Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
29 Jan 2014
by Matt Waldman
The question of what makes a good NFL quarterback isn’t much different than the question of what is healthy eating for a human being. Most want a simple answer to a complex question. Of the few who know many of the right answers, even fewer put the knowledge into practice.
Most prefer to latch onto the magic-pill theory. During the past 20 years we’ve seen teams, analysts, and fans latch onto a particular concept that they hope will be a game-changer.
Take quarterback buzz words and phrases like arm slot, compact release, running ability, and height. Replace them with acai, agave, paleo, gluten-free, and kale and the drift is the same -– embrace the potential of these things and you look smart. At least until there’s a backlash like there has been with running quarterbacks and kale.
Both the vegetable and the particular species of NFL quarterback were trending as beneficial commodities until the past six months. Now there’s fear that too much kale is linked to hypothyroidism. Check out the symptoms and it sounds a lot like Washington after too much Robert Griffin.
Of course, both kale and Griffin have earned a bad rap due to incomplete analysis. One has to be "significantly iodine deficient" or "consume the vegetable at an insanely high level," for kale to hurt the human body. Likewise, Washington’s offense was deficient of the necessary chemistry for a wilted Griffin to thrive.
The trendiest of these magic-pill characteristics for quarterbacks this year is hand size. The common sense reason is that the bigger the hand, the more control a quarterback has over the football in the face of chaos and bad weather.
I like common sense. However, let’s not take that common sense, run it through a process of reverse engineering, and spit out some myopic analysis with data that lacks any usable context. Tyler Wilson is a good example.
Read a football article, forum post, or tweet this year that details the importance of hand size and the conversation often works its way to Wilson, whose hands were smaller than the average NFL quarterback. There’s more implied about Wilson’s hand size as a knock-out factor for his career potential in Oakland than the fact that there were many more viable reasons why the Raiders cut him.
It’s like adding kale to your daily menu of fried chicken and liter of Pepsi and thinking you’re eating healthier only to develop a heart condition. To make matters worse, you then blame your condition on the weekly candy bar rather than the daily dose of fried meat, super doses of soft drinks, and a myriad of other unhealthy habits.
Hand size is no more of a magic pill than height, release mechanics, off-field character, or anything else. It’s rare if any single characteristic of a quarterback is a magic pill or knock-out factor. Combine the hyper-analysis of a singular skill set or a measurement lacking any context of how well a prospect integrates his athleticism, skills, and concepts of the position. This is the reason why quarterback is the most misunderstood position in the NFL.
On the basis of physical skills alone, Teddy Bridgewater may possess the least upside of the top quarterbacks entering the 2014 NFL Draft. Yet, on the basis of how a quarterback integrates his skills on the field, the Louisville passer is the best in his class.
The choice of quarterback does more to shape an NFL team than any position on the field. If the coaching staff that inherits Bridgewater designs its offense to match what the quarterback does best, Bridgewater has the skills to be the most productive rookie of this crop with as much upside as any of his peers.
As with all quarterbacks, what’s most prominent with Bridgewater’s game is his footwork. Derek Carr’s movement reveals initiative and impulsivity; Blake Bortles’ indicates decisiveness that can cross the border of unmindful; and Johnny Manziel’s feet reveal a dynamic player who can lean too much on an improvisational mindset.
The three words I use to describe Bridgewater’s mentality as seen through his footwork are "fluid," "relaxed," and "confident." Bridgewater shares the confidence and decisiveness of Bortles, but the dynamic imagination of Manziel with a better governor over his limitations.
What Bridgewater lacks is weight, top-notch arm strength, and deep accuracy. I’m confident that he can improve each of these weaknesses to some degree. Even if he doesn’t, his integration of his athleticism, touch, accuracy, and manipulation of defenses within 35 yards of the line of scrimmage should be enough to make him a quality game-day manager who can help a team win.
Bridgewater plays the college game like a quarterback who has enough command of the field that the game has slowed down for him. Here is a second-and-7 with 6:52 in the first quarter against Central Florida from a 1x3 receiver, 10-personnel pistol at the UCF 18.
The defense is in the nickel and its defensive end wide of the left tackle outside linebacker wide of the end. The safeties are split 10 yards from each other and 10 yards off the line of scrimmage and only the single receiver on the right side of the formation faces tight man coverage from the secondary.
The UCF defense tries to play some games with Bridgewater before the snap, sending the trips-side safety on a charge to seven yards depth and indicating a potential blitz. Instead, the Golden Knights blitz the two linebackers –- the outside 'backer stunting inside the left defensive end to create a huge gap between center and left guard for the middle 'backer.
