by Matt Waldman
Is it fair to use a bad statistical performance to evaluate the NFL potential of a prospect? As long as it isn’t the only game, I’d argue that it’s preferable to at least have one of these games in my sample. A bad or uncharacteristic performance is often the result of a player and/or team stretched to do things that aren’t a part of the game plan.
What can be found in the box score is just a fraction of what an evaluator should consider about a player’s performance. Why would anyone hold a 23-of-50, 195-yard, three-interception night against a quarterback if his receivers drop 12 passes that would have accounted for another 150 yards of potential completions, erased two of the three interceptions, and generated three touchdowns? This is why studying specific performance points such as throwing technique, decision-making, accuracy, awareness, and maneuverability in the pocket create a fuller picture of a passer’s potential.
There will always be players with deficiencies in technique, decision-making, or physical skills that prove exceptions to the rule and experience success at the pro level. Brett Favre was one. However, in most cases these criteria points of quarterbacking become even more important in situations where the opposition forces the player to stretch his normal style of play to the limit.
The Role of Rhythm in an Offense
One of the fundamental ways that a defense attempts to beat an offense is to destroy its rhythm. In the passing game, rhythm is essential: wide receiver routes are timed with the quarterback’s footwork. When a passing offense executes a play as designed, the individual players look good.
However, it’s rare that every play works as designed -– especially in the NFL -- the best players have the discipline to execute plays as designed with good technique, but they also possess the talent to create at a high level when the play design breaks down. Passers that are pegged as game managers can execute the rhythm of the designed play, but lack the skill to succeed beyond the scope of plan.
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL at playing within the plan or going off the grid. Jay Cutler is an example of a quarterback capable of incredible feats of passing accuracy when forced to operate outside the natural rhythm of the play. However, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the Bears quarterback can abandon the rhythm of the play design too soon. In contrast, Kevin Kolb is capable of adhering to the script, but in situations where Rodgers and Cutler thrive, his game deteriorates.
Don’t mistake these examples as an argument for quarterback mobility. Michael Vick has mobility, but he’s not always efficient with his talent to avoid defenders. I prefer the concept of maneuverability: a quarterback’s skill to maneuver the pocket and maintain a throwing position. Tom Brady has maneuverability. Kurt Warner had maneuverability. Dan Marino might have been the most maneuverable quarterback in the pocket of all time.
Maneuverability requires a player to have the skill to operate in and out of rhythm. It is one of the reasons why I like Tyler Wilson’s potential as an NFL player. If he can tone down his reckless nature, he can make accurate plays down field even when the opposing defense forces him away from the basic pace of the play.
Regardless of the outcome for Arkansas, Wilson can do a number of things to put his teammates in position to succeed even when the play breaks down. Matt Barkley is a different story. Last month’s USC-Stanford game provides evidence that the Trojans quarterback may lack this particular skill. If this proves true, Barkley will not be a true franchise-caliber prospect.
Perhaps Barkley will exhibit more skill to operate outside the established rhythm of a play in other contests. Or, maybe he’ll develop this skill as he refines his footwork during his transition to the NFL. However, if Barkley’s performance against the Cardinal is more than a one-week phenomenon, the USC quarterback is, at worst, a rhythm passer whose game can deteriorate when a defense forces him to abandon his familiar routine.
The Stanford game might be an uncharacteristic performance for Barkley in the sense that his center Khaled Holmes was inactive for the contest. Holmes makes the protection calls and Barkley had to do it on his own. While Barkley has been allowed to override Holmes’ calls, the added responsibility to make every call could have been a factor in Stanford’s six-sack performance. Barkley had some rough moments, getting sacked multiple times and tossing back-to-back interceptions. Three of the six sacks were the result of a USC tackle or guard moving in the opposite direction of the defensive tackle or demonstrating noticeable hesitation with his assignment.
Even if these factors created an off-night for Barkley, the fact remains that the USC quarterback will face pressure like this more often in the NFL. If the Stanford game is indicative of his reaction under this type of pressure, then it’s a noteworthy red flag.
