Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
30 Apr 2014
by Matt Waldman
Beware of the fast rising quarterback. This is what The Big Lead's Jason Lisk wrote in 2012 after he did a search on quarterbacks whose stock rose in the month prior to the draft since 1990. His article led with Ryan Tannehill as the "buzz creator" approaching the 2012 NFL Draft that motivated his search for the history of players with dubious, late charges up draft boards and into the first round.
While I liked Tannehill and still believe he is on his way to becoming a decent NFL starter, I think Lisk offered compelling examples why he could write an article about this subject. He mentions several players who reportedly had draft grades lower than the first round before the collective buzz from the postseason all-star games, combine, and workouts upped their draft stock in the final weeks.
I want to dig deeper than draft stock, which is shorthand for "ability and talent" for some, but as Lisk points out with some hindsight on his side, draft stock contains a healthy dose of other factors that influenced errors of judgment. One of these factors is what we might as well call "the eyeball test" -- does he look like a franchise quarterback?
If he has at least three of these four things, it appears that there will be enough teams that believe that they can mold this player into a good quarterback. They will often bet on these players at the expense of a more polished passer who lacks the same qualities in abundance, but has enough to get the job done.
Jim Druckenmiller is a great example. Tall, strong, and capable of throws that make people gush at workouts, Druckenmiller had trouble reading defenses and maneuvering the pocket.
Bill Walsh saw this was the case and told the 49ers to draft Jake Plummer. While Plummer never full lived up to his potential, he had enough moments to illustrate why Walsh liked the Arizona State Sun Devil the most from this quarterback class. Druckenmiller continued to have trouble with the same things he had in college and never left the San Francisco bench.
Patrick Ramsey was another late riser. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen relayed a lot of positive sentiment in the final month prior to the draft for this strong-armed quarterback from Tulane with consistency issues. According to a Chicago Bears’ fans scouting site, Ramsey "looks like an All-American quarterback one play and totally different the next."
Ramsey had difficulty reading defenses and maneuvering the pocket. Neither skill progressed enough for the former first-round pick to become a consistent NFL starter.
J.P. Losman was another Tulane product with a big arm and athleticism. He thought he could throw holes through defenders to get the ball to his wide receivers. He found out his ball didn’t burn through an opposing defender’s flesh.
I’ll add Brandon Weeden to this list. A big guy with a big arm who had big production at a big-time school. Add it all up and it still didn’t compensate for his big problem with rushing his reads under pressure because he didn’t maneuver the pocket with a comfort level desirable for an NFL quarterback. Weeden is now considered another one of Cleveland’s big mistakes on draft day.
I’m beginning to think there’s a pattern of mistakes that certain NFL teams make when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks. I don’t know if this is true, but after 10 years of studying players -- nine of those where I published the RSP -- it appears that some teams have too many magnifying factors and not enough knockout factors.
As I mentioned in my piece on Jimmy Garoppolo, I’m getting closer to the point of instituting knockout factors in evaluations. Certain mistakes in quarterbacking are fatal errors and might be too difficult to fix. How a passer reacts to pressure is one of them.
Magnifying factors is a term I thought of while writing this column. It’s a set of qualities that prospects display that get NFL decision makers excited -- too excited. Scouts, general managers, coaches, or owners see some of these qualities and let them overshadow flaws.
Based on the strengths and weaknesses of these five players above, it appears some teams will rationalize that they can coach these flaws away where they might not feel the same if the prospect lacked these magnifying factors. A simple way of putting it is crass, but I believe it illustrates the point:
Some NFL analysts and decision-makers look at a quarterback's arm strength the way some men look at the quality of a woman’s chest when they decide whom to date. Later, they have the nerve to complain about all the person’s other flaws.
I believe there is a lot of magnification happening with quarterback evaluation, none more apparent this year than with Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback is equipped with one of the strongest arms in this draft and that accounts for three of the four qualities that teams appear to magnify with their quarterback evaluation process. It’s easy to see how this magnification can take place with Savage. There are several plays that in a vacuum look like the passes of an NFL starter.
See enough of these on tape, and it’s understandable that a decision-maker will take this sum of good-looking moments and allow it to outweigh the bad. Because there’s no regulation of strength and weakness that prevents evaluators from exaggerating the importance of what they saw, it’s easy to hyperbolize rare physical characteristics.
Even if it is not their intent to do so, I don’t know of scouting reports that have embedded into their process defined scoring weights for certain qualities or knockout factors. Today I’ll show you some plays that I believe some evaluators might be prone to hyperbolizing and some flawed plays where they may underestimate the difficulty of fixing Savage's blemishes.
This opening play against FSU is a good example of arm strength that gets evaluators excited.
The pass covers 25 yards from the opposite hash with excellent velocity, beating the trailing coverage to the receiver. It gives the pass catcher that split-second to turn the play into a bigger gain. This kind of throw is like the 100-mph fastball in baseball scouting. Regardless of control, it gets an evaluator’s attention and can generate too much excitement.
