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Quarterbacks are almost always treated the same way by big media and small analysts alike. “He needs to be great at drops.” “He needs to make tough reads.” “He needs to work a pro-style system.” More times than not, when someone mentions a player as a perfect fit for Chip Kelly, it is more of a testament to what they think Kelly can accomplish with them, being that the belief is Kelly can maximize any quarterback. It is not a thought out marriage between player and scheme. Whether done so consciously or subconsciously, generalizing all quarterback evaluations to be the same and misunderstanding a playerâ€™s truest fit is common.
Some writers will throw out the tidbit that some players fit a more vertical system rather than a more horizontal system or something of the like, which is certainly useful information. The thing is, it is not that simple. Where it gets foggy is when trying to understand how much of the systemâ€™s support a player needs.Â Do they need a heavy rushing attack as infrastructure? Do they need precise drops and timing routes, and how do they read the field? Do they need their athleticism to be embraced? All are questions that tend to go poorly answered when evaluating a passer and projecting his fit.
The problem roots in the common belief that there is a certain way to quarterback. There is not, and that is okay. Some passers need precise drops because their brain functions more smoothly when their “clock” is their feet. Others can do without crisp drops because they “time” the play directly with their eyes. While the latter of the twoâ€™s drops will appear sloppier, they may be just as effective because of the way he processes the game. If an analyst is focused solely on the player synchronizing his feet with a route break, then he will likely overlook the fact that a player may still be hitting the throw at the correct time and end up undeservingly marking the player down.
Some of the best passers in the NFL operate on this “eye clock”. Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Cam Newton all operate this way. Their feet do not appear as in sync with the play as other top quarterbacks, yet their execution is still top notch because they do not need their feet to tell them when to throw, they can feel when the time is right. Of course, this operating system is more of a natural talent than a learned skill, but it can be just as effective.
In college, this style is more prevalent due to the large number of spread teams. Few execute the style to the degree in which it would garner NFL success, but it is common nonetheless. While few execute it exceptionally, many of collegeâ€™s best passers heading into next year work this way. Cardale Jones and Kyle Allen are among some of the NCAAâ€™s best passers and they all operate with this style of timing. As opposed to snapping to and out of the top of their drops, as well as from read to read, they are more free flowing. They allow their shoulders to direct them and fire upon seeing the right moment. It sounds a bit too loose to work in an NFL that demands precision, but this is a style that embodies a sense of things not being as they appear.
From read to read, these players are not calculating a receiver being in an exact spot upon him turning that way. He is expecting him to be in a general area and finding a way to throw him open. Again, this sounds somewhat reckless, but those who do it well can be deadly. Either that or they break the play to create separation for their receivers. With that being a part of their game, these players tend to be athletic. Some quarterbacks abuse their athleticism (like Jones), but the elite passers of this style understand when and when not to use their legs.
The Jacksonville Jaguars young passer Blake Bortles operates this way as well, yet the offense he worked in asked him to be precise. His style clashed with the style asked of his tasks, leading to a handful of issues that painted a misleading picture of his overall capabilities. He is just the most recent example of why coaching staffs need to adapt their scheme to players, not force players to adapt to their systems. Why? Players rarely change; maximize what you have.
Another key factor to determine how a quarterback should be used in an offense is how dependent he is on his running backs. Every quarterback benefits from a threatening rushing attack. That isnâ€™t up for debate. That said, some passersâ€™s ability is more variance depending on whether or not they have a strong rushing attack. In recent years, the three best examples in the NFL to prove this are Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
In 2013, Roethlisberger had one of the worst years of his career. He seemed rattled and frustrated. He was forcing more throws and making more questionable decisions than was typical of him. His healing shoulder may have played some part in that, but Roethlisberger had no running game to support him well. That had plenty to do with the offensive line, but either way, there was not a running game to make his life easier when passing. Come 2014, the offensive line improved and Leâ€™Veon Bell emerged as arguably the best running back in the NFL. Coincidentally, Roethlisberger had a rebound year that doubled as one of the best seasons of his career.
