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.
24 Mar 2011
by Mike Tanier
The Arizona Cardinals held a private workout for former Elon University quarterback Scott Riddle last week.
Geez, and I thought I was the one starving for some football-related work.
Riddle threw for 13,264 yards and 105 touchdowns during his four-year tenure as the starter. He lists at 6-foot and 210 pounds. He did not attend the Combine, but participated in the Pro Day at North Carolina State on Wednesday. NFL Draft Scott ranks him as the 52nd best quarterback prospect in the draft, but that sounds a little low. He deserves to be at least in the late 40s. Pro Football Weekly profiles 25 quarterback prospects in their Draft Guide magazine, but Riddle isn't one of them. Despite his FCS-level success, he wasn't considered a Draft commodity before the Cardinals visit, and he probably still isn't.
Riddle fits the Cardinals' indie sensibility at quarterback these days. Just look at their roster. There's Max Hall, who helped the Cardinals beat the Saints as a 25-year-old rookie last year and was America's favorite fiery young field general for about nine days. I needed Wikipedia to refresh myself on Hall, and it was there that I learned he is Danny White's nephew, cousin of Todd Heap, and brother-in-law of Dennis Pitta. How many Ravens tight ends can one person be related to? I think I spotted one of those famous Wikipedia errors here: Danny White isn't Hall's uncle, Ozzie Newsome is.
There's also John Skelton, who started four games, completed 47.6 percent of his passes, and played his college ball at Fordham. Finally, there's Richard Bartel, with one "l," who served brief stints with the Browns and Redskins, drifted into the UFL, then drifted back to mop up a 38-7 loss to the 49ers in the season finale. Derek Anderson is also still hanging around, but no one takes him seriously anymore.
This isn't a depth chart; it's the South By Southwest Quarterback Festival, and one of these acts is about to break big, unless it means sacrificing their artistic vision. You don't acquire this many off-brand quarterbacks unless you are purposely trying to be obtuse. The Panthers suffered a quarterback cataclysm last year, but at least serious fans had heard of all of their fringe festival favorites, because guys like Tony Pike and Brian St. Pierre played for major college programs. St. Pierre played a few downs for the Cardinals in 2009, but they must have thought he was too accessible. To play for the Cardinals, you must embrace mumblecore.
I was curious about Riddle, so I sought game tape on him. Elon game tape isn't easy to find. I dug up a Wofford highlight reel of their game against Elon, and the video started with a Riddle interception, followed a few plays later by a Riddle sack. Granted, this was a Wofford highlight reel, but the interception was ugly, a little crossing pattern where Riddle didn't see the defender sitting in the middle zone. It wasn't the most encouraging introduction to a prospect.
Eventually, I found a Riddle highlight tape, though it was the kind edited by an enthusiastic booster/roommate/girlfriend, with pop music accompaniment and all of the plays chopped together like a rock video. Most of the footage is shot from ground level. I couldn't get much from such source footage, except that Riddle's arm looked OK, he ran well, and he never set his feet. Short quarterbacks often hop around in the pocket, and Riddle appeared to be one of those guys on his highlight video. He looked like a good high school quarterback imitating Jeff Garcia. I have no doubt that he's a bright kid with outstanding work habits, because, let's face it, not even the Cardinals travel to Elon to scout 6-foot knuckleheads.
The Cardinals, of course, have far more knowledge of Riddle than I do. Their scouts no doubt drove straight from Fordham to Elon last year to document Riddle's every throw. They may have seen enough to convince them he's a Day 3 pick, which is not ridiculous. Like I said, my only observations come from tapes cut together by the boys at Sigma Phi. But the Cardinals should not be looking at Day 3 quarterbacks, certainly not in mid-March. They need a Day 1 pick.
A couple of the Cardinals message boards I checked showed that some fans are taking the primordial broth approach to the team's quarterback problems: toss Hall, the Fordham Flash, Riddle, and everyone else into the nutrient-rich soup of training camp and see who evolves. That doesn't really work. There are only so many practice reps and drills to go around. It's impossible to develop three or four quarterback prospects at the same time. Quantity is no substitute for quality at quarterback, and I don't think the Cardinals have a bona fide starting prospect right now. They have curios. And they appear to be in the market for more.
Or perhaps not. As I suggested earlier, the Cardinals may just be as lockout-bored as I am. Interviewing Riddle may be their equivalent of cleaning out the spice rack and organizing the bookshelf -- an odd job that gets pushed up the priority list because other work cannot be done. The relatively wide reporting of the interview is also a lockout symptom. In a typical mid-March, we would be knee-deep in free-agent transactions, and one little interview would get lost in the shuffle.
None of this will be relevant by draft weekend, because I believe the Cardinals will draft Ryan Mallett. He is the perfect Cardinals quarterback: Matt Leinart's mind in Derek Anderson's body. Come to think of it, maybe they should take their chances with Riddle.
One of my English teacher friends received these two poems from her moody Goth students last week. She thinks they are plagiarized, but she was unable to find the sources. I think I recognize some familiar phrases but cannot place them. Can you?