Here’s the requisite power throw into the zone that evaluators want to see. It’s a third-and-11 with 9:28 in the game from a shotgun set at the 44 of Pitt versus a nickel look with two deep safeties. Savage takes a three-step drop and sets his feet while looking to the middle of the field. He fires the ball, hitting the wide receiver in stride near the right hash as the target crosses the field from left to right.
The pass covers 26 yards on a line. There will be scouts who look at this throw and use it as an argument that Savage can learn to read defenses well enough to execute to the potential that his arm strength offers.
This third-and-2 backed up at their own 16 early in the third quarter with a cornerback tight to the line of scrimmage and selling a potential blitz is a good example of mobility, arm strength, and some playground feel that also gets scouts excited. Savage takes a five-step drop as pressure comes up the middle. The quarterback retreats from the pressure, slides to his left, and delivers the ball to his receiver on a crossing route.
The ball arrives to the receiver in stride at the sideline. Retreating from pressure may not be the optimal decision, but in this case Savage’s choices were limited and he found a way to make it work in his team’s favor.
This next example of creativity under pressure might be one of the most impressive plays I’ve seen Savage make. It’s a third-and-4 with 7:53 in the half from a shotgun set with the ball at the Pitt 14 versus two deep safeties. With the ball at the right hash, Savage takes a quick drop looking right, sees the tight coverage and he turns to the left as the running back checks to the flat.
At this point, the pressure arrives from a stunt and is compounded by the defensive tackle slipping inside his blocker. Savage spins to his left and slides to the left flat as the defensive end gives chase from behind. The resulting pass is terrific back-shoulder pass to the left sideline in tight coverage at the 32.
The decisiveness of his reaction to leave the pocket and the throw on the move from the left hash of the five to the sideline at the 32 would be desirable from an NFL quarterback. Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers make this type of throw.
Combine the arm strength, mobility, and flashes of accuracy -- especially on the move -- and these are the type of plays that can create some hyperbolic momentum from evaluators. The best way to regulate this momentum is to have an evaluation system in place that places a ceiling on the value that an evaluator can put on these qualities. Otherwise, there’s a risk that the scout will only give lip service to the negatives.
If you’ve ever dated someone and allowed infatuation take hold until it led you down a detrimental path despite paying lip-service to the warning signs, then you know what I’m talking about.
There’s a lot about this next play that I like. It’s a red zone snap in the third quarter with both Miami cornerbacks playing off the receivers outside the formation. Savage takes a five-step drop as pressure comes off the left side unblocked.
The quarterback executes a quick, last-second spin from the pressure, scrambles up the left sideline, works inside the defensive back, and reaches the goal line for the touchdown.
The athleticism isn’t special here, but the timing of the escape is excellent. One concern is the ball security on this play. It’s not a deal breaker of an issue, but will get him in hot water if he carries the ball this way on a consistent basis.
Savage has a footwork issue that needs some correction. It’s not causing him problems with every throw, but the speed of the NFL game could exacerbate the problem.
This first-down play in the opening quarter is a fine throw, but it’s an example of the footwork issue. Savage begins the play at the line of scrimmage reading the safeties and notes a rotation from the defensive backfield just as he takes the snap.
This is a good read and he looks immediately to the dig route while executing a five-step drop. But when he sets his feet, his stance is wide before he delivers the ball.
Even with the wide stance, Savage manages a completion into a tight window ahead of the defensive back for a potential completion of 15 yards if not for the drop after contact. Some may look at this good read, good velocity, and pinpoint accuracy, and say that the Savage can deliver without his feet in optimal position.
There’s some truth to this assertion. However, here’s an attempt where Savage’s wide stance hinders his execution.
The quarterback makes a poor decision considering the pressure. He’s so focused on one receiver that he misses an open route because he’s impatient to deliver to his predetermined target and he never sets his feet to a good stance.
Wide stance, low throw, and it arrives too wide of target and out of rhythm with the drop. In the final section of this analysis, I’ll show multiple examples of Savage predetermining reads or leaning too much on his first look to the determent of his team.
Some evaluators may believe that they can "coach up" Savage and break him of these habits. If the issue is truly mechanical ignorance, I’ll agree. However, I do wonder if some of these issues are based on impatience that comes from waiting for one read to come open. If this is the case, conceptual issue compounds the mechanical, and the development curve might have difficult complications.
This second-down throw late in the first quarter was an attempt that was accurate enough for the receiver to catch, but results in a drop. However, Savage doesn’t do his receiver any favors.
Savage takes a five-step drop, looks off the safety, and then delivers the ball towards the target in the right flat. The quarterback’s stance is too wide before his release and as he lets the ball go he lacks the stance to step into the pass. The result is a throw off his back foot that comes out high.
The receiver has to turn back to the ball and leap for the target, dropping the pass. These last two plays show how a wide stance at the setup phase of a drop can contribute to inaccuracies both low and high.
Savage’s proclivity for staring down receivers in situations that have clear alternatives is a disturbing issue. Some may believe it’s a product of the quarterback relying on his arm over his reads and that he’ll mature. It’s kind of a "boys will be boys" argument for quarterbacks.