Colin Kaepernickâ€™s story is similar, but in opposite fashion. He started his short tenure with a strong rushing attack that allowed for softer defenses and less of a focus on him, but in 2014, he did not have that luxury. Frank Gore seemed to be falling off a tad and the offensive line was a shell of its former self. Those two factors, as well as a lack of receiving threats, lead to the focus becoming solely on Kaepernick. He was thrown into the fire and asked to run a different offense than he was capable of, ultimately leading to his apparent downfall. The offensive coordinator at the time, Greg Roman, contained Kaepernick to the pocket and complicated route combos. With his brain having to process more info at once, Kaepernick seemingly crumbled because the entire offense was on him; he struggled to handle it all and nobody was there to pick up the pieces.
The final example of this grouping is Russell Wilson. Wilson has yet to be without a dominant rushing attack, but having one, even since his Wisconsin days, has been very helpful for him. With the spotlight on Marshawn Lynch, Wilson sees less man coverage and overall softer coverages. When he sees man coverage, he was allowed to immediately bail the pocket and pick up yards on his own. This was especially true in 2014, leading to him rushing for 849 yards, good for 16th in the NFL and 1st among quarterbacks. Wilson is not asked to be the centerpiece of the offense, yet the offense is still one of the best in the NFL. This is not because Wilson is rising above the system and shining, but because the system was molded to fit him and has allowed him to shine more easily.
On a similar note, some quarterbacks need their own athleticism to be embraced. This is not to say schemes should let them run at their will, but between the read-option, sprint outs and bootlegs, there are plenty of ways to scare a defense by getting the quarterback moving.
Whether you think it is going to go away soon or not is a different story, but the read-option works for young athletic quarterbacks. Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick both had their most success when the read-option was a key component to their offense. Once it was lost, they both fell off. With Griffin, this fall from glory can be more credited to injury, though it certainly helped him as a rookie more than a traditional offense would have. It should not be used extensively, but if it is a concept that will give a player more comfort and confidence, use it.
To that same right, some passers play very well out of the pocket and on the move. Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles and even Joe Flacco are all players that have shown that they can be at their best when moving. For smarter and more economic passers, like Tannehill, it allows them to read only half the field and make a quicker decision. For the “big play” types like Roethlisberger and Bortles, it can create chaos to move defenders for them or allow them to more easily find their own running lane. No matter the mentality of the passer, moving a quarterback can help him. Some passers simply feel more comfortable that way, and that ought to be used to the offenseâ€™s advantage. Do not restrict a playerâ€™s skill set.
At the same time, not all athletic quarterbacks need manufactured movement. The NFLâ€™s most athletic passer, Newton, does not need the scheme to maximize his athleticism to make him a better passer. Moving him is unnecessary. He is a brilliant mover in the pocket and knows when to create on his own, and does so unlike any other. Allowing him to drop and read the field, as opposed to shortening the field for him, is much more efficient for him. Athletic passers should typically be used on the move, but like all other facets of building an offense for the quarterback, do not assume every athletic passer requires it.
Not all quarterbacks are the same. They require different restrictions and luxuries. Peyton Manning isnâ€™t maximized if he is used like young RG3, while young RG3 isnâ€™t maximized if he is told to do what Manning does. Quarterbacks are not all the same, and the importance of their role does not have to be the same. Wilson is less of a key piece to his offense than, say, Tony Romo is to his offense, yet both of their offenses and teams have shown great success as two of the best in the NFL.
Part of having a great quarterback is not necessarily finding someone who does everything right, but someone who does certain things very well and knowing how to maximize it. Very few quarterbacks in the NFL are truly capable of handling any sort of scheme very well, and even they have specific schemes that help maximize their skill set. My call to action is not to always find the quarterback who does it all, but find the quarterback whose skill set you can do the most with, whatever that skill set may be.