"Meditations on the ever-growing distance" by Anonymous
there is only one way to resolve our differences and that is through good
in an atmosphere.
puts our game
further at risk.
you know of my respect and admiration for you
we need to cometogether
"The Void of the Millionth Sorrow" by WolfRavenDemonChild96
by reminding you
that we were there
that is why we were very troubled
your Statements are False
trying to sell it as a fair deal is not truthful
severely restricting …
you had ample time
we thus had no choice
if you have any desire
you should contact Class Counsel
During the Conference Championship week, I wrote a Walkthrough segment called "Climbing the NFL Ladders" in which I ranked the top five quarterbacks in the history of the Jets, Packers, Steelers, and Bears. A lot of readers provided their own "top five" lists in the comment box, and I think we all discovered that once you get past the best and second-best quarterbacks in the history of most franchises, you suddenly find yourself trying to sort through a ragtag collection of near-greats and journeymen. The exercise is a great way to remember some interesting personalities from the past, and it can also be a reminder to appreciate what you have if your favorite team has a pretty good quarterback.
Throughout the offseason, I will go division by division and list my top five quarterbacks for each of the remaining 28 franchises. Some divisions will get lumped together -- I already covered two NFC North teams, for example. Debate and conversation is the goal, so pick my choices (and each other's) apart, but don't offer choices for teams that haven't been covered yet. We will get to everybody.
Let's start with the NFC East, because we have a lot of great quarterbacks there to cover.
1. Roger Staubach
2. Troy Aikman: The battle for No. 1 is really close. Staubach played most of his career in the dead ball era, and some of his numbers are eye-popping if you put on your 1970s conversion lenses. When we ranked our Best Quarterback Seasons ever in the 2005 Pro Football Prospectus, Staubach had five seasons in the Top 50. Factor in scrambling and unassailable leadership, and this would be a no-brainer for most franchises.
That said, I think Aikman is very close. Aikman may be the last great quarterback in history who had his statistics severely hampered by the fact that he played for a great team. The 1990s Cowboys were heirs of the 1970s Steelers and Dolphins and 1960s Packers -- teams that didn't pass very often because they didn't have to. By the time Tom Brady came around, even a 14-2 perennial champion with a defense-minded coach was going to attempt 530 passes per season. Brady's numbers are certainly affected by his team's success, but it is nothing like the distortion seen in, say, Bob Griese's numbers. Aikman has more in common with Griese than Brady. We will never see a truly great quarterback throw 15 touchdown passes in one of his signature seasons anymore. By Aikman's era, we usually don't make the mental adjustments that we make for guys like Griese or Bart Starr, but for Aikman we must.
3. Don Meredith: The Bears originally drafted Meredith, but George Halas wanted the expansion Cowboys to have a good quarterback and box office draw, so he made the selection as a kind of "beard" pick and traded Meredith soon after the draft. The Bears then spent the 1960s trying to win with old journeymen like Billy Wade and Rudy Bukich.
4. Danny White: The last of the full-time quarterback-punters, White played his whole career in Staubach's shadow but had some great seasons in the early 1980s. Max Hall's uncle.
5. Tony Romo: Old-timers might argue for Craig Morton here. Morton was an immobile Kerry Collins-type who played on some tremendous Cowboys teams. He had several terrible postseason games. His calling cards are the fact that he led the Cowboys to Super Bowl V and he rotated with Staubach at times. The Cowboys of Morton's era were so great that they could overcome such nonsense. I will take Romo in a heartbeat.
1. Phil Simms: I don't think any franchise has had as many "near great" quarterbacks as the Giants. New York itself may have something to do with that. You can argue that the media overhypes otherwise ordinary players to look like "near greats," or that some Big Apple backlash makes us look down on otherwise fine players, or makes them wilt under the glaring spotlight. But look at the guys on this list, and you will see a mix of players who were very good for a long time (but never really outstanding) and Hall of Famers who played most of their best seasons elsewhere. In addition to the guys mentioned, players like Jeff Hostetler and Norm Snead played significant seasons with the Giants during their rambling careers.
Simms' career stats are like Aikman's. Once the West Coast Offense mentality spread, teams just stopped sitting on leads the way many did up to and through the early 1990s. Announcers of that era took note of the fact that Packers and 49ers quarterbacks were still throwing a lot of passes while leading in the fourth quarter. Quarterbacks like Simms and Aikman did not. Simms was not in Aikman's class, but there are similar distortions in his numbers.
2. Charlie Conerly: One of my favorite bits of research for The Philly Fan Code (coming this summer!) was my investigation into a December 1961 game between the Eagles and Giants. Conerly came off the bench to replace Y.A. Tittle and throw three touchdowns in a 28-24 win against the (sob) defending champion Eagles. Notoriety-wise, it was like Kurt Warner coming off the bench to relieve Brett Favre.
Conerly was a Hall of Fame finalist seven times, which was silly. He had four or five good seasons and then became more famous than great. But he was very good.
