Footwork is the most critical component to the play of a quarterback. Working from under center provides a passer with a sense of rhythm and timing that makes a passing game go. When a quarterback hits his third, fifth or seventh step, his eyes are geared to work in unison with the progression of each route, allowing a passer to set quickly and dump the ball if he sees a blitz coming on his first step or hit his seventh step and uncork it to a deep layer.
In the shotgun, a quarterback’s footwork is not natural. As defenses are shifting into coverage from disguised looks, a shotgun passer must drop his eyes from reading the field to catching the ball and back to the field again while turning his body and getting into throwing position. In that fraction of a second, as a quarterback is looking to get the grip on the ball and redirect his eyes, a lot can happen. Disguised coverages can show and already tight windows can close. On Sunday, Colts OLB Robert Mathis fell back into coverage against the Lions in that short span, directly into Matthew Stafford’s throwing lane. However, the fourth-year passer never saw Mathis as he caught the ball from the shotgun snap and immediately whipped a pass toward Brandon Pettigrew. The result was an easy interception for Mathis.
The integrity of quarterbacking mechanics has slipped in the NFL this season, and one of the chief culprits has been the proliferation of spread, shotgun offenses. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can shift their feet quickly from the gun, but their mechanics are well-drilled from more than a decade of work and they are two of the game’s all-time great technicians. For younger quarterbacks such as Stafford, Jay Cutler, Cam Newton and even Aaron Rodgers, who started off the season very slowly, the prevalence of shotgun attacks has begun to erode NFL passing games, destroy the mechanics of its passers and diminish the quality of the product on the field.
Scott Linehan’s offense, though he will mix up some run-pass tendencies, is very predictable. When Stafford sets under center, odds are very high it will be a run, as the Lions did 17 of the 25 times that Stafford took the snap from center against Indianapolis. When Stafford lines up in the shotgun, odds are very high that he is throwing the ball, giving Mathis, Dwight Freeney and all oncoming rushers a very good idea where the launch point will be and allowing them to pin back their ears and fly off the snap with more abandon, generally knowing where the pocket will form.
Stafford is a gunslinger, and though he often slings the ball with a sidearm motion to advantageously find an open throwing window, his mechanics have tended to get more disjointed and out of rhythm because he is in the shotgun for 25-plus snaps per game. The shotgun can be very useful in 3rd-and-8 situations, but when it comes to quick-hitting routes, the shotgun disrupts the rhythm of a normal route tree and produces a lot of drops — something the Lions were heavily afflicted with against the Colts. In fact, the Lions currently lead the league in drops, where they are in a category of their own.
The Patriots run the NFL’s most efficient offense because of the way they orchestrate their routes, having Wes Welker stutter step and hesitate off the line to let the rhythm of the offense flow. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez often make double moves and delay their releases or the offense just uses quick screens out of the gun so the timing is not disrupted. The rhythm and flow are very well choreographed and designed to work with Brady's altered mechanics.
When the Packers were struggling early in the season, Rodgers was more heavily operating from the gun and the offense's rhythm was out of sync. On top of offensive lines that have been hit hard by injuries, Cutler’s and Newton’s mechanics have suffered for the same reason. And even in Week 13, Stafford’s mechanics and the rhythm of the Lions’ offense still appeared to be very disjointed.
Offenses that operate out of the shotgun 70-plus percent of the time can produce big passing numbers, as the Lions do with the NFL’s most productive passing offense, but it also makes it very difficult to find rhythm and keep defenses off balance.
Play-action can be a quarterback’s best friend and is one of the reasons why Robert Griffin III has started his NFL career on fire and is playing at an elite level down the stretch. It's driving the success of a modestly talented triggerman like Matt Schaub in Houston.
The NFL’s most efficient offenses understand balance, rhythm and how to set its quarterbacks up to succeed. For Stafford, Cutler and Newton to thrive, they would benefit from more time under center.
• Jon Gruden has been out of the NFL since his abrupt firing by the Buccaneers in 2008, when inside sources said the players turned against his hard coaching style. Known for his admiration of John Madden, many executives around the league believed Gruden was destined for a prime-time role in the broadcast booth and would seek to spend the rest of his career there, capitalizing on the naming rights involved with the video gaming world that reportedly have generated more than $100 million for Madden. While spending the past three seasons working for ESPN on Monday nights, Gruden also has not stopped spending extensive time grilling and getting to know the next batch of quarterbacks to come through the NFL in his annual "Gruden's QB Camp" series, logic would indicate, in preparation for the next coaching opportunity. The latest scuttlebutt in the league has Gruden, on the brink of turning age 50, in line to rejoin the Raiders' organization in a prominent role. The franchise’s downturn can be traced directly back to his departure a decade ago, he has a relationship with GM Reggie McKenzie from their time together in Green Bay and he has an even better understanding of the infrastructure in Oakland and the Al Davis brand of football than anyone in football. With more autonomy to run the organization how he sees fit, adapting a model that Davis taught him, Gruden is very well-positioned to resurrect a faitering franchise that went 0-for-November and has yet to win a game since owner Mark Davis put everyone on notice and said he was not pleased with the direction of the team.
• The Eagles have now lost eight consecutive games, six coming since Juan Castillo was relieved of his defensive coordinator duties in mid-October. After releasing DE Jason Babin abruptly last week, DL coach Jim Washburn was released Monday, to be replaced by former Eagles coach Tommy Brasher immediately. The upshot for the organization is that RB Bryce Brown and DL Cedric Thornton and Brandon Graham all have shown encouraging signs of promise in recent weeks. The downside, with the coaching staff imploding more than any other this season, is that the final month of the season could be even more ugly. Executives around the league expect Joe Banner’s vacated team president role will need to be filled before the Eagles can begin the rebuilding process in the offseason, and a replacement could be announced sooner than later.
• If the Dolphins are forced to play with developmental project Will Yeatman at left tackle, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman is going to need to shorten the passing game and keep the pocket moving even more than it already is, playing to the strengths of QB Ryan Tannehill. ORT Jonathan Martin has been a turnstyle and Yeatman, a converted tight end who possesses unique upside, will require extra chip help as he acclimates to the position. He can be expected to be the target of heavy blitz overloads against San Francisco in Week 14, which could result in another 5½-sack performance by Aldon Smith — whose big game in Week 11 led to Bears ORT Gabe Carimi losing his starting job.