Good Plays in Rhythm
Barkley completes a pass that results in a 48-yard play on second-and-10, with 11:42 in the first quarter, from a 2x2 receiver, 01-personnel shotgun set. The Stanford defense has both safeties at least 10 yards high and the remaining cornerbacks are maintaining similar depth.
Barkley sends the wing back in motion to the left sideline, and as six defenders at the line of scrimmage blitz, Barkley has a fake screen set up to draw the defensive backs up field. This decoy play at the left sideline works so well that two of the three defensive backs on that side of the field bite and leave the wing back streaking up the sideline uncovered. However, this is not Barkley’s target. If it were, this play might have been a 50-yard touchdown, barring the wing back tripping during his free ride to the Stanford end zone.
Barkley is focused on one read, which is the slot receiver running a crossing route behind the inside linebacker’s drop into pass protection and under the safety crossing to the opposite side of the field to follow the wing back’s pre-snap motion.
The reason Barkley’s read is the slot receiver and not the wing back up the sideline becomes more apparent from the end zone angle of this play. The angle also demonstrates that this throw to his slot receiver on the cross is decisive and accurate in a tight window, hitting his target in stride. The quality of this pass is good enough for the receiver to break tackles and come two yards shy of a touchdown in his own right.
Here is the backfield angle of the play that illustrates why Barkley made the correct read and threw an excellent pass.
Prior to the snap, Barkley knows he has two possibilities on the left side of the field. If the fake screen draws the defensive backs to the line of scrimmage, he might have a chance to throw the ball behind them to the wing back up the sideline. However, the six defenders at the line of scrimmage could indicate an all-out blitz. If this is the case, Barkley either won’t have time to deliver the ball to his wing back or he’ll have to loft the ball up the sideline and hope his wing back can clear the defensive back that might bump him at the sideline. There’s the possibility that the safety following the wing back could earn better position on the football if lofted as a touch pass. Driving a pass requires waiting for the receiver to get further downfield, and with the possibility of six defenders bearing down, it’s not likely he’ll have the time.
The other option is the slot receiver running the crossing route. If Barkley sees the defensive backs biting on the outside receivers as he’s taking the snap, then his job is to throw the ball to the open spot under the safety and over any linebackers that potentially drop into coverage rather than blitz. Both possibilities will require a short drop, so this decision has to be quick and Barkley has to be precise with his execution. Here is the initial post-snap shot of the play.
Barkley reads all three defenders on the left side of the field moving towards the sideline, which is the early key that the crossing route in the opposite direction will be the optimal throw. Barkley’s job at this point is to get rid of the ball fast.
The USC quarterback demonstrates facility with quick drops. If he continues to refine this aspect of his game, the type of quick play-action throws that Matt Ryan is executing to perfection with the Falcons offense could be a nice match for Barkley.
Barkley threads the needle just over the dropping linebacker’s reach and hits the slot receiver in stride for the big play. This is a good decision and Barkley delivers the ball in rhythm, stepping through the release to generate a short pass with good velocity and hyper accuracy.
Here is a well-thrown, sideline fade on 1st-and-10 with 2:27 in the first quarter that was about six inches from being a 44-yard touchdown pass rather than an incomplete pass. Once again, Barkley demonstrates good accuracy and touch when he can operate within the rhythm of the designed play. USC’s alignment is a 12-personnel, 1x1 receiver set versus Stanford’s 3-4 with both safeties deep and only the right outside linebacker at the line of scrimmage. The two inside linebackers and the left outside linebacker are five yards behind the line.
The two key players on this read are the safety and cornerback on the left side of the formation. The cornerback is playing inside the receiver and five yards off the line of scrimmage. The fact that the defender is shaded inside the receiver and away from the line indicates that he’ll have single-coverage responsibility on the receiver and is taking away the inside release so he can use the sideline as an ally. The safety’s position at the hash and inside the left outside linebacker is a good indication that these two defenders have zone coverage responsibilities and likely believe the tight end will run a seam route.
Barkley will read the single coverage on his receiver and his job will be to hold the safety with his eyes long enough to keep the coverage one-on-one when releases the ball.
Sure enough, Barkley stares down the safety as he begins his drop. By the time he finishes the fourth step of his five-step drop, the quarterback turns his focus to the outside receiver and cornerback. The safety remains held in position at the left hash due to Barkley’s initial use of his eyes.
