Many years ago, I worked in the automotive industry for a boss who gave an excellent presentation on the concept of “sizzle vs. steak.” It was related to the idea of backing up the initial “sizzle” of a product and the first impression with the “steak” of the long-term quality and sustenance of the product. My boss stressed the notion of ignoring the sizzle and focusing on the quality of the meat once the sizzle fades.
It’s a concept that has direct application to USC quarterback Caleb Williams as an NFL draft prospect. There is no prospect with more sizzle than Williams, the reigning Heisman winner and presumptive top draft pick entering the college season. The charismatic Trojans QB appears in national advertising while also playing an exciting style of football.
The steak, however, is an area where Williams isn’t quite as tasty as a prospect. The sizzle of the gaudy numbers and exciting plays gets gristly when watching Williams attempt to operate in the structure of more typical NFL offenses.
Simply put: Williams does not “win” from the pocket nearly as well or as consistently as hoped. When plays break down, or when he moves around creatively, Williams is spectacularly sizzling. It harkens back to the thrill ride that was Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M or Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma. But Williams has some of the negatives of the games of those two former celebrity QBs entering the NFL, too.
Williams doesn’t have consistent throwing mechanics or platforms. He frequently drifts off his mark on dropbacks, artificially and unnecessarily changing the throwing lane and intricacies of route timing. Williams often creates the chaos he thrives in with undisciplined quarterback play.
Based on the track record of head coach Lincoln Riley’s career, that could very well be by design. Mayfield and Kyler Murray were both guilty of those issues while playing under Riley in college. It’s very difficult for college defenses to control. The sizzle works in college in part because collegiate defenses don’t have enough knives to cut into the meat.
As Murray and (especially) Mayfield have shown at the pro level, doing that in the NFL is a lot tougher, like an IHOP breakfast steak. Those former No. 1 overall picks have shown they can develop some tastier mechanics and beefier performances in more timing-based and anticipatory structures in the NFL, but that progress is nonlinear and scattershot.
Some NFL teams won’t worry so much about that. They might even covet the sizzle, thinking they have the coaching and the culture to make Williams’ nontraditional NFL style work. Mayfield’s sharp early success in Cleveland is proof it can happen. Michael Vick’s heyday in Atlanta nicely blended the sizzle with enough steak to make a Super Bowl appearance.
Williams has every chance to be as successful — or even more successful — than those predecessors. However, not every NFL team will want that volatility or the dedication to playing that specific style. It’s hard on offensive linemen when the QB holds the ball too long or runs out of a clean pocket, as Williams often does. There’s a reason the lines blocking for Russell Wilson perennially rank near the top in penalties, as an example. Those are issues some coaches, some franchises, just won’t want.
It only takes one, of course. The sizzle Williams offers will be incredibly appealing to many franchises, which is why the current talk of him falling out of the top-5 picks seems absurd. He might very well be the third or even fourth QB on some teams’ (and analysts’) draft boards come April, but there’s enough prime meat on the bone for him to be some teams’ choice at, or very near, the top.