It was just over 12 months ago that the 2011 season was anointed “the Year of the Quarterback”. Think about it. Tim Tebow was the center of conversation. The Broncos ran the read option (wasn’t that a college offense?), and Tebow made enough plays late in games to help drive Denver to the playoffs. Then in the AFC Wild Card game, he threw for over 300 yards on just 10 completions, including the improbable 80 yard touchdown in overtime to beat the Steelers. Tebow was suddenly the poster child for all those outliers who believed: 46% completion percentage be damned, it was possible to play NFL QB unconventionally.
Then there was Cam Newton. Newton had the most prolific season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history, becoming the first to throw for more than 4,000 yards. In addition he ran for over 700 yards, and scored 14 rushing touchdowns, another NFL record for a quarterback.
Newton’s statistical profile was remarkable; perhaps more compelling was the manner in which he did it. In some ways similar to Tebow (both ran the read option) and in others different (he was a far better passer), he was bending, if not breaking, the rules of accepted quarterback play. Newton was shattering long-held beliefs of how the position had to be played successfully in the NFL. In short, in the eyes of many, he was revolutionizing the quarterback position.
The overriding point was this: After the 2011 season, we heard much dialogue about the quarterback position being transformed. It may seem a little preposterous now, but that was the talk only one short year ago. The established and time-honored way of playing quarterback consistently and effectively in the NFL was changing. It was a new day, a new way, and new eyes to see the dawn, as Crosby, Stills and Nash sang in their classic song, “Carry On”.
Of course, this kind of talk was nothing more than frivolous white noise. Let’s step back a minute and provide some needed context. The evolution of the NFL game has been evident for some time. Pro football today is defined by the emphasis on throwing the football. In addition to the significant increases league-wide in passing attempts and yardage totals, many other more tactical factors reflect this reality: multiple receiver packages, athletic and versatile tight ends, spread formations (including empty sets with no backs) with wide receivers of differing skill sets, shifts and motions designed to dictate favorable matchups, play calling weighted heavily to pass. Offensively, the NFL is about explosive plays, and the percentages strongly indicate you have a better chance to gain 20-plus yards passing the ball as opposed to running it. Sid Gillman, the recognized father of the modern day passing game, always used to bemoan all the effort spent coaching the running game. He would say, “We’re spending all that time to try to gain three yards”.
Defenses have responded accordingly. Coaches are continually looking for strategies to pressure quarterbacks without sacrificing or compromising coverage. It’s a numbers game, and it always will be. How can you present the illusion of pressure without actually sending more rushers? The defense’s objective is to force the offense to increase the number of pass protectors beyond the 5 offensive linemen, so that eligible receivers must become part of the protection and therefore cannot release freely into pass routes. The defense wants more defenders to match up to fewer receivers. That was the superseding premise of the zone blitz (five pass rushers) and zone exchange (four rushers with one or more second and/or third level defenders) concepts.
The bottom line is this: Quarterbacks must be able to pass the ball against multiple pressure and coverage concepts designed specifically to challenge not only them, but the pass protection schemes. This is what happens on third down, the possession down, the down in which the proactive offensive tactics (read option, for instance) have no relevance. Passing the ball well in those difficult and critical situations demands specific and identifiable attributes. They are necessary for all quarterbacks to consistently succeed at the NFL level. There’s no question different players possess these characteristics in distinctive and varying degrees. But make no mistake: a tangible skill set that can be quantified is required.
Those traits begin with the very basics: Footwork on the drop from center or in the shotgun. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen quarterbacks drift to one side or the other on their drop into the pocket. That negatively impacts their balance and their footwork. In addition -- and this is never talked about -- it has a damaging effect on pass protection. Remember, pass protection concepts are structured on the launch point of the quarterback. If he drifts, or in any way moves closer to his offensive line, he’s increasing the likelihood of throwing with bodies too close to him. You can see that. It’s visible on film.
There are so many attributes that are discernible on tape. Accuracy, or more precisely ball location, can be measured. So can timing and anticipation. You can see when a quarterback delivers the ball before the receiver makes his break. You can’t be a high-level NFL quarterback without that trait. Pocket movement can be gauged. You can analyze a quarterback’s capacity to move within an area that approximates the size of a boxing ring. And the corollary, just as important, is his ability to maintain downfield focus while doing so.
There are certainly more, but the point is clear. You need specific attributes to play NFL quarterback well, and none of them are unconventional or revolutionary. That’s not the way it works in the NFL.
One final point that I can’t stress enough: In order for the position to be played properly, the quarterback must operate within the structure of the offense a large percentage of the time. Improvisation and sandlot play may occasionally look spectacular, but always remember they are random and arbitrary. They can result in negative outcomes just as easily as they can produce positive ones. That’s not the template for success in the NFL.
So what happened to Tebow and Newton? Tebow was not hard to analyze. He simply lacks the necessary skills to be an NFL passer. Newton, on the other hand, struggled in his sophomore season primarily because he was unreliable and scattershot as a passer. As a rookie, and this was overlooked by those yearning for a new day, he transitioned to the NFL in a manner that was unexpected and unforeseen given his college resume. He was poised and composed, decisive and consistently accurate in the pocket. He delivered in the face of pressure. He made difficult throws into tight coverage. He did not look to run, unless it was the only option or part of a designed play call.
In 2012, the Panthers, looking to further take advantage of Newton’s size and running ability, committed more to the read option, with Newton the foundation of the run game. The results were not what Carolina hoped. They had a less productive rushing attack, and a more erratic passer. Newton’s accuracy, both from the pocket and on the move, was unpredictable. You saw outstanding throws, but far too many poor throws. The expected development into a high level NFL quarterback did not take place.
The revolutionary quarterback of 2011 became just another inconsistent passer in 2012. The reason is simple and straightforward -- he did not throw the ball well enough. That’s what NFL quarterbacking is about. It will always be that way. Remember we have been through all this talk before about the multi-dimensional quarterback. Michael Vick was the athletic innovator who was going to change the game, transcend accepted and time-worn philosophies, and compel a rethinking of the perceived limits of the position. It never happened. Vick, to this day, is not an accomplished passer. He does not exhibit the quantifiable attributes often enough. He remains a week-to-week player with little stability or continuity to his game. He’s constantly dangerous, at times dazzling, but seldom consistent, and most importantly, not always available.
Of course, this discussion leads to Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. All athletic quarterbacks with a wide array of throwing and running skills, leading the so-called new era of NFL quarterbacks. Griffin will be the most interesting to follow, coming back as he is from a major knee injury. If his ability to run is compromised meaningfully, will he develop into a top NFL quarterback? It’s an unanswerable question at this moment, but much of his passing success resulted from the impact his viability as a runner had on the defense. Newton presents a cautionary tale. The biggest and strongest of the group took a step back in 2012. Few would have anticipated that a year ago.
The overall point is this: To play NFL quarterback at a high level consistently, a tangible, identifiable and measurable set of attributes is demanded. No one revolutionizes the position without those attributes. No one plays it unconventionally without those attributes. That kind of conversation is just idle talk and white noise.