Scouting QBs: Separating the Dark From the Dark

Scouting QBs: Separating the Dark From the Dark
Scouting QBs: Separating the Dark From the Dark
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Matt Waldman

After spending an insane amount of time during the last decade studying players, talking with scouts, and paying attention to history, I have learned three things about evaluating football talent:

  • Scouting and quarterbacking are about detail and nuance.
  • Experience matters, but not like you think.
  • Quarterback remains the untamed wilderness of football evaluation.

These are my personal lessons. No one shared these three points as teachable nuggets from the book of scouting. The last two insights are unintended consequences of professionals making opposite statements.

After 10 years of studying football games, I have gained enough experience to see that I’m not an expert. As the great poet Philip Levine wrote, I’ve "begun to separate the dark from the dark."

Today, I’m sharing these degrees of darkness about scouting quarterbacks. The hope is that separating the dark from the dark may one day provide a process that is a more reliable way to find the light.

Detail and Nuance

During one of our frequent phone conversations, co-owner Sigmund Bloom and I concluded that the simplest way to describe good quarterbacking is to compare it to another job. Cooks and musicians offer good parallels, but the best is that of a skilled craftsman.

I used to build sets at a theater. I learned how to use a wide variety of tools. I even gained some welding experience.

Give me directions and materials and a garage full of tools and I can assemble something bought at a store after I’ve taken it apart at least once. But I’m not the guy you want to help you with a home improvement project or a repair. Unless it’s the simplest of tasks, I’d be pulled from the job within an hour.

On the other hand, give my wife Alicia a small toolbox with half the tools and she'll not only have the job completed with time to spare, she'll also have spotted and addressed two other problems around your house that you didn't know about. She didn’t start working on houses until her early 30s, but within three years she owned her own remodeling company and did everything but electric and plumbing.

You need tools to do a job, but nuance to do the job well. I had all the tools, but none of the nuance. Alicia had half the tools and a ton of nuance.

Good quarterbacking is craftsmanship. There are a basic minimum of tools (details) to complete the job: height, weight, speed, arm strength, accuracy, etc. However the craftsman integrates the tools, his knowledge, and his experience to execute at the highest level of performance.

Skills integration is nuance. Pocket presence is a collection of details integrated in variety of ways to achieve a desired result:

  • Understanding how the down-and-distance of a play shapes the risks a quarterback should take or avoid.
  • Footwork.
  • Ball security.
  • Shoulder movement.
  • Timing of movement.
  • Reading the defense.
  • Disguising one’s intentions from the defense.
  • Peripheral vision.
  • Rapport with blockers and knowledge of blocking schemes.
  • Knowledge of routes.
  • Knowledge of the small adjustments his receivers will make on certain routes.

Each of these details can differ from one play to the next. It’s not intangible; it’s often too multi-layered and complex to capture with data. Touch, placement, and reading defenses are also examples of nuance.

A quarterback can have a collection of tools to rival the best to ever set foot in a stadium, but lack the nuance to execute at a high level. Blaine Gabbert, JaMarcus Russell, Kyle Boller, and J.P. Losman all have the tools, but lack the nuance.

Joe Montana, Rich Gannon, and Brad Johnson all lacked specific tools NFL decision-makers thought were necessary for a franchise quarterback. But these three players possessed the craftsmanship to apply what tools that they to create successful careers.

No hammer? Give me a 5/16 wrench and carabiner...

No flathead screwdriver? A pen with a metal barrel will do the trick...

Need a tension wrench? A paper clip will do...

For all his flaws, Tim Tebow is an extreme example of a player with a small toolbox of skills who possessed enough nuance to lead his team to the playoffs.

In contrast, the negative fixation on Russell Wilson’s height caused almost everyone to undervalue the nuances of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback’s game. The same fixation can happen with positive details while glossing over a lack of nuance.

