Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

15 Feb 2013

"If You're Looking For The Next Russell Wilson . . . "

If you’re an NFL team or analyst and you’re not looking for the next unsung quarterback with potential to develop into a winning starter then you’re not doing your job.

Posted by: Matt Waldman on 15 Feb 2013

29 comments, Last at 24 Feb 2013, 9:04pm by Noah Arkadia


by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 11:30am

Reminds me of the discussions that they used to have about black QBs ... essentially the only way a black QB could make it in the league was if he was outstanding, it wasn't ok to be an average black QB even though equally average white QBs were starters.

by Illuminatus! (not verified) :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 1:07pm

Of course teams should try to look for the next Russell Wilson, but they shouldn't be investing a ton of resources on short QBs in the search. Wilson truly is a physical anomaly, a sub 6" player with a 75"+ wingspan?

by Noah Arkadia :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 2:47pm

What makes this more interesting is that Waldman was truly high on Wilson before the draft. You could say he found the next Russell Wilson before that was even a thing.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by JonFrum :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 5:12pm

I remember a Flutie game in which he had a pass blocked at the line. Paul Maguire - former punter(!) let out this dismissive, ridiculing laugh at it, and followed that with some snarky comments about Flutie's height. Then, a week or two later, Maguire did another game, and I think it was Elway who had two passes blocked during one drive. Not one freakin' word.

The NFL was, and still is, I'm sure, filled with Maguires. Let's face it - the best and brightest minds do not go into football, on any level. No one leaves a Princeton Ph.D program to be an NFL personnel man. These guys are mostly sheep, who follow convention until someone else creates a new convention - mostly by accident. Doug Flutie was never going to be an All-Pro, but he could have become a reliable NFL starter with the typical up and down career out of college. But no one wanted to stick his neck out. Better to lose the way everyone else loses, than to lose on your own devices.

by RickD :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 1:00am

Before Flutie went to Canada, both the Bears and the Pats gave him shots. He started for the Pats during the strike and this did not endear him to union players. He stayed with the Pats for two more seasons but couldn't stay above the elderly Steve Grogan on the depth chart. He just wasn't particularly good.

He was better when he came back from Canada.

by Topas :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 6:21pm

Excellent post, JonFrum!!!

by Mikey Benny :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 7:13pm

Charlie Ward was too short to play NFL QB, but was tall enough for a solid 12-15 year NBA career.

by Cro-Mags :: Sat, 02/16/2013 - 10:12pm

Can't blame him for passing on the NFL, when he made more money and avoided the risk of a pro football career. If only Tebow had a backup sport...

by db :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 12:56am

Curling? It really fits the whole kneel down thing. "hurry Jesus, hurry hard!"

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 6:53am

Does he need a backup sport? Couldn't he just be a RB or is conversion against his religion ...

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 2:47pm

1. NFL QBs are actually taller than many NBA guards.
2. If you can viably make it in both the NBA and the NFL, there's a real economic argument in favor of the NBA -- guaranteed contracts, longer average careers for the rank-and-file, lower injury risk.

There's a reason NFL TEs are often failed power forwards, and not vice-versa.

by Dean :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 1:24pm

It wasn't that the NFL rejected Ward, it's that Ward rejected the NFL. He chose the NBA as his first choice, not his second.

by Dean :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 1:35pm

Dupelicate post deleted.

by Dean :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 1:35pm

Dupelicate post deleted.

by Dean :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 1:34pm

Here's my concern with Matt's article. He's ignoring the trend to observe the exceptions.

Even if we raise the bar all the way to 6'2", we still have a grand total of 3 QBs who were shorter than that and started last year vs 29 who are over 6'2". And all of those 3 had to play nontraditional roles. Even then, one - vick - proved he had no business being a starter anymore. The other two - Wilson and Brees - would not have been successful if you placed them in either of the two widely used offensive systems without major modifications.

We discussed this last offseason in depth right here on this site. Brees is so successful partly because he is given half rolls so that he doesn't have to look over his linemen. It's not discimination to say that short QBs are less likely to succeed. It's simple truth.

Even if a QB has all the other skills - like Wilson - if I'm an NFL GM, I'm still not taking him in the first round for the simple fact that I'm MUCH more likley to be getting Rex Grossman than Russell Wilson.

That doesn't mean you ignore him entirely. Oh wait, he WASN'T ignored entirely.

by Matt Waldman :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 3:00pm

Good points, but I'd counter that you're looking at it without enough dimensions in your own way.

The NFL is so conservative with not matching scheme to player rather than player to scheme that this is another reason why teams often miss the boat on quality players. The Patriots match scheme around player. So did the Seahawks and 49ers this year.

I'm also the guy who discussed in depth right here about Brees being success partly due to half rolls to find passing lanes. However, I can show you tape of players 6'3-6'7" who have passes batted down and altered because they are not trying to throw between passing lanes as much as throw over them. Successful quarterbacking isn't about height as much as finding passing lanes in a similar way a running back manipulates running lanes.

Fun debate. Thanks for engaging.

by Dean :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 5:50pm

I look at it like this - some numbers are more important than others. Everybody knows that the 40 time is borderline useless. On the other hand, if you don't have an 80" wingspan, you're probably not playing Left Tackle. Sure, there are exceptions, but if you're not a terydactyl, you're a project who might prove to be an exception with plenty of hard work. Height is equally important with QBs.

