(Featured image from ESPN via GettyImages)
Tom Brady (by Derrik Klassen)
(@KC, CIN, DET, @NYJ) (115/147; 78.23%)
(@MIN, CHI, @IND, @GB) (90/113; 79.65%)
Total: (205/260; 78.85)
Few, if any, quarterbacks have the career legacy that Tom Brady has. Four Super Bowl rings, including the 2015 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, two NFL MVP awards, over 50,000 career passing yards, nearly 400 career touchdowns; the list of accomplishments could go on and on. Though, every great player has their fall from physical greatness. Then again, part of what makes Brady as special as he is, is his ability to adjust and find a new way to win.
Over the past few seasons, Brady has not been the dominant all-over-the-field passer that he once was. In 2013, when the offensive pieces around him were hardly serviceable for the most part, Brady has arguably the worst year of his career as he forced far too many passes and simply did not look comfortable. His 2014 season was a complete turnaround.
The first few weeks of the season were a mess. Brandon LaFell was not being utilized (he was a major key to the offense, believe it or not) and the offensive line failed to play with any sort of consistency, leading to Brady playing antsy and throwing too soon to his failsafe Rob Gronkowski. By week five, the Patriots found their identity and Brady rebirthed. He did not magically turn into a passer that could once again dominate all levels of the field. Instead, Brady revolved his game around short timing throws and allowing his receivers to make plays. He took what the defense gave him, and he did so to perfection.
Bill Belichick’s and Josh McDaniels’ offensive game plan for the Super Bowl stayed true to what the Patriots offense had been for a majority of the season. Brady was not capable of winning at every level of the field, but he could pick any defense apart underneath. Pre-snap, Brady exposed tendencies and weak spots in the defense. Once it came time to complete the throw, Brady was scary accurate last season. He allowed for easy yards after the catch, maximizing the efficiency of the newfound West Coast style of the Patriots offense. Some may claim that that sort of offense is too easy or simple and that Brady should have done more. Maybe that has some validity to it, but two things make that claim moot: Brady can’t do much more at this point and him not testing his limits was smarter than him trying to do too much, and a perfected West Coast offense can be as lethal as any. Look at Joe Montana, for instance. West Coast offense, but he had the timing down to the millisecond and it propelled him into the Hall of Fame.
Brady transitioned to this style of play and made the Patriots offense fire on all cylinders. His timing and ball placement was superb. These traits can be seen on the charts. Notice the high volume of <10 yard throws and how swarmed those areas are with “accurate” throws. Whether it be an “out,” “slant,” “drag,” etc., Brady was syncing his drops with his throws very well, allowing him to plant and fire at the same time his receivers were making their break. When the timing of a throw and a route break are coordinated so well, assuming the receiver creates even a small amount of separation, these types of throws are near indefensible.
These two plays are displays of Brady’s timing. On both throws, Brady is firing as the intended target his making his move. Brady knew his target would have his man beat, and his feet and timing of the throw prove that. These types of throws were a staple of Brady’s attack in 2014.
Though, Brady was not stubborn. Well, not since about week five. Early in the year, Brady was adamant on who he was throwing to before the ball was snapped and that got him into a good deal of trouble.
Plays like the one above were common throughout Brady’s first handful of games in 2014. He saw Gronkowski and threw at him no matter what. In this example, it was 1st and 10 and Brady had two receivers running free. There is no reason to force this throw to Gronk. Luckily, Brady cleared his head soon enough.
After a few weeks, when the offense gelled together more smoothly, Brady became more open and comfortable with what he was doing. He allowed “smart Brady” to rear his head and take over games. Brady typically had a receiver in mind as soon as the ball was in his hand, but he became aware that he does not have to force that first read. He began more naturally snapping over to the next receiver in his progression, further maximizing the efficiency of the offense as a whole.
Brady’s newfound comfort translated to how well he stood in the pocket, too. As hinted at previously, Brady played antsy and frantic in 2013 and early on in 2014. Once the offensive line stopped being a row of turnstiles, Brady displayed much more confidence in them and seemed to analyze the field and navigate the pocket with much more peace of mind. This translated to his previously mentioned ability to go through multiple reads without panicking. Being able to have confidence in himself being safe from pass rushers was key for Brady returning to his successful nature.