Blaine Gabbert and Matt Leinart are two excellent examples -– especially those who valued Gabbert as a first-round pick:

He's tall, he has a big arm, he has great athleticism, and he comports himself well in public. We can coach him up. Give him some experience and he'll develop.

This leads us to experience.

Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.

-Aldous Huxley

It's as easy to gloss over a negative in favor of multiple positives as it is to discount craftsmanship because of a limited toolbox. I passed the Leinart Test, but failed the Gabbert Exam. When it came to the Jaguars’ quarterback, I fixated on a set of positives that I saw in one game and glossed over the serious lack of nuance that plagued him in others.

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In hindsight, Gabbert is an example of a player with an identifiable lack of nuance that should have been regarded as a fatal flaw and knockout factor on an evaluation (more on this later). However, many NFL decision-makers –- owners, general managers, coaches, and scouts –- also lack nuance when it comes to scouting.

NFL decision-makers may have experience, but it doesn’t mean they possess the right kind of experience. Quality trumps quantity every time. The only thing good about duration of experience is it provides a greater chance to earn richness of experience.

Even then, there are no guarantees.

Spend 20 years with any organization –- a garage, an accounting firm, a university, or an NFL team –- and it’s possible to learn more about playing politics than how to perform the intended function of the job at the highest possible level.

These organizations fear experience. Their message is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. Don’t question the process. Don’t take risks if you want to feed your family.

Cover your ass.

Spend half that time in an organization that embraces experience and it’s a different world. Question everything. Think like an individual, but learn to work as a team. Take ownership.

The best organizations don’t paralyze their employees with the fear of mistakes. They know how to work through them. They spend more time teaching and less time punishing.

The experience-phobic organizations spend more resources cycling through employees and continue to repeat the errors they could have avoided. Even when they succeed, they often misidentify where the credit should go and cannot replicate the result.

I’m sharing this from the perspective of an evaluator who has butchered evaluations and a manager who has hired the wrong people and missed opportunities for development. But as the Hindu proverb states, "No physician is really good before he has killed one or two patients."

Gabbert. John Beck. Perhaps Tyler Wilson.

I empathize with the NFL’s plight. The current decision-making process teams use to pick a first-round quarterback is a resounding failure.

When Mike Tirico asked Bill Parcells on ESPN’s first NFL Draft Confidential special why teams continue to take quarterbacks in the first round despite the low probability for success, the former coach and general manager said that if a team doesn’t get one in the first round then it’s even harder to find one later.

From a data standpoint this is true, but examine the context of how teams apply the draft to its roster. On most teams, early-round picks automatically earn more practice reps and have higher expectations to play.

Some teams even force players into action who are not ready for the transition. In contrast, late-round quarterbacks earn few, if any, reps in practice. They are emergency players.

It's big news when a quarterback drafted outside the first round earns even a split of camp reps. The end result is that teams reinforce this flat earth theory that NFL management espouses - despite the fact there’s growing evidence to the contrary.

Super Bowl quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Joe Montana, Brad Johnson, Brett Favre, and Russell Wilson have earned 10 championship rings in the past 25 years over the likes of opposing passers Boomer Esiason, Rich Gannon, Matt Hasselbeck, Neil O’Donnell, Stan Humphries, and Jake Delhomme.

None of these championship game quarterbacks were first-round picks. However, six of those players earned the MVP award 10 times in a 25-year period. Add Esaison’s MVP year in 1988 and the count rises to 11 times in 26 years.

When the probability of success for a first-round quarterback is less than a coin-flip, it is time to change the process behind the decisions and focus solely on the final outcome. Brian Billick’s first meaningful statement in his "How to Draft a QB" article is that "nobody knows anything."

Listen to former general managers and scouts talk about draft day and it’s clear that too many decisions to select quarterbacks are rooted in fear, pressure, and an admitted lack of knowledge. I may not possess the light on how to fix this, but I can begin to separate the dark from the dark.