Bridgewater knows the blitz is coming, but unlike Carr, his footwork is more patient. The Louisville passer takes two slower and defined steps from his spot in the pistol and throws the ball to the left flat -– all with a relaxed motion despite the incoming pressure. This is a common theme of Bridgewater’s game.
The ball comes out a little high, but well within the reach of the slot receiver inside the numbers of the flat. The receiver makes the catch with his hands over his head as the safety comes downhill from three yards away. The receiver gains six due to Bridgewater’s quick-thinking adjustment with measured execution.
Bridgewater’s poise against the blitz is also on display in the red zone, where the field is more compressed and decisions require alacrity and precision. The play below is a third-and-6 touchdown pass with 5:44 in the first quarter from the UCF 18. Louisville is in a 2x1 receiver, 11-personnel pistol versus a 4-3 look.
The cornerback on the twin side is showing a possible blitz alongside the outside linebacker. The free safety is a step inside the first-down marker inside the right hash and the strong safety is two yards off the line of scrimmage at the left hash as the corner in the left flat is playing off-coverage against the single receiver.
At the snap, Louisville sends a seven-man rush at Bridgewater, but the defensive backs at the line of scrimmage are a mirage. The off-coverage corner drops with the single receiver, the safeties stay at their depth and the cornerback on the twin side drops into zone as all three linebackers blitz with the four-man front.
Bridgewater takes a five-step drop from center up the left hash looking to his right. He hitches from the hash, steps into a throw and a linebacker’s incoming hit, and delivers the ball on time to the outside twin receiver on the corner route. The pass is a little short of leading the receiver on the run, but the open man has three steps of separation on the defensive back.
Bridgewater takes a little off the ball and still gives his receiver room to make the catch at the one after turning towards the quarterback with plenty of room ahead of the trailing corner. Even the placement is a veteran move from Bridgewater, designed to maximize the ease of the target.
Quarterback footwork has parallels to human speech or phrasing in music. Listen to a person without broadcast or performance training and their speech or phrasing patterns can range from lacking enough crisp definition to emphasize accuracy of detail to robotic execution that lacks the fluidity to fit within the overall scope of the surrounding environment.
Spread system quarterbacks often lack the crisp definition of good footwork and have developmental issues with accuracy on certain plays where the feet need to move the passer into a defined place with a sense of balance and timing. These types of passers often slur their feet like amateur R&B singers who can belt out impressive runs, but their phrasing and diction need more work before the audience can understand the lyrics.
Quarterbacks operating more often from center often have the defined footwork to deliver in rhythm, but when the defense disrupts that pre-planned rhythm, they often lack the feel of the entire situation and cannot make a fluid adjustment that fits into the existing environment of the play. These passers err on the side of robotic footwork that, at its worst, can come off as awkward as a singer with classical training attempting to sing a pop tune with inappropriate feel for the genre.
The best quarterbacks are akin to jazz musicians who have both the rigorous training of technique and the feel for a variety of genres. It’s a blend of skills that enables them to play the widest ranges of music at a professional level. In this sense, Bridgewater has both the classically trained footwork and the improvisational skills of a jazz musician that helps him fit within the feel of the play.
This second-and-6 with 8:15 in the first quarter is a 28-yard play off an adjustment to pressure where Bridgewater demonstrates that he knows how to phrase his steps with a good mix of definition and fluidity to the rhythm of the play.
This is a 20-personnel shotgun set with receivers 2x1 and the defense in a nickel look. The single receiver is on the left and facing a cornerback tight to the line of scrimmage. The twin receivers face off-coverage 6 yards deep with the safeties split at the hash marks 12 yards deep.
What I like about this play is how Bridgewater reads the pressure off the edges and alters his execution of the play. He prioritizes the level of detail that will keep the play productive.
The first detail Bridgewater must address is a play-action fake on a three-step drop. Although he executes the fake, he doesn’t take pains to sell it hard with such a short drop. Anything too detailed is a robotic response to the pressure and slows Bridgewater’s pace.
As the pressure from the bull rush off left end arrives, Bridgewater slides right as he makes his drop and that slot turns into a roll. The footwork makes this rollout look like a natural continuation of Bridgewater’s short drop when this was not the original design of the play.
There’s no pause to indicate thought, only fluid reaction and adjustment with the right technique. Whether this comes from years of work to integrate his athleticism into his reads of the defense or it’s a more natural thing, Bridgewater is a player with good feel adjusting to pressure.
