For some quarterbacks, it’s easier to define and regulate a defense with the use of pre-snap shifts and motions. By disrupting the defense with moving personnel, the quarterback can play “spot the Huckleberry,” picking apart a defender who may not have gotten the pre-snap check in time.
Other quarterbacks through recent history would prefer to come to the line of scrimmage without any of that stuff — they want to have a stable and static offensive alignment, read the defense, and go from there.
For Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, perhaps the two greatest quarterbacks in pro football history, the verdict on pre-snap motion was quite different. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup explained in this week’s episode of “The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell,” Manning would prefer that things stayed stuck pre-snap.
“Motion is obviously a really good thing to do, but keep in mind — defenses do move when there’s motion, and not every quarterback loves that. Because a lot of quarterbacks like to have the ball snapped where everybody was where they were before the snap of the ball. We always assume it’s bad for the defense, but if the quarterback feels like he’s uncertain on a pass play, and he’s uncertain as to what that movement will result in, it could be disguise and late movement. If your quarterback is uncomfortable with that, you don’t want to do motion. Because the last thing you want is for your quarterback dropping back and being uncertain and hesitant and tentative.
“We always assume that motion’s great, and the numbers for some teams are wonderful. But some quarterbacks want the defense to be… hey, I’m going to get the ball, and they’re exactly where I know they’re going to be.”
Bruce Arians, who was Manning’s quarterback coach from 1998 through 2000 with the Indianapolis Colts, and Brady’s head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 and 2021, the difference was pretty clear.
Bruce Arians on pre-snap motion pic.twitter.com/JYYKox0hRL
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 3, 2020
“Peyton didn’t want anybody to move,” Greg said. “He wanted Marvin Harrison on the right and Reggie Wayne on the left, and that’s how they were going to play. He knew where the defense was, and he could figure out the defense.”
You can watch Greg and Doug discussing it here…
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For Peyton Manning, it was about pre-snap orchestration.
Since Manning retired after the 2015 season, and most advanced metrics services start in 2016, we don’t have comprehensive motion/no motion numbers for Manning throughout any part of his career. But as Greg said, and as Manning himself reveals when he analyzes other quarterbacks, there is the pre-snap phase in his head that worked better without anybody moving around in his offense.
Manning would read the defense and improvise from what he saw, detailing his internal adjustments to his teammates with a series of pre-snap gyrations and terms. “Omaha,” of course, is the most famous.
“Peyton is as good as anybody with the gamesmanship in that regard,” longtime Manning center Jeff Saturday told Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014. “Honestly, as our offense evolved in Indy, we never, ever really huddled up. Everything was on the line. As you are walking to the line, a play is being delivered and you knew from the week of practice before kind of what was coupled with that play. So if it was going to be a check, you knew there were two or three different things that we possibly liked to check to. But in terms of audibling, it really depends on the week. It depended on who we were playing, how familiar with the opponent we were, what advantages we felt like what we could gain.
“Before we went to that no-huddle, you would hear the play called in the huddle, and as you were walking to the line of scrimmage. But he sees the game so well that he could change it walking up.”
So, Manning wanted to control everything and read the defense as such. Brady had a different point of view.
Tom Brady could demolish a defense with pre-snap motion.
Pre-snap motion was a big part of Brady’s success with the New England Patriots — in 2019, his last year with the team, Brady led the league in motion dropbacks with 433, and he managed 16 touchdowns to seven interceptions when using it — not bad considering the quality of his targets.
So, when he signed with the Buccaneers in advance of the 2020 season, one expected Arians to adopt the concept as something that his new quarterback had always enjoyed. At first, that really didn’t happen. Through the first 10 weeks of the 2020 season, Brady had just 162 dropbacks with pre-snap motion, but when he did, he was absolutely ridiculous — 116 of 157 for 1,290 yards, 699 air yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 125.0.
In the second half of the season and into the playoffs, motion became a bigger part of Arians’ offensive philosophy — most likely on Brady’s advice to a certain degree, and certainly for the better. From Week 11 through Super Bowl LV, Brady had 200 pre-snap motion dropbacks, completing 127 of 194 passes for 1,798 yards, 1,049 air yards, 16 touchdowns, and five interceptions. The variance in efficiency was wider because Brady was going for more big plays in the second half of the season, but he was also getting them.
In 2022, his last NFL season (we think), Brady ranked third in the NFL behind only Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert with 331 pre-snap motion dropbacks. He completed 213 of 320 passes with motion for 1,892 yards, 779 air yards, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 94.2.
Not bad for a guy in his mid-forties. With Arians now in a consultancy role and Byron Leftwich ostensibly running the offense, it was still on Brady to present the passing game he wanted.
Not that Brady was any less capable than Manning of going to the line of scrimmage and dissecting a defense with his mind — Brady is one of the all-time greats in the pre-snap phase. But he also appreciated the specter of motion to disrupt and regulate a defense.
On this 41-yard pass to Mike Evans against the New Orleans Saints’ Cover-1 in Week 2, Brady had Evans motion from left to right, and defensive back Justin Evans followed across the formation. Brady had his man coverage tell there (not that he needed such things), and the formation was now a 2×2 set instead of a 3×1. This allowed Evans and receiver Russell Gage to execute a crosser with a pick element to the right side, and that god Evans wide open for the big play.
One flavor is not better than the other.
Manning is not the only quarterback in recent memory to prefer to play without a lot of motion — Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford are two others. Last season, Russell Wilson, Joe Burrow, Matt Ryan, and Kyler Murray were among the starting NFL quarterbacks who had fewer motion dropbacks than the average.
And if one kind of offense works for Peyton Manning, and another works for Tom Brady, who’s to say who’s right?