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.

  3 Responses to “Cheap, interchangeable quarterbacks in the NFL Part II: the schemes and coaches who can make it work”

  1. Very thought provoking articles, particularly on the value of paying a QB so much in relation to the roster and the ability of a good coach with a good system to allow for a less than elite quarterback to have success. You hit on a key point with the Kaepernick salary negotiation – is he worth Joe Flacco money? I’m being more than a little facetious with the comment, but the less sarcastic version of the question is: Should Kaepernick be paid as an elite QB and command a very large portion of his team’s salary, or will the 49ers make a decision to let him walk if he holds out for elite QB $$. With less raw athletic talent, its unlikely they would face the same conundrum with Alex Smith, so perhaps it would have been better in the long run for the team to stick with Smith.

  2. Yes, the Kaepernick situation will tell us much about whether an NFL team would consider going this route. As for the Kaepernick/Smith debate, I think Harbaugh went with the player with the most tools, because he was so confident in his ability to mold those tools. The question now is if he believes he can mold another raw talent in the same way (though Kaepernick does not fall into the interchangeable quarterback category because his physical talents are so rare) should Kaepernick demand “too much” money, whatever the 49ers deem that to be. It will be hard to tell either way, because no one knows how much input Harbaugh has on personnel decisions as it is. And Jed York has a complex juggling act to perform in deciding who is most important to his team’s success: general manager Trent Balke, Harbaugh, or Kaepernick.

  3. […] 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 […]

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