3. Eli Manning: Could be No. 1 if he steps his game up for a few seasons or stays at his current pace forever.
4. Y.A. Tittle: Tittle beats Eli if we count his 49ers record. Tittle's Giants body of work amounts to two amazing seasons and one very good one. Given the choice between the final seasons of a past generation's Jim Kelly and a durable 20-something who also happens to have a Super Bowl ring, I have to side with the youngin'.
5. Fran Tarkenton: Tarkenton's Giants teams were pretty bad. Other than the aging Homer Jones, his best target was usually Joe Morrison, who was like a late-60's version of Larry Centers. Soon after Tarkenton left, the Giants started going 2-12, so his scrambling and passing had a lot to do with keeping them competitive. His biggest competition for the No. 5 spot is Kerry Collins, who had a fine Giants career, and Ed Danowski, a leather helmet guy.
1. Donovan McNabb.
2. Norm Van Brocklin: Ray Didinger argues that Van Brocklin was the best Eagles quarterback ever, and Didinger is a distinguished historian and one of my role models. Didinger's opinion also gets used as a trump card in the Philadelphia media, so his preferences get picked up by the McNabb Denier crowd when convenient. Ray Didinger says Van Brocklin is the best ever, so how dare you argue for McNabb?
Well, Van Brocklin played 37 games for the Eagles 50 years ago. I don't think people are comparing Van Brocklin's 37 games to McNabb's 164 games when they rank the Dutchman ahead of McNabb. They are comparing a newsreel of the 1960 Championship Game to a flesh-and-blood person who was still the region's favorite punching bag a year ago. It's a simple selection bias. The encyclopedia entry beats last week's or year's box scores every time. We are all guilty of making that kind of mistake. Even Didinger, who was 14 when Van Brocklin hung 'em up and is probably as fiercely protective of Van Brocklin as I am of the next guy on the list.
3. Ron Jaworski: Could easily rank second.
4. Randall Cunningham: If you are younger than 30 and you know Cunningham from his Vikings seasons, some NFL Films montages, and his stats, you really do not know the whole story. He was bonkers. He was unreliable. He was much more like Falcons Michael Vick than Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. He would not survive in the modern NFL environment, when all of his crazy remarks would be Tweeted around the clock and Skip Bayless would spend afternoons screaming about him. His psyche barely survived the late-1980s, which was a much more superstar-friendly environment.
He received bad coaching and played behind bad offensive lines, of course. We can talk about the "could have been" career, but the real career was an exciting mess, at least in Philly.
5. Sonny Jurgensen: More on Sonny in a moment. Tommy Thompson led the Eagles to two straight championships in the 1940s and posted incredible numbers in 1948. He was an old-school T-formation quarterback who made a dozen different ball fakes before either giving the ball to Steve van Buren or tossing a bomb to Pete Pihos. He could really rank as high as third on this list, but I never know what to make of World War II era players. This list is pretty darn strong, and Vick needs about three more strong years before he cracks it.
1. Sammy Baugh: A Babe Ruth character with one foot in each of two eras. You can see the game changing just by looking at his statistics. His position changes from A-formation "tailback" to "quarterback," he stops returning punts, then stops playing safety, then starts throwing more than 300 passes per season. The NFL Network listed him as the 14th greatest player in history, which sounds about right, but you could argue that he was the greatest ever without sounding like an old fogey.
2. Sonny Jurgensen: Eye-popping numbers for a series of forgettable teams. I was asked to talk about Jurgensen at NFL Films a few months ago, but the footage was never used. My main point was that I hate the "never won a championship" arguments more than anyone else in the world. At the same time, I want to see an all-time great quarterback win some playoff games, or at least play in more than one. There's a big difference between holding Super Bowl losses against Tarkenton or Kelly and suggesting that a decade of 7-7 records might be evidence that Jurgensen's statistical brilliance is a little misleading. Factor in Jurgensen's party-guy reputation (always charming when remembered a few decades later), and I just don't buy any argument that Jurgensen is overlooked. He's on two top five lists this week, reached the Hall of Fame, and falls generally into the same category as guys like Dan Fouts. I think Fouts was better. If Jurgensen played today, his reputation might be similar to Romo's.
3. Joe Theismann: A very good quarterback who was helped by an amazing system for a few years. Theismann was nearly finished when Lawrence Taylor hit him, but could probably have won a Super Bowl with the 1987 team. I am not sure how history would have treated him if that happened. His long career as a bad announcer sometimes obscures how great he was in the early 1980s.
4. Billy Kilmer: Led some fine Redskins teams in the mid-1970s. Kilmer and Jurgensen were great friends, and both liked the nightlife and disliked Theismann.
5. Mark Rypien: Likeable, big-armed guy who could throw deep to Art Monk and Gary Clark. There are no other real contenders for the No. 5 spot. The Redskins were a mess from the time Baugh retired until George Allen arrived in the early 1970s, then ran the Kilmer-Theismann-Rypien gamut, and are now a mess again. It may be another decade before anyone threatens to crack the team's all-time top five.
119 comments, Last at 30 Mar 2011, 6:53am by t.d.