In 2014, Brady had few shortcomings after the first few weeks. He was playing at MVP caliber. Though he may not have been as dynamic as in years past, he found a new way to thrive and finished the year as one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a new Super Bowl ring. Brady is nearing the end of his career due to natural physical deterioration, but his mental ability will keep him more than relevant for as long as he is in the league.
Kyle Orton (by Derrik Klassen)
(@DET, @NYJ, @DEN, GB) (94/134; 70.15%)
(MIN, @MIA, CLE, @OAK) (98/145; 67.59%)
Total: (192/279; 68.82%)
There is not a single player in the entire NFL that is more of a “just a guy” type than Kyle Orton. He is not good, but he is not necessarily bad. He is just kind of there. Enough throws are made and enough turnovers are avoided for Orton to keep a team afloat during purgatory, but he can not elevate a team to any degree. Orton would not get anyone fired, but he wouldn’t make anyone look good. He is just there.
Orton is a simple man. He looks for the first read and makes the throw whenever he feels it’s at its most “open” point. Sometimes the throw is never open, but Orton will throw it anyway. For what Orton is and expected to be, there isn’t much wrong with that. He is a stopgap player whose job is to not be terrible, not to be an elevating player. Does Orton miss a number of pre-snap reads and fail to see other open receivers often? Sure. Does he over think plays and create unnecessary turnovers?
On the other hand, for as many years as Orton has been in the league, it is surprising to see how poor his grasp is on where his “hots” are. Orton’s first-read tunnel vision can get him in trouble because he will fail to look at the running back flying out into the flat as a rusher begins charging at him. These plays often only gain a few yards, but a few yards is much better than no yards or a sack. One could argue that going through multiple reads is not what Orton is asked to do, but a “hot” is different from a read in that it is a failsafe, not an actual read. If the play breaks down or a very noticeable coverage gap will be there, the quarterback goes to the “hot.” It’s simple, yet Orton can not execute.
Furthermore, Orton’s first-read predication can be used as a tool for smart defenders. If said defender has been in the film room all week and has picked up on formation/route combo tendencies, the defender can jump a route before the throw is there and take it to the house. Of course, even with that knowledge, actually making the play is difficult, but with a quarterback like Orton, it is easier than it normally should be.
Orton is throwing vs Denver’s Cover 3 right here. He locks in on Robert Woods from the jump, allowing the Broncos cornerback to lock onto the ball path. Orton makes no indication that he is even considering another target but Woods. He pulls back to fire and, simultaneously, the Broncos defender closes on the ball to intercept the pass.
In that same breath, Orton’s job should be easier in the sense that he’s not having to do much resetting for throws. He ends his drop and he knows where he is going. In theory, Orton should be completing a very high % of these throws, but he is not. Primarily, Orton’s problem with accuracy is gauging where a receiver will be. He so often fails to lead a receiver across the field and ends up throwing behind them, either getting the receiver destroyed or having the pass fall incomplete- or both.
Orton is barely a competent passer. He is not accurate, nor can he open up the playbook. Though, to his credit, Orton has a good feel for the pocket. If a rusher begins closing the pocket, Orton generally knows where the opening in the pocket is and when to move. He understands that he has to give himself a clean lane to throw through and that if there is open space in front of you in the pocket, you take it.
Every NFL backup should (sort of) look up to Kyle Orton. He does not sink teams, but he does not elevate them. He does what a backup ought to do: keep things afloat to the best of his ability. Orton is a prime example of a security blanket in the NFL. Most teams would like to have Orton on their roster behind their established starter, just in case. Orton isn’t good, he’s easily below league average, but for what he is, few, if any, are better.
Geno Smith (by Derrik Klassen)
(CHI, DEN, @TEN, @MIA) (96/122; 78.69%)
(OAK, DET, BUF, @MIN) (48/66; 72.73%)
Total: (144/188; 76.6%)
The New York Jets are in a bit of a pickle with their quarterback situation. Just two years ago, the Jets, then coached by Rex Ryan, selected Geno Smith in the second round. Smith’s rookie year was a train wreck, to say the least. In 2014, his second season in the league, Smith showed improvement, but was pulled for a few weeks due to a horrendous outing vs Buffalo. Eventually, Smith took the wheel again and looked once again like the improved player that he was.