As soon as he rolls right, he hitches two steps to climb from the defensive end’s pressure on the right. This too looks fluid and easy.
When the linebacker arrives in the flat to apply pressure, Bridgewater trots a few more steps towards the right hash and delivers the ball on the move to the UCF 28, hitting his receiver in stride and outside the numbers of the right flat. The throw gives the receiver time and space to turn up the sideline for another 6 yards to the 22 -– a beautiful play for 28 yards.
At the same time, when Bridgewater needs to display a full complement of manipulative tricks on a play, he possesses the necessary attention to detail. This 9-yard comeback up the left sideline against UCF is a great example.
The Louisville offense is in a 12-personnel 1x1 receiver set with the strong side shifting pre-snap from left to right on this first-and-10 with 3:34 in the third quarter. Bridgewater calls for a second shift, sending the outside tight end to the left side, which flip-flops the safeties’ depths and helps the quarterback get a read of the coverage.
Bridgewater takes a three-step drop with speed and depth to his footwork while giving full extension on the play fake as he turns to the right. At the end of his fake and drop, Bridgewater snaps his body left to deliver the comeback to his receiver in stride up the left sideline.
A player capable of making minor adjustments to his execution of a play based on the defense and yet also capable of delivering multiple steps with detailed precision is rare at this stage of the game. I’m sure there are others who have done it, but the two that I’ve seen are Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
One of the prevailing themes in this UCF contest is the Golden Knight attempts to disguise their blitzes and confuse Bridgewater. The Golden Knights are in a nickel look with the strongside nickel linebacker threatening an A-gap blitz before the snap.
Both safeties in this formation are initially deep and none of the three cornerbacks are tight to the formation. The A-gap pressure before the snap is an effort to distract Bridgewater into focusing on the strongside linebacker when it’s the weakside linebacker and the slot corner that will blitz.
Bridgewater’s reaction after the snap is a good indication that he read the actual blitz fast enough to make the right play with speed and precision.
The quarterback takes a three-step drop with a scissors step that is defined and leaves Bridgewater in a balanced position to throw the ball. He delivers the pass with a quick release to the tight end, who is running the seam route in the open space under the single safety’s deep drop and behind the pre-snap A-gap pressure of the strongside linebacker that cannot drop into coverage fast enough.
Bridgewater delivers the ball to the back shoulder of the tight end at head level and in stride –- a 26-yard throw from the line of scrimmage and 34 yards from release point to catch point. The tight end continues to the UCF 25 before the safety wraps and drags the ball carrier to the 19. The read, eye manipulation, and accuracy are all there on this play.
Early in his career, Matt Ryan’s deep arm and accuracy suffered when he had to throw beyond the 40-yard range. Even in 2012, Ryan’s skill at delivering the ball to a receiver in stride beyond 40 yards was by far the weakest element of his game. Yet in 2012, Ryan was among the best big-play passers in the NFL:
In addition to his 31 touchdowns (fifth-best in the NFL), these indications of big-play productivity belied the fact that Ryan lagged behind 27 other quarterbacks in a three-way tie for 15th place overall in average pass length. The two other players were Brady Quinn and Aaron Rodgers.
Ryan and Rodgers possess excellent accuracy within 18-to-30 yards. When a passer can hit a receiver in stride at this range of the field, where there’s minimal defender occupancy within these zones, it doesn’t take much for the receiver to make this an even bigger play.
Ryan and Rodgers are important names to mention because Bridgewater’s touch, footwork, reads, and maneuverability all approach –- and in some cases exceed –- Ryan's skills at the same point of this trio’s careers at the college level. Whether he can continue along this trajectory in the NFL is another story, but it’s a good sign for Bridgewater’s development.
Like Ryan and Rodgers, Bridgewater’s skill to deliver throws on designed movement from sideline to sideline helps him stretch the field horizontally in the range of 18-to-30 yards with greater accuracy than his peers. There’s enough horizontal stretching of the field at a deep enough range that the deepest defenders can still get caught in a bind even if the vertical stretch lacks accuracy beyond 40 yards. (Rodgers has a fine deep arm and accuracy.)
Here’s a third-and-8 completion with 1:58 in the half against UCF for 18 yards on a pass traveling 27 yards from release point to catch point with excellent touch.
The throw comes on a five-step drop with two small hitches. The pass reaches the left sideline with beautiful placement to the receiver’s back shoulder towards the boundary side of the pass catcher. The placement is under the safety.
This 29-yard reception versus Miami is another fine example.