You can almost read the reassuring tone that analysts and former general managers and scouts give when discussing this issue. I am guilty of it. However, I’d like to think that I’m more selective of the times that I’ve invoked this rationale than the type of plays seen from Savage.
This third-down pass in the opening quarter features a blitz off the left side where the corner shows the pressure, but drops and it’s the defensive back off the left hash that attacks the pocket. Savage looks at the high safety during his three-step drop and the Pitt line does a good job of picking up the blitz.
That safety is over the tight end crossing behind the shallow receiver. Savage stares down this tight end and he’s so intent on this receiver from the beginning that he tries to squeeze the ball in despite the safety’s tight coverage. The result is an incomplete pass.
If the quarterback looks to the single receiver crossing the middle or the receiver in the left flat -- both are wide open -- either target gives Savage the first down. Both players are well under the coverage and within a step of the first-down marker.
This isn’t the last time you’ll see this from Savage. The quarterback tries to force this second-and-1 pass into tight coverage despite having a wide-open man across the field in the right flat.
On this play, Savage reacts too hastily to the pressure on the right side of the line. This perception of the pressure influences him to work back to his left rather than turn and look right, missing the open man. Despite seeing a similar issue with pressure later in the game, it’s a minor concern.
Reading the defense is a problem. With his arm, he could have slid left and still thrown right, but he didn’t have a feel for what was happening downfield.
Here’s another missed opportunity. This is a third-and-6 pass with 3:22 in the half at the Miami 10. It’s a great scoring opportunity and Savage takes a sack.
The safety and corner to the right of the formation rotate before the snap. The corner drops from the line of scrimmage and the safety moves to the middle. It appears that Savage sees this rotation, but the implications of it do not register in his mind because he’s looking to his left immediately after the snap and it’s not to hold the safety.
If this was the case Savage could have held the safety while he made his five-step drop and then checked to the back. If Savage did this, the runner has a shot to score. The back is actually waving at Savage. But the quarterback is looking to the middle, where it's congested.
Pressure collapses the pocket from the outside and Savage has to drop his eyes from the receivers, resulting in a sack. When he saw the rotation, he should have known the back would be open.
Here’s a good example of a good result despite a bad process. It’s a second-down throw late in the half versus one-deep safety. Savage takes a five-step drop and stares down his receiver in the middle of the field.
Although Savage completes the pass, it’s due to the safety missing his play on the ball when he jumps the route for the near-interception. The receiver tips the ball to himself and gets the first down.
In addition to the staring down of his first reads, there’s a hero factor in Savage’s game that compounds the problem. Once again, it’s that big arm to the rescue factor -- a bad habit he needs to break.
This play is an admirable attempt to handle the pressure arriving in his face, but he had time to throw the ball away. Instead, he throws the ball to the middle of the field and the defensive back jumps the route.
Savage consistently throws passes where defensive backs jump the route to defend his passes. The fact he’s opting to do this with pressure in his face and trying to "see it, throw it," is disturbing.
Here’s a third-and-5 pass at the Florida State 11 with a chance to tie in the middle of the second quarter. Savage faces two deep safeties and has a strong side twin set with a nice advantage against the defense. However, Savage never takes his eyes off the single receiver.
Instead of trying to squeeze the ball into a window with three defenders, Savage had a wide-open crossing route at the five for a first down.
Now down by 11 late in the half, Savage fails to look off the safety and throws an interception.
Some might argue that Savage didn’t need to look off the defender because if he threw the ball further inside, he hits the tight end in stride. There’s validity to this point. However, looking off the safety could have also given the tight end room to make the catch and continue running.
While I understand why some teams may value Savage as a fast-rising prospect, I question their evaluation practices. Rarely have I seen Savage hold a safety or come off a first read when the game is still up for grabs. Even Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler demonstrated this skill in the SEC despite proclivities for squeezing the ball into tight spaces in crunch time.
Tyler Bray had a better arm than Savage with some similar issues. Off-field issues dropped the Tennessee quarterback to free agent status. Would Bray have been a first-round pick if not for these issues?
Even if I want to scoff at the notion, the rumored rise of Savage’s draft stock lends credence to that possibility. While Savage could mature and prove that he’ll develop better habits that others with big arms, prototypical quarterback bodies, and rising draft stock have not, I’m not buying it.
According to one connected NFL employee I’ve spoken with about Savage, there is an assessment that is similar to mine about the Pittsburgh quarterback’s tape. And the conclusion is that Savage’s play is commensurate with a player whose primary goal is making a team and not competing for a starting job.
However, it only takes one team to fall in love with a prospect. If it picks Savage in the first round, he could be afforded 2-3 years based on the investment alone. Let’s hope my thoughts on his potential knockout factors are wrong and their magnifying factors aren’t hyperbole.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The 1284-page guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). 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 of all, 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. Take a video tour of the RSP.
5 comments, Last at 11 May 2014, 3:30am by Mr Shush