The problem is, many people, including the Jets front office, it seems, are down on Smith. The team recently signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and there is still talk of the Jets taking one of the two quarterbacks with the sixth pick, if either of them are available. Do the Jets stick with Smith and a veteran or do they move onto another new body? The answer lies within Smith’s 2014 season.
In a number of areas, Smith was a better passer in 2014 than he was the year before. Accuracy and poise have gone from major holes in Smith’s game to being serviceable traits, at least. On the other hand, Smith still has a number of maddening issues, such as mechanics and field vision.
Mechanics are one of the toughest things to fix in a quarterback. In Bruce Feldman’s “The QB” (excellent book), it is mentioned that new quarterback mechanics take roughly 10,000 clean reps to truly instill, yet players almost always revert to old habits when put into game situations, thus developing those new tendencies is a long, often stunted, process that may never truly be complete. That is the fear with Smith.
There are many times where Smith throws like a baseball pitcher, lifting his back leg upon release. One may suggest that this increases the force behind his throws, but it does not. Throwing a football roots from the lower body. Lifting his back leg too early gives Smith a weaker, less stable base to throw from, thus generally taking off velocity and leading to wilder passes. This kind of odd throwing form was less common in his second season than it was his rookie year, but it is still very much an issue.
Smith misses a number of throws because of him getting frantic and throwing with his leg off the ground, but when he settles in and “plays on his flats” (flat-footed), he is a much better passer. He is still far from a top level passer, but if speaking solely in terms of general ball placement, Smith is accurate enough to get an offense to function. In fact, Smith tends to have two or three throws per game that are especially impressive.
Accuracy-wise, Smith is at his best with routes that cross his face or work down the field. With routes that require exact timing and preciseness, Smith has his struggles. Part of this can be related to him functioning in an offense like West Virginia’s for so long. Now, being this way is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it means that the game plan and offense must be designed differently for him that it may be designed for others, but, for one reason or another, this is the case with just about every quarterback in the NFL. Routes like “drags,” “nines/go routes” and deep “crossers” are where Smith looks best and those are the types of throws that will get the most out of Smith.
At the same time, a lot of Smith’s throws need to be early in the progression. The second year Jet lacks any sort of quick-twitch ability, both mentally and physically. When reading the field, Smith can be late to fire and that leads to poor throws, even interceptions. Whether it be him not being sure of what he sees, doubting the legitimacy of what he sees or being oblivious, Smith is late on a number of throws or completely misses an open receiver altogether.
Here, Smith stares down his target and is a bit late pulling the trigger, allowing for a smart veteran like Charles Woodson to jump the route and pick off Smith’s throw. Mistakes rooting from a late decision were all too common from Smith, and it is a theme that showed up in his pocket presence as well.
Some may point to Smith’s awareness, or lack thereof, in the pocket as a result of his youth in the league, but he was the same way at West Virginia. More often than not, Smith is just a half second too late to see pressure coming his way and that leads to him taking more sacks than he should. Of course, escaping rushers requires some level of physical ability, namely quickness, but Smith does not possess that either. His movements are sluggish and he takes a while to get going. Granted, once he is in the open field, he is a solid athlete, but his start time is problematic and restricts him from being able to escape a lot of pressures per year.
Luckily, Smith does not play scared anymore. He was much more poised and in control in 2014 than he was in his rookie year. Part of that may be his lack of awareness, but nonetheless, Smith can stand strong in the pocket and get a throw out. This past season, Smith played lower in his stance (better throwing base) and was more confident in looking at a target and standing in through pressure to make the throw.
Conversely, Smith crosses the line between confidence and recklessness a bit too frequently. More than anything, Smith is not particularly good at identifying linebackers and other defenders over the middle of the field. Due to this, Smith rifles in throws that end up having little to no chance of being complete because of the poaching defender. This, on top of his tendency to be late, is a major flaw in Smith’s game and will hold him back from being a quality quarterback. It may be fixed because something such as seeing defenders can be fixed, or at least bettered, through extensive film study, but there is no way of knowing whether or not this can/will happen for Smith.
