one asks is how often does an NFL quarterback need superior physical tools? How valuable is the ability to run 4.7 in a quarterback, how valuable is the ability to throw the ball seventy yards? On what percentage of plays could he be helped if he had a Flacco-like arm or Vick-like legs? I picked two arbitrary games from 2013, games where two of the four elite quarterback had monster stat lines. Manning’s week one thrashing of the Ravens (Stat line: 27/42 (64%), 462 yards, 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 141.1 quarterback rating) and Brees’ week ten shredding of Dallas (34/41 (82.9%) 392 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 139.0 quarterback rating). I reviewed every pass play in those two games and looked at three categories, grading them on a scale of 1-3.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Category 1: Arm Strength Needed to get the Completion

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p<>{color:#000;}. Below Average (A varsity high school starter could get the completion)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Check downs to RB’s, Hitches and Stick Routes, Slants, Screens

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p<>{color:#000;}. Average Arm Strength (Any Division I scholarship quarterback could get the ball there in time to get the completion)

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Deep Curl & Comebacks, Slot Outs, Open Corner Routes, Fades, deep passes up to 50 yards.

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Exceptional Arm Strength (You need John Elway’s arm to get the ball there in time)

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Deeper throws into small, quickly windows. Or throws where the quarterback is late, but superior arm strength did or could have made up for it. Examples: Seems with safety’s closing, deep curls with the DB closing quickly, deep passes requiring a 50+ yard throw.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Category 2: Athleticism Demonstrated

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p<>{color:#000;}. Below Average

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Anyone quarterback could do it, at the most just resetting or moving slightly in the pocket, or uncontested sprint out or bootleg.

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Average

***
p<>{color:#000;}. The quarterback needed to scramble out of the pocket to buy extra time to throw or scrambled for positive yards and slid at the first sign of a defender. The quarterback didn’t have to elude any defender on the play but did have to leave the pocket.

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Exceptional

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Made a defender miss, broke a tackle, and/or was able to accelerate away from a defensive player to create a positive play out of a doomed one.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Category 3: Accuracy Demonstrated

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Poor

***
p<>{color:#000;}. Errant throw causing an incompletion. Or forcing the receiver to dive or jump to make the catch.

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Average

***
p<>{color:#000;}. The ball got there, the receiver had to make a slight adjust (partially breaking stride, slowing, or having to reach).

##
p<>{color:#000;}. Exceptional

***
p<>{color:#000;}. The ball was perfectly delivered to; a receiver on the move so they could continue running without breaking stride, a stopped receiver so they could catch and immediately start running, or thrown perfectly away from the defender giving the receiver a chance to catch the ball and protect himself.

Out of Manning’s 47 pass plays only two required exceptional arm strength to complete. Out of Brees’ 45 pass plays, only one required exceptional arm strength. So out of 92 pass plays that accounted for 854 NFL passing yards, 11 NFL touchdown passes (with zero interceptions) 3.2% needed exceptional Elway- esq ‘first round’ arm talent. All three of those throws were incomplete so Brees and Manning managed to put up those staggering numbers despite not making a single completion that required exceptional arm strength.

How Is It Possible to Play Quarterback in the NFL Without Exceptional Physical Tools?

When observing Brees’ and Manning’s performances in those two games, what is striking is exactly what Ray Lewis talked about previously with Brady. An elite quarterback’s ability to make the game simple. They are unfailingly able to find the defensive coverages’ weakness and throw at it. It’s almost as if they knew the defenses calls. They consistently find the open, single covered receiver whether they are first or last in the progression, and then deliver a functionally accurate ball to them. Another characteristic that jumped out was both Brees’ and Manning’s accuracy and the spots they delivered the ball to. While three out of the four elite quarterbacks in the NFL do have above average arms (though pre-draft scouting reports on both Brady and Brees questioned whether or not they had adequate arm strength for the NFL ((Patrick, D. (2016, March 15) Saints QB Drew Brees Gets a Laugh at his NFL Draft Scouting Report. nbcsports.com.)(Boren, C. (2011, April 11). Tom Brady, deep down, still hasn't gotten past NFL draft slight. The Washington Post.)) Manning got it done in Denver with and absolute rubber band of a right arm, so arm strength can’t be a necessity. Then factor in the breakdown of the two arbitrary games where 92 pass plays tallied 854 NFL passing yards, 11 touchdown passes and only required exceptional arm strength 3.2% of the time. While the study is hardly scientific or admittedly even overly thorough, it does show that arm strength is not a prerequisite requirement to be a great NFL quarterback.

When examining the four elite quarterbacks, who they are and how the excel three out of the four rarely make scramble plays. Moreover, all four almost never have designed quarterback runs called for them (save for the occasional naked boot or quarterback draw near the goal line). Brady, Brees, and Manning combined to rush for a net of 39 yards (18, 52, -31 respectively) during the 2013 regular season. Rodgers is typically among the league leaders in rushing yards by a quarterback. He scrambles more than the other three elite quarterbacks, but in his best career rushing season, he only gained 356 yards. That averaged out to a paltry four carries a game for 23.7 yards so it is not as if he was killing teams running the ball.

In examining Brees and Manning’s games, would they have been helped on a few snaps if they were able to move like Kaepernick? The answer is of course, yes. Absolutely. In Manning’s case there were five snaps; three sacks (two of which interior linemen were beaten almost instantly resulting in immediate interior pressure that even athletic quarterbacks would have most likely succumb to, and one coverage sack) and two scramble plays that he eventually threw away that an athletic quarterback could have potentially turned into a gain. In Brees’ case there were three snaps; one sack (I attributed to excellent coverage), one throw away in the red zone where a more athletic quarterback might have held the ball and tried to make a positive scramble play, and one snap when the defensive end was able to run Brees down as he rolled out to the right in time to hit his arm as he was trying to throw. A faster quarterback may well have gotten enough separation to get the throw off. In the two game games a total of 8 out of the 92 pass plays (8.6%) required a more athleticism and physical ability than Brees or 2013-Manning had. On 8.6% of plays an athletic quarterback could have potentially used his legs to a keep a play of alive. If you exclude Manning’s two immediate pressure sacks where even athletic quarterbacks would probably have been dead to rights, the number drops to 6.5%. Clearly the Saints and Broncos have game plans that are designed for their quarterbacks and their lack of running ability and mobility. If I broke down a game from Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, or Carolina the percentage of athletic plays would go up because their athletic quarterbacks tend to hold the ball more often and try to use their athleticism to make plays.

But the point is this; even if a quarterback uses his athleticism on 10-15% of all pass plays and exceptional arm strength on 5-10% of pass plays (which are both likely inflated figures) is it worth taking an athletic quarterback over a non-athlete? Elite physical skills might be needed on 10-15% of all pass plays. Nonphysical skills are needed on every single offensive play, so why would prioritize physical ability over nonphysical ability when drafting a quarterback? Why take a 4.7 forty over a 5.1 forty? Why take a big arm over an average arm? Why take a player who possesses more athletic ability and physical potential over a polished college quarterback with proven nonphysical and intangible skills and adequate physical ability? Why are teams so infatuated by the physical traits of arm strength and athleticism when physical traits alone have never made a quarterback elite? Why do they devalue nonphysical skills when those skills are the commodities that separate Brady, Brees, Manning, and Rodgers from their peers?

Let’s be clear I’m not saying it doesn’t help to have a great arm or athleticism because it does. And it allows quarterbacks with elite physical tools to make plays 37-year-old Manning could never dream of, but the inverse is even more true. Players like Manning and Brees make plays regularly with their nonphysical ability that players like Kaepernick or Cutler never would. For all the plays in the NFL annually that go unmade because the quarterback didn’t have the arm or athleticism, exponentially more go unmade because the quarterback left a play on against a bad defensive look, misread a coverage, didn’t get through a progression, or failed to execute in some other intangible, nonphysical area.

Driving the Deep Out

A favorite point of contention of draft experts and NFL pundits is the arm strength of various prospects, and more specifically the ability to ‘drive’ the ball on wide side throws. Joe Namath may have thrown the 20 yard deep out to the wide side of the field, but since then that throw has gone well – the way of Joe Namath. Here is some typical babbling this time from NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah saying that NFL scouts would be watching on Johnny Manziel’s pro day to see if he had the ability to “drive” the ball:

Manziel throws a beautiful deep ball. He puts just the right amount of air under the ball on deep posts and fades. There isn’t any concern about his ability to push the ball vertically, but some scouts question his pure arm strength to drive the ball on the deep out and comeback routes. I’ve seen Manziel throw twice in person and I came away impressed by his arm strength. He’ll have a big opportunity at his pro day to ease any concerns about his ability to make all of the necessary throws at the NFL level (Jeremiah, D. (2014, March 26). Five things scouts will watch during Johnny Manziel’s pro day. nfl.com.).

But apparently the pro day wasn’t enough because then SI.com’s Josh Sanchez still perpetuated the grave concern about Manziel’s ability to “drive” the football:

Manziel looked strong during his pro day when he was showcasing his ability to throw on the run while being chased by a broom, but interested teams will want to see him drive the ball more towards the opposite hash mark when they put him through their own private, unscripted workouts (Sanchez, J. (2014, March 27). Browns, Bears are only teams to skip Johnny Manziel’s pro day. si.com.).

Enough is enough. First, NFL hash marks are narrower (18.5 feet) than college (40 feet) actually making wide side throws shorter and easier in the NFL than college. Throwing from the opposite hash as opposed to the middle of the field essentially adds three whole yards to the throw. Regardless, critics and scouts talk about the wide side throws like they are the lifeblood of every NFL offense. As if every third pass play in NFL offenses requires their quarterback to have the mythic ability to “drive” a deep out past impeccably tight coverage. It is such a constant clamoring about a quarterback’s ability to drive wide side throws you’d think multiple wins and losses hang in the balance each season based on whether or not the quarterback can make that throw.

But it’s not just the constant much ado about a rarely made throw that bothersome, it is the lack of football understanding. All these experts do not get that even weak-armed quarterbacks can throw deep outs and comebacks to the field. How? Again, to start with the NFL hashes virtually eliminate a wide side. But that’s not how weak-armed quarterbacks throw deep outs. Here is how; coverage recognition anticipation, and accuracy. Those that say weak-armed quarterbacks can’t throw deep outs are schematically ignorant. Let’s look at the pre-daft analysis NFL.com put up about one of Kellen Moore’s weaknesses:

With the timing and effectiveness he has worked with under Boise State’s system, Moore often lobs the ball and puts touch on it; his deep outs will likely be intercepted early in the NFL if he can’t learn to drive it harder.

The explanation is a bit technical but stay with me.

Question: Against what coverage do quarterbacks throw deep outs, comebacks, or curls?

Answer: Almost exclusively 1-high safety defenses (and occasionally Cover-4 or Cover-2 Man).

2013 Manning weak arm and all still throws the heck out of deep outs and comebacks, but primarily only when he gets a 1-high safety coverage. Why? Because in 1-high safety coverages the cornerbacks must retreat because they have no safety help like they potentially could in a 2-high safety coverage. Cornerbacks in a 1-high coverage are responsible for the deep pass regardless if it’s zone or man. The receiver in this instance is running a 14 yard out at the top of the picture:

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

If the cornerback is going to successfully cover a world class athlete sprinting at him, the cornerback’s eyes will are going to need to be on the receiver (for a time in zone he might be able to see the quarterback and receiver, but as the receiver threatens vertical, the cornerback is going to have to get out of his backpedal, turn, run, and get his eyes on the receiver). This means he isn’t going to see when the quarterback throws the ball, he is only going to see the receiver start to break down as he makes his out cut. The cornerback has to try and react and drive on and cover the out. In the process he will turn his head and find the football. But he definitely didn’t see it leave the quarterback’s hand. This is the exact scenario that unfolds in the next two photos. Manning anticipates the throw, starting his delivery before the receiver has broken to the out, limiting the need for arm strength to get the completion. Furthermore you can clearly see in both photos that the cornerback is looking at the receiver and never sees Manning throw the ball, thus making the velocity of the throw completely irrelevant, all that matters is that it arrives on time and accurately outside, away from the defender enough to get the completion, even if it is Kellen Moore-esq collegiate ‘lob’ pass:

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Because of the mechanics behind 1-high coverages (and cover-4 and 2-man) a quarterback like Moore will still be able to have success throwing deep, wide side outs if he can do so with the same timing, anticipation, and accuracy that made him so successful at Boise State.

2016 UPDATE: Kellen Moore finally got his first regular-season action, as he started for Dallas in week 16 and 17. And of course he threw a deep out route against a 1-high coverage, delivered the ball perfectly and got a 20-yard completion for his team.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Pre snap Moore recognizes a basic 1-high shell and is prepared his 1-high beater to the boundary, the deep out with the running back checking underneath to hold the flat defender.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

The coverage stays 1-high post snap so he stays with his anticipated pre snap plan. The flat defender hangs just low enough to give Moore a window to fit the deep out in over him, so he lets the throw rip.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Moore threw the ball with good anticipation, the receiver beat the cornerback, the ball was delivered with functional accuracy (on time, high over the flat defender, and outside to the sideline away from the cornerback) and as a result Kellen Moore was able to complete a 20 yard out in the NFL.

The bottom line is if a quarterback executes the nonphysical job (in this instance determining the right coverages to throw deep sideline timing routes against) his physical skills become significantly less important. Scouts need to stop searching for quarterbacks with the arm capable of throwing the wide side out, there are plenty of those players out there. Instead they need to start looking for the quarterbacks smart enough to throw it against the right coverages and accurate enough to get the completion.

Out Route Rates

How often does the average NFL quarterback actually throw a deep out to the wide side of the field? According to profootballfocus.com in the 2013 season Brady attempted the most outs going 51/88 (though ten were dropped). Manning and his weak arm was second with 57/78 attempted. Brady was 4/9 on comeback routes while Manning was 8/11. Brady attempted 97 out and comebacks over the course of 18 games meaning he averaged just over five out or comeback type throws a game or 14% of his total throws (Palazzolo, S. (2014, June 17). QBs in Focus: By Route. profootballfocus.com.).

The quarterbacks that throw the most deep out breaking timing patterns does so just 14% of the time. And the greatest irony is that Tom Brady’s draft profile included the line, “lacks a really strong arm. Can’t drive the ball down the field” (Boren, C. (2011, April 11). Tom Brady, deep down, still hasn't gotten past NFL draft slight. The Washington Post.).

85-90% of Brees’ typical pass plays do not require athleticism or exorbitant arm strength, rather just the ability to read a coverage, get through a progression, and deliver a football to an open receiver working against single coverage. You can watch Jay Cutler play and make throws down the field that Manning never could. Or you can watch Kaepernick tuck the football and scamper for 40 yards in a way that Brady or Rodgers never could. But on the other 85-90% of pass plays, when Cutler- esq arms or Kaepernick-esq legs aren’t needed, great physical tools can’t make up for limited ability to read coverages and get through progressions. As a result plenty of physically talented quarterbacks in the NFL never reach the elite level despite having better physical tools than Brady, Brees, or Manning.

Cutler Failing his Nonphysical

Below is an example of Cutler and all his physical gifts failing to convert a second and seven and then third and three because he couldn’t execute the nonphysical by recognizing coverages, seeing from the pocket, and getting through progressions.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

On 2nd & 7, Chicago calls a play similar to Manning’s Curl-Seam out a 3×1 formation. But instead of Levels opposite, Chicago checks the running back down underneath the Curl-Seam and just runs an isolation route on the backside. Philadelphia plays a 1-high coverage that turns out to be cover-3 cloud rolling the coverage weak into the boundary to take away the single receiver. Cutler correctly decides to play his Curl-Seam concept.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

As Cutler hits the top of his drop, it’s clear that with the safety playing over the top, the seam is dead. He should already be working to 2 (the curl) in his progression.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

As Cutler climbs the pocket, the inside linebacker has carried out underneath his curl, and the flat defender has jump the out, leaving forcing him to get to his fourth read (the running back) in order to get the offense a win on the play.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

With the rush closing however, he either can’t get to his running back in time, and/or panics and runs himself. Either way he is tackled after a short game. This would have been a very tough win, getting to the fourth progression, but as you can see, if he had, the running back would have had space to operate. But instead Cutler and the Chicago are faced with 3rd and 3. He failed, “Elite Element 3: The ability to get the football into the hands of other skill players by working through pass progressions quickly, decisively, and correctly.”

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Initially it looks like Philadelphia is bringing an all-out cover-0 blitz and playing man behind it on third and short. Cutler has a couple different blitz/man beater options on the play, really he can pick a route and play match-up football.

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

However on the snap of the ball, Philadelphia shifts into a 2-high defense. Suddenly Cutler needs to get to his double slant concept and read it inside slant to outside slant (or key the alley player depending on how Chicago coaches it).

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Cutler does a great job of seeing the last second change from blitz to 2-high, plays the right filter immediately looking to his double slant concept, but for whatever reason just doesn’t see the slant open for the first down. He misses the read, gets stuck holding the ball, and the four-man rush eventually gets home. Cutler failed, “Elite Element 2: The ability to see accurately, completely, and without distraction from the pocket.”

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

Cutler fails to thoroughly and completely execute the nonphysical elements of quarterbacking and as a result Chicago is punting. All the physical talent in the world can’t make up for nonphysical lack of execution.

What coaches, general managers, writers, and analysts fail to understand is that tremendous physical tools do not mean a prospect has a significantly greater chance to be a successful quarterback any more than a quarterback with average physical tools, because the physical aspect is such a minute part of playing quarterback in the NFL. On 10-15% of his passing attempts Robert Griffin III’s world class speed or huge arm will help him, but the other 85-90% will be determined by whether or not he can make a read and deliver the ball with enough anticipation and accuracy the same as Brady, a quarterback who ran a 5.2 at the combine as was seen as having average arm strength.

What an NFL Quarterback Must Be Able To Do

So if you don’t need tremendous, arm strength, athleticism, or height what do you need? What are the required physical tools to be an NFL quarterback?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The physical ability to functionally get the football to the open receiver – however much arm strength that requires – 90% of the time.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The ability to throw the ball with consistent accuracy.

And that’s all you need from a physical standpoint! Now from there you need tremendous nonphysical skills and intangible qualities.

