Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
28 Sep 2013
by Matt Waldman
In last week’s Futures on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, I described quarterbacking styles within the context of task-oriented management and creative management. Be it a white-collar, blue-collar, or athletic career, these are two basic ends of the spectrum when talking about management styles.
Task-oriented managers love the routine and rhythm of a predictable, reliable process. As they acquire more experience, a high-functioning, task-oriented manager knows the boundaries of his processes so well that he’ll often appear far more spontaneous to a wide range of problems than he is.
Matt Ryan and Tom Brady are perfect examples of high-functioning, task-oriented quarterbacks. They know every detail of what’s supposed to be happening in their environment and control it so well that they can anticipate most things that defenses will attempt to wreck an offense’s performance. When their teammates are playing efficiently, they appear far more creative than they are because their level of preparation helps them develop processes to avoid the same major issues that confound less experienced passers.
I mentioned Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as task-oriented quarterbacks last week, but I’m having second thoughts. It’s not an exaggeration that Manning is a coach on the field. I’ve talked to a former Colts player who has played with three other teams and he affirms that Manning is unique in this regard. His intelligence and preparation might exceed every other quarterback who has ever played the game.
This gives Manning a much wider box of operation than any quarterback in the game, regardless of style. His creativity comes in the strategic aspects of the game, but it’s rooted in having a fantastic memory and method of preparation. Last year ESPN ran a story about Manning contacting a former staffer with Tennessee to help him find tape of a play that he remembered was successful. Manning implemented it successfully as a red-zone call during the season.
If I had to make a final call, I’d stick with the task-oriented label for Manning. I’m not as certain about Brees.
I wonder if Brees is that rare individual who balances both worlds of task-oriented preparation and creative and intuitive problem solving when it’s time to perform. While the Saints quarterback is obsessive to the point that the smallest details of his workout routines don’t change –- to the point that teammates have to cut short what they’re doing to accommodate their quarterback -- I’ve also seen Brees create when form and function go out the window and he does it as well as many of the quarterbacks on the far end of the creative spectrum.
I believe Russell Wilson is also one of those players. His task-oriented skills are strong. When he arrived in Madison, Wisconsin he learned the Badgers system -– a more task-oriented, rhythm based, West Coast offense –- in record time. His preparation was so strong that he not only earned the starting job without contest, he was also voted team captain.
But it was his play in North Carolina State’s offense for three years that impressed me the more than he did at Wisconsin. Wilson had to merge his understanding and execution of the offensive system’s process with his athleticism and creativity. He made off-balanced throws with anticipation and accuracy against blitzes that generally fluster most task-oriented passers. He could buy time, keep his head about him, and create productive results when the plays broke down beyond all sense of recognition.
What blew me away about Wilson in Seattle wasn’t his explosion of productivity during the second half of the season; it was what he did during the first half of his rookie year that most people misread. They compared Wilson’s preseason creativity and big plays with his conservative performances during the first half of the regular season and they anticipated that the rookie was merely a summer sensation who either needed more seasoning or was exposed by the regular season as a career backup and that Matt Flynn would be at the helm soon enough.
What they were missing was the context of Wilson’s early-season performances. Pete Carroll asked the rookie to execute a simple game plan: If the plays weren’t there, leave the pocket, get out of bounds, or throw the ball away. If the game situation required Wilson to create, Carroll would give Wilson the word and we’d see the old N.C. State days.
This was apparent in the Week 1 matchup with the Cardinals. Wilson played game manager as reliably to the letter as any quarterback I have seen. Then, in the final minutes, he drove the team down the field, flashed an aggressive creativity balanced with smart on-field awareness as an improviser, and the rookie nearly won the game. If not for a dropped pass in the end zone, he would have won the game.
It’s not every day that you see a young, creative, intuitive passer in his first NFL start turn the task-oriented switch on and off with this level of discipline. Most creative quarterbacks in their youth –- Matthew Stafford, Brett Favre, Jay Cutler, and Ben Roethlisberger to name a few –- chafe at boundaries and make boneheaded errors because of their supreme trust in what they can do outside the system rather than playing within it. Not only did Wilson display this discipline in that first game, but the entire first half of the season. This is a huge reason why Wilson is the rare player who performs bigger than his size or stats suggest.
Management style and team fit are essential points that are not discussed in great detail when it comes to draft analysis in the media. It’s not only difficult to pinpoint what that style is and how it meshes with a coaching staff, but also hard to project if that quarterback has the personality to demonstrate the maturity and discipline to rein in his boundaries (if he’s a creative type) or the maturity, memory, and organization to expand his comfort zone (if he’s the task-oriented player).
If an NFL team is thinking along these lines, that organization should study what the Seahawks did to evaluate and develop Russell Wilson while thinking about drafting Johnny Football. The Texas A&M quarterback is the most comparable player to Russell Wilson in college football today –- not Tajh Boyd, whose legs, skin tone, and ACC background have some scouts (if you take what they said to Brent Musberger seriously) ignoring critical factors of Wilson’s game (and quarterbacking in general) like accuracy, arm strength, reading defenses, and pocket management.
