Jul 302015
 

Check it out here:

“Mazzone’s snag concept is one of the best in the game at achieving such consistency.  The concept is simple, hard to defend, and easy for the quarterback to read.

Essentially, the snag puts the outside linebacker in conflict (as spread offenses so often do), forcing him to either defend the snag route (a route run at a 45  degree towards the middle of the field by the outside receiver, who stops at five yards and looks for the ball) or the swing route by the running back.  The number two receiver (second man from the outside) runs a vertical route (usually a corner), which is difficult for the safety to defend if the cornerback gets involved on either the snag or the swing route.  The middle linebacker, who (in many defenses) opens towards the number three receiver (the running back), has a long way to run to get involved with the play, especially if it is run to the wide side of the field.  The play is not only effective because the quarterback is given easy passing targets, but because forcing the linebackers to vacate the box so often helps the Bruins to establish their prolific run game.”

Jul 132015
 

I’ve recently been in conversations with californiagoldenblogs.com, and will now be writing posts for them in addition to totalamericanfootball.com. This means that totalamericanfootball.com will become somewhat Cal centric. It does not mean that there will only be posts about Cal.

Aside from being my favorite college team, Cal is also an exciting team to watch from a coaching perspective; Tony Franklin has long at the forefront of the offensive game (his “Tony Franklin System” is used by high schools across the U.S.), and Sonny Dykes is on the path towards a successful (and complete) program makeover/rebuild.

My latest post is up now, and details how talent + execution = probability of success in the context of a key third down conversion for Cal. Check it out here.

“…Colorado, however, does not stay in a two high safety shell.  They tip their hand just before the snap.  One of two high safeties creeps towards the line of scrimmage, while the other walks towards the center of the formation.  They have disguised the coverage for most of the pre snap period, but now their options are more limited.  Realistically, in this one high shell, only one defender will defend the out route by Stephen Anderson: the outside linebacker/nickelback who is aligned just to the inside of Anderson.  This is because Colorado must account for a vertical route by the #1 receiver (the widest receiver); the safety has too far to run from the middle of the field to cover this route by himself (or to help with an out route by #2), thus meaning that the cornerback must cover a vertical route by #1, therefore leaving only one man who can possibly defend an out route by #2: the inside linebacker/nickelback…”

Apr 292015
 

Continuing my “series” about quarterback evaluations in the NFL (see here, here, here, and here), I will choose the quarterback who may not possess every attribute to be considered a top prospect, but who possesses the essential qualities of a professional pocket quarterback.

To summarize some of what I have written in previous posts: the ideal quarterback prospect in terms of draft evaluation is big (both tall and well built), athletic, has great accuracy and arm strength, has experience and production in a pro style offense, is a leader, and presents no off the field concerns. In other words, he is Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck is a once every 10 or 15 (if not more) years prospect. Neither Jameis Winston nor Marcus Mariota fulfills every one of those categories, but their combination of assets makes them likely top five draft picks (though some of this is due to a combination of the scarcity of quarterback prospects and the importance of the position; in a perfect world, in my opinion, neither would be selected until later in the round, because each comes with some concerns – system and arm strength for Mariota, off the field problems and interceptions for Winston. This does not mean that both can’t become solid NFL quarterbacks).

Not all of those attributes are required, however, to become a serviceable or even great NFL quarterback. Tom Brady fell in the draft because he was not well built, was slow, and was not considered to possess an elite arm. Drew Brees was too short. Aaron Rodgers was slight of build, a Jeff Tedford “system” quarterback, and not athletic. Joe Montana was slight of build and weak armed. The list could go on.

Who, then, fits the bill of a quarterback prospect who does not possess all of the “top prospect” traits, but who may possess enough of the important ones?

Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.

Sean Mannion is not an electric athlete. He is a pure pocket passer. His 5.14 40 yard dash is not terrible, but he will not make his living with his legs. His statistics were not good last year – his touchdown to interception ratio was only 15-8. He is not considered a top prospect.

But what are his strengths?

Mannion started for four years in an offense that ran many pro concepts. Unlike many college quarterbacks, he took many snaps from under center. He made NFL reads and audibles at the line of scrimmage, and is accustomed to three and five and seven step drops. He has a strong arm. He is forced to be a pocket quarterback, because he has no other option (much like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, he has never and will never have the ability to win at a high level with his legs). When he had NFL talent to throw to – such as Brandin Cooks in 2013 – he thrived (throwing for 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2013).

Of course, the fail rate at quarterback is too high to say that Mannion will succeed as an NFL quarterback. The odds are against him. However, when you strip away traits that have been shown to be unnecessary to becoming a great quarterback (top athleticism, for one), Mannion stacks up favorably with every quarterback in the draft. The chances are never good for a quarterback to succeed in the NFL, but Mannion’s possession of essential quarterback traits puts him on even ground for success (given the opportunity) with any quarterback in the draft.

One of Mannion’s most productive games from 2013, against an always tough Utah defense:

Apr 202015
 

By now, it is clear to those who follow the draft that the (on the field) evaluation between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston hinges in large part on whether one believes that Mariota can be accurately evaluated as a professional quarterback, due to his operating Oregon’s “college” offense. Winston, on the other hand, is considered more of a known entity, due to his operating a “professional” offense that allows evaluators to see him make “professional” reads and throws.

I use quotation marks for “college” and “professional” because the line between college and professional offensive systems is increasingly blurry. I find the use of such terms to lack nuance, and believe that “college” is used in an incorrectly negative way. I do not agree with the notion that quarterbacks running “college” offenses will necessarily struggle in the NFL, and I disagree that “college” offenses are lesser than “professional” offenses. I believe that “college” offenses are often smarter and more efficient than “professional” offenses, and that creating a system that is simple to learn and that can defeat any defense takes at least as much intelligence and creativity as does building a complex, gameplan-oriented “professional” offense.

Having said that, evaluating a quarterback who has only operated out of one style of offense is inherently difficult when projecting him to play in another style of offense – and this is the difficulty in evaluating Mariota for teams who do not wish to adopt an offense similar to what Mariota ran at Oregon and what his former coach – Chip Kelly – runs with the Eagles.

Put aside, as well, the debate as to whether professional teams should adopt quarterback friendly offensive schemes to fit the skills of their quarterbacks (see here, here, and here for speculation on the future of quarterback play in the NFL). This post only seeks to clarify why the evaluation is difficult for one who seeks to draft Mariota and use him in a traditional, “professional” offense.

The following videos (produced by draftbreakdown.com, a great resource for studying more than the highlights of college prospects) of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl playing against each other display these differences.

Mariota against Florida State:

Note, from the outset, Oregon’s reliance on quick screens. These passes are not a staple of professional offenses, but make up a significant portion of Oregon’s attack. As you continue to watch, note how many times Mariota takes quick drops from play action fakes. 0:23 is a great example. Mariota executes a play action fake, then snaps his feet and bounces in the pocket. There is no drop, and his pocket is clean. None of these elements are helpful to NFL evaluators. Evaluators want to see a quarterback take a drop from under center (Mariota almost never did so) or – at the least – to make a full read progression, and they want to evaluate him from a collapsing pocket. Oregon’s offensive style and prodigiousness makes finding such plays difficult. Mariota throws on the play to a receiver crossing with room behind the linebacker level. Again, while such a throw does happen in the NFL, it is not considered a timing pass that can accurately display Mariota’s ability to make NFL throws into tighter windows that close faster than in college. Though he misses the throw here, this is the type of concept (crossing routes behind linebackers who are held by run fakes) that Mariota and Oregon thrive on. As you watch the film, keep track of how many times Mariota starts in a similar fashion – play fake, set feet, quick throw (screen or otherwise). Or – three step drop, quick throw. NFL evaluators have fewer plays on which to evaluate Mariota making “professional” throws and reads, and fewer plays equals more uncertainty. Uncertainty is not what many scouts want when drafting a quarterback high in the first round.