37-Year Old Record Setting Quarterbacks

If there has ever been a season that proves my argument that physical tools at the quarterback position are not a necessity, it is Manning’s 2013 season. 37-year old Peyton Williams Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos had the best season in the history of professional quarterbacks. Yes, he was the undisputed leader and catalyst for the most prolific offense in NFL history but let’s be clear about one thing – this ain’t your father’s Peyton Manning. Your father’s Peyton Manning was the first overall pick in the 1998 draft who once quipped to himself, “That guy’s pretty good. If you like six-five, 230-pound quarterbacks with a laser rocket arm” in a Sprint television advertisement. No this is the refurbished version; beaten down by time and NFL defenses, the 2013 version of Manning is a wounded duck throwing, limp armed, immobile brick of a quarterback who is coming off of three neck surgeries in the span of 19 months. How much did Peyton Manning’s physical tools regress? If you googled “weakest arm in NFL” during the 2013 season, article after article came up disparaging the state of Manning’s right arm:

Gregg Rosenthal wondered Sunday how much fun draftniks would have at the expense of Peyton Manning’s arm if the quarterback just now was coming out of college… [Manning’s arm] has devolved into the weakest arm among NFL starters. (Wesseling, C. (2013, October 6). Peyton Manning playing QB at highest level in history. nfl.com.)

Draftniks? Try college coaches. Not only would 2013 Peyton Manning not get drafted, I would make the case that after going to various Division I summer camps and throwing and running for those programs, he would not even get offered a Division I scholarship. However, for now, I’ll just settle for the consensus that Manning had the worst arm of any starter in 2013. Yet he had the best year a quarterback has ever had, the offense he directed was the best in NFL history. They are the first offense to score 600 points in a season. The bulk of those points coming on Manning’s league record 55 touchdown passes. He also averaged 8.3 yards per passing attempt (fourth in the NFL). So next time someone is on the television saying how a quarterback’s arm strength questionable, hit the mute button. The only valid questions should be can a prospect read coverage and get through progressions? And can he functionally deliver the football with enough anticipation and accuracy to get completions? Then maybe he has what it takes…

Quarterbacks as Race Car Drivers

The mistake that NFL coaches, scouts, and general managers keep making is equating a quarterback’s ultimate potential to the sum of their physical skills. The same way in a road race, everyone would think the fastest car would win. A fast car in a road race means nothing if it’s paired with a bad driver. A fast car with a good driver has a chance to be formidable. But an elite driver with an adequate car is what a race team owner really should be seeking. And this is my favorite analogy of a quarterback’s cumulative ability – it is the sum of a car and driver together. NFL evaluators need to stop looking at the potential of the physical skills and instead start looking at the cumulative potential of a quarterback’s nonphysical and physical skills together. And when scouts and coaches are trying to discern what that potential is, they need to understand that the nonphysical ability is significantly more important and impactful than the physical ability.

Back to the road race analogy, imagine that being the best NFL quarterback was akin to posting the best lap time on the world famous Isle of Man road course. We are not talking about a NASCAR loop, we are talking about a winding, treacherous course where the speed and power of a car is minimized because the track is so technical and difficult to navigate. The fastest car lap in human history is 19:26 (Florea, C. (2014, April 6). Subaru Smashes Isle of Man TT Lap Record. topspeed.com.). If you were a scout and it was your job to choose the car and driver with the best chance to match or beat that time, naturally the first thing you are going to do is look at the car. You see Jamarcus Russell standing next to his brand new Ferrari Enzo, 2013 Peyton Manning is on his hands and knees checking the tire pressure on his 1998 BMW 5-Series, Robert Griffin III is in his Lotus, Brandon Weeden has his Mercedes SLR, Drew Brees has his tricked out 2001 Honda Civic with aftermarket everything, Tom Brady is driving a turbocharged 2000 Volvo Station Wagon with an Obama sticker on the bumper and his supermodel wife riding shotgun holding his course notes, and Jay Cutler is smoking a cigarette with the windows up in his brand new Red Corvette while giving another driver the middle finger. Everyone puts their money on the fastest most capable cars. Then the race starts. Russell can barely even get his Ferrari in drive, Weeden’s Mercedes is lumbering around the track, while Cutler and Griffin’s vehicles are sliding wide around turns and making enough technical errors to post mediocre lap times. Then you have Brady, Brees, and Manning driving respectively a 2000 Volvo station wagon, 2001 Honda Civic, and 1998 BMW 5-Series – and they are killing the course. They have all tuned their cars to absolute perfection to maximize performance. And then prepared for hours on end studying the course and practicing on it again and again. They are hugging turns and attacking corners every chance they get to shave a tenth of a second off of their lap time. What the cars’ lack in sheer physical capability, their drivers more than make up for it in intelligence, technique, strategy, preparation and focus. All that matters is the sum of the union – the combined capabilities of the car and driver. It doesn’t matter what a quarterback lacks in physical ability as long as those physical tools are complemented by great nonphysical and intangible attributes. The best quarterbacks often aren’t the best cars (Montana, Brady, Brees, older-Manning). Though sometimes there are great drivers who have tremendous cars (Elway, young-Manning, Rodgers, Marino). The bottom line is how good can a quarterback be based on the sum of his physical, nonphysical, and intangible abilities? What kind of lap times is he capable of? The best quarterbacks are the best combination of car and driver. A Ferrari isn’t going to win you very many races when Ryan Leaf is driving it.

Strong Minds Can Overcome Weak Arms, But Strong Arms Cannot Overcome A Weak Minds

If the careers of various other extremely weak-armed quarterbacks including Chad Pennington (2nd in 1998 MVP voting, NFL all-time leader in completion percentage) and Bernie Kosar (Pro Bowl, Super Bowl Champion) weren’t enough to prove that a quarterback could be successful even with rubber band for a throwing arm, Manning’s 2013 season has to be adequate proof that every draft expert, analyst, and personnel man yammering about the necessity of arm strength in the NFLis just plain wrong. Former Browns Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer recalled his days with Kosar (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.):

[Schottenheimer] talked of coaching Bernie Kosar in Cleveland, not much of an athlete at quarterback but intelligent enough to devise a means to succeed within his limitations: “His passes were puffballs but they floated in perfect alignment with wide receivers, so catchable and yet elusive to defenders.”

Football is a game with a set of rules. If a quarterback is good enough at playing the game and understanding the strategy, he can succeed with the help of his physical gifts or in spite of his physical limitations.

Here are more of Ray Lewis’ comments on Tom Brady from NFL.com’s “Top 100 Players of 2011” provides a great example of what really sets an elite NFL quarterback apart:

A play that always sticks out in my mind. They are playing Carolina in the Super Bowl, it’s a big third down. Of course Carolina is playing that two deep coverage. And you would think okay, Tom Brady has to make this incredible throw where is he going to go with the ball? But the weakness of cover-2 if you understand it from Tom Brady’s perspective is if a linebacker is one on one with a [running] back that’s your best bet. And he drops back and simply drops the ball off to Kevin Faulk [the Patriots running back]. Could he have tried to force it into cover-2? Could he have tried to force it to his tight end down the middle of the seam against cover-2 yeah, but that’s what makes great players great players, the unselfish plays. And when I saw that play I said ‘wow’ that’s how simple he makes the game. The game ain’t hard to him, it’s like The Matrix where it slows down (nfl.com. The Top 100 Players of 2011. nfl.com.).

Being an elite quarterback is all about nonphysical skills. A player will never be an elite quarterback with great physical skills and average nonphysical skills. Manning led the NFL in go route touchdowns in 2013 (Palazzolo, S. (2014, June 17). QBs in Focus: By Route. profootballfocus.com.), which is just one more example that a player can be an elite quarterback if he has tremendous nonphysical skills paired with merely adequate physical skills. Quality quarterback play in the NFL will continue to be at a premium until evaluators stop overvaluing arm strength and athleticism and start prioritizing nonphysical ability.

Chapter 3

Height

 

Go stand ten yards behind the quarterback and see what they see. You can’t see anything. And yet they see so much. It’s hard to play quarterback in this league.” – Dennis Thurman, (Former) NY Jets Defensive Backs Coach

(Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.)

Drop back seven yards behind five 6’5 300 pound men, add four more giants on the other side rushing into them, and NFL quarterbacks have to peer past a literal wall of humanity. Seeing clearly from the pocket is difficult, but for reasons few understand. The commonly perpetuated idea amongst NFL coaches, front offices, and media is that quarterbacks see and throw over offensive and defensive linemen. Consequently, they believe they need a tall quarterback who can look over linemen to see the field. A short quarterback then is inadequate because they physically cannot see over linemen. As a result, they surmise, his vision will be irreparably obstructed. Additionally, they fear a short quarterback (or a tall quarterback with a low throwing release point) is overly susceptible to having their passes batted at the line of scrimmage by large defensive linemen. Here is a typical example of short quarterback criticism as it pertains to Russell Wilson:

Before he became a star in the NFL, many said the same thing about Russell. Wilson isn’t short by the standards of most people, but certainly by those of the National Football League where quarterbacks are expected to reach 6’4”, or at least 6’2”, so they can see over the heads of not only massive defenders but their own huge blockers (Barra, A. (2014, January 14). Russell Wilson Should Win MVP (and the Super Bowl). thedailybeast.com.).

That type of analysis continues in a New York Times article about Drew Brees:

The greatest concern for shorter quarterbacks is whether they can adequately see the field over offensive linemen who may be half a foot taller, and whether they can get a pass over the outstretched hands of a looming defensive lineman (Battista, J. (2009, November 29). Saints’ Brees Debunks Notions of the Quarterback Prototype. The New York Times.).

The Dallas Cowboys organization went so far as to do some ‘pioneering’ work using computer simulations to figure out that a short quarterback would not be able to throw the ball over the line of scrimmage.

When the Dallas Cowboys pioneered the use of computer analysis in scouting, several decades ago, they determined that the breaking point for quarterbacks having passes blocked at the line of scrimmage was 6’1. Any player shorter than that, even one with first-round ability, should not be drafted above the sixth or seventh round, the Cowboys figured (Battista, J. (2009, November 29). Saints’ Brees Debunks Notions of the Quarterback Prototype. The New York Times.).

But again the idea that quarterbacks see over linemen is false. They see around and past them by looking through lanes and gaps that occur as the offensive line fans out into a protective wall and forms one and two man clumps against defenders.

Through the Eyes of Quarterbacks

The photos below from ESPN’s on-field camera angle and quarterbacks wearing GoPro cameras on their helmets, will show firsthand how quarterbacks must look past linemen, and what they can see, and not see.

(Image credit: ESPN)

(Image credit: Monmouth University Football)

(Image credit: Monmouth University Football)

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

 

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

(Image credit: University of Washington Football)

Quarterbacks short and tall must look through gaps in the line to see the field. Clearly it is not as simple as just looking ‘over’ the offensive linemen.

The Geometry of Sigh Lines

I am not a physics or geometry major but I can present you with this argument. The four elite quarterbacks that play (and see) exceptionally well from the pocket are Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady. NFL.com has those men listed at 6’2, 6’0, 6’5, and 6’4 respectively. They encompass the gambit of height in NFL quarterbacks (6’0-6’5). The tallest member of that group is Manning at 6’5. While Manning’s height is 6’5, his eye level is probably closer to 6’1 or 6’2. And by eye level, I mean the actual height of his eyeballs. I’ll remind you that the average NFL offensive lineman is 6’5 (Gaines, C. (2011, October 19). NFL Lineman Weren’t Always Big And Fat — See How Much They’ve Grown Over The Years. businessinsider.com.). Additionally, those linemen are wearing state of the art helmets that put one to two inches of plastic and padding on top of their head, giving them an average total height of closer to 6’6-6’7. So how do Peyton Manning’s 6’2 eyeballs see over 6’6-6’7 offensive linemen? The answer is simple; they cannot and they do not. Former sixth overall draft pick Trent Dilfer had this to say on height, and seeing from the pocket:

I always thought height was overrated, because I stand 6’4 and still couldn’t see a lot of things. You don’t see over linemen (Marshall, B. (2010, January 16). Brain power secret to Drew Brees success. The Times-Picayune.).

The physics perpetuated by most major media source do not make sense. Just ask Russell Wilson:

If I was 6’2”, I couldn’t see over any offensive lineman. I mean, they’re 6’8”. You know, I can’t — I’m still looking through lanes to try to see and everything (Nichols, R. (2010, January 14). Unguarded With Rachel Nichols. cnn.com.).

When Wilson had to transfer before his final year of collegiate eligibility, one reason he chose Wisconsin was because they always have one of the tallest offensive line units in the country and playing behind their offensive line would give him a chance to show scouts he could see and get the ball out behind an NFL sized line. He had two of 309 passes batted down during his season at Wisconsin. If you are scoring at home, that is .006%.

I’ve been told a ton of times if I was just two inches taller, I’d be a great prospect. But I played behind a huge offensive line last season, and I think what I proved is I’m not going to have any trouble getting the ball out (King, P. (2014, February 4). What About Russell? mmqb.si.com.).

Here is Wilson’s view from the pocket in his final game at Wisconsin as he looks through gaps in his massive offensive line to track and throw a receiver running a shallow crossing pattern:

(Image credit: ESPN)

(Image credit: ESPN)

(Image credit: ESPN)

(Image credit: ESPN)

(Image credit: ESPN)

But even some well-respected and influential personnel people like Brandt don’t understand how a 5’11 quarterback could get a completion behind an offensive line made up of 6’7 and 6’8 players:

If you can visualize a salt shaker and a water glass a short quarterback is the salt shaker that has to throw over the water glass, to a receiver on the other side that is probably just a little taller than the salt shaker (Battista, J. (2009, November 29). Saints’ Brees Debunks Notions of the Quarterback Prototype. The New York Times.).

Brandt’s analogy is flawed. Lanes (gaps) between linemen let a quarterback see out of the pocket, again not terribly different than looking through a tall picket fence.

Batted Passes (Or Lack There Of)

The gaps that serve as lanes for vision can also serve as lanes for throwing which allow the ball past offensive and defensive linemen safely. Brandt’s water tumbler analogy only works if a quarterback is throwing the ball directly over a lineman to a very close target. While this does happen, a quarterback is much more likely to throw a ball through a passing lane (see the images below).

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

(Image credit: NFL Game Pass)

But even when a quarterback has to throw over a lineman, a quarterback has the luxury of throwing the ball with touch and trajectory. Thanks to the physics that govern flying objects, you can start a ball with some touch on an upward trajectory over the line and it will eventually start sinking back toward earth and into the reach of your receiver. It’s not rocket science.

Whether a pass gets deflected at the line of scrimmage, I would argue is much more dependent on offensive line then the quarterback. When players like J.J. Watt are able to bull rush and push linemen back into close proximity to the quarterback and get their hands up, then a batted pass is more likely (if not nearly inevitable) regardless of a quarterbacks height or release point. Look at this batted pass from a LSU – Georgia game. 6’1 quarterback Aaron Murray’s pass is batted, why? You be the judge:

(Image credit: CBS)

(Image credit: CBS)

(Image credit: CBS)

(Image credit: CBS)

To combat quick passes, defensive linemen are taught to recognize the drop of the quarterback and if they are not close, to stop and get their hands up. A good (and ruthless) offensive lineman will try to cut a defensive lineman’s legs out when this happens (or hit him in the groin) to force the defensive lineman to keep his hands down. This batted pass was not the result of 6’1 quarterback, rather a good job by the defensive lineman of getting push and then aborting his rush and getting his hands up when he saw the quarterback start his delivery. Murray’s pass would have been batted down regardless if he was 6’1 or 6’5.

The debate about short quarterbacks being overly susceptible to batted passes is really not even a debate when you look at the statistics. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2013, Chad Henne (6’3) had the most batted passes at 20 and Matthew Stafford (6’3) had 17. Andy Dalton (6’2) and Matt Ryan (6’4) were tied for third with 14, and fifth was Colin Kaepernick (6’4) with 13. The league’s two most diminutive starters Brees and Wilson were tied for 21st with six batted passes each. If the league’s two shortest quarterbacks had six batted passes apiece in a sixteen game season, what is all the fuss about? Wilson and Brees combined for 1,057 attempts in 2013. Factor in their 12 batted passes and between the two they had their passes batted down at an epidemic rate of every 1 in 88 attempts. In 2014, it was the 6’5 rookie Blake Bortles who had the highest rate of batted passes in the NFL with 18/474 (3.8%). Wilson had 9/451 (2.0%) of his passes batted at the line of scrimmage while and Brees had 15/653 (2.3%) passes batted (footballoutsiders.com). Gil Brandt must have been using taller water glasses.

Despite all the constant chatter about release points and throwing over offensive linemen (other than Henne’s outlier 20), batted passes happened at a rate of one or less per game for all but one of the quarterbacks in 2013. In 2014, only Ryan Tannehill (6’4) and Bortles had more than a pass a game batted down with 19 and 18 respectively. Only nine quarterbacks in 2013 and ten in 2014 had more than 10 passes batted down and some of the games tallest quarterbacks leading the category, clearly height has no correlation with batted passes. Furthermore, with so few quarterbacks in general averaging over a single batted ball a game it is safe to say that anyone who voices concern over a quarterback, regardless of height, getting his passes batted down is making much ado about nothing.

Additionally, I believe that the batted pass statistics further supports the idea that quarterbacks do not see over linemen, they look through gaps. If a quarterback is looking through gaps in the line to see and find receivers, more often than not they will be throwing through the same gaps. This is why so few batted passes occur overall.

Finding Vision

Enough about batted passes; back to vision. If Dilfer, a 6’4 quarterback, said he could not see over NFL linemen then how does any quarterback see from the pocket at all? Again, Drew Brees explains the idea of looking through gaps in the line.

To me, it’s not that big a deal, I don’t know what it’s like to be 6’5; I don’t know what those guys see. I do know what I have to do in order to prepare myself, how I need to move and slide, to find lanes and see my receivers (Battista, J. (2009, November 29). Saints’ Brees Debunks Notions of the Quarterback Prototype. The New York Times.).