Johnny Manziel is a creative manager of the game. He’s intuitive, improvisational, daring, and he has the prerequisite physical skills to start in the NFL. But like most creative managers who need seasoning, those moments of intuitive daring can backslide fast into boneheaded mistakes. On any given play, Manziel can have a coach shouting from the sideline, "No, no, no, no ... No!" or "No, no, no, no ... Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!!"
It’s a fine line. And when you look at the careers of quarterbacks with a high creative quotient to their management style, fit might be even more important than it is for task-oriented passers. It’s not because one is better than the other; a high-functioning creative manager and a high-functioning task-oriented passer can both lead teams to championships. However, creative managers are less common.
They’re like left-handed people. Because they’re uncommon, there aren’t a lot of considerations made for left-handed people. Creative managers require leadership -– in this case coaching and player personnel directors –- who understand what they have and how to best develop it.
The NFL isn’t any more evolved than any other industry when it comes to management. They may have a ton of money and vast resources at their disposal, but just as much as this wealth and power creates more ways to do things right, it gives them infinitely more opportunities to mismanage it all. I’m sure you can think of multiple team owners, general managers, or coaches who come to mind when you think of the word "mismanage."
Because Manziel is shorter than average, leans heavily on an improvisational, creative style of quarterbacking at Texas A&M, and his immaturity on and off the field has been well-documented, it’s likely that the Heisman Trophy Winner will be a polarizing prospect across the league. In this respect, I can’t help but think of Jim McMahon. Injuries and a bigger than life personality detracted from his ability to perform to his potential, but on the basis of skill, reading the game, and toughness, McMahon is one of the most underappreciated passers in NFL history.
Manziel isn’t as conceptually gifted at the position as McMahon. The former Bears quarterback also possessed terrific accuracy on the move before injuries wrecked his body. Like McMahon, Manziel doesn’t fit many teams’ image of a leader on and off the field.
While the NFL has become more open in terms of diverse offensive styles at the quarterback position, the business of the game has adopted an even more corporate stance. If he enters the draft this year, I won’t be surprised if some teams remove Manziel from their draft boards because of his recent behavior. Nor will I be shocked if others have a higher draft grade on Manziel’s ability than many would expect.
Manziel’s draft grade will depend heavily on the public relations choices Manziel makes with his image between now and the year he decides to declare for the draft. I think it would be a mistake for Manziel to declare in 2014 because of these maturity concerns. A full year of good behavior can make a big difference for a league that likes to cover its assets.
The reason for all this speculation is that Manziel can play. Take a few minutes to look beyond the entitlement, the immaturity, and the controversies surrounding this sophomore, and there’s real evidence of skill on the field.
This is a third-and-9 play in the fourth quarter, A&M is down by 12. The A&M offense is stuck near its own end zone against No. 1 Alabama and Manziel delivers a 95-yard touchdown pass that is as much a credit to his skills as it is to wide receiver Mike Evans –- and as much as I like Evans as a prospect, I’m being generous to the receiver on this play.
A&M uses a 2x2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set against Alabama’s 3-3-5 defensive look. Manziel sees the two linebackers hinting at blitz on either side of the nose tackle. Moreover, he sees the safety 15 yards deep at the right hash and makes a note to see whether that safety is going to cover the slot receiver.
If so, Manziel knows he has a one-on-one opportunity with Evans in the right flat if he can hold the safety on the opposite side of the field. However, the execution of this play is even more difficult than dropping, looking off the safety, and delivering the ball because of the two linebackers blitzing. Manziel has to strike the right balance between holding the safety and not rushing the throw, but also getting rid of the ball on time so he doesn’t take a hit in his own end zone.
This is exactly what happens. Manziel takes the snap, holds the safety, and delivers the ball over 40 yards downfield to the receiver in stride at his inside shoulder. In fact, the quarterback has a flat-footed release on this play and he still sends the target to Evans on a line and gives the receiver every chance to run away from the defensive back for another 55 yards.
This is a quality read: manipulation of the defensive back, and demonstration of NFL arm strength from a less than optimal throwing stance. The placement could have been a little better, but it’s not far from pinpoint. I’d bet if the coverage was tighter, Manziel’s throw would have been complete 60 percent of the time in the NFL.
Here’s a deep sideline fade thrown from the opposite hash on the first drive of the game. Manziel reads Alabama’s single-high safety and both linebackers blitzing up the middle and delivers the ball in rhythm off a three-step drop.
The velocity, arc, and placement high and to the outside shoulder of the receiver are all characteristics of a good sideline fade. The fact that the pass spans 34 yards from the far hash to the near sideline is another demonstration of quality arm strength. Manziel isn’t scrambling around and throwing the ball to wide-open receivers; he’s making legitimate NFL-caliber plays against one of the best teams in college football within the play’s designed framework.
