Why Justin Fields’ ‘big problem’ might not be a big problem at all

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Doug Farrar
·6 min read
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When evaluating players at any level, it’s obviously important to know what concepts they’re running, how those concepts magnify their attributes, and how those concepts may also get in the way of their ultimate athletic potential. It’s a lesson we have to re-learn every year.

Once you’re aware of what a player has to hold in his head and take to the field, it’s far easier to blow any lazy narratives out of the water. Today’s example is Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who has already had to deal with one completely false narrative about his NFL potential.

Take it away, Tony Pauline of the Pro Football Network:

“The main concern is that Justin Fields stares down the primary target. He doesn’t look away from the primary target. He doesn’t process things as quickly as they want him to. During the Senior Bowl, I mentioned how there was one team who has broken down all of Justin Fields’ passes in 2020. They said that just seven times, he looked off the primary target. The other 200+ passes he threw to his primary target.”

Pauline went on to write that “There are some people out there that are telling me Justin Fields has fallen down their boards, because while they think while he is a great physical specimen and he’s got tremendous arm strength, and is a great arm talent, they think that there is a concern there about staring down a primary target and not being able to process things that quickly. I don’t know that I completely agree with that, but that is the word from some teams out there.”

If that’s the word from some teams out there, some teams out there need to give their collective heads a good shake and start over. Because while Fields does present legitimate concerns as an NFL quarterback, being a first-read guy is not one of them. Quite the opposite.

Now, where I run into snags with my on evaluation of Fields is in his ability to process what’s in front of him in real time. There are times when he seems to be not as quick on the draw with multiple-progression reads as you’d like. But again, there’s evaluating the player from the perspective without a playbook, and there’s the forensic work of really digging into what the player was asked to do.

It seemed to me that the longer the play went, the more Fields could get himself in trouble by letting things fall apart. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, when Fields had less than 2.5 seconds from the snap to the throw, he completed 75 of 96 passes for 676 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. With 2.5 seconds or more, he completed 83 of 130 passes for 1,422 yards, 16 touchdowns, and all six of his interceptions. The jump in yards per attempt from 7.0 to 10.9 on the other side of the 2.5 second scale will tell you that the longer the play went, the more Fields was prone to testing defenses deep, and that will generally result in a decrease in efficiency and an increase in turnovers.

But there’s one more aspect to Ohio State’s playbook and how it affected Fields — the use of option routes at a level most college teams just wouldn’t do. My Touchdown Wire colleague Mark Schofield sent me two examples from Ohio State’s 2013 playbook that are still in effect in the Buckeyes’ passing game of today, and they’re quite revealing in their complexity and their reliance on the quarterback holding the ball through more advanced route progressions.

Let’s walk through these two examples.

On the “Follow/Drive” concept, it’s an empty look with the trips right receivers running deeper routes unless coverage indicates otherwise. The free safety is the key defender. The inside slot receiver (F3) could run one of three different routes (a protection crosser if the safety is aggressive), as could the outside slot receiver (F2). The outside receiver to the right side might run with free access to the boundary if there’s no aggressive coverage.

On the left side, which is where Fields starts his reads on “8 Duo H-51 Bench Follow, Stitch,” the slot receiver (B2) is running a drag route for the quick conversion if necessary, but he may have to throttle that down depending on coverage. And the outside receiver to that side will run a follow concept that varies depending on man or zone coverage.

On “8 Duo RT G-50 Field Option,” we have another empty package with trips right. Now, the inside slot man to the right takes one of three angular routes based on coverage at the eight-yard point. The backside slot receiver has a similar construct at 10 yards. And the outside receiver to the back side is running either a boundary vertical route, or kicking it inside at 10 yards based on coverage.

It’s a bit more complicated than a bunch of simple slants on two-level RPOs. When Mark sent me these plays, I was immediately reminded of the 2004 Patriots playbook I’ve seen, in which there were option routes all over the place.

Here’s “1 Out ZAC Slot” from that playbook — the diagram is from my book, The Genius of Desperation.

Here, the fullback (lined up wide left) runs a 14-yard in, unless he has to run an outside release because the defender is cheating up expecting something quicker. The halfback reads the blitz, hits a sneak route through the A-gap if he’s free, and digs sharply to the right. The “X” receiver does a slight adjustment, reads the coverage, and could either come back inside or loop to the seam. The “Z” receiver motions from the right slot and heads six yards upfield into a four-way option. The “Y” receiver could run a chute route, or me might hook inside.

Asking Tom Brady to do that is one thing. Asking any college quarterback to take on this level of complexity is another. Because when your offense has this many options, here’s your tax as the quarterback: Not only do you have to remember all the possible options for as many as five receivers on any given play, you also have to wait for those options to play out and the receivers to present themselves.

So, perhaps Justin Fields isn’t a slow processor. Perhaps Justin Fields is a potential next-level mind who has passed multiple processing tests at an NFL level before he ever enters an NFL facility. As ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky recently pointed out, it’s past time to stop thinking of Fields as an athlete, and to start thinking of him as a high-level quarterback.

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At least one more evaluator (yours truly) is on that bandwagon after today’s research.