I had my own epiphany in the pocket as a young college quarterback. I came from a wing-T offense in high school where only rarely was I asked to make reads and throw the ball from the pocket. Everything was one receiver quick game, or roll outs and bootleg passes where I could move out of the pocket, see without distraction and just arbitrarily scan to find an open receiver. When I got to college, I found myself playing in a pro-style west coast offense. Consequently, I was asked to throw a large number of passes from the pocket off 5-step drops from under center, and 3-step drops from the shotgun. One thing that had always come naturally to me was sliding in the pocket to avoid pressure. But I quickly learned that sliding in the pocket to maintain and/or regain vision was equally as important if not more so in order to see the defense, make reads, and get the ball out.

My epiphany happened at practice during a team period. We were running a ‘Smash’ concept to the left side of the field, what we simply called 56 in our offense. The outside receiver on the play runs a 6-yard hitch, the inside slot receiver runs a deep corner (flag) route over the top. My job was to read the cornerback. If he sinks, I should throw the hitch. If he sits on the hitch, I throw the corner route behind him. I received the snap and took my drop. I looked left, reading the field, or more specifically the left cornerback. But as I looked my vision became obscured by the left tackle and defensive end, and I could not see my read. Even at Chapman University (NCAA D-III), our tackles were tall; 6’3 maybe 6’4. As a 6’0 quarterback, of course, I could not see over our left tackle. The cornerback was the defender I was supposed to be reading; the defender I had to read. At that point (this memory is still crystal clear) a wave of panic hit me, “where the hell is the corner, I cannot see him?!” I had to find him. It was my duty to read the cornerback on 56. And with the starting quarterback job still hanging in the balance, I was desperate and determined to get a completion. Despite the protection being perfect I aggressively stepped up into the pocket, a move I usually reserved for when defensive ends beat our tackles up the field with a speed rush. When I stepped up into the pocket, it altered my vantage point, suddenly I regained vision through a gap in the line between the left tackle and left guard. Sure enough, there was the cornerback retreating backward under the corner route. I snapped off a throw to the hitch, got the completion and the subsequent praise from my coaches that accompanies correct reads and completions.

That moment was such a revelation for me as a quarterback. Sometimes you slide in the pocket to avoid pressure; sometimes you just slide so you can see. From then on I was a moving fool in the pocket. Anytime I could not see a defender I needed; you better believe I was sliding around in the pocket until I found vision.

Illogical Explanations

One of the clearest ways to understand that vision from the pocket is not dependent on height is to look at how unclear and irrational critics’ and experts’ explanations of why some short quarterbacks can see. The New York Times’ Andy Benoit’s reasons for justifying why 6’0 tall Drew Brees can throw for 5,000 yards every season playing primarily from the pocket:

Many people in Boise don’t understand why [Boise State Quarterback Kellen] Moore’s lack of size is such a problem to pro teams. There are many reasons it’s a problem – durability, pocket passing prowess and the sheer difficulty of designing an offense when the passer can’t see over his linemen, to name a few. It’s not a mere “fun fact” that the only two N.F.L. starting quarterbacks who are not over 6 feet are Michael Vick and Drew Brees. Vick compensates with otherworldly athleticism; Brees compensates with a strong arm and uncanny accuracy (Benoit, A. (2013, April 30). Kellen Moore Not Drafted? No Reason to Feel Blue. fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com.)

Then there is Trent Dilfer trying to explain why Drew Brees can get away with being short in a New York Times article:

So how does Brees ‘see the field’ beyond that wall of humanity? I got news for you: He’s not playing at 6 feet, he playing closer to 5-10. That’s because his throwing mechanics are so great, he’s never stiff-legged but always loading his legs by bending his knees (Marshall, B. (2010, January 16). Brain power secret to Drew Brees success. The Times-Picayune.).

Even more telling is the picture caption on the New York Times’ article on Brees, “Drew Brees, whose quick release compensates for his height…”

Three people give three different justifications on how Brees overcomes the physical, unavoidable visual obstructions occur as a result of a short quarterback trying to see over NFL linemen in the pocket. Again, I’ll emphasize these people are talking about the pure physics and geometry of a six-foot man seeing over 6’6 linemen. Brees is magically able to overcome the tangible physical obstructions to his vision by: 1) great throwing mechanics 2) accuracy 3) a quick release. If the argument is that short quarterbacks struggle to see the field and receivers because they are short, why then is a short quarterback with really great mechanics able to see? Anyone else see the disconnect here? And this is the type of lazy, illogical analysis that is negatively affecting the draft stock and professional careers of numerous quarterbacks year in and year out in the NFL.

What About College Film?

The last troubling component of short quarterback criticism is that coaches, scouts, general managers, and writers are watching college football, so have already seen short quarterbacks like Brees and Wilson play and have success in similar environments. It is not like Brees and Wilson played behind a bunch of 5’10 linemen at Purdue and Wisconsin. During Bree’s senior season Purdue returned 6 offensive linemen who lettered at least once before (which included future New England Patriots all-pro Matt Light). Their heights were 6’4, 6’5, 6’2, 6’6, 6’5, 6’2 (2000 Football Outlook. (2000, June 1). purduesports.com.). Wilson played his final year in college at Wisconsin, where annually they are in the running for the tallest offensive line in the country. If Wilson and Brees both played behind 6’4+ tall linemen in college without issue, why do people question if they will be able to see when they drop back behind the NFL’s 6’4+ tall linemen?

I do not know if the constantly perpetuated false ideology about short quarterbacks is misinformation, misunderstanding, or just lazy analysis, but it needs to stop. Quarterbacks short and tall don’t see over linemen, they see past them. Being of prototypical NFL size might allow a quarterback to see slightly more, but not significantly more, and definitely not over NFL linemen. Add that height and release point has little to no correlation with a high rate of batted passes and what you have is decades of faulty anti-short quarterback propaganda that have likely limited or even kept numerous talented undersized quarterback prospects from getting a real chance in the NFL. The key for any quarterback regardless of height is the ability to manipulate the pocket in order to find vision and throwing lanes.

Chapter 4

Drafting QB’s: Using the Wrong Filter Over and Over Again

I’m the first one to say that franchise quarterback trumps every other need but you better believe in that kid as a franchise quarterback because if you reach and you are wrong it is the quickest way to destroy your franchise.”– Mike Mayock, NFL Network Draft Analyst

(Freakonomics (2011, April 29). Football Freakonomics: Who’s the Right Pick? Freakonomics.com.)

The quality and production of the average NFL starting quarterback is poor. Outside of the top ten to fifteen quarterbacks in the NFL, the pickings get very slim, very quickly. That leaves, at least, half the teams in the NFL with mediocre or worse starting quarterbacks (by NFL standards). The reason the NFL quarterback talent pool is so shallow is a direct result of the way the NFL evaluates and drafts quarterback prospects. They have created a league full of talented throwers but very few quarterbacks. This is because scouts, general managers, and coaches put extreme physical requirements on a nonphysical position. As a result of the 21/37 (56%) of the NFL first round picks between 2000-2013 never even developed into regular starters. Just five (13%) no doubt, franchise caliber quarterbacks came out of that period (E. Manning, C. Palmer, Rivers, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger), which climbs to eight (21%) if you include players on the franchise fringe like Flacco. Luck, and Newton. Until nonphysical and intangible skills become the desired commodities, and physical skills are devalued the overall quality of quarterback play in the NFL will remain poor.

Currently, the draft process runs like a system trying to identify Olympic caliber javelin throwers rather than quarterbacks capable of running an NFL offense like the next Manning or Brady. If a quarterback prospect runs 4.7, jumps 34 inches, is 6’3 220 pounds, and can throw a ball through the uprights from his knees (Kyle Boller) he becomes a first round talent regardless of past struggles. Of course in order to draft the aforementioned Boller with the 19th overall pick, the Baltimore Ravens had to be willing to overlook his career completion percentage in college of 47%. That is not a typo, 47%. Despite his mediocrity (that is a generous description) at the college level, somehow it was deemed that Boller had immense much talent and potential, yet in his best college season, he completed just 53% of his passes. If a player struggled that badly to excel in college, why would anyone think he could excel in the NFL and was worthy of a first round pick? Oh that is right, because he was 6’3 220, ran the forty in 4.59 and threw a football 60 yards through the uprights – from his knees (Wong, M. (2009, April 6). Ex-Raven, Kyle Boller Heads to St. Louis. Good Luck and Good Riddance! bleacherreport.com.).

The greatest irony is that good quarterbacks rarely have to exercise their physical skills (outside of accuracy). Talent evaluators and draft guru’s drool over great pro day performances and criticize others. Pro days are glorified workouts that consist of testing a quarterback’s athletic measurables and watching him throw – on air. But turn on the TV on any given Sunday and watch the NFL’s best quarterbacks and they rarely attempt throws that require anything more than average arm strength. And if they are playing really well, rarely do they hold the ball for long, much less scramble, and/or try to make plays with their legs. So why the obsession over the rare moments that a herculean throw is needed to get a completion, or sprinter’s speed to escape a sack? It is like the military only allowing their biggest, strongest, and most physically capable soldiers to be fighter pilots – so in the event they are shot down, they still will be able to be a powerful fighting force if it comes to hand-to-hand combat. But if a fighter pilot has to resort to hand-to-hand combat, then he has already failed his initial assignment. If a quarterback has to resort to his 4.6 speed or super strong arm, then he probably failed his initial assignment. Why evaluate the quarterback position on a set of skills they will only use 10% of the time when you could be evaluating quarterbacks to see if they have the skills to succeed on 90% of plays.

Applying The Wrong Filter

I’ll tweak an argument from Frank Dupont and his 2012 book Gameplan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the National Football League, by screening a job with the wrong filter you are limiting the talent pool. For example Ivy League football programs put prospective players through a severe intellectual filter. You must have tremendous grades, test scores, and mental capacity to get admitted to an Ivy League school, even though those requirements have little to do with physically playing football. In large part because of those requirements, compared to the rest of Division I football, the Ivy League is not a very strong conference:

The Ivy League schools have football teams made up of players who have to pass higher admissions standards than the rest of college football teams… The Ivy League adds a cognitive requirement to a physical job by requiring that its athletes pass more rigorous admissions standards. The result is that the Ivy League stinks at football! Adding the cognitive requirement to the physical job of football player doesn’t make for better football teams. It makes for worse football teams (DuPont, F. (2012). Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the National Football League. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.).

Every other position in the NFL needs to be big strong and fast so to a large extent it makes sense why the NFL pokes and prods searching for physical specimens first who then can play football. But that does not make sense at the quarterback position. The level of quarterbacking in the NFL is so marginal right because the NFL puts a physical filter on a nonphysical position. First round draft picks wash out regularly after a couple of seasons (Mark Sanchez, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Johnny Manziel, EJ Manual). If a prospect is big, fast, and is thought to have a ‘NFL arm’ then teams are willing to give the player a chance to learn and demonstrate that they are capable of the nonphysical abilities needed to be great. But what if the league flipped the filter and put a nonphysical filter quarterback prospects first instead a physical filter first? Is there any doubt that the nonphysical part of being and NFL quarterback is much more challenging than the physical part? What if the league first asked can he read coverage? Can he see and get completions from the pocket on time and in rhythm? And can he deliver the ball with functional accuracy? Yes, he can do that? OK, we’ll give him a chance and see if his physical tools are good enough that he can excel and succeed as an NFL quarterback.

The Dangers of Picking Potential

There are no two better examples of the NFL’s obsession with physical ability over nonphysical driven production than the career plights of Mark Sanchez and Kellen Moore. After a stellar junior season at USC, Sanchez opted for the draft despite only starting 16 games in college, attempting less than 400 career passes, and the pleas of his college coach Pete Carroll to return to USC to get more experience to better prepare himself for the NFL. The New York Jets (and many other teams) were wowed by Sanchez’s stellar Rose Bowl performance and dazzled by his individual workout and combine numbers so much so that they traded up to draft him with the fifth overall pick of the 2009 draft. Here is his NFL.com “pick analysis”:

In an aggressive move, the Jets pick up their quarterback of the future in Sanchez. Although the former Trojan only recorded 16 starts in college, he is regarded as the quarterback prospect with the biggest upside due to his superior arm strength, accuracy and leadership skills. With extensive experience in the West Coast offense, Sanchez is in line to be the Jets’ starting quarterback on opening day (nfl.com. (2009, January 1). Mark Sanchez. nfl.com.).

Sanchez provides a great case study because it is a situation where his physical skills were clearly the commodity over his nonphysical skills and experience. On top of that, once in the NFL, Sanchez was afforded every opportunity to succeed. He was handpicked by the Jets to be their franchise quarterback. The team had an incredible defense and running game to support Sanchez during his first two seasons which limited his responsibility and eased his transition into to the NFL. The Jets were so invested in Sanchez that Head Coach Rex Ryan got a tattoo of his wife on his arm clad in just a number six Jets’ jersey (Sanchez’ number).

Sanchez was the Jets full-time starter for his first four seasons. The Jets were a good enough team to make the AFC championship game in Sanchez’ first two seasons despite below average quarterback play. Then in Sanchez’s third and fourth seasons, the overall quality of the Jets diminished and Sanchez was exposed as the below average NFL quarterback he was, in spite of his first round draft grade, NFL arm, 6’2 height, and 4.88 forty time. During Sanchez’s final season as a full-time starting quarterback, he completed just 53.8% of his passes, 12-20 touchdown to interception ratio, and posted very poor 63.0 Quarterback rating. Those numbers were clearly not the return the team was hoping for in year four after investing three full seasons and signing Sanchez to the largest rookie contract in franchise history (Associated Press. (2009, June 11). Jets reach agreement with QB Sanchez. espn.com.).

To say the Jets spent four years fully invested in Sanchez might be an understatement. He was coached by respected Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Quarterback Coach Matt Cavanaugh. The Jets even brought in Peyton Manning’s former coach Tom Moore as a consultant. They signed Mark Brunell as their backup quarterback not to compete with Sanchez but to mentor him. Though Jet’s offense was initially complex, by most accounts they asked Sanchez to do very little in the ways of making plays. In his first couple seasons it was not uncommon to see receiver Brad Smith come onto the field at quarterback for Sanchez on 3rd and long situations to run a wildcat play rather than risk Sanchez throwing the ball. Once the Jets fully realized the limitations of their franchise quarterback it was reported they reduced the volume and complexity of their offense (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.).

The situation was going so badly the Jets would have been thrilled if Sanchez could have just been a game manager that could run their offense, convert a few third downs, and not turn the ball over. That the team drafted a player in the fifth overall, then a couple years down the road just wished he could be a game manager speaks volumes about what NFL teams really want in a quarterback. Nonphysical ability trumps physical ability.

Physical Ability Is Never the Issue – The Issues Are Always Nonphysical

What is most damning about the Mark Sanchez saga in New York is that Sanchez was a player that had all the physical tools (he was the fifth draft pick overall for crying out loud) and especially in his first couple years, he had tremendous team support because of their defense and running game. But he failed and failed miserably. Why? Because he lacked the nonphysical skills. The Jets fell in love with a quarterback that excelled in one on one workouts but couldn’t handle the nonphysical elements of NFL football. Because he was so gifted they were willing to take a chance on a player that attempted less than 400 career passes in college. Manning, in contrast, attempted 1,381 passes while in college at Tennessee. And the Jets try as the might, couldn’t develop Sanchez’s nonphysical skills. The issues with Sanchez were never, “Mark just doesn’t have the height/arm strength/ athleticism to make it in this league.” As reported by Dawidoff the major issue boiled down whether or not he could improve at the nonphysical elements of playing quarterback in the NFL:

After this week’s loss, [Offensive Line Coach Bill] Callahan experienced the near inability to speak. “I’m gutted,” he said. “Gutted. Just devastated. The way they moved past the great pain was by seeking a formal understanding…All around the building, [coaches] gathered in groups to watch the film, to ask themselves if Sanchez could learn to read the coverages more astutely, to ask if he could get through his progressions faster.

Dawidoff recorded the following events and conversations in game during another loss later that season:

[Jet’s Tight Ends Coach] Devlin, meanwhile, took it to heart every time Sanchez didn’t see open receivers in his progression, especially when the open man was a tight end…

…In the second half, against what was perhaps the NFL’s best pass rush, Sanchez threw and threw. He had open receivers, the booth could see them: “There’s Mully!”; “Was anybody on LT in the flat? Nope.” But Sanchez wasn’t finding them. He seemed befogged out there…Slowly the game withdrew from the Jets’ control. A Sanchez interception led to a field goal and a 20– 7 Giants lead. The coaches thought he was just not reading coverages.

After the game Dawidoff summed Sanchez’ standing on the Jets:

Sanchez had abundant physical ability and competitive spirit, but the turnovers and the poor reactions under pressure were going to cost him his job unless he improved. Sanchez himself agreed. Cavanaugh had written out an evaluation and showed it to the quarterback, who hadn’t disputed a thing in it (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.).

The layers of the onion run very deep with Sanchez. The reason I use him as an example is twofold. First, there was no debate that he had the physical ability. Here is a prospect who had all the ability and opportunity, yet just couldn’t get it done because of his lack of nonphysical skills. His stellar physical tools resulted in a cumulative quarterback rating of 71.7 and 68 touchdowns to 69 interceptions after his first four years. What is even more damning is that out of the quarterbacks to start four consecutive years for a team, Sanchez posted the worst cumulative passer rating in history during his time with the Jets:

There are 119 total instances of an NFL‬ team going with the same quarterback for four years straight… Mark Sanchez [the] 4 year veteran has managed to gain himself the title for worst of the worst when it comes down to passer rating for a four-year starter, even after taking his smash and defend team to the AFC Championship two years in a row (Roosevelt, J. (2013, April 8). The Passer Rating for Every 4 Year NFL Starting Quarterback is Anchored by Mark Sanchez. rsvlts.com.).

Physical Ability Never Goes Out of Style In The NFL

But what is even more mind blowing is that even with those numbers, and a well-documented inability to play the quarterback position, he still rumored to be a commodity in the NFL during the offseason:

As NFL teams begin mapping out their offseasons, most are assuming Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez will be cut and become a free agent … and some are excited about it. One coach of a quarterback-needy team said his team already has discussed Sanchez internally as an option to be its starting quarterback in 2014. “We’d take Sanchez,” the coach said. “He’d be the starter as soon as he walked in the door for us (Costello, B. (2014, January 21). Teams say Sanchez in high demand if Jets cut him. New York Post.)

