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:

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.
Dec 172014
 

As promised in my 16 team playoff proposal, this is my 8 team playoff proposal. The 8 team playoff is much easier. Nothing changes in the structure and alignment of the conferences. The rule is simple: each of the 5 power conferences get an automatic bid, and there are 3 at large bids.

Though I prefer 16 teams, this scenario is an improvement over 4 teams. Most importantly, the automatic bids encourage better scheduling from power conference schools, because they will never be eliminated from playoff contention due to of a non-conference loss. Also, the 9th team in an 8 team system will not have as good of an argument for inclusion as the 5th team in a 4 team system. This year, for example, there were 6 teams with rock solid playoff resumes. There was large debate over the final 2 spots, with Baylor and TCU ultimately losing out. The final spots in the 8 team tournament would also be a mess, but none of the two and three loss teams vying for those spots had near the claim that one loss Baylor and TCU have this year.

One major problem would still exist: conference scheduling inequality. Simply put, it is not fair that some conferences play 8 conference games, while others play 9 games. Some have conference championship games, while others do not. There is no excuse for this inequality to not be rectified in the future. Along those lines, one of the primary reasons why I prefer a 16 team tournament is that it would allow 10 team conferences where every team plays 9 conference games, with no conference championship games. This would eliminate the issues most often discussed in reference to the 14 team Southeastern Conference. The SEC plays an 8 game conference schedule among those 14 teams, and its members rarely travel outside of the SEC blueprint. This leads to more good records (one less conference game equals 14 fewer conference losses), and can result in a situation like the 2014 Missouri Tigers. Missouri won the SEC East, in large part because they missed playing the top 5 teams in the SEC West (Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and LSU). This left them with an impressive record that put them in the running for a spot in an 8 team playoff, with a regular season schedule that featured only one team who would be ranked at the end of the season. Their non-conference schedule featured wins over a lower division opponent and two mid-majors, and a home loss to Indiana, a team that finished with a 4-8 record.

Such inequalities need to be addressed, no matter the playoff format.

I would also recommend playing no conference championship games (which would go hand in hand with smaller conferences). On top of conference scheduling inequality, the situation will arise where teams who deserve to get in the playoffs will have another chance to look worse, while a team who did not win their division could sneak in ahead of such a team, without playing in a conference championship game. Teams that made the playoffs without playing a conference championship game would also have an advantage against teams who did have the extra game to get beaten up and fatigued.

The other primary reason why I prefer a 16 team tournament is equality. In the 8 team tournament, mid-majors still do not have a realistic chance to compete for a championship. A mid-major would need an undefeated record, most likely a good reputation, and good non-conference victories. A good preseason reputation and good non-conference victories is a hard match, however, because major programs are often wary of scheduling strong mid-major programs.

All that being said, my 8 team tournament would be:

  1. Florida State 13-0 (ACC automatic)
  2. Alabama 12-1 (SEC automatic)
  3. Oregon 12-1 (Pac 12 automatic)
  4. Ohio State 12-1 (Big 10 automatic)
  5. Baylor 11-1 (Big 12 automatic [though we don’t actually know who the Big 12 would have chosen for the automatic bid, as they chose co-champions])
  6. TCU 11-1 (Big 12 at large)
  7. Arizona 10-3 (Pac 12 at large)
  8. Michigan State 10-2 (Big 10 at large)

There would be huge debate over the final two spots of the field. I chose Arizona and Michigan State, but the committee (going by their rankings) would have chosen Mississippi State and Michigan State. Georgia Tech was also in the mix for me.

My rationale in choosing Arizona and Michigan State: Arizona and Georgia Tech should not be penalized for losing their conference championship game, while Michigan State and Mississippi State did not play in theirs. Arizona separates themselves from the competition by playing a 9 game conference schedule, and by beating #3 Oregon earlier in the season, the best win among the four competing teams. They also beat post-season ranked Utah and Arizona State.

The other teams each played 8 game conference schedules. Mississippi State beat post-season ranked LSU (22) and Auburn (19). Both of their losses were good, against #2 Alabama and ranked, 9-3 Ole Miss. But, like Missouri, they also missed the top five teams from the opposite division (Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina), instead drawing Kentucky and Vanderbilt. They also lost two of their last three games. Part of their exclusion is punitive: their out of conference schedule was atrocious. Michigan State’s only two losses were to playoff teams – Oregon and Ohio State, though they only had one win against a post-season ranked opponent – Nebraska. This decision is a nod towards their scheduling Oregon at Oregon, because if they didn’t, they would have been 11-1 and in the mix for a 5 or 6 seed along with Baylor and TCU. Their courage in scheduling should be rewarded.

Georgia Tech also has a strong claim due to their close loss to Florida State in a conference championship game, but are undone by their two losses to unranked opponents (albeit a solid 9-3 Duke team and a not-terrible 6-6 North Carolina).