When his back foot hits the ground with his fifth step, he brings the ball back, steps forward with his front leg towards the target, and begins his release.
He steps through the release, delivering a pass with nice arc and enough velocity to give his receiver an opportunity to catch the ball in stride down the left sideline.
The pass arrives just inches from the receiver’s palms and ricochets off the pass catcher’s finger tips. The difference in timing between this incomplete pass and a catch for a touchdown is no more than a step, which could have been the product of the receiver turning back to the sun to track the ball and slow his stride by the slightest amount. This is a deep, accurate throw that covers 45 yards from release point to near-reception point.
Barkley doesn’t have to step through every pass to make an accurate throw and he can make plays without great footwork. He just has a more limited repertoire in this respect than the most physically-talented NFL starters. Here is a second-and-15 pass with 9:38 in the third quarter where Barkley throws the ball from an off-balance position with good anticipation. Despite the lack of conventional footwork on this attempt, the timing of the pass had an undisturbed rhythm, which remains the line of demarcation for his accuracy.
Barkley freezes the linebacker (No. 44) at the snap when he holds the defender in place with his eyes. He even convinces the defender that he’s looking to the right rather than throwing to the left.
Barkley turns back to the left and waits for his receiver to come open on the cross. At this point, the quarterback demonstrates nice anticipation and begins his release with his feet splayed parallel to the hash so he can deliver the ball to the middle rather than his left.
The best part about this delivery is that he fooled the linebacker twice on this play. The first was the initial look to the right, but then he forces the defender to overreact to the left before he delivers the ball over the middle.
This provides an open window for the receiver to make the catch in stride and turn up field for a 17-yard gain and a first down. The mechanics of this delivery is common to quarterbacks in spread-formation short-passing games. Blaine Gabbert and his much-maligned delivery come to mind on this play. However, this pass is spot-on.
A good facet of Barkley’s game is touch and this is evident on timing passes. Late in this game, he hit two corner routes with excellent anticipation versus pressure. Here’s the second of these two passes with 1:22 remaining and down by seven points.
The linebackers blitz to either shoulder of the left tackle and Barkley has to time this throw off his back foot to squeeze it between the zone of the cornerback in the flat, the safety over top, and inside the boundary.
The best part of this 20-yard gain is that Barkley shows confidence in freshman wide receiver Nelson Agholor as his target on this timing pass.
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Although Barkley executes well in this pressure situation, NFL defenses typically force 20-yard lasers over lollipops. The next play is an example of where Barkley’s arm limitations will become more apparent in the NFL if he’s forced to make throws to the opposite hash while sliding from pressure.
This year Peyton Manning is a great example of what a quarterback with limited arm strength can do if he’s hyper-accurate, knowledgeable about defenses, and performs with awareness and poise in the pocket. Likewise, Cam Newton is an equally great example of how meaningless a big arm can be if the player owning it is not hyper-accurate, demonstrating knowledge of the opposing defensive tendencies, and not performing with awareness and poise in the pocket. Barkley has the arm to make the baseline throws that most NFL offensive systems require, but I have concerns that he lacks the howitzer to create plays in situations where pressure or downfield coverage wrecks the play design and forces a quarterback to execute the high-risk, tight throw or concede the down.
I have much more to watch of Barkley, so I’m willing to concede the arm strength may be a non-issue as I see more situations where he makes higher velocity throws. However, this one play got my attention and I have made a mental note to watch for plays requiring a high-powered arm.
This comes on a third-and-15 with 2:26 in the third quarter from an 11-personnel, 2x1 receiver set. Stanford’s strong safety is creeping up the hash within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The outside linebacker on the strong safety’s side of the field is over the slot receiver.
With the inside linebackers threatening an A-gap blitz, the strong safety appears to have at least intermediate-to-deep responsibility of the slot receiver if not outright single coverage. It also means that the safest diagnosis of coverage is the outside receiver on the strong safety’s side. This is mostly likely single coverage.