2016 UPDATE: As it turned out Sanchez was traded to Philadelphia where he became the backup quarterback for Chip Kelly and ended up starting ten games. Kelly’s overall win percentage in Philadelphia was .553 (26-21). In the 10 games, Sanchez started it was .400 (4-6). That means in games with other quarterbacks than Sanchez, Kelly’s win percentage was almost 200 points higher at .594. Even more shocking was Denver signing Sanchez to be their backup for the 2016 season.

Everything But Athletic – The Kellen Moore Story

Now onto Kellen Moore, many may know his story already. He did, after all, win more games than any other quarterback in the history of college football. But it is not the number of wins, or that he was 53-3 as a starter and never lost to a BCS school. It is the way he and the Boise State Broncos did it. Jon Gruden summed it up when he introduced Kellen Moore to on an episode “John Gruden’s QB Camp”:

He’s the all-time winningest quarterback in college football history. He has tremendous anticipation and a complete command of the Boise State offense. They are as complicated and diverse as any offense I have ever seen in college football.

I have never believed so strongly that a quarterback was ready for the pro game as I did watching Kellen Moore at the end of his career. His nonphysical skills were as good as any player that has ever come out of college. Moore, through his innate abilities, hard work, and the wealth of experience that 56 college starts gives you, was out there playing chess against opposing defenses who were barely able to play checkers.

Moore ran a complex pro style system at Boise State. It involved lengthy terminology, was individual game plan intensive, and volume driven. Those who played Boise State during Moore’s career knew they had to prepare for a multitude of personnel packages, formations, motions, and shifts. And many would be new and unique each week (almost sounds like the NFL doesn’t it?). And then Boise State had the quarterback to masterfully execute it all. On Saturdays in the fall, Moore could be seen expertly deploying his teammates, reading and recognizing pre snap the schemes that opposing defensive coordinators had spent the week trying to concoct to stop him, and then surgically taking those schemes apart. Moore was decisive in the pocket, always seemed comfortable moving and sliding around despite his lack of size or athleticism, and then made up for whatever that left arm of his lacked in velocity with surreal anticipation and accuracy. By now it is NFL cliché to use a collegiate quarterbacks experience in a pro-style offense as a reason as to why he is desirable. It not necessarily about the system or style of offense a college quarterback plays in that should make him desirable but more about their acumen in that system. And in Boise’s system, Moore was an absolute master at work; organized, smart, aware, competitive, accurate, and ruthless. Exactly what an NFL team should want in a quarterback. And yet he was not even worth a 7th round pick. This is his draft profile on NFL.com:

Overview: Moore has been at the forefront of draft discussions for years. He was the undisputed leader for a Boise State team that won nearly every time he was under center. However, Moore’s size and arm strength are key concerns. Look for a team to take Moore in the late rounds looking to bring in a strong leader, heady quarterback, and potential backup.

Strengths: Moore is a strong leader and very poised in the pocket and under pressure. He has a quick pass set that is balanced and under control. He gets rid of the ball quickly and picks his spots effectively, although his release is slightly a sidearm. He has all the intangibles and is a very accurate thrower both short and long. He understands route progressions and how to put touch on the ball. He will scan the field and locate his second and third options.

Weaknesses: Moore is just under six feet tall, which is the major knock on his game as it translates to the next level. He struggles when throwing on the run and working outside the pocket, and is a very slow mover. The biggest knock on Moore is his arm strength, as he doesn’t show the ability to drive the ball down the field with velocity. With the timing and effectiveness he has worked with under Boise State’s system, Moore often lobs the ball and puts touch on it; his deep outs will likely be intercepted early in the NFL if he can’t learn to drive it harder (nfl.com. (2014). Kellen Moore Draft Profile. nfl.com.).

So let me get this straight, Moore does everything you want in a quarterback. Everything – but he is not tall enough, has too weak of an arm, and is too slow. In chapter 3, I discussed the ridiculousness of the idea that an NFL quarterbacks value is somehow directly tied to their ability to throw the deep out with herculean velocity. Moore would be able to throw deep outs in the NFL because he is accurate and throws with excellent anticipation (2016 UPDATE: Turns out he is able to throw outs in the NFL). And most importantly he would throw them against the proper coverages. But in the event that he couldn’t throw the deep 20 yard out, remember that Chad Pennington is the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage and had one of the weakest arms in the NFL. Luckily for Pennington and Moore, the NFL route tree has other routes besides the deep out, though both those quarterbacks could make that throw.

Review any number of articles written on Moore leading up to the draft and all you’ll see is comments about how there is no place for short, slow, weak-armed quarterback in the NFL. Here is one particularly venomous bit of criticism by the New York Times Andy Benoit:

My response to the Kellen Moore crowd is, welcome to reality. In the NFL, arm strength counts. So does size. And speed. And athleticism…The high volume of amateur athletes in college is also why Moore’s greatest asset – his intelligence – matters very little to the N.F.L. Intelligence can set a college player apart, but in the pros, where the systems are complex and tenfold deeper, where the opponents aren’t 20-year-old kids studying history and science along with scouting tape and playbooks, but rather, 28-year-old men studying tape and playbooks and then more tape and more tape after that, and where the coaching staffs often consist of tenured veterans who were once the best of the best from the college ranks…well, then intelligence becomes a prerequisite, not an attribute. In the N.F.L., just about everyone is smart. So for a hopeful NFL quarterback, intelligence cannot affect draftability – only the absence of intelligence can…. The same principles apply for athletic measurables. Arm strength, mobility, size, etc. – they’re all prerequisites… Kellen Moore was accurate in college, but that accuracy won’t translate to the pros because the throwing windows close so quickly. The only quarterbacks who even have a chance at getting a ball through a quick-closing window are those with strong arms (Benoit, A. (2013, April 30). Kellen Moore Not Drafted? No Reason to Feel Blue. fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com.)

How much misinformation can get packed into one article? 1) Physical tools are prerequisite (Sorry 2013 Peyton Manning, looks like your career is over). 2) Everyone in the NFL is smart so intelligence does not give you an advantage (Sorry again 2013 Peyton Manning). 3) The only way to get completions in the NFL is to throw footballs through mythic “quick closing windows” that only a howitzer of an arm can get the ball through in time (Sorry a third time 2013 Peyton Manning).

When someone says that a college prospect has great physical tools, it means nothing. When someone says a college prospect physical tools are not good enough to play in the NFL it means nothing. The only thing that matters is when an NFL coach calls Split Right Scat Right 639 F Angle, that the quarterback can read it correctly and get a completion. If I were an NFL head coach trying to keep my job and five million dollar annual salary, I would bet on a player like Kellen Moore’s to do that over, say Mark Sanchez.

Moore Report

Of course, when you are a short, slow, weak-armed, shaggy-haired kid from Prosser, Washington if you gave up every time someone overlooked or spoke ill of you let’s just say you would not have won those two high school state championships or more football games than any quarterback in college football history. After being considered a long shot to even make an NFL roster, media reports would indicate Moore is secure for now as the Detroit Lions third-string quarterback. The internet and media was rife with critics ripping Moore’s pro potential when he came out of college. NFL teams spoke much louder and more damningly when no team was willing to use a draft pick on him. By the end of the 2013 preseason Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Greg Bedard was probably the only pro-Moore voice out there:

I think Lions backup quarterback Kellen Moore is going to play for a long time in the league. When Moore entered the draft in 2011 out of Boise State, he was hammered for being too short (6-0) and not possessing enough arm strength… He’s never going to wow anybody with his physical skills, but Moore is so good at the mental side and anticipates plays so well that his arm strength is not an issue. In that way, he reminds me of former Jets starter Chad Pennington. Moore was terrific against the Patriots, who kept some veteran defensive players on the field in the second half, going 9 of 12 for 150 yards and leading three scoring drives (Bedard, G. (2013, January 1). Preseason Takeaways, Take 3. Sports Illustrated.).

Anyone who watched Moore play in college, and knows what and how much they did on offense should not be surprised at all. But again it just goes to show how backward the NFL quarterbacking model is.

In the first preseason game of 2014 Moore went 11/13 and threw a game-winning touchdown pass. Turns out that noodle of a left arm can get an NFL completion. Is Kellen Moore a lock to be an elite level quarterback? No. Maybe his arm is too weak, maybe he is too slow. But maybe, just maybe he does have enough physical ability. Maybe his physical skills are just good enough for him to be the in the NFL as he was in college. And as a result he can become an above-average or better player in a league full of below average quarterbacks. I know Moore is a few years younger than Sanchez, but hypothetically if they Jets invested four years in Kellen Moore the way the invested in Sanchez, I am certain that Moore would have developed faster and won them more football games and who knows, with Rex Ryan’s defenses, maybe a Super Bowl. And all at a fraction of what they paid Sanchez. Regardless it is hard to imagine he could have been worse than Sanchez’s four-year reign of futility.

2016 UPDATE: Kellen Moore finally did get the chance to play regular season football. He started the last two games of the regular season for a struggling Dallas team. His first start came on a cold and windy day in Buffalo, and his numbers were bad. Moore was 13/31, 186 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception for Quarterback rating of 48.6. Offensive Coordinator, Scott Linehan had some positive things to say afterward, however:

He’s been sitting, taking it all in, and he was made for this. He was prepared for being able to play the game of football at the quarterback position, you can just see how much experience he has. He never gets rattled, made a couple really nice checks, which I’ve never seen a guy starting his first game do, got us some big plays and really impressed with what he was able to do in his first start. (Phillips, B. (2015, December 27) Kellen Moore Moves The Offense, But Touchdowns Elude Him In First QB Start. Dallascowboys.com.)

In his second career start the following week at home versus Washington Moore rebounded. He went 33/48, 435 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 100.6 quarterback rating. It is impossible to say if Kellen Moore will ever be able to ascend to a larger role than a career backup, but in limited action, he has shown that his physical tools are functionally good enough in the NFL.

First Round Mulligans

The 2014 draft should be known as the second time is a charm draft. Bucky Brooks wrote an article for NFL.com titled, “Jaguars, Browns, Vikings took QB mulligan in 2014 NFL Draft.” Incredibly all three teams took a first round quarterback in 2014 despite all three teams drafting a first round quarterback within the past three years. In 2011, Jaguars took Gabbert and the Vikings Ponder. In 2012 the Browns took Weeden. By the 2014 draft incredibly all three teams had deemed their first round quarterbacks unsalvageable and once again drafted first round quarterbacks. Brooks broke down each quarterback failure:

What was the book on Blaine Gabbert heading into the 2011 draft? Gabbert ranked as the top quarterback in the 2011 class on several boards across the league. Teams were intrigued with his prototypical physical dimensions, arm talent and athleticism… Although Gabbert’s numbers paled in comparison to [former Missouri quarterback and NFL back up] Chase Daniel’s production guiding the same offense, Gabbert’s raw tools convinced many that he could develop into an impact player in the pros.

Scouts did worry about Gabbert’s pocket poise and deep-ball accuracy. He seemingly wilted under heavy pressure at Mizzou, exhibiting a lack of composure and courage when the pocket broke down.

The caveat is, of course, it didn’t help Gabbert at all the he was on one of the worst rosters in the NFL. But Gabbert is a classic case of overvaluing prototypical tools and undervaluing nonphysical tools.

What was the book on Brandon Weeden heading into the 2012 draft? Weeden was a late riser on draft boards around the league… The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder displayed the arm strength and passing prowess to make all of the requisite throws at the NFL level. Although he occasionally misfired on a tight-window throw, Weeden’s superior arm talent was expected to allow him to eventually succeed in a traditional dropback system…In terms of flaws in Weeden’s game coming out of Oklahoma State, scouts pointed out his questionable judgment, football IQ and athleticism… Additionally, he didn’t show great football awareness when he repeatedly fired the ball into traffic due to misreads. Consequently, scouts thought it would take some time for Weeden to develop into a solid starter as a pro.

Why do NFL coaches think that they can take a player that struggled to read coverages in college, and teach him to read NFL coverages?

What was the book on Christian Ponder heading into the 2011 draft? Ponder wasn’t hailed as a blue-chip prospect for much of the pre-draft process, but his combination of talent and intelligence helped him eventually work his way up the board. Ponder impressed scouts with his performance at the Senior Bowl and continued to impress during interviews, workouts and team visits. Thus, some evaluators simply looked past his pedestrian numbers as a three-year starter at Florida State (Brooks, B. (2014, May 20). Jaguars, Browns, Vikings took QB mulligan in 2014 NFL Draft. nfl.com.).

Ponder scored well on the Wonderlic test (35) and was billed as very intelligent and thought to be a nice college player. But then he tested at 34 inches in the vertical leap and ran a blazing 4.65 forty-yard time at 6’2 and 229 pounds, and suddenly he became a franchise caliber player.

Again, Physical Ability Is Never the Issue – The Issues Are Always Nonphysical

The NFL’s obsession with prototypically tall, big-armed quarterbacks has proven to be anything but fruitful. First round and second round picks from recent years are washouts left and right. I firmly believe this is because teams fall in love in with pro-day throwing sessions and drool over their combine numbers. Teams undervalue nonphysical skills, and erroneously think they can manufacture and develop those skills once a player gets on the roster.

Organizations then invest the precious commodity of practice and game reps on players who excel physically but struggle nonphysical elements. Then after failing to turn a talented thrower into an above average NFL quarterback, the same teams find themselves back in the market only two or three years later when they realize that the likes of Josh Freeman, E.J. Manual, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Jamarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Drew Stanton, Vince Young, and Matt Leinart might be great at throwing a football or running a forty during their pro-day workouts, but are not so great at the nonphysical duties required of NFL quarterbacks. It is impossible for me to say with any certainty what each of those players possessed from a nonphysical and intangible standpoint. However, one thing I can say for certain is all those players possessed great physical tools (which is why they were drafted high) but most have already washed out, and those in limbo have done little to make one think they will ever be a starting NFL quarterback.

As was the case with Sanchez, you can guarantee the conversations their coaching staffs were having about the players above surely never sounded like these (which I have made up):

“Well Gabbert has yet to make a correct read and decision on Spider Two Y-Banana but he sure gets some heat on the ball when he is forcing the corner route into triple coverage!”

“Locker does not ever recognize a blitz look or check out of a play or throw hot, but it is no big deal because every time he misses recognizing the blitz he runs for his life and shows off that unofficial combine forty of 4.52! I am sure glad we drafted a fast QB!”

“Ponder has not been very good from the pocket this year; you think maybe we should have drafted a 6’4 quarterback instead of 6’2 player?”

When you are coaching a quarterback within a competent system, the issues are rarely ever about their physical ability. Just like the Jets’ coaching staff’s conversations on Sanchez; it is always about can he master the system, read coverage, get through a progression in fast enough, and functionally deliver the ball.

Quarterbacking Reps are Perhaps the NFL’s Most Precious Commodity

The consequences of missing on a first round quarterback are severe. First, a team just burned a sizable chunk of salary cap space for the next three to four years. NFL teams are much safer from this now however because the rookie wage scale has limited first round quarterback’s initial salaries. But it is not just the money, it is the time and reps a team has sunk into a player with no return on that investment. And make no mistake about it, reps (whether in practice or games) for quarterbacks a precious, and very limited commodity. As a result teams must invest wisely because there are good and bad investments out there. The difference between investing reps in Sanchez compared to Russel Wilson is in many ways the difference in the rings on Pete Carroll and Rex Ryan’s fingers. It is the reason why Carroll is safely entrenched chewing gum on Seattle’s sideline, is on the hot seat in New York.

As much as I love and talk about the level Brady, Brees, and Manning have reached, those guys did not become elite overnight. They needed time, reps, and starts to develop and mature and become great. Former NFL quarterback Trent Green had this to say about the consequences of missing on a first-round quarterback:

It sets you back for years. You are giving a guy this kind of money, you are not just going say hey here is five starts let’s find out what you can do, you are going to give him several years to develop and learn and try and become that franchise quarterback you are hoping that he becomes. So you are jeopardizing five plus years (Freakonomics. (2011, April 29). Football Freakonomics: Taking Chances on Quarterbacks. Freakonomics.com.).

When teams invest time, starts, practice reps, and money into a player only to find themselves back at square one in a few years, it stunts the growth of the franchise. Doug Flutie had a journeyman NFL career which he laments for one simple reason; it never let him grow and develop in an offense:

This is where things just keep building for [Andrew Luck], that’s where I was jealous of all these guys who were with the same franchise, the same offense for years. You can just build on everything. Number one, it becomes instinctive, second nature — there’s no learning even. You’re just building on the foundation you already have. You’re just opening up an offense. As a quarterback, as the other parts might even be interchangeable, those guys don’t have to be perfect. As long as the quarterback is ahead of the game, everyone else is going to be comfortable (Edholm, E. (2014, July 9). Doug Flutie on the differences between Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel. sports.yahoo.com.).

The value of continuity at quarterback for a franchise is invaluable (just as the value of continuity in a scheme and coordinator is huge for a quarterback). If a team starts over with a new quarterback every few years, they are stunting the growth of their offense, team, and franchise.

Quarterbacks Take Time to Ripen – So Stop Picking the Green Ones

The NFL model for the ideal quarterback right now is Brady and Manning. Brees and Rodgers are very good, but they often operate from a huddle in a more traditional manner. Brady and Manning have built the neo-classical form of quarterbacking as generals leading their no huddle unit. They can be seen on Sunday’s relentlessly prodding and attacking defenses in their no-huddle systems. They stand at the line of scrimmage masterfully using false counts and formation shifts, varying tempos going both fast and slow but perpetually staying one step ahead of defenses. They are the model of doctorate level quarterbacking. The model that every NFL coordinator would give their laminated play call sheet for. Do you think that former Jets Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wanted to simplify his offense? Of course not. He was handcuffed by Sanchez. But first, he was handcuffed by his general, manager and head coach who took a quarterback with 16 college starts and just 400 collegiate passing attempts to his name. A player who excelled in one on one throwing sessions, but struggled to read defenses and get through progressions. Consequently, the Rex Ryan era Jets set themselves back four years when Sanchez washed out and a new quarterback needed to be drafted.

Elite Quarterbacks Do Not Develop Overnight

What people forget about Brady and Manning in their prime is that they were not always that good. It took years of experience and football reps to get to that point. Both played four years of college ball; Manning logged 1,381 passing attempts at the University of Tennessee over four seasons while Brady had 638 attempts in 29 games scattered over four years at the University of Michigan. Then they both developed at their own paces in the NFL, and eventually blossomed into the elite players (sports-reference.com).