The NFL as a whole is too quick to discard quarterbacks. Often times, they are not developed to any degree, like Andy Dalton. Smith is a troubling case because he actually has shown some improvements and will only be entering his third year, yet a new staff can easily throw him away and blame the old staff for making a mistake. It would make sense to give Smith one more year, especially considering the team is not ready to make a deep playoff run, but, as stated, having a new staff in place likely means that Smith is out in New York, even if his 2014 season was not abysmal and he showed that he can be a better player.
Ryan Tannehill (by Nate Manickavasagam)
***Note: There was an accidental overlap in charting (both charted vs NE/@JAX). Technically the same games, though each evaluator sees things differently, thus some of the overlap is minimized.***
(NE, @JAX, BUF, NYJ) (99/137; 72.27%)
(NE, @JAX, SD, BAL) (81/109; 74.31%)
Total: (180/246; 73.17%)
Ryan Tannehill is an interesting guy to write about. His success so far has been belittled by many, even by Dolphins fans. Some of them even want him gone (which is crazy, by the way). I will say that I don’t think he is a top tier quarterback like I’ve seen some allude to, but he’s definitely a very good quarterback. He’s got a lot of things going for him, and I think he’s only going to get better. His weaknesses, for the most part, don’t really hold him back. I’ll go more in-depth on that later, but if you take just one thing from reading this article, it’s that Tannehill is very good and I’d love to have him on my team. Let’s begin.
Tannehill is a guy that converted from wide receiver in college. Many of you already know that, but it’s important to note when talking about his development. I’ve watched a lot of his games since he’s arrived in the NFL and he’s made visible progress. That’s not to say he’s gotten a LOT better, but you can see parts of his game that are just straight up better than when he came into the league. One of those, is pocket presence. While he’s still got some work to do there (particularly waiting too long to make a throw), he’s gotten better. One thing I’ve learned from charting all these QBs is that past development indicates ability to develop, so when I see a guy that’s gotten better, it makes me think he’s only going to get better. That said, I don’t think his pocket presence will ever be among the top tier.
The major concern that Dolphins fans have expressed in my experience is Tannehill’s downfield throws. Everything under 15 yards was very clean in all of the games I watched, but anything passed that was pretty rough. He just can’t seem to consistently get the ball accurately down the field. It’s pretty funny actually, whenever he finally throws a good deep ball, generally, Mike Wallace will drop it. It’s basic Murphy’s law. Anyways, I honestly can’t point to a singular issue with his deep ball. Sometimes it’s footwork, sometimes it’s the wrong amount of touch, and sometimes he just misses. This is the area that I’m just not quite sure Tannehill will ever get that much better in. And that’s okay. He’s a really good quarterback all around, and that’s what Dolphins fans should focus on.
I was actually very surprised when I looked at his stats, they were much better than I anticipated. He brought his interceptions down to 12, and upped his touchdowns to 27. It goes without saying, that’s a pretty damn good ratio. I don’t have the time to watch all 16 games of his, but I can say without a doubt this was his best year so far. He improved from a 12/13 TD/INT ratio his first year, to 24/17, to 27/12. That is drastic improvement in terms of ball security. You can also see it on tape, he takes more time before committing to a throw (which could also contribute to holding the ball too long sometimes). He improved a lot of small things in his game that eventually added up to probably moving into my top 10 quarterbacks.
The last area of improvement I want to touch on is field vision and read progression. For the most part, Tannehill has gotten so much better in this regard. Before, he was your typical quarterback convert. He wasn’t used to the pace of the game and going through reads, which is understandable. This is just to cap off all of the things Tannehill has gotten better at. You can see it in the way he moves around in the pocket and buys time, but keeps his eyes up looking for a receive downfield.
Really quick, I want to showcase one play where Tannehill buys time with his feet, and tries to find a guy downfield. In the end, he doesn’t find one, but the discipline to keep his eyes moving despite having a defender right in front of him is impressive. Like I said earlier, he does tuck it and run but the point here is that he’s LOOKING for the pass down the field, and in many cases he did find that guy.
All in all, Ryan Tannehill is pretty clearly a good quarterback. Those who deny this often don’t have much more evidence than “he can’t hit the deep ball”, which really isn’t that good of an argument. While there are a few good cases against him, it’s ludicrous for Dolphins fans to be so hateful towards someone who has shown so much improvement and talent.