Here’s another deep sideline fade where he looks off the safety and delivers the ball on-target to Evans.
This completion is against a six-man pressure and delivered on time to Evans covering 40 yards. The placement is to the outside shoulder at the sideline and it gives the receiver room to slide to the boundary for the catch despite the fact that the defender is even with Evans.
This next play is one of my favorites of his performance against Alabama because it’s an illustration of his physical and conceptual understanding of ball placement. Manziel and the Aggies are at their 10 in a 2x2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun versus two deep safeties and a four-man front.
Alabama brings four and drops seven as Manziel looks left while dropping from the right hash. The quarterback comes off his initial reads and looks to the middle of the field. At this point, he sees that his shallow receivers are covered and feels the interior pressure breaking containment.
Manziel rolls right, squares his shoulders, and allows his deep receiver Mike Evans to adjust his route. Manziel releases the ball on the run, leaning away from the pursuit closing on him, and delivers a perfect strike that covers 32 yards up the sideline. Evans works to the ball and turns inside two defenders for another 15 yards.
On this play, Evans deserves a lot of credit for making a fluid adjustment to his quarterback and working back to the ball. Manziel also earns props for not only anticipating Evans’ adjustment, but throwing the ball to an open space where his receiver could catch the ball on the run. What I like most is that Manziel’s placement is in a spot where Evans can run to more open space despite the presence of two defenders ... and he does this all on the move and under pressure from over 30 yards away.
This is a nice corner fade. There’s no hesitation with the throw, the feet are set quickly, and the quality of the ball is easy to catch.
The problem is something that Manziel can’t anticipate; Evans getting jammed by the defender. Evans loses position and timing because of the jam and this disrupts his concentration. The result is Evans splaying his legs while leaping for the ball, so when he returns to earth he can’t remain inside the boundary. The height, arc, placement, and timing of the ball are all on-point.
This play is the bane of all hyper creative managers at the position.
Manziel could have had a completion with his first read if he was a little more patient. The safety begins to drop before the snap -– a huge tell for any quarterback. Also, the two linebackers inside are showing blitz. Manziel should be thinking that if the linebacker between the nose tackle and right defensive end blitzes, the space behind the defender will be wide open for the slot receiver on the trips side.
At the snap, both linebackers blitz and the safety drops. This opens the space for the quick throw to the slot, but Manziel hesitates just enough that he misses the opportunity. He had the time to make the throw, but after that hesitation the pressure comes clean up the middle and Manziel opts to scramble.
If you look closely, Manziel actually has two brief windows of opportunity to make this throw, but he ignores both and sets in motion a series of events where his three remaining options are all bad choices: intentionally ground the football, take the sack, or throw the ball up for grabs in the middle of the field.
It’s a good result, but I doubt any coach on this play is actually screaming, "No, no, no, no ... yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!!" afterwards. Ambivalent sighs and curses of relief and frustration? I’ll believe that. Regardless of the outcome it’s a huge mistake.
While many task-oriented players will have this mistake on their game film, the motivation is generally different. Task-oriented quarterbacks make these throws due to confusion or because they’re forced to do something beyond their physical limitations. These players generally don’t reach this point unless it’s late in the game and the play breaks down faster than they are anticipating. They either have to throw the ball or take a sack and the game ends.
Creative quarterbacks generally see what’s happening, but they believe they can complete the pass. They also tend to reach this point of no return because they weren’t disciplined within the system of their offense when the play went sour and they were responsible for their own undoing.
Manziel is a compelling quarterback on and off the field because in many respects he has a lot of positives and early success. There are aspects of football and life that have obviously come easy to him. However, his greatest challenge is learning how to handle success and showing the mental discipline on and off the field to cultivate more of it.
It can be done, but it’s a difficult challenge. In fact, it’s a deceptively difficult obstacle because the public sees Manziel’s life of privilege and expects that his inner life should be easier. If he complains about challenges then he’s spoiled in the same way that some will tag an underprivileged prospect lazy if he complains about having to work hard.
Just like that underprivileged prospect, Manziel has to accept that the public eye feeds off stereotypes, double standards, and drama. He must understand that any display of frustration, anger, or non-CEO-like behavior on or off the field further chums the waters.
Manziel’s movement, ball placement, and understanding of what defenses are doing to him give him a chance to be a creative NFL player along the spectrum of Russell Wilson. But the canyon-sized gap between Wilson and Manziel is that the Seahawks starter has the maturity and work ethic to take his game and the game of his teammates to greater heights. If Manziel wants to narrow that gap to a ditch and earn a real chance to develop into an NFL player, he has to accept that there are far more humbling moments ahead, learn how to handle them in the public eye, and understand that fair or not (especially when it comes to the hypocrisy-laden NCAA), his actions are a reflection of his team.
16 comments, Last at 08 Nov 2013, 4:43pm by Stholeary