Winston against Oregon:

Winston, on the other hand, crosses off many of the boxes (on the field, that is) for a top quarterback prospect. Big, well built, strong arm, good enough athlete, high scholastic intelligence (again, ignoring off the field and maturity issues), and – related to this conversation – makes “professional” throws from a “professional” offense. Though he also operates from the shotgun in spread formations for a high percentage of his plays (much more than the public perception seems to recognize), the evaluator can see him taking drops, setting in the pocket, and reading a full field. A much lower percentage of Winston’s throws are quick, “automatic” reads. A high percentage of Florida State’s passing plays require taking a drop, reading a progression, and delivering with timing. Anyone who watched Tom Brady in the Super Bowl knows that running a large portion of one’s offense from shotgun, spread formations is no longer just a college phenomenon. Starting at 6:51, we see two successive plays that illustrate why evaluators see Winston’s game translating to the NFL. On both throws, Winston takes a drop (albeit from the shotgun), is patient, and completes an anticipation throw to a receiver in a deep middle zone. On both throws, Winston began his throw before the receiver had broken to the inside. These plays illustrate anticipation throws that are so common in the NFL – Winston knows the route, knows where the receiver will be breaking, and knows that the defense will not be in that spot because of their zone drop concepts and their lack of momentum towards that location. Both throws show arm strength, accuracy, coverage recognition, and anticipation, all of which are considered vital to success in a “professional” offense. Evaluators will have more difficulty finding and judging these types of throws in Mariota’s game.

One key point, however, is that even though Winston operates an offense that has him making complex, “professional” reads, the offense is not a “traditional” professional offense, as much of the popular dialogue in the media would lead one to believe. In fact, a high percentage of Winston’s throws come from the shotgun. He does not consistently make 5 and 7 step drops from under center. While Mariota’s Oregon offense was certainly further removed from a “professional” offense, Winston’s Florida State offense still requires projection to a traditional “professional” offense.

Either way, the two videos illustrate the challenges for evaluators in comparing Mariota to Winston. Mariota is asked to execute an offense that requires many predetermined throws and creates a multitude of open targets that often do not require a great deal of anticipation to hit. Mariota executes the offense to near perfection, but it requires an evaluator to project his growth in a “professional” offense. Winston is asked to execute an offense that – while often from formations similar to that of Oregon – requires him to make full field reads and anticipation throws that more closely mirror “professional” concepts. Winston’s touchdown to interception ratio is far worse than Mariota’s, but an evaluator has less to project – for better or worse – when analyzing his game.

Jan 312015
 

Like last year, I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation at the Brøndby IF Super Bowl party. Rather than attempt to adapt those notes into traditional post, I’ve decided to post them in their original bullet point form, which is probably the quickest way to convey the information. I was asked to start with a discussion of the evaluation process for quarterbacks and the developments of that position. Afterwards, I discuss the matchups between the offensive and defensive units of the Seahawks and Patriots (less lengthy notes, as I will use film for much of that portion of the presentation). As I state in the presentation, I hope that these notes will make the game more interesting by illuminating sometimes hidden aspects of the game:

  • Quarterback Position
    • I’ve been asked to talk about the quarterback position – how do you evaluate it and what do you look for in a quarterback, why are the players drafted where they are drafted, and how has the position developed – through the lens of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Johnny Manziel
    • Probably the hardest position to evaluate in all of sports – why?
      • My theory is that growth and development are never a sure thing in the NFL.
      • The NFL is so fast and complex that you can almost never know how a player will adjust – it isn’t book smarts/pure intelligence, it is the ability to scan the entire field and anticipate with the correct timing and take in large amounts of information on the fly – you won’t know if they will develop until they do – there are some predictors, like success at the college level, intelligence, accuracy, etc – but a quarterback is never sure to develop beyond where they currently are, and it is hard to now where they are when they are playing in college (so many factors, like the offense they played in, the talent around them, the level of competition, etc).
        • If a QB is 75% of the way there during their rookie season, there is no guarantee that they will even get to 80% – Andy Dalton might be an example
        • Other times, a QB goes from 75% to 85% to 100% – Peyton Manning had a rough rookie season, but kept improving and improving.
        • Colin Kaepernick probably started at 50% pro style offense refinement as far as what he was asked to do in college in a run/option heavy offense, 100/100 potential when he came into the league.         Sat for a year, worked hard, jumped to maybe 80/100 refinement, plus all of that great athleticism, presence, competitiveness, intelligence, etc. But most will say that he stalled in 2014 at 80/100 on the refinement scale. Can he make the leap and bust that plateau? Hard to predict.
      • Tom Brady is a great example of difficulty in evaluation. When he was at Michigan, there was a more physically talented quarterback there – Drew Henson. He threw harder, ran faster, was a better athlete – basketball star and drafted high in baseball. In college, if they were throwing a curl route, the ball might have gotten there at the same time. BUT Brady may have been more aware of other routes and anticipated that throw, and released the ball a split second before Henson would have.         Henson may have been more locked in on that one route, and thrown the ball a split second later – but it got there at the same time because his arm was stronger, and it probably looked more impressive.
        • As a talent evaluator, that makes it tough.         As an NFL coach you look at Brady coming out of Michigan and think – he isn’t a great athlete, he isn’t going to be able to scramble, his arm isn’t amazing, he isn’t very well built…many evaluators thought he fit the mold as a backup at best.
        • But sometimes (and this is what evaluators seem to be shifting their opinion on), being able to do less makes you better.         Brady couldn’t run, he didn’t have the Jay Cutler rocket arm, he couldn’t out muscle guys like Cam Newton can – his only chance was to develop as a true pocket quarterback – so he was forced to, his back was against the wall – either he developed as a pro style QB, or he failed. He had no chance to find success in the NFL because of other physical traits.
        • Henson was kind of the opposite. He could do everything. He got a $17 million baseball contract. His back wasn’t against the wall – he didn’t just have to be a pocket quarterback. He made it to the big leagues in baseball briefly, played a few years in the NFL, but his career never took off. Maybe if he couldn’t play baseball, and if he wasn’t such a good athlete, and if he couldn’t have thrown as hard, he would have been forced to develop like Tom Brady. Or…maybe he wouldn’t have developed in that way, anyways (almost no one develops into a Tom Brady level quarterback).         This is why predicting success is so difficult.
        • Back to that curl route example – The way Brady does it computes better for the NFL, obviously. Arm strength IS very important, but Brady has enough.         In the NFL, all of those other factors play more of a role. In that example, over the course of time, Brady has made the NFL throw – the quarterback who didn’t see the whole field may have missed something else open, or his lack of anticipation may have allowed a faster defender to get in the throwing lane. Over time, the quarterback who can see the field and process the information and throw with the correct anticipation, touch, and accuracy, will far outperform the rocket armed quarterback.
      • Similar evaluation with Aaron Rodgers v Alex Smith
        • Rodgers was kind of skinny, not imposing, not an amazing athlete, arm wasn’t thought to be sensational.
        • Smith was thought to be the entire package by many scouts – bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, easier to coach than Rodgers.
        • I thought it was an obvious choice for Rodgers – quick release, great feel for the game and pocket presence – but the NFL is tempted by the “prototypical quarterback” – which is big, strong, fast, throw hard, etc. Especially with the #1 overall pick.
        • Smith was not a finished/refined product – came from a spread system – took him time to become a solid NFL QB.
        • Rodgers was a finished product in a pro system and had time to sit behind Favre – not many QBs get this anymore
          • But many evaluators thought he would fail because other Tedford quarterbacks failed
          • Similar draft profile in recent years was Teddy Bridgewater – slipped in the draft because of his slight build and lack of great athleticism or arm strength, but showed an accurate arm and the ability to process information in a pro style offense in college, and a good enough athlete to evade pressure.
            • His rookie season was good…but, as stated above, my opinion is that it is almost impossible to predict improvement in a QB.
      • Russell Wilson:
        • First round talent, had everything except for height. It is that simple – if he were a few inches taller, he would have been a top pick.
      • But it is important to note that I am not saying that there is a way to accurately find a great NFL quarterback – my point is that it is nearly impossible to predict and therefore has an enormous failure rate. This is not to downplay the importance of scouts and that some scouts are not great quarterback evaluators – but history has shown that the failure rate is extremely high.
        • If you look at what I said above, you’d be looking for a pocket quarterback with success and refinement in a pro style offense in college – guys who fit that bill include Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart – they just couldn’t do it in the NFL.
      • Best bet to find a QB who is successful: build the team around him, which will give whoever you choose the best chance to succeed.
    • Developments in the position
      • An argument that seems to be gaining steam among NFL evaluators is that an extremely mobile quarterback cannot also be a great pocket passer. The argument is that a pocket passer must have been a pocket passer for all his life, with his back against the wall like Tom Brady, in order to be great. Arguably, there is only one great QB who went from a running quarterback to a GREAT pocket quarterback – Steve Young. Russell Wilson is looking to change that perception – even though he was never exactly a “running” quarterback – he played in pro style offenses prior to the NFL – but the Seahawks currently ask him to run plenty of zone read plays and play action passing – he isn’t yet a great pocket quarterback (even though he executes exactly what Seattle asks of him – the offense just isn’t based on pocket passing to the extent of most NFL offenses).
      • Trend of previous 15 or 16 years: look for the QB who has it all. The player who was thought to revolutionize the position was Michael Vick. Strong arm, as electric as a ball carrier as anyone in the league – the idea was that he could kill you with his legs or from the pocket. This is what the quarterback of the 21st century was going to play like.
      • In most cases, it hasn’t quite worked out. Also important to note that the fail rate for first round quarterbacks was very high overall – so it is not as if drafting a pure pocket quarterback is close to a sure thing (as is probably obvious by this point in the presentation).
      • Here is a list of first round quarterbacks since Michael Vick who were thought to come from that mold – great athlete, great arm, came from a non-pro style offense
        • Michael Vick – “the future” – solid/electric NFL career, but never developed into a consistent/dependable pocket quarterback.
        • Ben Roethlisberger – played wide receiver until his senior season of high school, was mostly recruited as a tight end, but has developed until a multiple Pro Bowl, Super Bowl winning QB. Not entirely applicable to this list as he was never known as a running quarterback, and also important to note that he – like Russell Wilson – led his team to a Super Bowl championship early in his career on a run heavy team. Roethlisberger eventually developed into a pocket passer with great pocket awareness and similar evasion/improvisation skills to Wilson.
        • Alex Smith (arguably) – not a freak athlete like Vick, but a terrific one who came from Urban Meyer’s spread and had to be molded into a pocket QB – he did develop into a solid quarterback, but it took time.
        • Vince Young – some would argue that he was the most physically dominant quarterback in college football history his senior season and took over a Rose Bowl national championship against a USC team filled with NFL talent – looked promising early in his career, but failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback.
        • Tim Tebow – amazing athlete, failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback (a complicated issue – there are still people who make the argument that he could have succeeded if the offense had been built around his talents).
        • Andrew Luck – exceptional athlete and star NFL QB was always a pass first pocket QB despite his running ability – not entirely applicable to this group, but is a great athlete who was able to focus on becoming a great pocket QB.
        • Cam Newton – jury is still out on whether he will develop into a true pocket QB (or whether it is necessary). Has been successful and has won while developing into a pocket quarterback in an offense that takes advantage of his athleticism.
        • Jake Locker – great athlete so far has disappointed as a pocket quarterback – injuries have played a role.
        • Robert Griffin III – great rookie season, but fundamentals regressed since then – dropped very low in 2014, but still has a chance to regain form. Needs to rebuild fundamentals to have a chance – intelligence and great accuracy (when fundamentals are there) give him a chance.         Injuries may force him to do so (and thus could be beneficial to his development as a pocket QB – if he makes it).
        • Ryan Tannehill – jury is still out on the former WR, though looks to be a starting caliber QB in offense that takes advantage of his legs (uses the zone read in a similar fashion to Seattle).
        • Johnny Manziel – Incomplete, but did not look good his rookie season. Failed to win starting job and looked overwhelmed in few appearances.         Manic, amazing improvisational quarterback in college, strong arm – but can he fit into an NFL offense? His best chance seems to be to develop the maturity and game of Russell Wilson (their skill set in terms of size, athleticism, and arm strength is similar), or be used in an offense similar to what he ran in college. Manziel’s ratings would probably be: refinement 50/100, “magic/improvisational” potential (this is the argument that most people had for drafting him) 100/100 – unclear if that refinement will increase.
        • Notable non-first round quarterbacks:
          • Colin Kaepernick – similar to Newton, shows star potential and big game winning ability, but the jury is still out on whether he can develop into a traditional pocket QB.           Amazing athletic specimen (speed/arm strength combo among the best ever). Great work ethic, intelligence – but even work ethic and intelligence and talent do not guarantee ability to develop as a pocket passer.
          • Russell Wilson – has thrived and won a Super Bowl while in a run first offense with a dominant defense. Intelligent, smart with the ball, great arm and improvisational qualities – great pocket presence and footwork.           Refined pocket quarterback skills (also, like Luck, developed as a pocket QB) but has not yet been asked to be a high volume NFL pocket passer.
      • Trend that I believe is starting in the NFL: back to traditional pocket QBs. Speed may be seen as a detriment – the thought being that if the QB could run in college and high school, they did not have to develop the same kind of pocket passing/footwork/read the field skills as other QBs.
