Futures: A Peyton Manning Transcription
by Matt Waldman
With four national championships between 1983 and 1991, the University of Miami football program was at its zenith. Even the Hurricanes’ lesser-known stars read like a roll call of NFL vets: Jessie Armstead, Micheal Barrow, Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy, Bubba McDowell, Leon Searcy. And it wasn't just the players. Throw in coordinators like Tommy Tuberville, Ed Orgeron, Sonny Lubick and Bob Bratkowski, and there’s a strong lineage of coaching that came out of Coral Gables. However, as good as the Hurricanes football program was, the best thing on campus has long been the studio music and jazz program.
I know firsthand, because from 1988-1991, I was there. I witnessed the greatness of a music program that, in terms of fielding quality pros with great skill and acclaim, beats the football team hands down. The award-winning roster includes the likes of Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Morse, Grace Slick, Gloria Estefan, Ben Folds, Bruce Hornsby, Enrique Iglesias, and Will Lee (David Letterman’s bassist). That doesn’t even include my roommate Matt Serletic, who produced and performed on Collective Soul’s first album, discovered and produced Matchbox 20, and eventually had a stint as Virgin America’s CEO.
I’m doing all of this music and football name-dropping because I think there are parallels between both professions -– especially when it comes to training and live performance. In my opinion, there’s no clearer parallel than that of a musician taking a solo behind a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums) and a quarterback under center. Both have to possess an understanding of theory and technique, both need rapport with their teammates, and both need to know how to build off these fundamentals to tell a convincing story.
Over 20 years ago, I was an aspiring jazz musician and I used to spend hours on end in a practice studio studying solos of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Rouse, and John Coltrane. I’d listen to them play and do my best to write it all down by ear, learn the notes and feel, and then try to play along and match everything they did. This timeless process is called transcription. It’s one of the most valuable tools to developing a musician’s ear, rhythm, and sound.
Just like musicians, many football players consciously adopt the techniques of established pros as technical and stylistic guideposts to help them improve their fundamentals. There was a lot of talk late last year of Tim Tebow studying Tom Brady’s release. To some extent, Tebow demonstrated signs of that Brady release when the pocket was clean.
However, the strongest example of a college prospect "transcribing" a veteran NFL quarterback’s game that I've ever seen was revealed to me this year when I watched tape of B.J. Coleman. The Tennessee-Chattanooga quarterback did such a good job absorbing Peyton Manning’s style of drops, play fakes, and delivery of the football that I bet Coleman could fool 90 percent of NFL scouts into thinking that he was Manning -- were he running a scrimmage from a distance in Manning’s No. 18 jersey, anyway. It’s that close a resemblance.
Note that I said these techniques look just like those of Peyton Manning, and not that he plays as well as the future Hall of Famer. Several of today’s pop and R&B stars use stylistic techniques that borrow heavily from Stevie Wonder, but it doesn’t mean they are at his level of mastery as a musician. The same can be said about Coleman’s quarterbacking relative to Manning.
Before transferring cross-state, Coleman was at the main University of Tennessee. He made the conscious effort during those initial years to acquire all the tape on Manning that he could get his hands on, but he also did the work to learn the All-Pro’s techniques. The proficiency he showed to incorporate these fundamentals into his game during live action is a testament to the young quarterback’s work ethic and burgeoning skill. Consider that Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins told the media at the start of the 2011 season that he spent his summer working on stepping through his release, but showed no real improvement. A prospect with the skill to transition new techniques onto the field is a valuable commodity.
This is one of a few reasons why I think Coleman is a project to remember in the mid-to-late rounds. Coleman’s junior-year performance versus Appalachian State is a good illustration of the quarterback’s stylistic similarities to Manning. However, Coleman also flashes better arm strength on the move than Manning did in college. The UT-Chattanooga quarterback also demonstrates the willingness to stand tall and deliver in the pocket, which has nothing to do with technique.
Coleman’s first snap in this contest is a first-and-10 from a weak side twin-receiver, 21-personnel I-formation set. Appalachian State plays a 4-3 with the strong safety in the flat two yards behind the linebackers. The free safety is deep and near the middle of the field.
Coleman sends the flanker in motion until he’s behind the slot to form a stacked twin. At the snap, the Tennessee-Chattanooga quarterback executes a play fake to the running back with excellent extension to the runner’s mid-section.
The art of the play fake isn’t just about the extension of the football. The way the quarterback sells the illusion that he no longer has the ball is just as vital. This only has to occur for a split second to fool the defense. Coleman sells his play fake by maintaining a crouched position and retracting the ball arm fast enough that he can hide it near his hip. He does this just long enough to get the linebackers to freeze, then executes a quick set up. This is an artful play fake that fits the description of Peyton Manning’s play-action game by venerable NFL quarterback and quarterback coach Steve DeBerg: "He makes it look like a run for a real long time, and then sets up faster than anybody I've ever seen."
Coleman finishes his five-step drop and looks deep to the right flat. If you look at how he sets his body, the quarterback’s posture and ball carriage in the pocket appears similar to Manning:
- The ball is just under his Adam’s apple and shaded towards his back shoulder.
- Both hands are on the ball, with the elbows and forearms forming a strong triangle.
- Shoulder-width spacing of the feet at the end of the drop.