Teams should not only have an idea of what makes a quarterback good, but what prevents a quarterback from ever achieving his potential and stick to those guidelines. They should show more restraint in the first round when it comes to overrating quarterbacks with numerous tools and discernible lack of nuance.

At the same time, they need to formulate processes that identify and value the types of nuance that elevate players beyond their details. As I said before, there are certain details that are "must haves" but if a team is tallying good details on a player without examining the nuance he displays with them then they will continually pick quarterbacks where the whole never equals the sum of their parts.

If a team selects Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo within the first 50 picks of this draft, it’s a good sign they are in this rut. This is especially true if the pick is Garoppolo.

The Eastern Illinois quarterback possesses a lot of the details that NFL scouts and general managers like, but he lacks the nuance to succeed long-term as a starter.

Details to like:

  • Quick drops.
  • Fast release.
  • Thorough play fakes.
  • Use of pump fakes.
  • Velocity in the short and intermediate game.
  • Short and intermediate accuracy.
  • Prototypical height and weight.
  • Mobility

List these individual components on a scouting report and Garoppolo looks like a strong prospect on paper. Even more impressive is the quarterback putting these skills on display in an all-star game practice, the NFL Combine, and a pro day workout.

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Garoppolo has been on my short list as a player whose stock will rise as workouts get underway. The anonymous scouts and general managers who liked Garoppolo and Carr before these workouts in another controlled environment will gush over the details.

Controlled environments downplay the importance of nuance. The pocket is not a controlled environment; quarterbacking-by-numbers doesn't win there.

Garoppolo’s pocket presence is similar to Gabbert’s. The Eastern Illinois starter has a bad habit of altering his body position during his release as if an opponent is within a step of delivering a hit that will alter the accuracy of the throw when there isn't a defender within 3-4 yards of him.

Moreover, Garoppolo is more likely to duck his shoulders and drop his eyes from his receivers to brace himself for a hit in situations were top prospects climb the pocket, keep their eyes on their receivers, and maintain a good throwing position. When a quarterback's first inclination is to freeze, brace for a hit, or turn tail from pressure and run well before the pressure arrives, it's a red flag.

The problem inherent with having a high grade on Garoppolo is that teams are rewarding quarterbacks for the wrong things. Displaying execution that the average NFL quarterback does successfully during 35-40 pass attempts in a game is nothing special, but when teams add all the details together like bean counters it appears far more impressive in their reports. As my buddy Bloom says, "It's like the SAT awarding 200 points for writing your name."

Teams make the mistake of using first-round picks on quarterbacks who display a large sum of details, but lack the high concentration of nuance. It's like awarding a middle manager's salary and status to a candidate who has proven he can do the job of entry-level employee on a consistent basis.

Many will argue that's how it's supposed to be: Do a good job and get promoted. This is false.

A good decision to promote an employee is based on that candidate not only excelling in his or her current job, but also displaying the skills and nuance to perform the new job. An organization that makes a decision without seeing how these skills project to the new role are relying too much on luck.

Some believe they do this, but their track record proves otherwise. Others have done it well, but they questioned the right process yielding the wrong result and instead of refining the process, they toss it aside.

The NFL hasn't collectively learned how to identify what makes a good NFL starting quarterback. I'm not speaking from a position of authority, but I am speaking from experience -- especially as the term is defined in the quotes above.

Base on this experience, I believe that the majority of NFL teams only know how to find quarterbacks who hit the target. When it comes to finding the player who hits the bull's eye on those 3-5 snaps in every game that decide the outcome, they’re lost.

The unintended consequence is that the NFL awards bull's eye money, status, and expectations to players who they know hit the target, but don't recognize how to spot what makes a quarterback special unless he fits one highly specific prototype.

Thus far, drafting that prototype in the first round works less than 50 percent of the time.

Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the RSP now for it's publication on April 1. 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.


