Why evaluating QBs may be hardest job in sports: 'Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together'

WESTLAKE, Calif. – The drafting and recruitment of quarterbacks remains the most unpredictable variable amid two billion-dollar industries that rely disproportionately on the productivity of that position.

The most important position in all of sports still somehow remains the most difficult to evaluate, as attempting to quantify how a quarterback processes information, reads defenses and works through his progressions resonates simultaneously as one of the game’s most critical and difficult ventures. In the NFL and college football, there are millions poured annually into scouting, recruiting and attempting to decode football’s final frontier.

“The makeup of the quarterback is such a rare and unique collection of factors,” said longtime NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum, now a draft analyst for ESPN. “Processing is so important, and until [the quarterback is] under center and taking snaps, you really don’t know.”

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For all that’s tangible in quarterback evaluation – arm strength, athleticism and speed – there’s so much that’s difficult to ascertain.

Why were Tom Brady and Russell Wilson passed over by every NFL franchise before becoming Super Bowl champions? Why will Jake Locker, Geno Smith and JaMarcus Russell long be remembered as busts? Why did Mitch Mustain turn from a five-star to an afterthought while Andrew Luck soared to the top pick in the NFL draft?

Why is it so hard to identify quarterbacks who will excel at the highest levels of football? Because processing at the most important position in sports is a science that hasn't yet been mastered. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Why is it so hard to identify quarterbacks who will excel at the highest levels of football? Because processing at the most important position in sports is a science that hasn't yet been mastered. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Much comes down to the intangible and unquantifiable – processing seamlessly amid chaos, adjusting to defenses pre-snap and the ability to react and think under pressure. There are some scientific attempts to quantify the brain, reaction and instinct, but for now it remains one of the sport’s great unknowns.

“Whoever figures out how to teach processing and can explain how they do that to everyone is going to be a rich man,” said Will Hewlett, a Texas-based private quarterback tutor. “It's harder to put your finger on than physical traits, skills, even leadership qualities.”

The unrefined process behind figuring out how well a quarterback processes information begins, in most cases, long before their senior year of high school. UCLA coach Chip Kelly has tried to crack the code of the quarterback’s mind as both a college and NFL head coach.

In recruiting, he said the best way to evaluate the mind of the quarterback comes from an unofficial visit early in the prospect’s career. There’s a chicken-egg dynamic that makes this a tricky tightrope, as Kelly wants to sit down with a quarterback recruit and go over offense on the board with him to get a sense of how he processes and thinks about the game.

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Ideally, that would happen on campus on an unofficial visit. But sometimes recruits won’t take the unofficial visits without having already received a scholarship offer.

“The [recruiting] process is going faster and faster with people offering freshman and sophomores, and I think they're just throwing offers out and hoping they hit on somebody,” Kelly said. “I think it has [made things harder]. And the kids feel like, ‘Well you don't like me because you haven't offered.’ Well, I don't know if I like you because I haven't met you yet.”

Stanford coach David Shaw, like many coaches, puts an importance on getting recruits to camp to evaluate their processing ability.

“I like to see when he goes from his primary to his secondary and third read,” Shaw said. “The timeframe for him to see it, diagnose it and get the ball out of his hands. That usually shows processing speed, to see it and get it out of his hands quickly.”

At camps, Shaw likens giving quarterback recruits new plays and concepts to the processing speed of a computer. “How quickly can you diagnosis it and make a decision?” Shaw said.

Everyone agrees that time with quarterbacks helps clear the fog of mystery in how well they process. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald says his program takes concepts that teams use at the NFL Combine to evaluate high school quarterbacks.

Fitzgerald and the Northwestern staff pull out a series of a quarterback recruit’s plays and grills them on what they’re seeing. What was called? What’s the protection? Can you check off the play? He adds: “If we call apples, do you only look left? If we call oranges do you only look to the right?”

Fitzgerald says that conversations with both the high school coach, coordinator and independent quarterback coach can also help piece together the quarterback’s processing ability. “It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” Fitzgerald said.

In the NFL’s quarterback evaluation, the proliferation of simplified college spread offenses has made the evaluation of processing more complex. Rams coach Sean McVay told Yahoo Sports at the QB Collective this summer that he’s always certain not to hold the system against the quarterback.

“You never want to punish a guy for not getting exposed to certain looks or operating out of a certain system,” McVay said. “There are so many nuances to that position, but I think it’s a product of what he’s being asked to do. How quickly do you see him process based on what you anticipate that concept is for?”

Hewlett points out that much of high school quarterback recruiting is done on pure physical talent and through traditional paradigms. For example, 6-foot-4 quarterbacks are almost always going to have more offers than 5-foot-11 quarterbacks.

Hewlett makes an interesting point at the NFL level, as he notes that the physical difference between the eighth-best quarterback in the NFL and the 25th-best is slim. At that level, they look for context clues that show the quarterback’s mind is working fast. Hewlett says that a throw that arrives early with enough velocity and arc is a sign of ability to process and anticipate. A quarterback’s feet can be a window into his mind, as calm feet show a comfort in what a quarterback sees. Happy feet show a disrupted mind.

Hewlett says variables offer important clues: “Is the ball coming out on time or does he look hesitant? When he connects with a receiver, is it in rhythm or is it more reactionary? Is there timing with accuracy? Is the throw late or flat?”

One of the looming existential conversations about evaluating processing explains in part why it’s still layered in mystery: “Is processing innate or can it be taught?” Shaw, a former NFL quarterback coach, is convinced that some of it has to be natural. “We can't build it from zero,” he said.

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a longtime former NFL scout, uses Brady as the example for the “innate quality” in processing. “That’s what made Brady so good, the game has happened slow for Tom,” he said. “That’s one thing that got overlooked at Michigan.”

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady follows through after throwing the ball during a practice. (AP)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady follows through after throwing the ball during a practice. (AP)

Can technology change the mystery and help quantify the way that quarterbacks get developed and hone in on weaknesses? Shaw thinks so, as he’s an advocate of reps on virtual-reality machines.

“It works,” Shaw said. “What the eyes see, the brain believes, and now that’s getting an extra 20 minutes, 30 minutes of ‘practice,’ which counts toward your 10,000 hours to be an expert at something.”

Two men with PhDs in cognitive neuroscience have dug deep on attempting to quantify the brain’s processing ability in football and baseball. Scott Wylie and Brandon Ally are co-founders of SportsSense, which works with three NFL teams, three Power Five football teams and one MLB team in each division. (They also have begun testing elite quarterbacks at the QB Collective.)

Wylie said in a phone interview that factors they can quantify in quarterbacks by using cognitive brain-testing techniques include impulse control, tracking capacity and how the brain picks up subtle tendencies and patterns. All are critical amid the uncontrolled chaos of the quarterback’s pocket.

Wylie scoffs at tests like the Wonderlic, long a barometer for NFL intellect, and says that SportsSense can measure things like a quarterback’s likelihood to make impulsive mistakes while under pressure. “It’s like a combine for the brain,” Wylie said. “We are in the business of quantifying instincts.”

While there’s serious and furious work to control the variables, the most important position in sports remains the trickiest to evaluate. And that’s why nearly every year, two billion-dollar businesses struggle to identify and develop the right people at the most important position.

(Yahoo’s Josh Schafer contributed to this story.)

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