        • The interesting thing: more and more colleges are using spread systems with dual threat quarterbacks, and thus, while demand for pocket quarterbacks may be increasing, the supply has been decreasing for years.
          • From a college coach’s perspective, it is much easier to find an athlete with a good arm at QB (who may lack traditional pocket skills) than a traditional pocket QB (high schools are also moving away from pocket QBs)
    • Why are they drafted where they are drafted?
      • Take everything I just said into account – the trends in what coaches want to see out of a quarterback, the quarterbacks who are successful in the NFL, etc.
      • NFL teams are looking for a prototype at the top of the draft:
        • Tall, well built, strong arm, accurate arm, smart, competitive, great footwork, evidence of ability to scan entire field, success in an NFL style offense, mobility, maturity
      • This prototype rarely exists. The most prototypical prospect in recent memory was Andrew Luck: he was at least above average in all of those categories.
      • As noted, the trend may shift to placing less value on mobility.
      • Many great quarterbacks do not fit the prototype.         Tom Brady slipped because he was not well built, was not a mobile quarterback, was not considered to have above average arm strength, and to some extent because Drew Henson cut into his playing time.
      • Russell Wilson slipped because he is short. A short QB is not a prototypical QB – if he were 6’3”, he’d have been a high first round pick – he has everything else.
      • Aaron Rodgers slipped because the 49ers thought he was arrogant, and perhaps because he has a slight build. He played for a coach (Jeff Tedford) who had produced several first round QBs who failed in the NFL – Rodgers was penalized for this. Some scouts felt that he was a “system” QB who got flustered under pressure and wasn’t enough of an athlete to evade it.
      • It is an inexact science with a high fail rate.         The Patriots look like geniuses because they drafted Tom Brady, but in reality, they passed on him 6 times in the draft.
      • Which brings us to another issue that we do not have time to fully explore: even in the NFL, is it the system (Wilson in an offense that plays to his strengths and is supported by an all time great defense, Brady in a creative, talented franchise, had time to sit behind a good NFL QB). In other words, the eternal question is: would we be talking about these two players if they had been drafted by the Bills, or Raiders, or Jaguars, Browns, or any of the other number of teams who have struggled to find a quarterback for years – or is the reason why those teams are not relevant because they could not draft a Russell Wilson or Tom Brady caliber QB?         It is a long debate, but something to think about.
      • This upcoming draft, another tough decision.
        • Jameis Winston is very close to the prototype for an NFL quarterback prospect, but he has shown major red flags in immaturity and off field decision making.
        • Mariota has zero off field issues/question marks and has many prototypical features, but did not play in an NFL style offense and thus his ability as an NFL pocket QB is a bigger projection – unless the Eagles trade to get him, where his former college coach (Chip Kelly) will know how to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
  • Seahawks offense
    • Ball control – they’ve made their money by relying on their defense, running the ball, and making a few big plays each game, often at key times.
  • Patriots defense
    • Very good defense. Talent across the board, Revis is probably the best cover cornerback of the past 10 years.
    • Belichick is a versatile coach and therefore difficult to predict, but is consistent in molding his strategy to take away the strength of the opposing offense.
      • For that reason, I suspect that he will seek first to stop the Seahawks zone read, their most potent weapon
      • He has cornerbacks that match up well with Seattle wide receivers, thus freeing more defenders to focus on run defense.
      • Many coaches like a 1 high safety look in this situation, because it frees 8 men in the box to play the run.
      • I like 2 high safeties with press corners – we Monarchs have run the option for a few years with success, and the 2 safety teams give us more schematic problems – it is hard to block the safeties, and the cornerbacks can help build a wall across the front.         We look forward to teams who want to load 8 or 9 players into the box and play man coverage, because (as long as the personnel is relatively equal) we feel that we will create big plays as there is no real 3rd level of defense. That style of defense is more boom or bust – we’ve had times where we exploited it, and other times when it gave us trouble…but when it was the latter, usually because we had injuries or were otherwise outmanned, anyways.
        • Downside of 2 high safeties is fewer players devoted to Marshawn Lynch on traditional runs, which is problematic (and why the zone read and Seattle present problems to opposing defenses)
    • Show examples of Revis making a good play – patience is combined with his elite athleticism, range, and instincts
      • Quarter 3 – interception and pass breakup pretty close together
  • Patriots offense
    • Very good offense, versatile
    • Like their defense, Belichick will mold it to attack the weakness of the opposing defense.
    • The problem is, it is hard to identify the Seahawks weakness
      • They have great DBs and a great front, often with 8 in the box (base cover 3) to take away the run.
    • One thing that is possible, because the Seahawks are a zone heavy team, is to get your players matched up on the defenders that you want them matched up against
      • Seattle rarely swaps cornerbacks (though they did play more man coverage against the Packers)
      • Look for Belichick to use Gronkowski in creative ways to try to isolate him in a favorable matchup – he is always creative with Gronk and Gronk is his most dangerous weapon.
    • The Patriots might look to the Chargers film
      • The Chargers beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of their great tight end – Antonio Gates. They often did this with trips formations. Trips formations force the defense to either compensate to the trips side and leave a favorable matchup on the one receiver side, or help with the one receiver side and give away numbers to the trips side.
        • This is a way that the Patriots may look to get Gronkowski in favorable matchups.
    • Gronkowski quarter 3 touchdown
      • Trips away from him – can get Gronk isolated away from Sherman
      • Simple slant, but Gronk is so big and athletic, the pass is perfect, hard to defend
      • Blount TD 3rd quarter – good solid football, line up and pound you – bodies on bodies up front, Blount finishes with authority – a big back who runs with power
        • Shows that the Patriots are a rare offense that can really shift identities from week to week – one week they are rushing for a ton of yards in an old school power/traditional NFL offense, the next week they are basically running a spread offense.
    • Patriots have versatile players to create personnel problems for defense
      • I.e. with Vereen and Gronkowski in the game, no telling if they will align in a traditional running formation or in a 5 wide spread
        • Though, as further explained below, the Seahawks are a simple defense that doesn’t really care what the opposition does – they will adjust and not be caught off guard.
    • Simplicity of Seahawks defense makes it less likely to be fooled by eligible/ineligible tactics
      • The Seahawks are in base so often that they can focus entirely on any exotic looks
  • Seahawks defense
    • Best unit on the field – an all time great defense
    • Execution defense – they do not run a ton of stuff, they just do what they do really well
      • Quarterbacks like Brady and Manning are so great because they can figure out exactly what a defense is doing – the defense tries to outsmart them and those quarterbacks pick them apart
        • But that doesn’t matter against the Seahawks.         Brady says: “I know what you are doing.” The Seahawks say: “So what? Try to beat us.” That is what happened last year with the Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks dominated (and people forget, the Broncos were an all time great offense going into that game).
    • THE SIMPLICITY OF THE SEAHAWKS DEFENSE IS A HUGE POSITIVE!!!!!
      • It is common to think that more complex is better.         But the simplicity of the Seattle defense allows them to play faster, execute better, and adjust to anything the offense sends at them. They are much less likely to be “caught” in the “wrong” defense than complicated defenses.
    • Brady has, in the past, struggled against teams who can effectively rush the passer with their defensive line (i.e. do not have to bring pressure) – think of Giants teams in the Super Bowl, who were built upon the foundation of their defensive lines.
      • Seahawks are such a team – their defensive line is versatile, fast, and dynamic – and they don’t even have all of their best players – great scheme and talent to meet that scheme.
    • Linebackers are also terrific – tons of speed – Wagner is one of the best in the game.
    • Richard Sherman interception first Packers drive – coach’s film
      • Amazing patience, technique, intelligence, closing speed, meets the ball at the highest point, great body control
        • Quarterbacks need to be kind of machines when processing information, if the receiver has good leverage, the QB is machine-like in processing that information and taking advantage – but Sherman can recover with his rare size/athleticism combination for the position.
        • This is why he is so great and such a great fit for the defense
      • Also shows their base cover 3
    • 1st quarter stop of Eddie Lacy on second drive (4th play)
      • Shows why Earl Thomas is so great – cornerback speed, fills exceptionally fast and hits for keeps – closest player in the NFL these days to Ronnie Lott – Lott started as a cornerback – Thomas has that kind of speed and range as well – not to mention the intensity and hitting ability.
      • Seahawks do not stay blocked and this is why they are great against the run – it isn’t because of a magical scheme – they play fast and don’t stay blocked and fly to the ball (cliché, but true for them)
      • The Packers had a chance to put the game away early, but the Seattle D stood tall and kept the Seahawks in the game
    • If you like defense, this really is one of the best of all time to watch
  • Final notes
    • Miscellaneous factors
      • Deflategate
        • I’m not going to spend much time on it, but yes, throwing and hanging on to a deflated ball can provide an advantage.
        • We do not know the facts of the case, so we can’t know the effect it will have on the Patriots – if they really have been using deflated balls for years, this could hurt them – you never want your first experience with a “new” ball to be in a big game. If this was a one time thing/accidental, it may have zero effect on the Patriots. We do not know the facts
      • Odd statistic: the Seahawks have not beaten a team with a healthy starting quarterback and which ended with a winning record since week three.
        • Very obscure sounding statistic, but also crazy how well their schedule played out – they played some bad teams, played the Cardinals a few times with injured quarterbacks, the 49ers were down this season, Rodgers was hurt in their playoff game. The last time they played against a winning team with a healthy starting QB was the Chiefs – loss. Their record against winning record teams with healthy starting QBs: 2-3 (wins in week 1 v Packers and week 3 v Broncos, losses to Chiefs, Cowboys, and Chargers…also a loss to Rams).
          • They have been dominant on defense, but this is the best argument against them. The Patriots are the best test they’ve faced since those early season games.
          • They are – no doubt – one of the best defenses of all time, and of course had no control over their schedule – they have knocked down everything in front of them down the stretch of the season.
          • If they were to lose, this will probably be a statistic people will point to in hindsight. If they win, it was meaningless.
    • Seahawks have the best unit on the field (defense), but the Patriots have a very good offense and defense. Seahawks offense serves the team well – ball control, great running back, underrated wide receivers (perhaps because of perception because they weren’t drafted high), quarterback who has made many big plays in key moments…but is less consistent than the other units in the game.
      • The great matchup is all time great Brady against all time great Seattle defense…BUT…it is very intriguing to see how Belichick will try to take away the zone read, and if Seattle can either defeat that strategy or generate offense in other ways. I think everyone who came here tonight knew that Brady v the Seattle defense was the all time great matchup, but hopefully now you can see why the Seattle offense v Patriots defense matchup is also intriguing.
Jan 202015
 