Stanford doesn’t blitz both linebackers in the A-gap when USC snaps the ball. Instead it chooses to drop the one closest to the line of scrimmage before the snap and blitzes the other. At the same time, the outside linebacker blitzes from the slot. It's a variation of a blitz that the Houston Texans used successfully against the Jets on Monday Night Football, where both inside linebackers threatened the A-gap, but at the snap they instead dropped one into coverage, blitzed the other, and sent the cornerback from the slot.
This blitz package leaves single coverage on the side of the slot blitz. As Barkley takes his drop, he sees the outside cornerback turning his back to the sideline as the receiver releases from the line of scrimmage. This should scream "out or comeback" to the sideline to both the receiver and Barkley.
Both offensive players get the message, but Barkley hesitates to make the throw because he feels pressure from the edge and decides to slide to his left.
Although the USC quarterback displays nice form to slide while keeping his feet under him so he can begin his release without a reset of his body, there is not enough velocity to get the ball to the receiver in time. The cornerback recovers from the receiver’s break and undercuts the route for a near-interception.
Granted, the optimal time for Barkley to throw this ball was when he hesitated and then slid away from the pressure. While these stills cannot display the flight of the ball, this pass from the opposite hash did not have enough zip on it to reach the receiver on time even if Barkley delivered the ball earlier in the route. These are two different issues. The hesitancy is an issue with most young quarterbacks, but the velocity is something that can only improve so much. Barkley likely won't have an elite arm. The fact that Barkley delivers this pass by stepping through the throw illustrates that he lacks that kind of gun.
A third-and-6 pass with 11:57 in the first quarter is another demonstration of Barkley throwing from the opposite hash and coming up short despite having the time and space to step through his release. USC is once again in an 11-personnel set with receivers 2x1 in alignment.
Stanford sends the outside linebacker off right tackle and the slot defender off left tackle on blitzes, which leaves the safety on the slot receiver. Barkley will make the read prior to the snap based on the safety creeping to the line at the last moment and confirm that read after the snap as he sees the slot defender break to the pocket on the blitz.
Barkley takes a five-step drop, sets his feet, hitches slightly, and then delivers the ball from the near hash of the USC 45 to the far sideline of the Stanford 30. This is a 25-yard throw from release point to reception point, but the width of the field that this throw must cover still requires velocity to reach its target -- it's not just an anticipation throw that needed to get there on time and over the safety. Based on this still, the quarterback anticipates the throw, beginning his release just as the receiver begins his break inside the safety. Barkley’s pocket is clean, he gets to plant his front foot towards the target and follow through.
His throw is short of target.
Although the ball arrives over the outside shoulder of the safety, the pass still arrives shy of its target. In fact, the photo above shows that the receiver has to turn back and wait on the ball because Barkley puts more arc than zip on the throw. A good argument could be made that a corner route requires more touch than power. Even so, this ball is shy of target and the stills even display Barkley demonstrated anticipation on the play.
The defensive back is able to recover due to the receiver’s need to slow down and turn back to the ball. The result is a defensed pass without the defender playing the man. This still photo above has the ball circled in brown at a point after the defender knocks it away. The ball actually landed close to his sideline shoulder rather than near the receiver.
Because of the trajectory of the ball, I can also see an argument in Barkley’s favor that arm strength isn’t an issue on this play. The pass would have been long enough if the receiver breaks at a sharper angle to the outside and doesn’t give up position on the defensive back. However, there’s one additional problem with this take when watching the video rather than looking at this still photo: Barkley’s pass flutters in the air, which is a sign of a pass that lacks great velocity. Both of these plays are also slightly out of rhythm.
This isn’t the only pass over 15 yards in length that Barkley throws that lacks a tight spiral and the necessary length and velocity. It’s not a career-killing issue, but it underscores the fact that at this point in his young career, his physical skills give him a lower ceiling as an individual creator of plays in difficult situations and he’s more reliant on the proper execution of the play design than the very best physical prospects. At this stage of his career, his performance declines significantly when the plays break down. Both of the throws profiled above also required him to make slight adjustments with his timing, and the results were less than optimal.