Either way, the final two seeds are a mess, which illustrates why I believe a 16 team tournament is a better solution.

The bracket would look like this:

(1) Florida State hosts (8) Michigan State
(4) Ohio State hosts (5) Baylor

(3) Oregon hosts (6) TCU
(2) Alabama hosts (7) Arizona

Not surprisingly, every opening matchup is marquee, (which wouldn’t be the case in a 16 team tournament with automatic bids for mid-majors). Florida State, which hasn’t looked overly impressive while staying undefeated, plays one of the most physical teams in the country in Michigan State. Ohio State hosts Baylor in a matchup of wide open, explosive offenses. The same can be said when Oregon hosts TCU. Alabama gets what appears on paper to be the easiest matchup, but Arizona’s prolific offense can give any team fits, and they have already proven that they can beat a top opponent with their victory over Oregon.

What do you think? Do you prefer this over a 16 team tournament?

Dec 092014
 

While there is much (justified) excitement about the first ever college football playoff, 4 teams is not enough.

This proposal is for a 16 team tournament. While this may seem large, every other division of college football can do it, often with harder academic burdens on the players. The FCS and Division 2 finish with a 24 team tournament, while division 3 finishes with a 32 team tournament.

The benefits: (1) Harder out of conference scheduling is encouraged, because no out of conference defeat will spell the end of playoff hopes. (2) Every team will have a legitimate chance to be champion. There will be no undefeated teams left without a chance.

The basics of the system:

Each conference consists of 10 teams. All teams will play 9 conference games. Each conference must declare a conference champion (via a declared method of their choosing), and there are no conference championship games (to enhance the importance of regular season games).

Each conference champion gets a conditional automatic bid.*

The remaining, at large bids are decided by a committee (much like the one in current use).

The top independent team receives an automatic bid by finishing in the top 10 of the committee rankings. Otherwise, they are eligible for at large bids (the distinction is small and will almost always be moot).

The 4 quarterfinal, 2 semifinal games, and 1 championship game will rotate among traditional bowls (with the “most” traditional rotating among the final 3 games). The first round games are hosted by the better seed. The semifinals will take place on New Year’s day, with the Rose Bowl being the first semifinal.

Outside of the 16 teams in the tournament, the remainder of the bowl games will exist as they always have.

Easy enough, right? Not exactly.

There will need to be massive restructuring of conferences. This seems straightforward at first glance, but there are currently 128 FBS teams. To have the minimum number of independent teams, this would mean 12 conferences of 10 teams. This would mean 12 automatic bids, and only 4 at large bids. I believe that the ideal number would be 11 conferences with 5 auto bids. In order to make the system work, it would be wise for the NCAA to limit the number of teams reaching the FBS level, create a promotion/relegation system, or other ideas that are not the topic for this post. In the meantime, the lack of at large bids convinced me to propose one more key – and controversial – provision:

*To guarantee an auto bid, a team must win at least 9 games. This provision is to guard against the (most likely mid major) conference champion who does not belong in the field. 9 wins and 3 losses ensures that the team is good. Every team in the country can lose every non-conference game on their schedule, and still guarantee a playoff berth with a perfect conference record. What we don’t want is a team who loses 2 or 3 non-conference games, loses a couple of games in conference, and still wins the conference championship. Take 2014 Louisiana Tech. With my conference realignment, they would have won the Big West championship with an 8-4 record. They lost 1 game in conference, 2 games to ranked opponents in non-conference, but also lost to FCS Northwestern State. A team that loses to an FCS school – or which loses to all 3 non-conference opponents, plus a conference loss, or various other combinations – does not deserve to be in a 16 team playoff.

The downside to this provision is that it would discourage mid majors from scheduling difficult out of conference opponents. I believe, however, that the benefit of creating an extra at large bid for a more deserving team outweighs this detriment. The burden of proof, so to speak, would still be in favor of allowing the team to join the tournament. The committee would be required to give express reasoning as to why the team was left out of the field. If, say, the SEC champion lost twice out of conference and twice in conference, the committee could still include them in the field. In this case, the committee would have no trouble pointing to the FCS loss as a reason why Louisiana Tech should be excluded from the field.

Now, on to the conference realignments. The teams are not placed in order, aside from the teams receiving bids to the tournament. I attempted to reorganize the 10 team conferences for historical and/or geographic reasons, reinserting teams to old conferences or ones that make sense, and resurrecting old conferences. It wasn’t always easy, and was sometimes arbitrary. I included notes where I felt necessary.