Don’t listen to the talking heads who say otherwise. The zone read is not dead.

Common, uninformed, regurgitated, and recycled arguments regarding option football in the NFL are as follows: it is a gimmick that cannot last, the speed of NFL defenses is too much for it, and NFL defensive coordinators are too smart to allow it to succeed.

The continued success of option concepts in the NFL proves such arguments to be ignorant.

The 2014/15 Seattle Seahawks are the latest example. Doubters still existed (or, perhaps more accurately, overlooked Seattle’s reliance on the zone read) even after Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards (16th in the league) on 7.2 yards per carry, Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,306 yards (4th in the league), and the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing by more than 400 yards en route to a 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the NFC.

The zone read is built on solid fundamentals – it is a zone run with a quarterback “read” of a designated defender on the backside, which either “blocks” the option key by forcing him to respect the quarterback run, or opens a running lane for the quarterback if the defender chases the running back. In equation form, zone read = zone run + quarterback option to run. If you believe that the zone run is here to stay (and you should, as it has thrived in the NFL for decades), there is no reason that the zone read should not also function well with appropriate quarterbacks (i.e., those with speed). See here for a more in depth discussion of the simplicity and fundamentals behind the zone read.

The Seahawks’ comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game should leave no doubt that the zone read will continue to be a successful NFL scheme.

Both of the Seahawks’ final regulation touchdowns came on the zone read – the first by Russell Wilson, the next by Marshawn Lynch. They leaned heavily on variations of the play down the stretch, incorporating the complimentary waggle pass (see here for an in depth description of the waggle concept).

If the zone read were a “gimmick” that NFL defenses could easily solve, the Packers were the one team who should have solved the problem by this point. Two seasons ago, the Packers were thrashed by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ option attack (see here to differentiate between the “read option” and the veer scheme) in being eliminated from the playoffs.  Last season, they fell to those same 49ers at home in the playoffs.  Kaepernick ran for a total of 279 yards in those two games (181 and 98, respectively).  And here the Packers were again, with years to “solve” the option game, giving up two option touchdowns in under a minute as the Seahawks went to their zone read in the biggest moments and with the clock winding down.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately "blocked" by the threat of Wilson running.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately “blocked” by the threat of Wilson running.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key's shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind).  Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards.  Wilson's incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent.  The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback's "good read" percentage).

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key’s shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind). Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards. Wilson’s incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent. The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback’s “good read” percentage).

 On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.


On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.

Easy path to the end zone.

Easy path to the end zone.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read.  Here, Julius Peppers - one of the best defensive ends in NFL history - doesn't play it poorly.  He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options.  But his momentum down the line is too much.  Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain.  Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read. Here, Julius Peppers – one of the best defensive ends in NFL history – doesn’t play it poorly. He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options. But his momentum down the line is too much. Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain. Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

On the next play, the Seahawks - not surprisingly - went to the zone read again.  Here, the Packers play it perfectly - note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson's read while having the ability to react to either option.  Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

On the next play, the Seahawks – not surprisingly – went to the zone read again. Here, the Packers play it perfectly – note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson’s read while having the ability to react to either option. Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to - you guessed it - the zone read.  Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake.  Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to – you guessed it – the zone read. Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake. Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead...

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead…

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Think about it: a 2 minute drill in the NFC championship game, and the Seahawks needed 4 plays to complete a go ahead touchdown. 3 of those 4 plays were zone reads. The Seahawks acted like a Madden player who found an unstoppable play, going to it repeatedly, even in hurry up situations.

On their opening drive to win overtime, care to guess what concept the Seahawks featured? 4 of the 6 plays were zone read or built off of the zone read, and, arguably, the success of the zone read led to the 0 safety alignment that left the middle of the field open for a perfect Russell Wilson throw to Jermaine Kearse.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially "blocked" the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially “blocked” the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle (you can read much more about how this concept fits into a zone read scheme here).  Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play.  We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle. Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play. We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up.  Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up. Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read.  The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read. The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept.  The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss.  This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept. The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss. This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game - two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver - Kearse.  The Packers - expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel - react by bringing both safeties into the box.  They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help.  The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game – two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver – Kearse. The Packers – expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel – react by bringing both safeties into the box. They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help. The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

The Seahawks are going to their second straight Super Bowl on the strength of their zone read game. The Packers are going home for the third straight season at the hands of a zone read centric team.

