Bill Belichick: 'Decision-making and anticipation' the pillars of good quarterbacking

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Phil Perry
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Perry: What Josh Allen can teach us about Patriots' QB search originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

As the Patriots operate without a definitive long-term answer at the quarterback position, the Bills have theirs.

Josh Allen was not universally considered a no-doubt-about-it, face-of-the-franchise talent coming into his third season after back-to-back seasons of completing less than 60 percent of his passes. Even when the Patriots saw Allen in Week 8, it seemed as though -- while at times brilliant -- he was still inconsistent enough that there were doubts the Bills could contend as one of the top two or three teams in the conference.

Since then, the narrative has shifted. Allen is seventh in the NFL in completion percentage (68.7). He's seventh in yards per attempt (7.8). He's seventh in quarterback rating (104.2). He has a better than 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (30-to-9). His team just won the AFC East, and it looks like it has the best chance of any club to unseat the Chiefs as conference champions.

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Compare that to last year. Allen was 37th in completion percentage in 2019 (58.8). He was 28th in yards per attempt (6.7). he was 26th in rating (85.3). He threw 20 touchdown passes and had nine picks.

"Like most players, as they gain experience and gain confidence and get more familiar with the system and the defenses they see, they improve," Bill Belichick said when asked about Allen's improvement this week. "He's done that. It's a well-balanced team, they have a lot of good players at a lot of positions and they utilize them in multiple ways. They're hard to defend. He's done a good job of orchestrating it and being a key playmaker in the offense."

When asked if Allen's rate of improvement is unusual and given the statistics that would suggest he's made a massive leap in Year 3, Belichick deflected saying he doesn't focus much on individual stats. But asked a follow-up about quarterbacking in general, Belichick did say that he believes accuracy can be improved. But, to him, that's not exactly the story with Allen.

"I think you can improve anything if the player understands what he needs to do and works at it," Belichick explained. "I'd say a lot of quarterbacking is -- certainly accuracy is a part of it -- [but] really, I think a bigger part of it is decision-making and anticipation.

"You have to be accurate enough to be able to complete the ball, but the anticipation and the decision-making and how quickly you can make those decisions and all that, I think those are the things that a quarterback gains from experience and confidence and repetitions."

Belichick added: "If you're asking me if like a year ago, is Josh Allen sailing a ball over a guy's head by two yards and this year is he putting it right on the money? I wouldn't say that's really the issue, or if it's 10 (completion) percentage points . . . I don't think that's where the 10 percent is coming from. That's just my opinion.

"I would not say he's an inaccurate passer. But like any quarterback, with more experience, with more confidence, more repetitions, anticipation, execution and decision-making, all those things -- if there's been a big improvement in completion percentage, my guess would be that's where a bigger part of it has come from."

Belichick's explanation is worthy of our attention since he listed two aspects of quarterback play as most important: decision-making and anticipation.

For a while, though, it seemed as though "accuracy" -- which Belichick also listed as key -- was typically the word tagging alongside "decision-making" when Belichick cited what was important in quarterback play.

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Here's what Belichick said in 2012 when asked about Colin Kaepernick's ability to read the field, something cited by then-Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh as one of the reasons for Kaepernick's excellent performance that season.

"I think the two most important things for a quarterback are his decision-making and accuracy," Belichick said. "I could probably go out there and read the field decently but I don’t think you’d want me playing quarterback. There are other guys that can thread a needle but maybe not see as well, but I think the combination of seeing the field, making good decisions and accuracy is really what it comes down to more than some other qualities. Not that those aren’t important, but I would put those at the top of the list."

Those comments were a reiteration of what Belichick told Yahoo!'s Jason Cole back in 2009.  

"So accuracy and decision-making are the most important things," Cole asked?

"For me," Belichick said, "yeah."

"Can you even distinguish between the two," Cole followed up?

"What's one without the other," Belichick said. "If you make the wrong decision, you've got problems, and if you can't throw the ball, even if you make the right decision, you've got problems. So if you've got those two, you've got Joe Montana. If you can't do one of those two, then what's the future? . . .

"If you have those two things, you have a quarterback. If you don't have those two things, you're going to have to dumb it down. You're either going to have to limit the decisions he makes or take the accuracy element out of it by either not throwing over 10 yards or not throwing outside the numbers. You're going to have to do something that changes the way you play offense."

So has "anticipation" supplanted "accuracy" for Belichick? Maybe he would say that he's always lumped "anticipation" under the "decision-making" umbrella and accuracy remains among the top-two things for which he searches in a quarterback. Still, it felt like the change in his verbalized hierarchy of passer traits is noteworthy.

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Why? When the Patriots seek out another passer, whether it's in the draft or via trade or via free agency, where will accuracy rank for them in terms of their wish-list of quarterbacking traits for The Next Guy? If he's a good decision-maker who can anticipate openings, and if he brings other play-making qualities to the table with his athleticism, can the accuracy component slack a bit?

It's an entertaining set of questions upon which to drill down. The odds of landing a pinpoint quarterback with a supercomputer inside his skull to succeed inside the pocket -- like Tom Brady, for instance -- are low. Especially when the position is populated by better athletes every year, who enter into the league coming from relatively rudimentary offenses and yet having success in short order all the same.

Look at Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert. None of them were drafted as the top quarterbacks in their respective classes. None of them were without their flaws leaving the college ranks. All of them had special physical traits. Not all of them were considered incredibly accurate.

Allen certainly wasn't. Look at him now.

Take Belichick's comments for what they're worth. It was just one answer during his weekly Wednesday press availability, two days before Christmas. To call it an earth-rattling alteration to how the most accomplished coach in the history of the sport evaluates the most valuable position in the sport would be . . . overstating things.

But the idea of what constitutes a franchise quarterback is changing in the NFL. And if Belichick's description of what constitutes good quarterback play has changed ever so slightly, that's worth highlighting. Particularly if they're looking for one this offseason.