25 comments, Last at 08 Mar 2014, 6:58pm

#1 by RickD // Mar 05, 2014 - 1:50pm

You've taken the word "nuance" and transformed it into something unrecognizable. Surely there must be a better word that already has the meaning that you're trying to give nuance. "Savvy" perhaps?

Points: 0

#3 by The Ancient Mariner // Mar 05, 2014 - 4:03pm

I would suggest "wit." Savvy is more about knowledge developed from experience; wit is (among other things) the ability to do so.

Points: 0

#4 by Malene_copenhagen // Mar 05, 2014 - 11:19pm

In old computer games, we would simply talk about 'ability' and 'flair'. So flair for QB'ing is knowing when and how to best apply your abilities.

I too was very distracted to the point of not giving a shit about the whole article by the reappropriation of the word nuance into something completely different, even syntactically. I just think it takes too much away from the earnest intentions.

Points: 0

#2 by Led // Mar 05, 2014 - 2:11pm

I love the Billick quote, channeling William Goldman. I also appreciate that this column is based on Matt's experience as a scout. From a scouting perspective I think it is more or less true that "nobody knows anything" about identifying successful NFL QBs. I suspect, however, that player development plays a significant role in determining what QBs are successful and how successful. To take an extreme case, if Tom Brady were drafted in the 5th round by the Browns, what would've become of him? Maybe if Tim Couch were drafted by the Rams in the second round and sat behind Warner a couple years he would've had a better career than Marc Bulger? I think this tends to support your argument in favor of drafting QBs in later rounds, but I think that's because it's a mistake, in most cases, to think of QB draft pick as a finished product rather than an uncut gem -- you won't know its quality until a skilled craftsman shapes it up.

Points: 0

#6 by schultzmattd // Mar 05, 2014 - 11:38pm

I liked your analogy about getting promoted to middle management. I've always thought about that sort of concept on the coaching side of things. How people seem to automatically assume that success as an offensive or defensive coordinator means that that person will succeed as a head coach. To me, the skill sets have always seemed somewhat different. Sure, you need the skills of an offensive/defensive coordinator, but so much more on top of that. Thanks for pointing this out from the players' perspective.

Points: 0

#7 by Will Allen // Mar 06, 2014 - 8:45am

The process is random enough that it is just nuts to reach for a position, even the qb position, as opposed to taking a player, regardless of position, who you think has the best chance to have a highly productive career. Sure, if a group of players are roughly bunched in the same regard, then you may as well go with the position of need. However, when I look at where some qbs are taken, or other players are taken when a team has a glaring opening on their starting roster, I can't help but think that thee are a lot of teams that look at their positional rankings too much, and their overall rankings too little.

So says the guy who roots for the team that drafted Christian Ponder at 12, and traded up to take Tavaris Jackson at about 32.

Points: 0

#10 by MilkmanDanimal // Mar 06, 2014 - 12:51pm

This is FO, people, so it's important to use valid forms of statistical analysis: Tha rate of Super Bowl victories this year for teams not featuring Tarvaris Jackson is 0%.

Points: 0

#11 by Will Allen // Mar 06, 2014 - 1:00pm

Now that I think about it, the Vikings traded up to take Jackson at the end of the 2nd round, not the first. I tend to exaggerate hideous events in hindsight.

Points: 0

#13 by Theo // Mar 06, 2014 - 2:14pm

You miss one of the most important skills a QB should have: consistency.

A QB can throw most of his passes real hard, real tight and real smart, but if he has a brain fart on 1 pass, a bad grip on 1 pass and forgets his feet on 1 pass, you got 3 interceptions. That will kill you a game.
This is not the case with say, defensive linemen. They can have a bad hand placement or (and) a bad first step on 10 plays, and no one will notice. At least not on a "the ball goes to the other team" magnitude. So QBs should be evaluated with much more pessimism. "We'll fix that throwing motion" is the most stupid thing you can think. Because guess what he'll do when panic arrives? Or when he feels he's losing the game? He'll go back to muscle memory and the bad throws will be back too.