The zone read is not a magic bullet. It is good, fundamentally sound football.

The zone read is alive and well, and it is here to stay.

Dec 032014
 

Chip Kelly is considered the NFL’s current innovative “genius.” But it is no secret that the bulk of Kelly’s offense is based upon basic, fundamentally sound, and proven schematics. When combined with spread principles and the up tempo pace of Kelly’s offense (and his practices), those proven schematics are the basis for Kelly’s attack.

Along those lines, one of Kelly’s favorite pass concepts is a football classic: the waggle pass. This play – and the space it creates for quarterback and receivers alike – is one reason why Kelly has been able to plug in multiple quarterbacks to his system with great success (Mark Sanchez taking over for Nick Foles being just the latest example), which is one reason why he tops my list of coaches who could make a cheap, interchangeable quarterback system work (see here). Though it is unclear if Kelly derived the concept directly from the waggle (or one of the many related plays and variations of play action and bootleg concepts), the plays are identical in many ways, most importantly in their ability to put multiple defenders in conflict.

The roots of the waggle pass are in the Delaware Wing T, developed by Dave Nelson in the 1950s. Since that time, the Wing T has been among the most influential offenses in American football, and is still one of the most common and successful offenses in the sport. At the heart of that offense is the waggle pass.

The classic Wing T waggle features buck sweep action to the right. The potency of the buck sweep demands respect. After the quarterback and the running back sell the fake, the quarterback boots to his left. There, the playside receiver usually runs a vertical route, while multiple backside receivers run crossing routes. The quarterback has a run pass option. The linebackers and safeties in particular are stressed by the play: they must respect the buck sweep action (which demands quick pursuit), while receivers cross their face to the opposite side of the field. The crossing patterns are difficult against either man or zone: against man, the receivers cross face and run away from defenders whose momentum may have started in the wrong direction; against zone, the leveled crossing routes take advantage of whether the linebackers and safeties react strong to the run, or drop too deep.

A “traditional” Wing T waggle pass (for further reading on the traditional waggle pass, see the great bucksweep.com for “The Waggle the Best Play in Football,” here):

The Philadelphia Eagles Waggle Pass 1

Now, look at this Eagles touchdown from their Thanksgiving day victory over the Dallas Cowboys:

The Eagles' waggle schematics.  Notice the similarities to the traditional waggle pass.  The Eagles fake their top running play (outside zone) to the right.  The offensive line washes the defensive line to the right.  Sanchez keeps to the left, while he has a playside comeback route and two deep crossing routes to choose from.

The Eagles’ waggle schematics. Notice the similarities to the traditional waggle pass. The Eagles fake their top running play (outside zone) to the right. The offensive line washes the defensive line to the right. Sanchez keeps to the left, while he has a playside comeback route and two deep crossing routes to choose from.

All 8 defenders in the Cowboys' front react towards the run fake.  Jordan Matthews, who will catch the touchdown pass, is moving in the other direction.

All 8 defenders in the Cowboys’ front react towards the run fake. Jordan Matthews, who will catch the touchdown pass, is moving in the other direction.

The tight view gives a closer look at linebackers in conflict.  Both box linebackers react towards the run, while Matthews is primed to sneak behind them.

The tight view gives a closer look at linebackers in conflict. Both box linebackers react towards the run, while Matthews is primed to sneak behind them.

We see the traditional waggle quarterback run/pass option as Sanchez breaks the pocket.  Though Sanchez is not a notorious run threat, he had already scored one rushing touchdown on the day.  Defensive back C.J. Spillman reacts up towards this action, leaving a clear path for Matthews to slide behind.  Furthermore, Sanchez has 100% clear vision down the field - better than a quarterback could ever get from inside the pocket (another reason why Kelly's quarterbacks thrive).

We see the traditional waggle quarterback run/pass option as Sanchez breaks the pocket. Though Sanchez is not a notorious run threat, he had already scored one rushing touchdown on the day. Defensive back C.J. Spillman (#37) reacts up towards this action, leaving a clear path for Matthews to glide behind. Furthermore, Sanchez has clear sight lines down the field – better than a quarterback could ever get from inside the pocket (another reason why Kelly’s quarterbacks thrive).

From a different angle, we see the space Matthews has as Sanchez breaks the pocket.

From a different angle, we see the space Matthews has as Sanchez breaks the pocket.

Just after catching the ball, we see that Matthews still has space, and a clear path to the end zone.  An easy pattern with an easy quarterback read leads to the type of decision and throw that has allowed Kelly to find success with a myriad of quarterbacks.

Just after catching the ball, we see that Matthews still has space, and a clear path to the end zone. An easy pattern with an easy quarterback read leads to the type of decision and throw that has allowed Kelly to find success with a myriad of quarterbacks.

From a different angle, we see the clear path that makes it easy to celebrate before the ball crosses the goal line.

From a different angle, we see the clear path that makes it easy to celebrate before the ball crosses the goal line.

Chip Kelly has enjoyed great success with quarterbacks on the national stage at the University of Oregon and with the Philadelphia Eagles, often with overlooked or – in the case of Mark Sanchez – discarded players. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t because he employs a rocket science system that confounds defenses. It is the packaging of simple, proven concepts – such as the waggle pass – in spread formations, executed to perfection and with great pace, that creates easy reads and open space for his quarterbacks to thrive.

 

Aug 242014
 

The quarterback position is perhaps the hardest to play – and coach – in all sports. Few players have mastered the position, and even fewer coaches have mastered the art of finding, teaching, and producing quarterbacks who succeed at the NFL level.

Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh are two such coaches. Bill Walsh has produced Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks as a head coach (Joe Montana, Steve Young), but also maximized the potential of several quarterbacks as an assistant coach in the NFL and as a head coach in college (Virgil Carter, Ken Anderson, Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils). Jim Harbaugh has, in his short career, produced NFL quarterbacks at both of his college stops, turning University of San Diego’s lightly recruited Josh Johnson into an NFL quarterback, recruiting to Stanford and producing star NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, resurrecting the career of Alex Smith of the 49ers, and channeling the raw potential of Colin Kaepernick into a rising star.

Both coaches emphasize the importance of fundamentals. Rather than expand into complex drills and arm mechanics, they ask their quarterbacks to master basic drills. Once mastery is achieved, the quarterbacks continue to work on the same fundamentals in order to maintain their skill in a constant search for perfection. This mastery breeds confidence, and confidence is essential for the position.

Jim Harbaugh (quarterback clinic):

Bill Walsh:

Apr 292014
 

In part one, we discussed the advantages of playing with a cheap quarterback, and asked whether an NFL team would ever consider implementing a system designed to minimize reliance on a traditional “pro style” quarterback.  This would allow such a team to refuse to pay a quarterback over a certain cap figure, therefore gaining an advantage in their ability to strengthen the remainder of their roster under the salary cap.