- The body angle is leaning slightly forward as the passer drives off his back foot to hitch or step into delivery.
Up until this point of the play, Coleman’s fundamentals are similar to Manning’s, but once he breaks the pocket and has to deliver the ball on the move, the Mocs quarterback demonstrates more functional arm strength than Manning did when he was in Knoxville. Manning had better arm strength than many scouts gave him credit for, but Coleman’s arm is still stronger.
When the defender gets pressure across the quarterback’s face, Coleman breaks the pocket to the near side, outruns the defender to the near hash, and delivers the ball, on the run, 35 yards from release to the sideline.
Although there is some arc on the pass, this is a power throw. One thing that NFL defenses do consistently to pro quarterbacks is take away parts of the field. That way, they either force their opponent to eat the ball or attempt a pass with a high level of difficulty. Even the wisest NFL quarterbacks are forced into these situations two-to-three times a week, and the best arm talents make these plays to sustain drives. Coleman is painted into a corner in this situation and he demonstrates the arm talent to make the tough throw.
Although the attempt isn’t completed, Coleman flashes the promise that he’s physically capable of doing so. This is why I’d rather have a player like Coleman on my roster than Kirk Cousins. Coleman has the arm talent Cousins lacks to make these tough plays. I'd also rather bet on the aptitude that Coleman has shown to be able to craft his game in the NFL, as well.
The next series features a first-and-10 screen pass with 8:22 in the first quarter from a 21-personnel, 2x1 set. Coleman completes this pass for a 7-yard gain. Appalachian State runs a 4-3 defense where the strong side linebacker is over the tight end, just behind the defensive front.
Coleman checks the depth of the safeties and motions the outside receiver behind the slot man to stack his twin pass catchers. This is the same formation and motion that the Mocs offense used to begin the first series, which illustrates the versatility of a single formation and personnel package.
At the snap, Coleman drops seven steps from center, looks down field, and then turns to his running back to deliver the screen to the left flat. The footwork begins with big steps and ends with shorter, even steps. This change in footwork lets Coleman get his feet under him in a balanced position, which helps generate a throw with good accuracy and velocity.
Although this is a short pass, there is a lot of technique involved in the release to deliver an accurate screen. Coleman has to throw the ball while backing away, and also insure that he’s getting enough height on the ball to clear the line of scrimmage. This particular play has a rather large passing lane, but Coleman can’t anticipate that it will always generate a lane this big, so the consistency of the technique is important.
The Mocs quarterback does good job of getting on his toes, opening his hips, and delivering the ball with an over the top release. The pass arrives with good placement to the back shoulder of the runner in the left flat. This isn’t an earth-shattering play, but it’s another demonstration of good footwork on a seven-step drop, and the ability to execute good technique even if the defense doesn’t force it.
The next play we'll look at demonstrates one of the things that I like most about Coleman: his willingness to stand tall under pressure and deliver the ball. The play I’m referencing is a first-and-10 from a 2x1, 11-personnel set versus a 4-3. Coleman checks the defensive alignment and spots the far side receiver drawing single coverage.
The single coverage is evident on this play because the safety at the right hash is over the slot receiver and shaded to the inside, just like the cornerback over the outside receiver. When a corner is shaded inside his receiver, this is a good sign that he'll be in man coverage. Corners like to funnel receivers to the boundary in man coverage, and shading a receiver to the inside is one way of forcing that agenda.
After the snap, Coleman executes another strong play fake with full extension of the ball, and the running back heads towards the right tackle.
Once again, Coleman executes a quick retraction of the ball from the runner and dips his shoulders and head to sell the exchange while he briefly hides the ball. It’s good to see this level of consistency, and it makes sense given the fact that, if there’s a player to study that epitomizes technical consistency, it is Manning.
Coleman freezes the coverage just enough with the play fake, then he does a strong job of using his eyes to hold the safety to the outside for another beat as he finishes his five-step drop. This eye control and manipulation of the defender is vital for a quarterback in the NFL.
Once his back foots hits the ground at the conclusion of his drop, Coleman turns his head to the right and delivers a 54-yard throw from release point to reception for a 55-yard gain.
As Coleman begins this delivery, Appalachian State’s defensive end gets free and has a clean path to the quarterback. Despite this fact, Coleman doesn’t change his release.
During Coleman’s release, the defensive end gets just enough of the quarterback’s arm during the final portion of the follow-through that it slightly alters the distance on the throw. The receiver has at least three steps on the cornerback as the ball gets within range, but the pass catcher has to slow his gait just slightly so he doesn’t overrun the pass.
Because of this impending contact, Coleman’s throw is impressive. He not only takes the hit, but he delivers the ball to the inside with the knowledge that this is the best area of placement in case the hit alters his throw.
The reason that Coleman’s receiver still has time and room to make an adjustment for the completion is the quarterback’s play fake, skill at holding the safety, and his efficient delivery. These fundamentals buy enough room for error on the accuracy of the throw, and it’s these small details that are encouraging about Coleman’s potential to take his game to a higher level.
Is Coleman the next Peyton Manning? No, and that’s not the point. Coleman demonstrates that he has both the physical skills and capacity to learn. This thirst for acquiring and implementing knowledge is what separates late-round quarterbacks that succeed from early-round signal callers that don’t.