ACC
Florida State – auto bid 12-0
Georgia Tech – 10-2
Clemson
South Carolina
Duke
Maryland
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Virginia
Wake Forest

Big East
Louisville – auto bid 9-3
Virginia Tech
Miami (FL)
Syracuse
West Virginia
Boston College
Rutgers
Temple
Pittsburgh
Penn State (an independent until 1992, this time Penn State joins the Big East, rather than being the 11th big 10 team).

Big 8
Missouri – auto bid 10-2 (Missouri gets the nod over 10-2 Colorado State due to a superior conference record)
Nebraska
Kansas State
Kansas
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Iowa State
Colorado
Colorado State (makes geographic sense)
Cincinnati (willing to travel, this would be Cincinnati’s 7th conference)

Big 10
Ohio State – auto bid 11-1
Michigan State – 10-2
Illinois
Michigan
Minnesota
Northwestern
Purdue
Wisconsin
Indiana
Iowa

Southwest Conference (it feels good to revive the legendary SWC, bringing back Arkansas, and adding newcomer UT San Antonio, a geographic, but mostly arbitrary choice over other “new” Texas schools…)
Baylor – auto bid 11-1 (wins tie breaker due to head-to-head victory over TCU)
TCU – 11-1
Texas
Texas A&M
Houston
SMU
Texas Tech
Rice
Arkansas
UTSA

Southeastern Conference
Alabama – auto bid 11-1
Mississippi State – 10-2
Florida
Tennessee
Georgia
Kentucky
Vanderbilt
Auburn
LSU
Ole Miss

Pac 10
Oregon – auto bid 11-1
Arizona – 10-2
Oregon State
Washington
Washington State
California
Stanford
USC
UCLA
Arizona State

WAC
Boise State – auto bid 10-2
BYU
Utah
Air Force
San Diego State
Wyoming
Fresno State
New Mexico
Hawaii
UTEP

Big West Conference
Louisiana Tech (continuing an odd tradition of joining a western conference) – auto bid 8-4, but is excluded from the tournament by virtue of not reaching 9 wins.
Nevada
Utah State
New Mexico State
San Jose State
UNLV
North Texas
Idaho
Texas State
Tulsa

Mid-American Conference
Northern Illinois – auto bid 10-2
Toledo
Miami (Ohio)
Ball State
Western Michigan
Eastern Michigan
Bowling Green
Central Michigan
Ohio
Kent State

Conference USA
Marshall – auto bid 11-1
Middle Tennessee
UAB
WKU
Arkansas State
FIU
Florida Atlantic
Southern Miss
Tulane
Akron

American Athletic Conference
Georgia Southern – auto 9-3 (perfect 8-0 conference record gives them the nod over Memphis and UCF)
Memphis – 9-3 7-1
UCF – 9-3 7-1
East Carolina
South Florida
Connecticut
Buffalo
UMass
Louisiana-Lafayette
Louisiana-Monroe

Independent
Appalachian State
Old Dominion
South Alabama
Troy
Georgia State
Notre Dame
Army
Navy

The tournament would look like this:

  1. Florida State 12-0 (ACC)
  2. Alabama 11-1 (SEC)
  3. Oregon 11-1 (Pac 10)
  4. Ohio State 11-1 (Big 10)
  5. Baylor 11-1 (SWC)
  6. TCU* 11-1 (SWC at large)
  7. Mississippi State* 10-2 (SEC at large)
  8. Michigan State* 10-2 (Big 10 at large)
  9. Arizona* 10-2 (Pac 10 at large)
  10. Georgia Tech* 10-2 (ACC at large)
  11. Missouri 10-2 (Big 8)
  12. Louisville 9-3 (Big East)
  13. Boise State 10-2 (WAC)
  14. Marshall 11-1 (Conference USA)
  15. Northern Illinois 10-2 (MAC)
  16. Georgia Southern 9-3 (AAC)
  17. Louisiana Tech 8-4 (Big West)

(1) Florida State v (16) Georgia Southern
(8) Michigan State v (9) Arizona

(5) Baylor v (12) Louisville
(4) Ohio State v (13) Boise State

(6) TCU v (11) Missouri
(3) Oregon v (14) Marshall

(7) Mississippi State v (10) Georgia Tech
(2) Alabama v (15) Northern Illinois

A few notes and observations:

Setting up this fictional 16 team tournament was more difficult than I imagined. The basic rules (9 game conference schedules, automatic bids for all conference champions) seem simple, but the 128 teams at the FBS level present a logistical challenge. Still, the 16 team tournament is superior to the 4 team product. This year, the biggest problem with the 4 team tournament was that a reasonable argument could be made that Baylor and TCU deserved to be in the final 4 just as much as the other one loss teams who made the field. In a 16 team tournament, they would get to prove their merit. And it provides justice for a team like Michigan State, who had the courage to travel to eventual #3 Oregon. Under the current 4 team playoff, if Michigan State had scheduled a patsy in place of Oregon (like Baylor or many of the teams from the SEC would have, for example), they would have been in the running for a playoff bid (their only other loss was to eventual #4 Ohio State). In the current system, they were punished for their bravery, despite the committee repeatedly saying that teams would be rewarded for scheduling (note: this isn’t the committee’s fault – 4 teams are simply not enough, and the 2 loss Spartans were rightfully not chosen ahead of the 1 loss teams). The 16 team tournament would have a much more realistic chance of making good on claims that scheduling matters.