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, you are familiar with the 10,000-hour rule. The idea that a human being needs 10,000 hours of practice to master something. It is this reason (along with the washout rate of NFL quarterbacks) that a college quarterback should never, ever leave college early. He should take every possible game and practice rep he can to better prepare himself for the limited window of time he will inevitably have to prove that he can be a NFL starting quarterback. Sanchez was given four years to figure it out, couldn’t and consequently his replacement was drafted and Sanchez was eventually cut by the Jets in March of 2014. Ponder basically had three years to prove himself as a competent starter, couldn’t and the Vikings have been trying to replace him ever since. People forget that Drew Brees was almost an NFL washout. He figured it out just in time to save his professional career, but not before the Chargers felt the need to draft Eli Manning with a first-round pick (who they subsequently traded for Philip Rivers who was to be Brees’ replacement).

It is not just quarterbacks who have a short window of time to figure it out in the NFL; head coaches have even less time to get it figured out, or they get fired. Just ask former Cleveland Browns Coach Rob Chudzinski or former Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Jim Mora – both were fired after just one year. If you are a head coach, you know the ultimate NFL quarterbacking model is Manning and Brady and you know you have a limited time to win or before you get fired. So why would you draft a quarterback who is at the equivalent of a middle school quarterback education like Sanchez with his 16 total starts and 400 snaps? Especially when you could have a quarterback with a master’s degree in quarterbacking like Kellen Moore.

2016 UPDATE: To further prove my point, look what long time NFL Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan had to say about Moore’s first NFL start:

He was prepared for being able to play the game of football at the quarterback position, you can just see how much experience he has. He never gets rattled, made a couple really nice checks, which I’ve never seen a guy starting his first game do, got us some big plays and really impressed with what he was able to do in his first start.

Moore appeared in 53 games and attempted 1,658 passes in college. As Jets’ Secondary Coach Dennis Thurman said:

Football’s a hard game, Tom Landry used to tell us that by the time you really learn to play it, you’ll be too old…Quarterbacks improve as they get older because they stop relying on their physical gifts and they compensate with preparation and study (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.)

Coaches and organizations are foolish for thinking they can draft an inexperienced college quarterback and quickly get them playing at an elite level. Quarterbacks need years and thousands of reps to develop and grow. If they do not get that at the college level, then they are going to have to spend those developmental years in the more difficult, less nurturing environment of the NFL where coaches and quarterbacks do not have the luxury of time to spend on developmental years.

2016 UPDATE: This reasoning is why I believe Cardale Jones is exceptionally foolish for leaving college early – he only had 270 career passing attempts in college. There is no way he is even close to being prepared to be an NFL quarterback.

Moneyball Quarterbacks – Over or Under Paying for Production

There is one more reason a team should give Kellen Moore a chance to compete for a starting quarterbacking job. His name is Russell Wilson. Because he is short? No, because he is cheap (2016 UPDATE: Or at least he was). The 2013 Seattle Seahawks were able to build a deep, talented roster that was good enough to win a championship in large part because they were getting great production from their quarterback at the bargain price of $681,085. That was less than their backup quarterback Tavaris Jackson who made $840,000 in 2013 (Wagoner, N. (2014, January 14). QB costs helped shape powerful NFC West. espn.com.). The Seahawks paid less than a million dollars for their starting quarterback who in return posted the 7th best quarterback rating in the league. Wilson is also the first quarterback in NFL history to post a quarterback rating of 100 or better in his first two seasons. Wilson’s 2013 salary made up .05% the Seahawks cap space in 2013 (Wagoner, N. (2014, January 14). QB costs helped shape powerful NFC West. espn.com.). That is a heck of a return on an investment. In comparison, Sanchez and Darelle Revis accounted for 25% of the Jets’ salary cap in 2011 (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.). In 2013, Sanchez made more than $13 million dollars (he was lost for the season due to preseason injury)(Clark, K. (2013, December 17). The Rise of the Discount QB. The Wall Street Journal.). Sam Bradford whose career quarterback rating of 79.3 cost the St. Louis Rams $12.6 million or 11.45% of their salary cap in 2013 by comparison (Wagoner, N. (2014, January 14). QB costs helped shape powerful NFC West. espn.com.) (Bradford tore the ACL in his left knee in 2013 and missed the final nine games of the season). That both players suffered season-ending injuries was an unfortunate coincidence, but not the point. The point is that Bradford and Sanchez are proven below average NFL players who are vastly overpaid. When healthy those quarterbacks’ play and production has never come close to warranting 12 million dollars a year.

At some point, a team will take a money ball like approach to the exorbitant salaries of an established NFL starting quarterback. Below is a look at the quarterbacks with five million or higher cap numbers in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons (overthecap.com. (2014, January 1). Top 50 Cap Numbers: Quarterbacks. overthecap.com.)

(overthecap.com)

Some quarterbacks on that list are more deserving of big money than others. But the point is not to argue over who deserves more or less money. But instead to gawk at the incredible number of players whose production does not come close to matching their salaries. When are NFL teams going to realize that paying $10 million or more per season for average to below average quarterback play is a bad investment? Matthew Stafford had a larger cap number than Brees, Brady, and Manning in 2013. If you are spending 17 million a year on a proven, elite quarterback, great. But why would you ever sign a player like Stafford to something remotely close to the same money those other quarterbacks make? Tell Stafford’s agent to take a hike, and start signing free agents at other positions.

Expensive Quarterbacks Mean Cheap Supporting Casts

Answer this question are the 2013 Lions a better team with Matthew Stafford and his 58.5% completion percentage, 29 to 19 touchdown to interception ratio, and $17+ million dollar cap hit at quarterback or Kellen Moore and his paltry $486,666 salary and 17 million dollars’ worth of free agents? Are the Bears really better with Jay Cutler at $18 million per season than Josh McCown at $10 million dollars plus an 8 million dollar free agent? Consider the following:

Of the 12 teams currently in position to make the [2013] playoffs, eight rank in the bottom half of the league for quarterback salaries. Conversely, of the top 15 highest-paid quarterbacks, only four are on track to make the playoffs (Clark, K. (2013, December 17). The Rise of the Discount QB. The Wall Street Journal.).

Eli Manning had the highest cap number of any quarterback in the NFL at just over 20 million dollars. I used to be one of E. Manning’s harshest critics, but over the years, I have begrudgingly come to accept that he is one of the better quarterbacks in the league and much better than the abysmal year he had last season would indicate. But when he alone accounts for 17% of the Giants $123 million dollar salary camp in 2014 it becomes impossible nearly impossible to build a quality team and offense around him.

It is no coincidence that the worst season of Eli Manning’s 10-year career corresponded with the Giants’ first losing season since Manning was a rookie. He goes as the team goes? The team goes as he goes? As they like to say in “Agents of Shield,’’ it’s all connected…The Giants have an obligation here too, as the personnel department let Manning down by allowing the offensive line to deteriorate and the ball-handling talent around him to dry up (Schwartz, P. (2014, May 11). Giants’ Draft Gives Eli Manning Plenty of Weapons. New York Post.).

The onus is on the front office but to blame them for not putting talent around E. Manning is reactionary. First, blame them for signing E. Manning to a contract that would pay him such an exorbitant amount of money in a given year to a point where there was little money left to put talent around him. It is not E. Manning’s fault; he just signed the contract. E. Manning at 15 million a year makes sense, 20+ is ludicrous.

Going into 2014, how can teams rationalize paying Jay Cutler 18 million, and Sam Bradford 17 million? Drew Brees’ cap number is 18 million in 2014. Drew Brees production and ability is on a different planet than Cutler and Bradford, so how are teams paying those two more than Brees?

The NFL Quarterback Talent Pool is Too Shallow to Support the Franchise Quarterback Model

Because the model is broken for so many teams, why not break the machine and throw the baby out with the bathwater? For the vast majority of the NFL, the franchise quarterback model is not working. Both with the type of player they are drafting and the money they are paying them. Using Pro Football Focus’ quarterback grading system (zero is the tipping point) out of the 42 quarterbacks that took at least 25% of their team’s snaps in 2013 exactly half had a negative grade:

Jake Locker, Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Kellen Clemens, Thaddeus Lewis, Matt Cassel, Matt Flynn, Matt McGloin, Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, Eli Manning, Case Keenum, Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Jason Campbell, Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, Terrelle Pryor, E.J. Manual, Geno Smith, Chad Henne

If we look at the top of Pro Football Focuses’ list, who really has a franchise quarterback right now?

Denver- Manning, New Orleans – Brees, San Diego –Rivers, Seattle – Wilson, Green Bay – Rodgers, New England – Brady, Pittsburg – Roethlisberger, Indianapolis – Luck, Dallas – Romo, New York – Eli Manning.

Outside of that group are there other quarterbacks who are no doubt elite franchise players? Take a look at the graph contrasting three different grading systems. How many of those quarterbacks would you want to build a franchise around?:

(profootballfocus.com)

The Talent Pool Is Shallow Because the NFL is Not Good at Drafting Quarterbacks

Looking beyond just the 2013 crop of quarterback production below is a list of quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2000 and frankly, it is not good. I’ve taken the liberty of coding each one with a grade:

BOLD: Below average NFL starter, backup, or no longer in the league.

UNDERLINE: Too early to say, solid starter, or quality of starter is debatable between solid and elite.

ITALIC: Proven franchise quarterback, the caliber of player that if your team traded for today, you would be ecstatic over.

(Figueroa, P. (2014, March 13). Best and Worst First Round Quarterbacks Since 2000. sportingcharts.com.)

It is clear that NFL teams are wildly unsuccessful at selecting quarterbacks in the first round. When an NFL team is taking a quarterback in the first round, the benchmark is finding an elite, franchise caliber quarterback. The goal is a player that will turn into the next Brady, Brees, Manning, or Rodgers. Anything less is an unsuccessful pick. Yet between 2000 and 2013, 23 out of the 37 have been largely unsuccessful. And unless the NFL decides to change its filter, start devaluing physical skills and valuing nonphysical skills, team’s ability to successfully identify franchise quarterbacks and the mean quality of NFL quarterbacking will not be getting better anytime soon.

2016 UPDATE: Palmer, Newton, and Flacco could all be argued to be franchise caliber quarterbacks to varying degrees. So we will say the NFL went 8/37 when it comes to drafting a franchise caliber player in the first round.

Chapter 5

The Dream of the Perfect Quarterback / the Pros and Cons of being an Athletic Quarterback

Athletic quarterbacks are embraced more in today’s NFL than any previous era; they are the new prototype. Teams actively seek mobile quarterbacks and are willing to select them at the top of the draft even if they are not yet great passers. NFL teams regular draft speed and athletic ability over passing prowess. This is the continuation of long-held belief that athleticism gives a quarterback a chance to become the perfect quarterback. Or as Sports Illustrated called Randal Cunningham on a 1989 cover, “The Ultimate Weapon.” Coaches and general managers envision a player who can consistently perform pre snap procedures, make correct reads and accurate throws on time and in rhythm from the pocket with unlimited arm strength to get the ball anywhere on the field. And if the pass protection fails, receivers are well covered, the quarterback misses a read, or for some other reason the play breaks down, then the perfect quarterback can tuck the ball and turn into a dynamic runner. Additionally, with the success of the zone read in the NFL, athletic quarterbacks allow an offense to do more with their running game. Imagine someone who throws it like Brees and runs it like Kaepernick – if only it were that simple.

Yesterday’s Randall Cunningham is today’s Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Vince Young, Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick, and Derek Carr. Those quarterbacks are just a few of the influx of quarterbacks who ran their combine (or pro day) forty yard dash in 4.69 seconds or less. Every year another couple prospects are drafted into the NFL with elite physical skillsets that could potentially make them the perfect quarterback. Yet rarely do these quarterbacks become above average NFL passers much less have statistically elite seasons, why? The reason being when a quarterback has extreme athleticism, it stunts their growth as a passer.

There are a number of quarterbacks that could potentially be the perfect quarterback with their combination of arm talent and athleticism. Height and size would ideally be an ingredient of the perfect quarterback because it is hard to tackle and athletic 6’5, 240lbs quarterback. However if you’ve witnessed NFL defenders futilely trying to corral Russell Wilson, you understand that if a quarterback has speed and quickness and know how to use it, they too can be extremely hard to tackle whether they are Newton sized or Wilson sized. For the sake of this conversation, athletic quarterbacks will be defined as players with speed and arm talent to potentially be the ‘perfect quarterback.’

Athletic Quarterbacks as Elite Passers

Below take a cursory look at the top 20 rated passers from 2010-2013 with Pro Football Focus’ advanced quarterbacking metric below (that factors in both pass and run efficiency so theoretically it is more generous when measuring the impact of athletic quarterbacks) and traditional NFL quarterback rating. The statistical leader each year is listed first then any quarterback I consider also dynamic athletically (Wilson, Kaepernick, Vick, Robert Griffin III, Newton, Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Locker, Ponder) if they finished in the top 20 of either rating system:

(profootballfocus.com)

I do not ever believe you draw conclusions solely from a quarterback’s stats, and definitely not just his quarterback rating. However trends, or lack thereof can begin to paint a bigger picture. While it must be considered that only about a quarter of NFL starters could be described as special athletically so they make up the minority of NFL starters (for example here in 2013: Newton, Kaepernick, Griffin III, Ponder, Locker, E.J. Manual, Geno Smith, Wilson, Vick, Tannehill, Gabbert), what is striking is that aside from Wilson’s budding star, a career year for Vick, and Griffin III’s stellar rookie campaign, athletic quarterbacks rarely and inconsistently post top-10 statistical seasons.

Those results could just be the result of a small sample size, but I believe they are indicative of a larger issue. When a quarterback is a supremely gifted athlete, their passing skills (both physical and nonphysical) tend to suffer and develop more slowly. My hypothesis is that it is because, throughout their entire football lives, their trump card has always been their legs, not their arms. As a result, it has allowed them to have great success as a quarterback, despite not being as fully developed as a passer.

Jaworski on Athletic Quarterbacks

But at the NFL level, whether athletic or not, it is all about one’s development as a passer. When ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski critiques the NFL’s athletic Quarterbacks, he constantly talks their development or underdevelopment as passers because ultimately that will determine their success in the NFL. Here is Jaworski on Newton:

What prevented Newton from moving up in my rankings from 15 a year ago was his passing. Not only did he struggle to read coverage, but he was far too erratic with his accuracy, too scattershot.

Jaworski on Locker:

[Locker’s] skillset is that of a dual-threat quarterback, with a strong arm and excellent athletic ability to make plays with his legs. Right now, Locker is a movement player. While there’s no question that has its merits, the reality in the NFL remains the same as it always has been: no one is a top-level quarterback because of the way they move or run.

Jaworski on Griffin III:

As spectacular as RG III can be with his legs, it’s his passing ability that gives him a chance to be a very special player. That’s why I have him ranked 13th after just one season…

Jaworski on Wilson:

Throwing from the pocket remains the No. 1 trait for high-level quarterback play, regardless of the player’s athleticism and mobility. It’s the reason Wilson has a chance to be a very good quarterback over a long period of time. He throws it very well from the cradle. The more I studied him, the more I liked his future. (Stoneberg, A. (2013, July 13). ESPN Unveils 2013 Jaws’ QB Countdown List. espnmediazone.com.)

It is simple, the players that have developed their nonphysical ability in addition to their athleticism have a chance to be elite and become the perfect quarterback. Those that have not are going to be average at best.

The Career Arc of Vince Young

Vince Young is the perfect case study of why athletic quarterbacks are often slow to develop as passers. Young was such a talented athlete playing quarterback; he was able to literally run his way to a national championship. Yes, Young made throws and put up increasingly productive passing as a junior and senior in college, but ultimately who Vince Young the quarterback was can be summarized in one play. I’ll let ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach describe the play (which was voted as college football’s greatest play of the decade):

With Texas trailing defending national champion USC 38-33 at the Rose Bowl, the Longhorns faced fourth-and-5 at the Trojans’ 8. Texas called “928 Sneak.” Young took the snap and dropped back to pass. He scanned the field, going through his progressions, but couldn’t find an open receiver.

When Young saw USC end Frostee Rucker hit tailback Selvin Young up the middle, he knew Rucker couldn’t get back outside fast enough. So Young took off running for the end zone, sneaking inside the right pylon for an 8-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to go…giving the Longhorns a 41-38 victory and their first national championship in 35 years. (Schlabach, M. (2010, January 19). Young’s TD run tops decade’s best plays. espn.com.)

I remember watching the game live on television and with 100% certainty that Young would end up running with the ball on that fourth down play. And he did. Upon recently reviewing the play, Young takes a cursory glance left, comes off the concept very quickly, hesitates a moment, as he drops his eyes to find an escape lane from the pocket, then bolts for the right corner of the end zone. If that play happened one hundred times Young tucks and runs one hundred times. He knew that his best chance to help his team win the game and national championship was if he ran. Presumably, that is the pattern that had developed during his Pop Warner and high school football days. It worked then, and here it was working again on the biggest stage against the best competition that major college football had to offer. With that sort of positive reinforcement throughout his life and again in the national championship game it is only going to fuel a behavioral response. When stakes are the highest, when the pressure is the greatest, when the outcome is in jeopardy – tuck and run! Trust your legs, not your arm. I believe that mentality gets ingrained in athletic quarterbacks from a young age, so consequently, their growth as passers is stunted. Reading coverage, getting through progressions, and making throws all from the pocket is difficult. Very difficult. It takes reps and years to develop and become good at. But from the first time they put pads on they were good at running. So young athletic quarterbacks experience more success in competition when they tuck and run as opposed to trying to throw the ball from the pocket. Tucking the ball and running is easier, natural, and instinctive. Throwing the ball from the pocket is difficult and less certain. Missing an open receiver or throwing an interception brings admonishment and even embarrassment, tucking and running brings positive yards, wins, and praise.

When a quarterback tries to scramble or wants to run, the first thing he does is bring his eyes down. He cannot scramble out of the pocket unless he first finds the escape route and to do that he must see the rush to find an exit lane. Consequently, when the rush gets close, eyes often come down to try and find an escape from the pocket rather than using every last moment before the rush closes in to work through the progression and give receivers a chance to get open.