When drafting a QB, I would want to have a finished throwing product (a finished tool).
Then, I want to know if he's smart. Can he learn a new offense and can he understand a new defense on a weekly basis.
If he's a slow learner: forget it. He needs to be the first on the team to understand it, because he's the second one to teach it to his team mates (after the coach).

In all seriousness, you can teach him to read a defense, you can teach him the down-and-distance thing. I can teach him clock management, you can even 'teach' him leadership, you can teach him blocking schemes in front of him or you can teach him which guy on defense to read first... but in the NFL you can't teach him to throw under pressure and you can't teach him to be smart.

Points: 0

#16 by Theo // Mar 06, 2014 - 5:05pm

'new motion' or 'perfected his throwing motion'?
And yeah, if you give the guy 2 years to do it, 2 years of muscle memory is enough (apparently).

But I bet that if his motion was far off, and he was forced into the lineup in week 6, we'd see a different Aaron Rodgers.

Points: 0

#17 by Thomas_beardown // Mar 06, 2014 - 5:33pm

The comments I've read is that they started his throwing motion from scratch.

However, I take all comments that I read like this with a grain of salt. They're mostly designed leaks to make the coach look great.

Your last point should be though of in reverse though. If it is possible to rebuild a QBs throwing motion from scratch, maybe coaches should be keeping them off the field until they are ready.

Points: 0

#18 by Will Allen // Mar 06, 2014 - 6:51pm

The off-season work that Stubbleface put in with Holmgren and his staff, in his first couple years with the Packers, as the starter, is said to have been enormous, by the standards of nearly any young NFL QB. I bet a lot of young guys, with a decent amount of money guaranteed to come to them, would not buy-in to that workload. I also bet that a lot of coaching staffs would not be as productive with that time, compared to a staff with Holmgren, Gruden, Reid, and Mariucci on it.

Points: 0

#19 by JonFrum // Mar 07, 2014 - 3:28pm

"Tim Tebow is an extreme example of a player with a small toolbox of skills who possessed enough nuance to lead his team to the playoffs. "

Good Lord! Nuance?

Points: 0

#20 by Thomas_beardown // Mar 07, 2014 - 3:54pm

Rex Grossman is an extreme example of a player with a small toolbox of skills who possessed enough nuance to lead his team to the Super Bowl.

Trent Dilfer is an extreme example of a player with a small toolbox of skills who possessed enough nuance to lead his team to a Super Bowl win.

Points: 0

#21 by Will Allen // Mar 07, 2014 - 4:04pm

It's a good thing Elway received a nuance transplant prior to the 1997 season, otherwise people would say he wasn't clutch, and didn't have swagger, in The Big One. .

Points: 0

#24 by mehllageman56 // Mar 08, 2014 - 1:03pm

Trent Dilfer actually had a large toolbox of skills, enough to get drafted early in the first round and have Mel Kiper insult the Colts for not drafting him. He didn't have a great pro career, but he lasted longer as a starter than either Grossman or Tebow.

Points: 0

#25 by Theo // Mar 08, 2014 - 6:58pm

I cringed, shook my head, sighted, set it aside as it being a name drop for the sake page views- click- and comment-whoring and read on.

Points: 0

#23 by Dan_L // Mar 08, 2014 - 11:16am

Honestly I don't see evidence that the nuance you've described is what makes a physical tool rich Quarterback fail. You offer Blaine Gabbert, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russel, Kyle Boller and JP Losman. We know that not practicing hard is a knock on at least two of these guys, couldn't that be the root cause of their problem?

Also, you treat nuance as if it is a constant, but I'm not sure it is. I've watched alot of Big Ten football in the past, and I was never under the impression that Tom Brady had a great command of nuance in college. Yet I would say he clearly does today. So how much value does the nuance you haven't seen in Garappolo and Carr translate to the pros?

Points: 0

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