Of course, there are (legitimate) arguments that this 16 team tournament is too watered down. True, teams the last 5 or 6 teams are probably not among the top 16 teams in the country. But I believe that it is a good balance, because in the future, one of those teams will be undefeated going into the tournament (Marshall was a two point conversion away from doing so), and there should be – at most – one undefeated champion at the end of each season. But note that I will also release a (shorter) 8 team playoff proposal in a future post (edit: see here for my 8 team playoff proposal).

Florida State is the defending national champion, scheduled well out of conference, has a 29 game winning streak, and is the only undefeated team in the country. They get the #1 seed. Arizona and Georgia Tech get the final at large bids by virtue of their 10 wins, narrowly beating out Wisconsin.

The matchups are intriguing. Florida State faces another option team (which they have struggled to stop this year) in Georgia Southern, a traditional lower division power. The Michigan State v Arizona 8 v 9 game is a battle between two power conference teams. The same goes for Baylor v Louisville and Mississippi State v Georgia Tech. Ohio State is a big favorite over Boise State, who is no stranger to achieving success as an underdog. Oregon is favored over Marshall, one of the few teams with as fast and as prolific on offense as Oregon has. Alabama v Northern Illinois doesn’t look good on paper…but giving Northern Illinois a chance is what the tournament is about.

The potential quarterfinal games would be epic: Florida State v Michigan State or Arizona. Baylor v Ohio State. TCU v Oregon. Mississippi State or Georgia Tech v Alabama.

And, of course, the semifinals would only get better.

What do you think?

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.

 

Oct 202014
 

Innovative clock management and game strategy are becoming the norm throughout all levels of football. From taking timeouts earlier in the 4th quarter in order to preserve more time (common), to never punting and always attempting onside kicks (rare), coaches are increasingly willing to use strategies that would have been frowned upon not long ago.

The St. Louis Rams embodied this new school approach in their upset victory of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

At first glance, few things in football appear crazier than faking a punt on your own 18 yard line while nursing a two point lead with under three minutes to play. But consider the following:

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense had just completed three straight touchdown drives of 80 or more yards. On the day, Wilson became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards while rushing for over 100 yards in the same game. Simply put, Wilson and the Seahawks were unstoppable down the stretch.

Rams head coach Jeff Fischer and special teams coordinator John Fassel knew it.

Old school thinking would be to punt the ball away anyways, and to put trust in your defense to keep the Seahawks out of field goal range.

The key to the risk assessment is this: There was 2:55 left on the clock. The Rams had two timeouts left. If the pass was not completed and the fake failed, the Seahawks would take over on the 18. They could only get one first down. The Rams could stop the clock three times (two timeouts and the two minute warning). With proper use of timeouts and barring extra first downs through penalties, the Rams would be able to get the ball back with some time left on the clock after the Seahawks scored. In other words, it would be difficult for the Seahawks to kick a winning field goal with no time remaining if the Rams were to fail on the fake punt.

Thus, a failed fake would serve to give the Rams one last chance with the ball. If the Rams had punted the ball, they have given the ball to Wilson with plenty of time and space to move the Seahawks into position to kick a field goal with no time remaining on the clock.

The downside to failure on the fake punt was no more than missing out on the upside of converting it. Failure was, as argued above, in many ways preferable to punting.

The upside to converting the fake was massive. It gave the Rams the opportunity to keep the ball out of Wilson’s hands altogether, and this is exactly how they won the game.

Thus, one can easily see why the balancing of risk versus reward led the Rams to attempt the fake.

Not to mention that the fake itself was built on solid fundamentals, not hit or miss trickery. The Rams motioned their gunner to the inside, in order to clear the flat for the personal protector – running back Benny Cunningham. Punter Johnny Hekker – an athletic 6’5” 227 pound ex star high school quarterback – then took his first step as if punting, before calmly throwing a spiral to a wide open Cunningham. In structure, it was nothing more than a common goal line or short yardage concept in which a motioning receiver clears space for a running back to outrun coverage to the outside, and it worked to perfection.

While the fake punt seemed like an enormous role of the dice, it is more usefully analyzed as an example of new school risk assessment, in which punting the ball away isn’t always the best – or safest – decision.

See the fake punt here:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-cant-miss-plays/0ap3000000413387/Wk-7-Can-t-Miss-Play-Rams-have-guts-and-glory

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.