Urgency In the Pocket – Defusing Bombs

I use the following analogy to illustrate the difference between a traditional pass first player and an athletic quarterback. Playing from the pocket is like being stuck in a building with a bomb in it. And it is the quarterback’s job is to defuse the bomb by diagnosing the design, then finding and cutting the correct wire – all before the timer runs out. The building represents the pocket, diagnosing the design is reading the defense, finding and cutting the wire is working through a progression and getting the ball to the receiver, and the bomb exploding represents the moment the rush gets to the quarterback. Athletic quarterbacks go into the situation knowing that when the timer gets down to the last few seconds, they have the ability to take off and safely escape (and can still potentially make a play by scrambling or running the ball).

Nonathletic quarterbacks understand another reality – they have no chance of escape. If they do not solve the bomb’s design (read the coverage), find the correct wire ( get through the progression to find an open receiver), and cut that wire (get the ball out to that receiver) before the bomb goes off (the rush hits them) they are finished. Because of this, it gives pocket passers a heightened sense of urgency and focus in the pocket. You very rarely see Brady, Brees, or Manning bring their eyes down. Even in the face of pressure, they are sliding trying to manipulate the pocket, buying precious extra seconds in the hope that they will find a place to go with the ball to beat the rush. There is an urgency to their manner in the pocket; they are determined to find a receiver before the rush arrives. They know for their team to win, they must decipher the coverage, get through their progression until they arrive at an open receiver and get the ball out.

Imagine the urgency and focus you would have in that building if you knew you could not escape, you would be much more determined in trying to defuse the bomb. But if you knew that when the timer got down to three seconds, you could just bolt, you’d be much more likely to just casually examine the bomb, if the wire was obvious and easy to find you’d cut it otherwise you’d just take off running when the timer got to three. While athletic quarterbacks want to find a receiver, they also want to keep their distance from the rush, because they always know they have a plan B. And knowing there is a plan B stunts the development of plan A – throwing the ball on time from the pocket.

The Career Arc of LeBron James

When LeBron James came into the NBA by all accounts, he was very raw as a shooter. This is the norm for athletic “slasher” type basketball players at all levels. Their game is being athletic and getting to the hoop for lay-ins and high percentage shots. They have always had the innate ability to get to the rim because of their athleticism, so they did not need to put extreme effort and focus into developing their jump shot to be successful. Consequently, they tend to struggle when forced by a capable defense to shoot jump shots. Until James got to the NBA, he had never met a defender or a team that could keep him away from the basket. Once in the NBA, he found that defenses could keep him away from the basket. As a young NBA player possessing an underdeveloped jump shot, James was not the best player in the world. He was not going to score consistently from 15+ feet like he could when he attacked the hoop. So when he played a team that was able to keep him away from the basket, he would struggle, and his teams would eventually get knocked out of the playoffs. Fast forward to 2014 and James’ game now includes the ability to score from 15+ feet. As a result, he is the best player in the world because he combines unbelievable athleticism, size, speed, and skill (which now includes the essential ability to score from 15+ feet which is basically the NBA equivalent of being able to throw the ball from the pocket). LeBron James maniacally put the work in to develop his jump shot. His rookie field goal percentage improved from 41.7% in 2003-04 to 56.7% in 2013-14. His three-point percentage went from 29% his rookie season to 37.9% in 2013-14 (stats.nba.com). James always had the physical potential to be the best player in the NBA, but it was not until he developed the nonphysical elements of his game that he truly became that player.

But for the case of LeBron James, many more NBA careers have plateaued or never happened because great athletes never developed their ability to shoot the ball at an elite level. Players who like James had enough athleticism to dominate high school and college without becoming and consistent outside shooter. Then once tried to make it in the NBA it was a fatal flaw, they could not develop that ability fast enough, and the league moved on. That is exactly what happened with Vince Young. His running ability made him as great a college player as ever there was. But it also allowed him to be successful with underdeveloped nonphysical passing ability. When he got to the NFL, his lack of ability and consistency to throw the ball was exposed just like James’ inability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. The difference is the NBA gave James the time to develop his nonphysical game while the NFL simply moved on from Young after a few years.

Finding the Balance – Philadelphia’s Opposing Blueprints for Athletic Quarterbacks

What that statistical breakdown of athletic NFL quarterbacks passer ratings really shows is how difficult it is for athletic quarterbacks to be consistent throwing the ball. Players would have a good year then be average the next. The reason is that it is a constant struggle to find the balance between passer and athlete, to hang in the pocket and make throws when you believe more in your legs than your arm. When your survival instincts are telling you when in doubt, take your eyes off the action down the field, look at the rush to find and escape lane so you can tuck and run.

While it is difficult for an athlete playing quarterback to become a truly great passer, it is not impossible. It just takes work and commitment from both the quarterback and coach. Russell Wilson is the most recent example of an athletic quarterback who committed to playing the position from the pocket and then using his athleticism as a plan B. The blueprint for what not do and what to do with an athletic quarterback all come from Philadelphia. First, you had former head coach Buddy Ryan tell Randall Cunningham to just make a few big plays and the defense would handle the rest (Rosenberg, M. (2013, September 19). Today’s Perfect Quarterback Played a Quarter-Century Ago. mmqb.si.com.). Ryan’s lack of initiative to develop or find a coach to develop ultimately handicapped his Eagles teams (they never won a playoff game) and Cunningham’s career as a NFL player.

The example of how to develop an athletic quarterback is the marriage of Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid in Philidelphia. McNabb came out of college possessing exceptional athleticism. However, Reid refused to allow McNabb to use it as a crutch. Reid forced McNabb to develop and play like he was typical NFL pocket passer. Consequently, McNabb became one of best quarterbacks in the league and undoubtedly a franchise quarterback in his prime. McNabb spent 11 years with the Eagles. Over the course of his 3rd-11th seasons, McNabb averaged 89.4 rating which included a season of 104.7 (2004), 95.5 (2006). McNabb is 25th all-time with an 85.6 passer rating (Rodgers is first at 104.9, Manning is second at 97.2, Brady is sixth at 95.7, and Brees seventh at 95.3).

Because McNabb developed under Reid as if he were a typical pocket passer, he could run the offense, read coverages, and distributed the ball accordingly. However when protection broke down, he missed a read, or the Eagles marginal cast of receivers could not get open, he could pull the ball down and be what he was, one of the best athletes on the field (Youtube McNabb to Freddie Mitchell vs. Cowboys on Monday Night Football). I believe the reason McNabb was able to lead a very marginal cast of skill players to three consecutive NFC championship games was because he fully developed his ability to throw from the pocket. McNabb was committed to trying to make plays with his arm first and very effective at it. Then only once he had exhausted his possibilities from the pocket did he use his athleticism to make plays, making him in his prime a nightmare to defend, and darn near the perfect quarterback.

Near the end of his tenure in Philadelphia, Reid had similar success coaching perpetual scrambler Michael Vick to remain in the pocket and get through progressions. The 2010 season was the first time in Vick's career that he completed more than 60% of his passes and his 100.2 quarterback rating was his best ever. How’d it happen?

Coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg deserve the credit for transforming Vick from a run-first playmaker to a polished pocket passer. They cleaned up some of the sloppy footwork and mechanics that led to this inconsistency. In addition, they taught Vick to play with better discipline and focus as a passer. Vick resisted the temptation to flee the pocket at the first sign of trouble, and relied on his arm and awareness of “hot routes” to defeat the rush…

During his tenure with the Falcons, Vick would simply rely on his speed and athleticism to carry the offense. His improvisational skills frequently led to highlight plays, but it was hard for the unit to sustain long drives.

Given his success as a runner and struggles from the pocket, opponents would employ spy tactics with a linebacker or safety and dare Vick to string together a series of completions. Although Vick would occasionally enjoy a big passing day, the prevailing thought among defensive coordinators was that he had less of an impact as a passer than a runner. (Brooks, B. (2011, June 13). Repeat Performance Depends on Vick’s Continued Growth. nfl.com.)

Vick had his best season ever because for the first time in his career he was committed and capable of being a pass-first quarterback. Why did it take until his 8th season for this maturation as a quarterback to happen? Because during his time in Atlanta he was content to be an average quarterback with great athleticism and the Falcons organization enabled and allowed him to be complacent. His marginal nonphysical skills were disguised (and even pardoned by the organization and fans) because of his otherworldly physical tools. What finally inspired the change in Vick was that in Philadelphia, for the first time his athleticism alone wasn’t enough to make him the starter. If he wanted to play for Andy Reid, he was going to have to improve his technical ability and nonphysical skills:

The resurgent Vick has improved his footwork, the way he bends his knees, the way he angles his shoulders, and his vision, according to his coaches. The results have made Vick the talk of the NFL and a different passer from the one who mixed astounding plays with frustrating mistakes earlier in his career.

Vick’s progression under Reid is similar in some ways to that of his friend and this Sunday’s opponent, Donovan McNabb, a mobile quarterback with a big arm who, as time went on, began to rely more on his throws than runs….

“I see a guy who is more patient, more willing to sit inside the pocket and wait for things to develop down the field before he takes off,” Jim Mora, who coached Vick in Atlanta, said recently on the NFL Network.

“We have to kind of kick him out of the building here,” [Reid] said. “I don’t know if that’s the way it was always in his career.”

Vick confirmed as much Tuesday. Speaking to high school students at Imhotep Charter School as part of his agreement to work against dogfighting, Vick weaved together stories about how his fame and early success led to problems off the field, as well as on it.

“I didn’t work out, didn’t study film, it set me back,” Vick said.

Now, he says, there is less time for Xbox, golf, and fishing.

“I have to spend more time being well-prepared and showing the guys around me that I’m as committed as they are,” Vick said. (Tamari, J. (2010, September 29). For Vick, Small Adjustments Yield Big Results. philly.com.)

It is not that all athletic quarterbacks refuse to work out or watch film, or don’t bother to develop their technical passing technique. Vick’s case in Atlanta may have been one of apathy, laziness, arrogance, and/or ignorance. Many athletic quarterbacks work really hard on their technical ability and nonphysical skills. But whether it is in a game or practice, it is a challenge to neglect running ability in favor of developing pure passing ability.

Why Quarterbacks Cannot ‘Out-Athlete NFL Defenses

So why is it bad that athletic quarterbacks trust their legs more than their arm? There are several issues it causes but first is that at some point in the NFL a quarterback is going to have to throw the ball for his team to win. The same way that NBA defense forced Lebron James into making perimeter shots to win, and some point a quality NFL defense will be able to corral and athletic quarterback enough to force them to make throws to win the game. Kyle Shanahan was formerly the offensive coordinator for Robert Griffin in Washington and is now charged with developing Johnny Manziel as the Offensive Coordinator of the Cleveland Browns explained how Manziel needs to understand at the NFL level he has to be a difference quarterback. It is not a choice; it is a mandate imposed by the quality of the NFL level:

The test when you get to the NFL is a lot of times those defenses will not allow you to do that. They’re going to keep you in the pocket. They’re going to have their containment. So you can’t always be looking for it. You’ve got to be able to do both, and when something’s not there or when a defense gets out of their lanes, yeah, make them pay. (Withers, T. (2014, July 31). Manziel Battling Playbook, Hoyer In First NFL Camp. AP.org.)

Manziel like all great athletic quarterbacks will find moments and time to improvise at the NFL level, but that will not define him or make him elite. What will is if the majority of the time he can make sound decisions snap in and snap out, hit the top of his drop and get the ball out to his teammates.

Kaepernick the Quarterback vs. Kaepernick the Running Back

But again the bottom line is at some point an NFL defense, if they are any good, will be able to force a quarterback to make plays with his arm. Whether it be third down and medium, a two-minute drill, a game against the NFL’s best run defense, case and point the Seahawks – 49ers 2013 playoff game. Kaepernick rushes for 98 yards in that first half, and the 49ers are up 10-3 at halftime. But the Seahawks defense eventually tightened up allowing Kaepernick on 32 yards rushing in the second half. In a close game, Kaepernick needed to beat them throwing the ball but instead his last two drives ended on interceptions and he finished the game 14 of 24 for a paltry 154 yards and 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Five of his 14 completions and 56 of his 154 yards came on the final drive of the game. That means he had 98 passing yards and 9 completions up prior to the final drive of the game. Against a quality opponent an athletic quarterback is going to have to drop back and make throws and his athleticism is not going to be able to bail him out.

Kaepernick illustrates perfectly the artificial ceilings some athletic quarterbacks place on themselves. Vince Young was so athletic he did not have a ceiling at the college level. In the NFL, it was a different story. Kaepernick’s athletic ability is so staggering (these things do not happen in a vacuum, the quality team, great defense, and suitable offense system helps) that he was able to ‘athletic quarterback’ his way to the Super Bowl in 2012. He averaged a staggering 10.2 yards a carry in his three 2012 playoff games. His passing numbers were also very good, averaging a 103.5 NFL quarterback rating in the playoffs. But with less than two minutes and second and goal from the five-yard line, that is where Kaepernick the athlete ceased to exist and Kaepernick the quarterback needed to step up. Three incompletions later, the Baltimore Ravens were Super Bowl XLVII champions. The story does not stop there though, and this perfectly illustrates the athletic quarterback mindset dilemma. A year after the game on a Bill Simmons podcast, Kaepernick lamented about a timeout the 49ers took because the play clock was about to expire, the annulled a designed quarterback run that Kaepernick believes he would have scored on:

There was one play we had that we had called a timeout on that I think would have walked in, and the play clock was running down so we called a timeout. (Smith, M. (2014, February 1). Kaepernick thinks timeout cost 49ers last year’s Super Bowl. profootballtalk.nbcsports.com.)

With no timeouts remaining, the 49ers changed the play call from the quarterback run to a pass play. Here in lies the issue, the athletic quarterback is not awake at night thinking about the three reads and/or throws he missed, each one that could have won the Super Bowl. Instead, Kaepernick is lamenting that he did not get the chance to run the ball in for the win.

At the NFL level at some point regardless of the level, a quarterback is going to have to ultimately make a play with their arm. Kaepernick was forced to (whether by situation or playing calling) on those final three snaps of 2012, just like he had to try and beat the best defense in the NFL in 2013 with his arm. That is just the nature of the NFL football, at some point, there will be a defense or a situation that forces a quarterback to make plays with their arm to win the ball game.

Consistency is Not a Byproduct of Freelancing and Improvisation

The next that affects athletic quarterbacks is that it is hard to be consistent making scramble plays. First, because the more a quarterback runs around and gets hit, it takes a toll on their ability to throw and throw accurately. Physical fatigue becomes a factor. But more than that a quarterback cannot be consistent making scramble plays on a regular basis. There is no guarantee that he is able to escape the pocket. Manning, Brees, Rodgers, and Brady are so good because they get the ball out of their hand before the rush can get there. By scrambling, quarterbacks are banking that they can flat out evade the rush. Sometimes it works out sometimes it does not. And often when a quarterback scrambles he is doing a lot of work to get the same result a pocket passer would have gotten without breaking a sweat. Case and point is Johnny Manziel’s ‘Heisman moment’ play against Alabama. Here is the dialogue from Manziel’s appearance on “John Gruden’s QB Camp”:

JG: Remember this play? The signature play that everybody imitates. Right? Where Manziel is looking to his left, he’s going to jump over his right tackle, throw it up in the air, do a 360, sprint to your left and find somehow your friend Swope, in Tuscaloosa! That’s the greatest play I’ve ever seen.

JM: And it could have been a lot simpler. Hitting number one on the [under].

JG: You know what Peyton Manning was saying at his house probably? Just throw the what –

JM: Just throw the under.

JG: Just throw the damn under and get on with the game.

On the play, Manziel inexplicably doesn’t see his first read wide open for a touchdown and instead scrambles out of the pocket, runs into his right tackle, nearly fumbles, changes direction, and then is able to find an open receiver for the same touchdown. The point is he had to work really hard for the touchdown, when he could have just worked smart. And furthermore, he put a positive play at risk multiple times when he was running around. There were moments of risk where the play could have ended badly for A&M and changed the outcome of the game. Manning would have gotten the ball out of his hand, six points on the board, and never exposed himself or offense to those extra moments of risk.

The difference between Manziel and Manning on any given pass play is that Manning takes the snap with the knowledge that if he does not find a receiver ASAP, the play is doomed because he cannot escape the rush. Manziel like on his famous scramble play knows that even when he misses a read or doesn’t even read a play at all, he most likely can still evade the rush, extend the play and try to find an open receiver or run himself. Consequently, Manning takes each snap with laser focus and disciplined eyes. It is life or death; recognize the defense and read the concept or else. Manziel and other athletes can freelance and play with less focus. The downside is sometimes it works out and you win the Heisman, other times you struggle to be consistent. You will make some spectacular play, but you will also flat out not see a lot of open receivers.

Athletic quarterbacks can struggle to become great passers because to do so they need to almost completely neglect their incredible physical gifts so that they can fully develop their passing ability. Is an elite athletic high school quarterback (or his coach) going to force himself sit in the pocket and try to make reads and throws on time in rhythm during crucial moments of high school games and throw the ball? Or is he going to scramble outside the confines of the pocket where he can see clearly, and just play with his eyes and either wait for a receiver to break wide open or run himself? I would say most aren’t, and they simultaneously lose valuable experience making pressure throws and reads from the pocket and program themselves to tuck and run in critical moments. They understandably opt to use their athleticism to succeed in the short term, and that hurts their long term growth as a passer. An athletic quarterback developing into an elite passer is not impossible, but usually, it takes some sort of adversity to inspire a player (like Vick being a backup for the first time in Philadelphia) that forces them to refocus on their mechanics and nonphysical skills, and make more plays from inside the pocket.

Great Math and Favorable Coverages – The Advantages of Running the Quarterback

While it may be more difficult to get an athletic quarterback to develop, there is one enormous advantage athletic quarterbacks do have when it comes to throwing the ball

Pop Quiz #1

Q: What do the option, the wildcat, the zone read, power read, veer, and any designed quarterback run have in common?

A: They all add the quarterback into the run equation. Or as I like to say “plus one.” Now instead of 10 vs. 11, it becomes 11 vs. 11.