Bridgewater displays similar touch and velocity in this intermediate range on back-to-back plays against Kentucky. The first comes against a blitz where Bridgewater takes a short drop from center looking left, then turns right and places the ball 27 yards on a line and over the cornerback. The ball reaches the arms of the receiver who extends the gain and comes one arm tackle away from a score.
The second (after the replay of the first above) is a 29-yard throw on a line between defenders in rhythm.
Here’s another 28-yard completion covering 35 yards after looking off the safety
What Bridgewater possesses in abundance is touch, and he doesn’t need to be in a rhythm to display it at this range. Here is another 29-yard throw against Miami off his back foot with touch.
Because of his touch, his skill to throw on the move to his right and his left, and his accuracy with throws off his back foot, Bridgewater’s skill at widening the defensible areas of the field is an asset. Combine these talents with the skill to throw receivers open and Bridgewater has the potential to develop into one of the better red zone passers in the NFL.
This 10-yard touchdown on second-and-goal with 1:03 in the half versus UCF is a demonstration of excellent pro-caliber placement behind his receiver on the seam route.
What’s special about this play is how he uses anticipation and placement to fit the ball over the shallow linebacker and the second defender with perfect coverage of the post. This adjustment to the coverage on the post is creative thinking integrated with mechanical accuracy to throw the receiver open. If a quarterback is going to predetermine a throw, which Bridgewater rarely does, this is how to do it.
This sidearm throw from the Louisville 16 to the 32 against Kentucky is another aspect of his improvisational skill that integrates accuracy and judgment of placement with athleticism.
The worst aspect of Bridgewater’s game is the deep ball. In this offense, he has trouble integrating the necessary distance, arc, velocity, and placement into these throws.
Here is a first-and-10 throw with 2:33 in the third quarter against UCF where Bridgewater’s throw covers 40 yards from the line of scrimmage. What’s worth noting after this point is that the play design appears to require Bridgewater to look short first and then consider the deeper route.
The quarterback snaps the ball and bootlegs right, looking first to the shallow cross from the single receiver and then to the tight end dragging across the line of scrimmage, but the defense accounts for the first two reads.
Bridgewater then looks deep and unfurls a target on the deep cross from the 23 of Louisville to the 29 of UCF, covering 46 yards from release point to reception point.
The ball bounces off the receiver’s hands after the pass catcher dives for the ball with full extension. However, this play got me thinking that Bridgewater’s offense might be a mitigating factor that many aren’t taking into account when evaluating Bridgewater’s skill in the vertical game.
The Louisville offense, according to Smart Football blogger and Grantland contributor Chris Brown, is a system rooted in West Coast principles with its coordinator influenced by coaches like Bill Callahan and Mike White. West Coast offenses have a number of reads where the priority is short to deep rather than deep to short.
"In my opinion, it’s not as natural for your eyes to refocus this way and the timing is off for receivers downfield," says Brown, who explains why he thinks it’s difficult to go short to deep. "It’s easier on corner routes and deep posts as you hold the safeties on the shorter options first, but it is really hard to pull off on true vertical routes."
Without the luxury to speak with Louisville’s offense coordinator, I can only speculate that the Cardinals used a lot of short-to-deep reads. However, it is something I’ve noted on a number of inaccurate deep throws that I’ve seen from Bridgewater. A scout I spoke with agreed that the Louisville system "was not conducive towards deep shots."
This is a context worth noting when watching the 1-to-3 deep shots Bridgewater takes in this Louisville offense. The distance, arc, velocity, and placement are there for many of these throws, but not all at once. It’s a sign there might be some merit to the idea that Bridgewater’s short-to-deep offense is making his job harder in the deep game.
It’s something I will spend more time investigating, but based on what I’ve seen thus far the onus of the problem is Bridgewater’s. Here are a number of deep attempts where the quarterback fails to connect for a variety of reasons.
This 49-yard pass may have been thrown to the back shoulder by design, but I’m more inclined to believe Bridgewater didn’t have the arm strength to deliver a lower-arcing, higher velocity throw of 52-to-55 yards that would have been necessary to lead this wide open receiver under the ball.
This is a play-action pass with only two receivers downfield after Bridgewater’s back foot hits on the final step of his drop. The receiver on the right is open and it’s clear that Bridgewater sees the open man, but foregoes the open man, turns to his left, and goes for the vertical route.