Please note that this isn’t to say that paying a franchise NFL quarterback is a bad idea.  If the quarterback is a star, it is of course smart to pay that quarterback, and players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have proven their ability to put their team on their shoulders as consistent championship contenders.  This article is a hypothetical for those teams who never seem to stumble upon the star quarterback, and who therefore remain stagnant in mediocrity year after year.

The rarest commodity in football is the great drop back pocket quarterback.  It has proven nearly impossible to predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, because so many of the skills are intangible and hard to measure against college competition.  That is why the list of number one overall picks includes the likes of JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, and Tim Couch.  The list of top NFL quarterbacks currently in the league is a mix of number one overall picks like Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck with overlooked prospects like Tom Brady (a “fringe” NFL prospect selected in the 6th round), Aaron Rodgers (too slight and with too much attitude to be taken with the first pick) and Drew Brees (too short to be a first round prospect).

The specific quarterback skills that have proven almost impossible to predict are: the ability to make complex progression reads against complex, fast NFL defenses; the ability to deliver the ball from the pocket against pressure from an NFL pass rush; and the ability to deliver the ball with accuracy and proper timing despite the above mentioned factors.  While arm strength and accuracy (now referred to as “arm talent”), leadership, intelligence, and positive demeanor all play a role in predicting the success of a pro style quarterback, none of them have been able to predict whether the player would possess or have the ability to develop the intangible skills that make a successful pro style quarterback.  Plenty of smart, hard working, positive leaders with great arms have failed in the NFL because those skills are so rare and hard to develop.

An “interchangeable quarterback offense” would seek to minimize the reliance on such skills, and would emphasize easier to predict qualities, such as arm talent, running ability, leadership and intelligence.

The following offensive systems and coaches are candidates to run such a system.  Please note that inclusion on the list does not mean that a quarterback who plays in such an offense is not or cannot become a good pro style quarterback in a traditional offense.  It is only to say that the offense does not require a traditional pro style quarterback to be successful.

(1) Chip Kelly.  Kelly has already proved this possible in the NFL, shifting between Michael Vick and Nick Foles with great success.  His offense spreads the field to create easy pre snap reads for the quarterback and offensive line.  The offense is built on the run game, as the spread formation forces the defense to defend the width of the field, making it easier for the offensive line to count and block the box (see here).  It can accommodate fast quarterbacks like Vick who can take advantage of over pursuit against the zone run game by keeping the ball (the “read option”), or it can accommodate more stationary quarterbacks like Foles by creating easy reads, quick throws, and taking advantage of packaged plays in order to hold backside defenders.  Kelly’s tempo allows the quarterback to get into a rhythm without over thinking the offense, while also limiting the defense’s ability to call complex schemes.  Because the offense is built on the run game, a top offensive line and above average running backs are a necessity, while favorable coverages mean that the offense can succeed without premier pass catchers (Kelly’s confidence in the latter is evident in the Eagles’ release of DeSean Jackson).  Money can be spent on the offensive line and defense.

(2) Gus Malzahn.  Malzahn is perhaps the most intriguing coach on the list.  His offense is also a hurry up spread offense, but is schematically dissimilar to Kelly’s attack.  Malzahn’s offense is based on the Delaware wing t, one of the most potent running offenses in the history of football.  Unlike Kelly’s zone scheme, the wing t takes advantage of angle blocks and a variety of pulls and traps.  The offense is built on an order of play calling to systematically attack any defense.  The up tempo pace simplifies this process (especially with a master such as Malzahn at the helm), as the defense’s ability to substitute and vary schemes is limited. This order of attack of the traditional wing t is combined with elements of modern spread option and spread passing games to create a potent attack that takes advantage of a great athlete at quarterback.  Like Kelly’s offense, the potency of the run game and the spread formations create easy reads and progressions in the pass game, making the offense ideal to plug and play non traditional quarterbacks.  This is why Malzahn has thrived with a variety of athletes at quarterback, from prototypically built #1 overall pick Cam Newton, to the smaller, quicker Nick Marshall, who began his career as a cornerback at Georgia, to less physically imposing Paul Smith at Tulsa, who threw for over 5,000 yards in his season with Malzahn, proving the versatility of the system.  In fact, Malzahn had a streak of needing to find a new starting quarterback for 8 straight seasons (see here), his system flexible enough to adjust year in and year out.  Should he choose to move to the NFL, Malzahn would have his pick of under the radar quarterbacks to run his potent system.

(3) The pistol offense.  The pistol offense makes a quarterback’s job easier in several ways.  The run game is powerful and downhill.  The veer scheme requires a quarterback with top flight speed (such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick) because the mesh point happens deeper in the backfield, but with that speed, the defense is forced to decide between playing aggressive against the option elements (potentially leading to over aggressiveness that the veer scheme can exploit, and easy reads for the quarterback in the pass game) or playing a more passive defense that is susceptible to the power elements of the scheme.  The pistol also takes the quarterback out from under center, giving him increased vision in the pass game.  The offense has already thrived with the Redskins and 49ers, though neither has used it exclusively.  While Chris Ault is retired and unlikely to get an NFL look, the offense is popular enough for other coaches to implement the scheme.  The most likely scenario is for it to continue to be used within “typical” NFL offenses, as a weapon to take advantage of a quarterback with the speed of Griffin III or Kaepernick.

(4) Jim Harbaugh power offense.  Jim Harbaugh makes the list because he is confident enough in his system and his ability as a quarterbacks coach to believe he can make a wide range of quarterbacks successful.  He has already proven adept, resurrecting Alex Smith’s career, and turning raw Colin Kaepernick into one of the league’s premier playmakers.  His system is built on a powerful and complex run game, unbalanced lines, pre snap shifts, and versatile personnel.  Defensive coordinators know that Harbaugh is looking to assert his will with his complex run game.  The potent run and play action games in turn create easier reads for the quarterbacks.  Unlike the spread and many NFL offenses, Harbaugh often keeps extra blockers in the backfield, giving his quarterback simpler 4 or 3 or even 2 receiver reads.

Harbaugh’s offense is complex, however, requiring quarterbacks to choose between multiple plays at the line of scrimmage on most snaps depending on the defense.  But those decisions are a matter of intelligence, not instinct, and intelligence is more easily measured than intangible NFL quarterback skills.  This is why Harbaugh has been successful with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, both of whom have size, speed, arm strength and intelligence, but whose NFL drop back quarterback skills were questioned before Harbaugh became their coach.

Harbaugh and the 49ers will soon show their intentions.  Should they pay Colin Kaepernick like a top NFL quarterback, they take the course of the typical NFL franchise.  Should they attempt to low ball Kaepernick in negotiations, it will be a sign of their confidence in Harbaugh’s quarterback development abilities.  Don’t be surprised if the 49ers pick another raw, athletic, developmental quarterback with great arm strength in the upcoming draft, such as Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.

(5) The Air Raid crew.  The coaching tree that Hal Mumme started (including Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Art Broyles, Dana Holgorsen, and Tony Franklin)  continues to tear up the college ranks.  Rooted in LaVell Edwards’s BYU passing offense, hallmarks of the Air Raid are simplicity, tempo, and a willingness to throw the ball all of the time (in the original Air Raid offense).  These factors – like Kelly’s and Malzahn’s offenses – simplify quarterback reads.  Unlike Kelly’s and Malzahns, the Air Raid offense centers on the passing game.  The core Air Raid coaches (Mumme, Leach) seek to throw the ball to the extreme, therefore perfecting their limited plays and creating some of the most potent offenses in NFL history. The simple reads, small playbook, and insistence on throwing help a quarterback get into a rhythm, which is one reason why Leach was able to plug in one record setting, below the radar recruit after another at Texas Tech and now Washington State.