When the quarterback hands the ball off, the offense loses a number. With one player (the quarterback) standing and watching, and another player (the ball carrier) trying not to get tackled, the offense is now down a man and playing ten vs. eleven. The defense has eleven guys trying to tackle the ball and the offense only have ten players either running with the ball or blocking. However when the quarterback either runs the ball (wildcat and designed QB runs), pitches off a defender (option) or reads a defender (zone read, power read, veer) the numbers become eleven vs. eleven. Read that paragraph twice, please. So when talking heads yammer on about the wildcat or the zone read being a fad in the NFL – it is none of that. It is a way for the offense to change the math and get a numerical advantage.

Athletic Benefits: Math and Coverages

(Former) Kansas Head Coach Charlie Weiss explained the advantage of using a athletic quarterback like this:

You are playing 11-on-10 football (without one). If the quarterback is never going to carry the ball and is not a threat to the defense, and they do not have to worry about him, they are plus one as far as numbers go. I think by having the quarterback being able to be one of the guys that carries the ball, puts much more stress on the defense. (Fischer, B. (2014, July 21). Charlie Weis thinks dropback quarterbacks have been exposed. nfl.com.)

As a result, regardless of whether an athletic quarterback is running the triple option, zone read, or just scrambling and running frequently; it changes is the types of coverages he sees. The reason being, you have to run fit ten versus eleven football much differently than eleven versus eleven football. Therefore athletic quarterbacks see significantly less 2-high safety coverages (especially on first down, second down, and third and less than six yards). And if they do see 2-high coverage it is most likely cover-4 (which is better against the run and weaker against the pass than cover-2) and not cover-2. When a quarterback is facing a 1-high coverage it can basically be two things; man or cover-3 zone. Add cover-4 in there and regardless you have three basic coverages where the cornerbacks must back up making it essentially one on one on the outside. What that means is that when a quarterback is a factor in the run game the coverages (and subsequently the reads) they get tend to be simpler. Listen to Jaworski talk about Kaepernick:

It was a signature play of the 2012 season. It was Kaepernick’s first touchdown run against Green Bay that really caught my attention. You see the press man coverage with two deep safeties. It turned out the Packers doubled Michael Crabtree. But the point is the same. This is what mobile, athletic quarterbacks can do versus man-to-man coverage, especially on third down. It forces defenses to rethink their concepts, it limits their tactical options. (Stoneberg, A. (2013, July 13). ESPN Unveils 2013 Jaws’ QB Countdown List. espnmediazone.com.)

When a quarterback with limited ability as a passer like Vince Young gets to the NFL he is able to stand a chance (at least until definite passing situations) and get completions and have some success throwing the ball. That is why in his first couple years in Tennessee Young was able to get some completions and make scramble plays. His game was similar to Tim Tebow’s in that regard.

The Math and Magic of Chip Kelley’s Offense

The best case scenario is what us currently going on in Philadelphia right now. The majority of the Eagles/Chip Kelley run game requires that the quarterback account for one defender in the run game one way or another. Who it is and how he does it changes which makes it difficult for defenses to attack. But what results is that you are seeing an above average thrower in Nick Foles get the same looks as Vince Young, Colin Kaepernick, and Griffin III’s of the world and he is feasting on them. In his first year as a starter, Foles posted the highest Quarterback rating in the league.

What Chip Kelley is able to do with his run game is incredible. And even with a marginal athlete at quarterback like Foles, he still finds ways to read defenders and get the quarterback involved in the run game. When the Eagles are running read schemes it results in Foles reading defenders and giving the ball or throwing screens the majority of the time, though on occasion you do see him keep the ball and scamper down the field for 5 yards and slide when the defense mandates a pull. Despite what Foles lacks in athleticism, I think Foles is a huge upgrade for Kelley’ offenses because he can make reads and throws from the pocket at a level of consistency that Kelley’s athletic quarterbacks at Oregon or original starter in Philadelphia Vick couldn’t match. So at the NFL level, Foles is getting simpler coverages similar to that of, say Vince Young, and is now able to absolutely shred them even in his first year as a starter.

When You Cannot Run

One of the reasons Griffin III fell back to earth in year two after a spectacular rookie season is in part because of limited inability to run and be a factor in the run game like he was in his first year. Instead of seeing all the 1-high coverages and cover-4 he saw as a rookie, NFL defenses knew he was not as much of a threat to run. Consequently he was subject to and forced to read the same coverages that the Manning’s, Brees, Brady’s and Rodger’s are forced to beat. And what the world found out is that as a pure passer, he is not ready or capable of doing that yet. A similar phenomenon happens in definite passing situations (third and medium+, two-minute drills) with all athletic quarterbacks. Without having to worry about the threat of a quarterback run, defenses can play more sophisticated coverages, and it exposes players y who are not NFL-ready passers.

Hits and Heavy Breathing Negatively Affect Passing Performance

There is one other inhibiting factor to an athletic quarterback’s ability to throw the ball. Fatigue. Profootballfocus.com broke down the effect of hits and sacks on quarterback’s completion percentage. Every time a quarterback gets hit, it decreases his completion percentage by an average of half a percent. Joe Montana put it like this when discussing the Kaepernick led San Francisco offense:

Do you want Gore to carry it 35 times? Or do you want the quarterback to carry it? And I’ll hit him and see at the end of the game if he can still throw accurate passes?’ (Bell, J. (2014, January 16). Bell: Joe Montana has some advice for 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. USA Today.)

When Manning catches a snap, takes a quick three-step drop and unloads the ball in 2.3 seconds, from a physical, almost aerobic standpoint it is a very repeatable action. He can come back the next play with focus and clarity. When Johnny Manziel runs around on 3-4 plays a drive, cardiovascularly it’s more difficult, and then add the physical toll of any hits the defense is able to put on him. Now Manziel’s chest is heaving, and his head is ringing as he is trying to pick himself off the ground, get a call and regain his focus to execute the next play. It is hard to play like that for four quarters and still be able to throw the ball at a high level.

Athleticism as a Band-Aid

Now having an athlete behind center is not all doom and gloom by any means. I would be remiss as to ignore the upsides of an athletic quarterback. Not only as a factor in the run game but in hiding weaknesses in an offense. Doug Flutie summed up the upside of an athletic quarterback:

You can, as an athletic quarterback, overcome certain deficiencies around you. If you have a suspect offensive line, a guy that can move around and buy a little extra time makes it easier on them. A guy that can run naked bootlegs and sprint-outs or having a quarterback you can call designed runs for, it takes pressure off other aspects of the team (Edholm, E. (2014, July 9. Doug Flutie on the differences between Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel. sports.yahoo.com.).

Athleticism can be a band aid but if it is plan A and not plan B, a quarterback, and an offense are in trouble.

Athletic quarterbacks can struggle to become elite passers in the NFL because of their learned reliance and dependence on physical ability which in turn stunts the development of their nonphysical quarterbacking skills. In most normal game situations they are able to benefit from seeing a higher incidence of basic coverages because of the run threat they pose, however this advantage disappears in passing situations such as third and medium to long and two-minute drills. Unless quarterback or coach mandates that an athletic quarterback is going to neglect his physical and become a passer first and develop them accordingly like Donovan McNabb, elite athletes are going to continue to struggle as NFL passers. The problem is if a quarterback is behind the curve and has stunted technical and nonphysical quarterback skills when he enters the NFL, it is a hard and unforgiving league to develop those skills in. And NFL teams will only give players so many opportunities, some measured in years, others in starts, or merely practice reps to do so before they move on.

Chapter 6

Why Tom Brady Was Not and Will Never Be A First Round Pick

We all missed on Brady, including the Patriots. Because if they knew he was going to be that good they wouldn’t have waited until the sixth round – Brian Billick (Former) Baltimore Ravens Head Coach

(ESPN (2011). The Brady 6. ESPN)

In 2011 ESPN aired, “The Brady 6” a documentary that chronicled the biggest draft oversight in NFL history. The documentary recounted the six quarterbacks that were taken ahead of the three-time Super Bowl champion, and future hall of fame quarterback Tom Brady and tried to answer the why of it all. The filmmakers interviewed former head coaches that passed on Brady in favor of other quarterbacks who would all go on to have far less successful careers. On camera coaches hem and haw in interviews about signs missed in hindsight and the potential they saw in the quarterbacks they drafted ahead of Brady but the reality is that Brady was never ever going to be taken in the first or second round in the 2000 draft. And if he were a quarterback coming out in 2014 draft class he still wouldn’t be a high draft pick because it is not enough to be a really good quarterback, you must also be an athlete to get drafted in the first two rounds.

Quarterbacks Now Have to Run Fast

At some point in the last decade, the most glamorous position in American sports has gone from being all about the ability to throw the ball and is now about being mobile and athletic. It is like a national league general manager drafting pitchers exclusively on their ability to hit. Why would you overlook what a guy does 90% of the time (throw the ball from the pocket) and instead be concerned about whether he runs well enough on the 10% of plays to have success? Tom Brady ran a 5.28 forty at the combine. Since the 2000 draft class, only three quarterbacks have been drafted in the first or second round that ran a 5-flat forty or slower; Phillip Rivers (2005, 5.08), Byron Leftwich (2003, 5.10), Patrick Ramsey (2003, 5.24). Since the 2006 draft, no quarterback has been drafted in the first two rounds unless they ran a 4.99 forty time or better (nflcombineresults.com. (2014, January 1). NFL Combine Results. nflcombineresults.com.). In today’s NFL it is not enough to be a talented passer, you must be able to run – not because the job demands it but because NFL scouts and general managers do. This sounds numbingly simple and short-sighted but it is true, to be drafted in the first or second time, you must post a forty time below 4.99 or faster. And the faster you run it the more likely you will jump up into the first or second round.

There are numerous conclusions that can be drawn from the documentary. As always hindsight is 20-20. And always scouting and drafting remains an inexact science. One frequently perpetuated message in the video was that no one looked at or could understand the magnitude of Brady’s heart. His drive, his competitiveness. The idea that Brady is successful because of his heart is a bad football cliché in the film. If heart was enough to make an average quarterback great then Tim Tebow would almost certainly still have a NFL job. Then Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr, who rotated Brady with Chad Henne during Brady’s senior year before making Brad the full-time starter halfway through the year, finally figured this about Brady:

He’s tough-minded and tough physically. He’s very, very smart and makes good decisions…The kid just can see things. And the guys around him, they love him. (Nobles, C. (2000, January 3). College Football; Exhausted Brady Delivered for Michigan. The New York Times.)

Intelligence, toughness, and leadership skills do not ensure success in the NFL though they do provide an excellent foundation. When you add great decision making pre snap and from the pocket and the ability to see (and presumably get through progressions) you have potentially a NFL caliber nonphysical skill set and the make up an elite NFL quarterback. Now if only he would have run a 4.8, he may have been a more draftable player.

Draft analysis by SI.com writer Doug Farrar captures the shift in NFL draft practices:

If Mettenberger were entering the draft 25 years ago, he’d be a lead-pipe first-round prospect… he’s very much the old-school statue of a quarterback who needs a clean pocket for a long time to really make things happen. Those types of throwers are being phased out of the NFL by faster and more complex defenses (though Philip Rivers is an example of a player who can still succeed despite this limitation), and Mettenberger will have to have the right kind of system — and protection — to make that work. (Farrar, D. (2014, April 15). 2014 NFL draft position rankings: Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel headline QB class. si.com.)

The irony is, “Those types of throwers” make up the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Brady is that type of thrower, as is Peyton Manning. Brees does not scramble; he just slides around the pocket. Rodgers is the most likely to scramble and adlib, but that does not mean he is easier to protect. It is actually the reverse. Rodgers takes the most sacks of the elite four group.

It Is Hard to Protect a Mobile Quarterback

The idea that is perpetuated again and again by the desire for athletic and mobile quarterbacks is that somehow they can adlib, make plays, and avoid sacks. It is clearly a hard concept for people to grasp, but good pocket passers are easier to protect. They make plays by getting the ball out of their hands to their teammates while athletic quarterbacks often make plays by holding on to the ball themselves while they scramble or run. The bottom line is that the longer a quarterback holds the ball the harder he is to protect.

Pop Quiz #2

Q: Michael Vick or Peyton Manning, who is the easier quarterback to sack? Who is harder to protect?

A: Vick has been sacked 17 times more in his career than Manning despite attempting 5422 fewer passes than Manning.

(Stats through 2013. Sports-Reference.com)

When will the NFL figure out that any quarterback, regardless of athleticism, that holds the ball is going to take sacks and be difficult to protect? Or that what makes a great quarterback great isn’t his ability to elude a defender because of his speed but rather beat the rush with his brain and arm. NFL defensive coordinators understand this, hence the reason Manning was blitzed a league low 23.6% of the time in 2013 (Palazzolo, S. (2014, June 5). QBs in Focus: Pressure and the Blitz. profootballfocus.com.).

The 2014 NFL draft saw five quarterbacks go in the first two rounds. Their forty times in draft order: Blake Bortles 4.93, Johnny Manziel 4.68, Teddy Bridgewater 4.78, Derek Carr 4.69, Jimmy Garoppolo 4.97.

Brady ran a 5.28 forty, and conventional NFL logic says you must be able to run a fast forty to be an NFL quarterback. The simple truth on Tom Brady remains; because of his physical ability he was not a first or second round pick in the 2000 draft and unless he improved his forty time he would not be in 2014. Nothing he did athletically made him special enough to get drafted in the first couple rounds, not in 2011, and most assuredly not today.

2016 UPDATE: The 2015 draft had two quarterbacks drafted in the first round (none in the second). And true to form Jameis Winston (4.97) and Marcus Mariota (4.52) both ran sub-5 forty times at the combine. The top two quarterbacks going into the 2016 draft are Carson Wentz (4.77) and Jared Goff (4.82) who again both clocked sub-5 forty times in their combine workouts.

Chapter 7

The Plight of Timothy Richard Tebow

WEAKNESSES: Tebow really struggles with his accuracy. Release is far too slow to fit balls into spots against NFL defensive backs. Release point and mechanics (elongated, windmill delivery which comes out too low) likely need to be altered. Was not asked to run through pro-style progressions and struggled reading defenses, especially those with NFL concepts, in college.NFL.com Draft Profile

(nfl.com (2013) Time Tebow Draft Profile. nfl.com.)

Tim Tebow has got to be the most spoken about football player of all time. Johnny Manziel is making a push, but as of now the crown is still Tebow’s. The media will ride the most benign Tebow story for weeks. Tebow, his fundamentals and skill set were a lightning rod prior to the 2010 draft. Tebow’s NFL.com draft profile does a pretty good job summarizing the clamor about his throwing motion; that it was so slow it made him physically incapable of NFL success. At this point in the book I hope you can guess why I find this point unequivocally asinine – a delivery quick or slow has little to do with an NFL quarterback’s success. What matters is whether or not he can read NFL coverage’s and get through progression and then with his throwing ability get the ball there on time – that is it.

Athletically a quarterback’s release time starts when his hands separate until the ball leaves his fingertips. A quarterback’s true release time needs to be measured starting when the neurons fire in a quarterbacks brain and say, “throw him the ball” until the ball gets to the target (obviously this cannot be measured). A quick release and a weak arm might have the same neuron to reception time as a quarterback with a slow release and a strong arm. This of course makes the ideal quarterback one with a quick release and a strong arm like Dan Marino. But the question that needs to be asked becomes how much time are we talking? Are talking milliseconds or are we talking seconds?

Long Releases Have Lots of Company

Before we start timing releases, let’s end the chatter about a long release dooming any quarterback prospect. Brett Favre had a long, looping motion, as did Byron Leftwich, as does Jay Cutler:

(Image credit: dickcross.com)

(Image credit: AP Photo / Morrey Gash)

(Photo credit: AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)

(Image credit: AP Photo / Nam Y. Huh)

Plenty of NFL quarterbacks have had long releases and continue to have long releases.

Long As A Relative Term.

Like any athletic or technical deficiency players learn to work around it or their careers plateau (usually long before they get to the NFL). Realistically Romo’s quick, compact delivery will only be a few tenths faster than say Leftwich’s or Tebow’s. How much time are we really wringing our hands and killing careers over? David Wunderlich tried to analyze and compare future number one pick Sam Bradford’s and Tebow’s release times in an article for SBnation.com in 2009:

The most extreme example of Tebow’s long windup I could find, and it took 734 milliseconds to complete. That time is 267 milliseconds longer than Bradford’s throw…Tebow’s average time across the ten passes was 557 milliseconds, with all but one pass taking a half second or more. Bradford’s average release was 487 milliseconds, with the most common time being 467 milliseconds. The difference in average was not great at just 70 milliseconds. (Wunderlich, D. (2009, April 6). Tim Tebow’s “Slow” Release. teamspeedkills.com.)

On average Tebow’s release was less than one tenth of second (.07) slower than Bradford’s release. Again we are talking much ado about nothing. Keep in mind the average human reaction time is .215 seconds (215 milliseconds)(McGach, C. (2010, May 18). “Reaction Time Statistics.” humanbenchmark.com.).

But what about defensive backs getting a jump and being able to intercept passes? ESPN’s David Fleming discovered the following about a quarterback ability to functionally deliver the football while researching for an ESPN the Magazine assignment:

I learned the two most telling stats when it comes to timing and accuracy in throwing the football: (1) That a delay of even one-tenth of a second in a throwing motion (Tim Tebow) is enough time for a defensive back or pass-rusher to move 3 feet, which is more than enough to destroy the entire play; and (2) a football traveling 30 yards, spinning or wobbling more than 4 degrees off its axis, will wind up 5 feet off its target. (Fleming, D. (2010, April 13). As easy as 1, 2, 3 … 756, 757, 758. espn.com.)

All that sounds great and looks good in ESPN the Magazine, but what does it really mean? First, contemplate defenses. If a defense is playing man coverage how many players are looking at the quarterback? At most two (cover-2 Man) at minimum zero (cover-0). And those are safeties or the occasional robber underneath. What about zone you say? Yes, more eyes can be on the QB, but defenders are also frantically trying to find and cover some of the finest athletes in the world. My point is it is not like a cornerback is sitting back there hanging out, saying oh look here comes the windup I better drive on the receivers route! They are trying frantically to stay with world-class athletes running choreographed patterns that often involve multiple changes of direction. The reason why NFL quarterbacks can have long deliveries is because defenders are usually too busy covering to really see what the quarterback is doing. And if a quarterback is throwing the ball near a defensive back that is just sitting there watching him rather than a defensive back who is frantically trying to recover and close on the receiver that is beating him then he probably has bigger issues than a slow release. But again slow is a relative term. We are not talking about a difference of seconds we are talking about a difference of tenths of a second.