Bridgewater bounces twice on his toes before delivering the ball and this delay ruins any shot at delivering a ball within his comfortable range of 40-45 yards. The result is a late throw with no anticipation that forces the receiver to stop his route and adjust to the ball at the sideline. If Bridgewater doesn’t delay that release with those two bounce steps, the ball arrives as the receiver breaks open.
Here’s another go route where Bridgewater’s throw covers 39 yards from pitch to catch up the left flat, but the pass should have covered 42-45 yards. On this play, Bridgewater has little hesitation between the time his back foot hits the ground at the final step of his drop and the delivery off the ball.
Because the pressure is closing as Bridgewater delivers the ball, there is no room for the quarterback to hesitate with this throw. At the same time, Bridgewater doesn’t step into the throw with the amount of force necessary to drive the ball
with a lower arc and higher velocity.
The result is a higher arcing pass that is about 2-to-3 yards shorter than what would lead the receiver downfield. The receiver has to slow his pace to turn to the ball, and he drops the pass as the trailing defender closes on the ball and has a chance to swipe at the receiver’s arms as the ball arrives.
Here’s another throw against Kentucky off play-action where the ball travels 55 yards, but he doesn’t drive the ball, and there’s another two-beat delay where he bounces his feet before delivering the ball.
The next deep throw in this game comes off a five-step drop from the middle of the field and Bridgewater delivers a 48-yard pass to the receiver’s outside shoulder, but overshoots his man.
The distance is there, but the tight spiral and low arc isn’t.
At this point, Bridgewater is the most polished quarterback I have seen in this class and the most NFL-ready option. However, Bridgewater’s current limitations of size and arm strength are diametrically opposed to the NFL’s love for big-bodied cannon throwers.
A person I know in the scouting community says that multiple colleagues claim Bridgewater lacks the "it factor." According to this contact, most traditional scouts will "murder guys for things like stride length and concerns about consistency." He says these points are straw man arguments, because "It’s something every quarterback fights with moving pockets."
Scouts have attributed these issues to Bridgewater, but traditional scouting lacks a strong track record of marrying a player’s skills with the context that those skills are used on the field. I attempt to create evaluations that mirror the reality of the game and use consistent criteria to spot ways players integrate their skills to perform in real situations.
If the team that drafts Bridgewater takes a similar approach and has a coaching staff willing to mold its system to its new quarterback’s strengths, Bridgewater could start as a rookie and flash promise as he transitions to the pros.
Based on talent alone, Bridgewater is one of the five top quarterbacks in this draft for six teams with seven picks in the first round. If the mocks are right, Bridgewater is a first-round pick –- possibly a top-five pick.
The Texans, with their depth at tight end, two physical perimeter receivers, and play-action game with designed rolls it used with Matt Schaub is an excellent fit for the rookie. Houston's division is also an ideal fit, because all of the teams play in fair-weather environments. However, the potential of pairing J.J. Watt with Jadeveon Clowney might be too good to resist.
As of publication, Cleveland hasn’t chosen an offensive coordinator but Dowell Loggains and Kyle Shanahan are at the top of beat writer Mary Kay Cabot’s list. Both have run offensive systems that could dovetail with Bridgewater’s abilities, especially Callahan and Shanahan. However, the environs of Cleveland might be a case where the hand size argument has some common sense.
The Raiders need a quarterback, but if echoes of the Al Davis philosophy remain in Oakland, the team will have to be convinced Bridgewater can throw the deep ball. The same can be said of Minnesota with Norv Turner’s arrival as offensive coordinator. However, the skill players in the Minnesota offense would make Bridgewater’s job much easier with the play-action game if Turner is willing to employ more movement to stretch the field horizontally. The question is how
Bridgewater’s game would hold up at Chicago and Green Bay.
If the Rams part ways with Sam Bradford, the next question is whether the coaching staff can author a system designed to maximize the potential of Bridgewater and the team’s young, small, and YAC-heavy receiver corps. Bridgewater in a dome with Arizona and San Francisco twice a year could be a good divisional fit.
The Jaguars seem like a good fit based on their offensive skill talent. However, this is a team with a lot of young players mixed with older ones who are accustomed to bad times and on the downside of their careers. Add the layer of Blaine Gabbert to the mix and this is more difficult situation than average for any rookie quarterback.
But if traditional scouting and personal prejudices about player types remain the norm, Bridgewater could drop as far as the second round. I’d like to see Bridgewater go to a team in the late first or early second that can’t resist the opportunity to let the young quarterback sit and develop behind a veteran. Arizona, Kansas City, San Diego, and New Orleans all fit the bill.
It would be poetic justice in the NFL if the rich get richer.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.
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