Substandard Plays Out of Rhythm
Barkley’s first attempt of the second half is a second-and-18 pass with 14:26 in the third quarter after a personal foul penalty on USC. The unit is in a 10-personnel shotgun set with receivers 3x1. The Stanford defense has two safeties high. This is a sprint right to the trips side.
The USC quarterback initially looks to the slot receiver on the deeper route and then works back to the outside receiver running the look-in.
As Barkley transitions to his second option, he feels the back side pressure and reacts to it.
I believe Barkley could have executed his checkdown without trying to avoid the pressure, and if he continued with his progression his throw would have been within the rhythm of the play. However, he fades away from the pressure coming from his peripheral sight line and his feet are no longer in position to drive forward through his release. Now he has to make the throw off his back foot. The result is a short-hopped pass at the feet of the receiver. Again, this isn’t a critical issue for a pro quarterback. Donovan McNabb was a major factor in the Eagles' success for many years, and he short-hopped enough passes that one might think he was actively lobbying to bring the bounce-pass to the NFL.
At the same time, multiple non-critical issues can be as worrisome as a critical problem. I’m reserving judgment at this time, but the arm strength, perception of pressure, and reliance on rhythm plays do make me want to watch a lot more of his game to see if there is a pattern. And it’s not just the choice of game. I watched Ryan Tannehill have a horrible statistical outing, but still believed he warranted a first-round pick before watching him in games where he had greater success in the box score.
Here’s one last play where the defense succeeds in getting Barkley out of rhythm. This is a 21-personnel set with receivers 1x1 in a strong side I-formation. It's a play-action pass with 0:18 left in the third quarter.
Receiver Robert Woods is tight to the weak side of the formation and runs a cross in the opposite direction ahead of the wing back on his shallow cross. At the snap, Barkley executes a decent play-fake to the back, extending his arm away from his body with his back to the defense.
Once he completes his play-fake, he’s looking down field to the vertical option as his back foot on the final step of his drop hits the ground.
After Barkley brings his front foot into position to being his release, the defense generates pressure in his face and his options to the right are covered. What I like about this play is that Barkley knows he has his backside cross and understands where his receivers are supposed to be. What I don’t like is Barkley’s difficulty throwing an accurate pass in the short range of the field. Good quarterbacks with that maneuverability we talked about function well after a slight hesitation, an adjustment to the rhythm of the play, or a small change with their feet or body position.
Notice how his front leg is pointed closer to the fullback’s flat route, but once he feels the pressure, he has to make a split-second adjustment to point his leg to the backside crossing route shown below.
While this is all good technique in theory, the execution is off. Barkley’s balance is off as he delivers a pass that is catchable, but thrown too hard and a little high and away. At this point of Barkley’s career, he has some issues with how he perceives pressure and allows it to disrupt his rhythm.
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As I’ve mentioned throughout this preliminary analysis of the USC quarterback’s game, it’s not a damning condemnation of his game or his pro prospects. Ryan had similar issues at Boston College. Although Ryan earned the nickname "Matty Ice" early in his career, he had –- and still has -– notable issues perceiving pressure in the pocket that leads to inaccurate throws and taking sacks where not necessary.
The reason you’re not seeing these issues with Ryan thus far in 2012 is partially attributable to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system. The offense relies more on short drops, quick play-action, and misdirection with bootlegs and reverse pivots. This emphasizes quick passes, shorter routes, and more yards after the catch. When Ryan is throwing down field, he’s targeting his perimeter receivers on back-shoulder fades and corner routes, where he doesn’t need the same power and line-drive velocity necessary for post patterns, streaks, or skinny posts. Ryan may have improved his arm strength, but watch closely and you’ll see the coordinator has shortened the requirements for the deep routes from previous seasons under Mike Mularkey’s stewardship.
If what I saw with Barkley’s arm and reliance on the rhythm passing game holds true in future viewings, then Barkley would be a better fit in an offense that’s tailored for Ryan, rather than a system that asks its quarterbacks to work the ball down field on consistent five- and seven-step drops. Barkley may not be a true system quarterback, which is often considered a bad thing among fans, but there is reason for concern that he’s closer to that end of the spectrum than the "can’t-miss" franchise-caliber athlete with the physical gifts and grace to develop in any system.
If there ever was such a thing.