As for the second part of Fleming’s comments – well Kurt Warner won a Super Bowl throwing almost exclusively ducks. Manning chucks one of wobbliest balls in the game at times – yet both find ways to be consistently accurate even without a perfect spiral and he is not ashamed to admit it saying when questioned about it:

I do throw ducks. I’ve thrown a lot of yards and touchdown ducks, so I’m actually quite proud of it (Legwold, J. (2014, January 31). Peyton Manning: ‘I do throw ducks’ ESPN.com.).

I cannot argue the physics all I know is that from experience, I can tell when a quarterback is starting to become consistently accurate with his mechanics when the ball does not leave his hand perfectly (and the ball wobbles or ducks), but is still right around his target.

Legitimate Tebow Concerns

Tebow’s NFL.com draft profile lists’ four weaknesses and only two of them really matter. A slow release does not doom any quarterback neither does a low release point (see Chapter 3 on Height). The other two questions were about his accuracy, and ability to read coverages and get through progressions. These are the real concerns about Tebow and – about any quarterback in any draft. But there is no sex appeal or sizzle to that. The only questions that matter when it comes to predicting NFL success are can a quarterback throw the ball with enough functional accuracy and can he read coverage and get through progressions. With any quarterback and with Tebow, that is it. Yet everyone wants to talk about his slow release and elongated mechanics. It is a crazy mixed-up world.

Even though Tebow has not played in the NFL since 2012, he is still working out regularly and hoping to get another chance. NFL.com had an article about his continuing effort on the home page as recently as August 11th, 2014 titled, “Tim Tebow says he is better QB now than he ever has been.” While for the most part the fervor has died down, you can still find the occasional media article on Tebow and his seemingly unending quest to transform his mechanics. As in January of 2014 when ESPN aired a segment showing Trent Dilfer raving about Tebow’s new mechanics and the way he is throwing the ball. But that is not even addressing his biggest issue:

Greg McElroy had opposed Tebow in college. Talking on Monday afternoon, he recalled the Alabama defensive game plan against Florida. The Alabama coaches didn’t think Tebow read defenses well, McElroy said, so they showed Tebow complex looks and created a pass rush that emphasized containment rather than their usual high-pressure dashes toward the quarterback. (Dawidoff, N. (2013). Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football. Little, Brown and Company.)

Tebow’s biggest issue was his inability to read coverages and get through progressions.

Now the other concern is accuracy and that is legitimate. Having a long release is not correlated with flawed mechanics necessarily. Or more specifically mechanical issues that will make a quarterback inconsistent and inaccurate. Inconsistency and inaccuracy can be the result of a number of issues from footwork to arm slot to off arm mechanics. But whatever his specific issue(s), by all accounts, Tebow did struggle with accuracy even in practice on air which is not up to NFL standards.

What Will Kill A QB

Inconsistent functional accuracy throwing the ball coupled with a limited ability to read coverages is ultimately what may limit or end Tebow’s NFL career, just like it would limit or end any other NFL quarterback prospect’s career.

2016 UPDATE: Tebow did get another chance in the 2015 preseason with Chip Kelley’s Eagles. He appeared in all four preseason games, posted a very good 90.7 quarterback rating, going 21/36, 286 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He also averaged 5.9 yards a carry on 14 attempts but was cut by the Eagles after the final preseason game.

Chapter 8

[* Stay in School Kids – A Conversation* with Johnny Football *]

*This Conversation Did Not Really Happen. His responses are pieced together from different quotes and press conferences leading up to the NFL draft and during his first organized team activities with Cleveland. And in the interest of full disclosure, Drake was not calling on the other line.

One more year of running a team is almost priceless, so [Mark Sanchez] lost the chance to fully prepare himself and become the very best he could be before going to the NFL.” – Pete Carroll, (Former) USC Head Coach

(Johnson, G. (2009, January 15). Pete Carroll: Mark Sanchez should have stayed at USC. latimes.com.)

January 7th, 2014

EM: Johnny you are not going to enter the draft early are you?

JM: You take everything into account. More than anything, are you ready for the next level? You do not want to go unprepared for the National Football League or leave two years on the table. (Hairpoulous, K. (2013, December 11). Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel thinks he’s NFL ready but no decision on draft yet. dallasnews.com.)

EM: So then you’ll be coming back for at least your redshirt junior season right? You are are about as comfortable in the pocket as most people are in a dentist’s chair. And you know that is where elite NFL quarterbacks get it done is in the pocket.

JM: I feel like I got better this year and got more comfortable in the pocket. I’m growing as a quarterback and continuing to get better as a player (Jones, K. (2014, May 8). Johnny Manziel: Cleveland’s quarterback. clevelandbrowns.com.).

EM: You sure are, imagine how much more comfortable you will be after one more year in an SEC pocket. I mean after Spanish 201, I felt a little more comfortable trying to speak Spanish than I did in after Spanish 101. But then I did not just decide to up and move to Spain…

JM: I’m not sitting here today saying I have all of the answers or I’m an all-world player or have it all figured out. For me, I know there’s room to grow, in the pocket and just get more comfortable in the pocket in general. There’s room for me to grow, and I’m looking forward to closing that gap with a great quarterbacks coach and a great offensive coordinator that can help me there (Jones, K. (2014, May 8). Johnny Manziel: Cleveland’s quarterback. clevelanddrowns.com.).

EM: I am assuming you are talking about your coaches at Texas A&M?

For me, I’m continuing to get better as a football player. I didn’t go into this process saying I had it all figured out. I obviously knew there were times where I needed to play with more structure (espncleveland.com. (2014, May 9). Transcript: DB Justin Gilbert and QB Johnny Manziel introductory press conference. espncleveland.com.).

EM: So we are on the same page? You will be back in the SEC next season, getting another 13 starts and 400+ attempts to continue to grow and develop, and play with more structure right?

JM: I’m looking forward to showing up all the people that are saying that I’m just an improviser (McManamon, P. (2014, February 21). Some Johnny Manziel combine comments. espn.com.).

EM: As will be all the fans watching you at Kyle Field! Don’t get me wrong they love the scrambling but I am sure they will appreciate a few more throws from the pocket as well. Surely you know you are not ready to be an NFL quarterback, right? If that was overly negative I apologize. No doubt you could make some plays at the NFL level. But be elite like Rodgers and Brees? You need to develop your game a whole lot more.

JM: I’m playing for the most part a really high level of football, putting the ball where I want, throwing it with a lot of velocity, so in my mind I think I am. (Hairpoulous, K. (2013, December 11). Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel thinks he’s NFL ready but no decision on draft yet. dallasnews.com.)

EM: That is good, and obviously you have some crazy physical ability. No one has ever doubted that, but what about the NFL game, and what they ask quarterbacks to do? Lots of plays, getting through reads, making throws from the pocket – you know that stuff? I mean at A&M you guys did not even have a printed playbook. How are you going to separate yourself from other NFL quarterbacks?

JM: I feel like I play the game with a lot of heart and a lot of passion that really is unrivaled.

(McManamon, P. (2014, February 21). Some Johnny Manziel combine comments. espn.com.)

EM: Does heart and passion help you make reads from the pocket? Because it did not help Tebow, otherwise he would still have an NFL job. How does passion make you special?

JM: I’m probably one of the most competitive people on the face of this earth, whether it’s sitting here playing tic-tac-toe or rock, paper, scissors or whatever it may be, I want to win. It’s something that really, dating back all the way to being a kid, I don’t like the taste of losing, leaves a really sour taste in my mouth. I’m an extremely competitive person.

(McManamon, P. (2014, February 21). Some Johnny Manziel combine comments. espn.com.)

EM: Have you seen Tom Brady play? Have you read anything about Peyton Manning’s preparation? How’d you like to get into a passion and competitiveness pissing match with those two guys? And guess what they are not just competitive on game day, those guys grind all year to win games. I get it maybe they are not passionate enough to come up with a cool touchdown celebration, but in general, they seem like pretty serious, competitive guys.

JM: In the grand scheme, it all comes down to making the best decision for you. (Hairpoulous, K. (2013, December 11). Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel thinks he’s NFL ready but no decision on draft yet. dallasnews.com.)

EM: OK good, I was nervous for a second, so you are coming back!

JM: After long discussions with my family, friends, teammates, and coaches, I have decided to make myself available for the 2014 NFL Draft (Goodbread, C. (2014, January 8). Johnny Manziel announces decision to enter 2014 NFL Draft. nfl.com.)…Listen, Drake is calling on the other line, I gotta go.

EM: Johnny wait!

JM: Click…

The Conversation Manziel Needed to Hear

If Johnny would not have hung the phone up on me here is what I would have told him:

First, let us start with what Pete Carroll told Mark Sanchez after he decided to leave USC early:

The facts are so strong against this decision. After analyzing all the information, the truth is there, he should have stayed for another year. He lost out on a chance to fully prepare himself. The facts are there’s a 62 percent failure rate for underclassmen quarterbacks.

He’s a competitive guy, a guy that’s willing to take on this challenge in a way that he’s going to make it happen, Mark clearly has the potential to be as good as any of those guys we’ve had. We saw it early on. All it is an experience issue (espn.com. (2009, January 16). Sanchez will enter NFL draft. espn.com.)

One more year of running a team is almost priceless, so he lost the chance to fully prepare himself and become the very best he could be before going to the NFL (Farrar, D. (2012, November 8). Mark Sanchez still isn’t ready, and Pete Carroll might have been right. sports.yahoo.com.)

It is a little bit ironic that you mention you are competitive and as it turns out Mark is a competitive guy too! And after four miserable years with the Jets, Mark still competitive. He is competing to be a backup on the Eagles! Why do you think that your competitiveness will propel you to NFL greatness when Tim Tebow another completive first round pick quarterback with athleticism and improvisation ability from the SEC cannot get a job? It is the NFL! It is an ultra-competitive league full of ultra-competitive guys ultra-competing for just 53 spots on just 31 different teams. The guys that aren’t very competitive become insurance agents or failed night club owners. So stop talking about how your passion, competitiveness, and how hard you play is somehow going to make you an NFL success.

But even worse than your competitive comments are your comments about how you want to show critics that you are more than an improviser and you can play from the pocket. Why would you enter the NFL draft two years early if you still needed to prove that you can play from the pocket? Maybe I am getting old, but it is just like a product of your generation to want credit for something that you have not shown yet. You want to go to the NFL first so you can show people that you are not just an improviser. But why not prove it in college first? Johnny, maybe it is because I have not been drinking champagne, but that makes no sense. The intelligent move is to stay at A&M and develop that ability so you are ready to play in the NFL. The foolhardy thing is to go early, say I am not there yet but I’ll figure it out on the fly. You know, because you are more than just an improviser.

What if I told you that a week into your first NFL camp you would say something like this:

It’s a complete 180 from everything that I’ve been used to. And it’s going to take time. It’s a process coming from a spread, air raid system in college to a pro style system that’s very unfamiliar [to] me as far as terminology and routes. (Withers, T. (2014, July 31). Manziel Battling Playbook, Hoyer In First NFL Camp. AP.org.)

To be fair, when you went on Gruden’s show and couldn’t figure out where to put a running back on a check down, I knew you were in trouble. But this isn’t about making fun of you and or telling you how naïve and rash it is to come out early. Though Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert and numerous other underclassmen could probably tell you better themselves. Even the redshirt, four-year quarterbacks struggle at times too, just ask Christian Ponder and Brandon Weeden – the learning curve in the NFL is steep, and teams don’t give you much time to figure it out. The NFL is the biggest test of your life, and you have one chance to get yourself prepared before you take that test. Why would you skip more one rep or more one game of potential preparation? Much less one season, but two years!? Are you out of your mind! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just picking on you, I think Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and any other players that still have college eligibility are absolute fools for leaving school early too. Let me elaborate further.

Who are the best four quarterbacks in the NFL? Brees, Brady, Manning, Rodgers right? What do all those guys have in common? Four plus years of college football. You realize that Brees, they Drew Brees almost didn’t figure it out in time. The Chargers drafted another quarterback in the first round so they could get rid of Brees. If it would have taken Brees any longer to learn how to be an NFL quarterback he’d have been out of a job.

But ignore the top four quarterbacks for a minute, how about a player with a similar skill set to yours. Russell Wilson, or as I call him the anti-Johnny Football. Why do I call him that? Well not because he posts pictures of the patients every week at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital as opposed to pictures of parties and attractive women. But I guess that would be a good reason to call him the anti-Johnny Football.

No, I call him that because unlike you, he decided to go back to college just to make sure he was extra prepared. You see after Wilson’s redshirt junior season at North Carolina he led the team to a 9-4 record and led the ACC in passing yards and total offense a game. Crazier yet because Wilson was playing minor league baseball much to the dismay of his NC State Head Coach Tom O’Brien, O’Brien told him he was no longer wanted at NC State (Jones, L. (2013, October 31). Russell Wilson holds no grudge against Mike Glennon from N.C. State days. USA Today.). Most importantly was that Wilson had already received his bachelor’s degree, making him eligible to transfer to any school in the country for his senior year. But, after a monster year and getting his degree, he’d probably just enter the draft early, right? Wrong. He almost opted for Auburn and their spread but instead went to Wisconsin (Blount, T. (2013, October 31). Wilson changed Glennon’s path. espn.com.). Why? To continue to learn how to and show the NFL that he could play in a pro style system behind NFL linemen:

I didn’t necessarily want to go backwards with my knowledge of the game, I wanted to continue to learn as much as I could because I knew, being a 5-11 quarterback, I’d have to prove myself, So playing in a pro-style offense, it was one of those things where I had to put myself in the right situation at the right time (Jones, L. (2013, October 31). Russell Wilson holds no grudge against Mike Glennon from N.C. State days. USA Today.).

I played behind a huge offensive line. I think that proved a lot too… showing I could play under center with those guys in front of me (Blount, T. (2013, October 31). Wilson changed Glennon’s path. espn.com.).

How does the quote go? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity? So Wilson spends his final year of eligibility in Wisconsin playing one more year of football, all the learning, the practices, the 14 games, and 309 more in game attempts. He grows his game from his junior season at NC State when he was Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up player of the year (58.4%, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) to a staggering 72.8% completion rate, 33 t ouchdowns and just 4 interceptions. Wilson gets drafted and then finds himself in an open quarterback competition – and crushes his competition. He beats out the big money free agent quarterback Matt Flynn the Seahawks thought they signed to be their franchise quarterback. Here are excerpts from a Seattle Times article about his 2012 camp:

“He showed us enough,” Carroll said. “He’s in the competition.”

“He did an excellent job of demonstrating that he prepared for this,” Carroll said.

The coach estimated Wilson was on the field for 500 snaps all told and threw close to 400 passes. Carroll estimated there was only one time he stumbled on the verbiage of calling a play.

Did Seattle expect Wilson to be ready to compete for the starting job as soon as it drafted him in the third round?

“I’d hoped that, and we confirmed it in these three days,” Carroll said. “He left really no question about he needs to be involved in the competition.” (O’Neil, D. (2012, May 13). Russell ups the Seahawks’ competition at QB. seattletimes.com.)

Johnny, you think anyone in Cleveland’s organization is saying the same things about you? But it does not stop there. Wilson starts every game for Seahawks. The early part of the season was a bit of a struggle, but then the light goes on and he has a monster second half of the year turning in a passer rating of an even 100. The second highest rookie Quarterback rating in NFL history.

I know you are ‘Johnny Football’ and all but the reality of the NFL is it chews up quarterbacks and spits them back out. Once your career momentum is gone it is gone. Just ask Brandon Weeden, he used to wear a Browns jersey. You are never going to get a better opportunity to become a starting quarterback in the league than you have right now in open competition with Brian Hoyer. You will never have a better opportunity to solidify yourself as a legitimate NFL starter in the next two years. The question did you do everything you possibly could to be ready for your window of NFL opportunity? Or did you take the shortcut, hoping that you were ready. I think we know the answer. Too bad you are not going back to College Station this fall. For your sake. I’ve given you enough advice, so I’ll sign off with some from Russell Wilson:

I put all the hard work in, and I expect great things when I put the hard work in. Like I always say, the separation is in the preparation. (Wyche, S. (2014, January 29). Russell Wilson’s fortitude lifted Seattle Seahawks to Super Bowl. nfl.com.)

END

About The Author

Eric Marty grew up in Edmonds, Washington and played football and soccer at Meadowdale High School. He played football collegiately at NCAA Division III Chapman University where he was a three-year starter at quarterback. Chapman posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in over a decade in his final two seasons. After college Marty played four seasons overseas in the Italian and Austrian Football Leagues, winning two national championships.

Marty began his coaching career at his alma mater Meadowdale High School before receiving his first collegiate job coaching receivers at NCAA Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Marty eventually left OPSU to become the offensive coordinator at Moorpark College (California junior college). After two seasons at Moorpark, Marty accepted the head coaching position at East Los Angles College (California junior college). Additionally, in January of 2016, Marty was named one of the “Top 30 Coaches Under 30” by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA).

Marty earned his Bachelors in English from Chapman University, Masters in Sports Administration from American Military University, and Masters in Kinesiology from Fresno Pacific University.

Any questions or comments:

Twitter: @CoachEricMarty

Email: [email protected]


The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking & Seven Other Essays on the Position

The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking is a collection of essays the first of which seeks to identify and explain the critical components that make up elite quarterback play at the NFL level. The book includes case studies on numerous NFL quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Mark Sanchez, Time Tebow, Johnny Manziel, Kellen Moore, among others) and their success or failure in the NFL. A central theme of the book is that the skills needed to play quarterback at an elite level are largely nonphysical and intangible, rather than physical. But when searching for prospects, NFL teams put a disproportionate emphasis on prospects’ physical skill sets. As a result, the overall quality of NFL suffers and true franchise quarterbacks are at an absolute premium.

  • Author: Eric Marty
  • Published: 2016-03-22 18:35:31
  • Words: 48886
The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking & Seven Other Essays on the Position The Five Elements of Elite Quarterbacking & Seven Other Essays on the Position