The two most likely NFL coaches – Sumlin and Broyles – seek more balance in the offense.  Both have produced major NFL prospects in the last several years (Johnny Manziel for Sumlin and Griffin III for Broyles).  More importantly, both have been just as successful with quarterbacks who were seen as having little NFL potential.  They are masters of the spread passing game, and with so many quarterbacks throwing from the spread in youth football, high school, and college, it only makes sense that an experienced spread coach would ease the transition to the NFL for such quarterbacks.

(6) Run and shoot.  The run and shoot makes the list because it has already thrived in the NFL.  The offense is designed as “organized playground ball,” allowing receivers to find open space after the snap depending on the defense.  While the offense is difficult to master, it has thrived in the NFL and USFL with a variety of quarterbacks.  The reads required are different from the complex NFL progressions that make the position so difficult, and as the name implies, the ball is often thrown from outside the pocket.  Unfortunately, June Jones is one of the last remaining true run and shoot coaches, and the offense has probably been absorbed into the greater NFL schematics (see here), making it unlikely to return to the NFL in its true form.  If it does, expect success with proper modernization to adjust for modern blitz schemes.  As long time NFL coach Marty Shottenheimer once said: “I don’t think anybody stops it. They always make their yardage. What you hope to do is keep the scoring down the best you can to give yourself a chance to be successful.”

(7) Split back veer adapted to the pro game.  Admittedly, this is getting into science fiction territory.  I do not think that this will happen.  However, there are reasons to believe it could be successful in the NFL.  First of all, the veer scheme has worked in recent years (see: pistol).  The NFL is warming to the idea that the option game can succeed.  The split back veer is also a “pro” formation – the split backs are in the same alignment as the original Bill Walsh west coast offense and the original Edwards BYU/Air Raid configuration.  The offense is designed for a fast, tough, smart, competitive quarterback, which are easier to find than true drop back quarterbacks.  The reads in the pass game are simplified by the potency of the run game.  Like the wing t, the split back veer has a system for play calling, with answers for every defense imaginable.  With multiple options after the snap on every play, in theory the defense is never “right.”  This is part of the reason that the offense has driven some of the most successful programs in the country, from De La Salle high school in Concord, CA, to NCAA division II power Carson Newman.

With the professionalism and skill of NFL players, the most often cited drawback of the offense (poor passing game) could be overcome with a reliance on simple, proven concepts, such as those found in the Air Raid or run and shoot systems.  Like many offenses on this list, the potency of the run game would create a strong play action passing game with easier quarterback reads.

Of course, the split back veer would require a full commitment that is unlikely to happen.  The offensive line would be in unbalanced, forward leaning stances, as would the running backs.  The quarterbacks would need to learn how to protect themselves in the run game, or face a severe beating.

It won’t happen, but it would be interesting.

Apr 232014
 

In 2013, the consensus top two teams in the NFL (Seahawks, 49ers) were led by young quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. In 2012, the Super Bowl contestants were led by young quarterbacks who hadn’t yet signed monster extensions (Ravens, 49ers).

Contrary to popular wisdom that says the key to winning a Super Bowl is a star veteran quarterback, recent history is filled with examples of young, inexpensive quarterbacks leading their team to victory: Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger (his first championship), Tom Brady (his first championship, though Drew Bledsoe was on the roster), and Kurt Warner.

The key reason for this phenomenon is obvious: the cheaper the quarterback, the more money available to pay the remainder of the roster. A team with a decent, cheap quarterback has the best of both worlds: they have quality at the most important position on the field, but also have more cap freedom than teams with established quarterbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers both exemplified this point. Both quarterbacks were on rookie contracts. The remainder of each roster was loaded with stars. The offensive and defensive lines of both teams were dominant. Each had a star running back. The 49ers had all time great group of linebackers and a solid secondary, while the Seahawks had a solid set of linebackers and an all time great group of defensive backs. Both had expensive, dangerous pass catchers. And the quarterbacks played great – Wilson making the correct decisions and key plays to win a Super Bowl, and Kaepernick at times putting his offense on his back. More relevant to this conversation, the young quarterbacks played in systems that were designed to capitalize on their strengths and which did not rely primarily on them throwing a multitude of traditional drop back pocket passes each game.

The cautionary tale for what can happen after a Super Bowl victory is the Baltimore Ravens of 2013. Fresh off of their championship, Joe Flacco commanded a salary ($120 million) commensurate with other Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. This salary in effect pushed his most dependable target – Anquan Boldin – out the door. This was one key reason why the Ravens finished their Super Bowl defense at 8-8, 3rd in their division, and missed the playoffs.

The Seahawks won the Super Bowl with an all time great defense, a strong running game, and a young quarterback on his rookie contract who made key throws and did not make mistakes. They will soon need to pay that quarterback. It is no coincidence that they let key Super Bowl contributors walk in the offseason, such as Golden Tate, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, and Breno Giacomini.

Of course, most teams feel “stuck” to pay such a quarterback, at the expense of the rest of their roster.

But what if an NFL team decided against doing so? What if they refused to pay a quarterback more than any other position on the field? Is it possible that a coach and organization would say, for example, that we will never pay a quarterback more than $10 million per year? That we will build a superior team and system, so that we are confident in our ability to win without a traditional “franchise” quarterback? That we can create a system where the quarterback is easily replaced, and that the fortunes of our team will not rest so heavily on one position?

At first glance, this seems unlikely. But the NFL is changing. College systems and coaches were not supposed to succeed in the NFL. Yet in the last two years, the pistol offense (Redskins, 49ers to some extent) and its variation of the veer option (which is often mislabeled as the “read” option, and differs in that the first man on or outside the play side tackle is the option key, as opposed to a backside defender on the read option) has thrived. The 49ers scored 3 touchdowns on the veer scheme in the 2011 NFC Championship against the Falcons, while Robert Griffin III excelled in his rookie season primarily operating out of the pistol. Next, Chip Kelly brought his hurry up spread offense to the NFL. It proved effective with two quarterbacks who contrast one another in almost every way – Michael Vick and Nick Foles – as the Eagles exceeded expectations in making the playoffs.

We know that the rarest commodity in football is the top flight drop back passer. In any given season, there are 10-15 men on the planet who prove capable of successfully operating a traditional NFL passing offense as the focal point of that offense. Installing an offense that can take advantage of a non traditional, interchangeable quarterback would be a huge risk. But perhaps the bigger risk is continuing to hit one’s head against the wall, when decades of evidence show that operating a “pro” style offense requires a commodity that less than half of the teams possess at any given time. And even the teams who do possess a competent quarterback are one injury away from disaster.

In part two, we will look at the systems and coaches who could work with a cheaper, “interchangeable” quarterback system, from Chip Kelly’s zone blocking spread to Gus Malzahn’s wing t spread to Jim Harbaugh’s power scheme to the pistol to a variation of the split back veer to the run and shoot and the Air Raid craze.