The difference between the two positions is that an OL with everything else going for him except the wingspan can still turn into a really good Guard, but a QB without the height is either an exception or a washout and most likely the latter.

If I'm investing a first round draft pick AND a first round-quarterback contract, you'd better believe I'm going to be conservative. At best, the odds are 50/50 that I screw up the pick, and going against the trend without a pretty darn good reason is only going to tilt the odds against me even more. There will be plenty of time to take guys with known defects later.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2013 - 3:48pm

There's truth to what you're saying, but you've also just explained how a Blaine Gabbert gets drafted so high. He had the body and that was about it.

by Dean :: Tue, 02/19/2013 - 4:31pm

No. Now you're extrapolating things that just aren't there, that I neither said nor implied.

You still have to be able to play.

Gabbert got drafted because the people in Jacksonville making those decisions are morons.

If you can't play, you get downgraded. If you can play but have some other defect (physical, emotional, whatever), you get downgraded.

Cherry picking an isolated exception is proof of one teams idiocy, but it does not in any way, shape, or form invalidate my point.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2013 - 5:40pm

Not trying to invalidate your point, just showing how taking that point to extremes can be just as bad as deciding a guy is a "winner" and that attribute will automatically transfer to any level of play.

And while the Jags clearly reached, somebody was going to take Gabbert fairly high. His selection at #10 raised some eyebrows but it wasn't met with "The Jags are insane" kinds of reactions.

by Dean :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 2:14pm

If you'd said "that's how Tim Couch goes #1" you'd have had a fair, valid point. He had all the physical tools, he had great production on tape. There was no reason anyone would think he would fail. But sometimes guys just fail. Your odds of success are going to be better when you know at least the guy has the measurables, rather than hoping that he has some miracle immeasurable to make up for a known defect.

Meanwhile if you back, even here at FO, in the weeks leading up to the draft, many people here - myself included although I was far from the only one - figured Gabbert would get taken high but that it would be a mistake. The flaws in his game were obvious and yes, did warrant a "the Jags are insane" reaction. The reason the reaction was muted was because it wasn't necessarily a surprise. We knew in advance he'd go high, but we still knew it was a bad idea.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 3:21pm

That opening sounds strangely like the opening of Moneyball ...

by Kevin from Philly :: Tue, 02/19/2013 - 5:50pm

Don't know if it's so much that Vick proved he doesn't have any business being a starter anymore, so much as it was that the fill-in linemen the Eagles trotted out there proved they had no business protecting a QB in the NFL.

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 5:50pm

I think you hit on the real problem without realizing it. I would argue that the preponderance of tall QBs is largely a product of rigid groupthink by offense coaches, who as you say run minor variations of the same two schemes. So they all go looking for a Brady or Peyton, and if that isn't available they settle for some 2nd-rate QB who fits the physical mold but lacks accuracy or good thought processes, bypassing better talent that doesn't fit their vision. That's how you get a Gabbert or Sanchez going in the top 10.

Vick's problems have little to do with his height and a lot to do with his lack of accuracy, poor decision-making, and impatience in the pocket. Brees and Wilson succeeded precisely because they had coaches who designed to minimize their weaknesses. Harbaugh did much the same with Alex Smith and Kaepernick. Belichick and Brady have managed to stay successful with three different kinds of offense.
What's wrong with the rest of the NFL?

by Jerry :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 7:54pm

All other things being equal, isn't having less of his view of downfield blocked by linemen an advantage for the taller QB?

Much of what becomes conventional wisdom is rooted in reality. Receivers should be fast, linemen should be strong, etc. The basic schemes that we see now have evolved throughout the history of the game. Coaches want to construct schemes that accentuate players' strengths and minimize their weaknesses, but there are smart guys working for other teams who may well be able to counter those schemes. In the end, it's about having talented players, and so much the better if they don't require a special system.

by dbostedo :: Wed, 02/20/2013 - 10:17pm

"All other things being equal, isn't having less of his view of downfield blocked by linemen an advantage for the taller QB?"

Yes, all else equal - no ones arguing that. But even when all else isn't equal, and the short QB has better accuracy, or better at the line reads, etc. often it seems that height is more heavily considered.

"Coaches want to construct schemes that accentuate players' strengths and minimize their weaknesses..."

I think that's not true very often. Coaches want to come up with a scheme that works if they can insert their ideal players into it. The point being made here is that there aren't a lot of cases where a coach recognizes his players strengths/weaknesses and crafts the system to it.

"In the end, it's about having talented players, and so much the better if they don't require a special system."

You're starting to sound like a coach who is a slave to his system. There's nothing wrong with a special system, other than it isn't yours. Take a team like Seattle last year. They could have stuck with Matt Flynn, and said that Wilson was too short to run their passing offense. OR they could adjust and use a scheme that involves more rolls and scrambles and mis-direction to make better use of Wilson's unique skills.

Obviously they went the second route, and that was most likely the better choice. Many teams would never bring themselves to do that.

So the point being made is that if you have the choice between

A) a player you have who could be great with some changes to the system, or
B) running a system with players ill-suited to it

coaches too often make choice "B", when "A" would yield more wins (or cheaper talent, or better depth, or better drafting, etc.).

by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Sun, 02/17/2013 - 8:19pm

Look for a college coach with experience with the spread type offenses, not to the NFL, for how to use such a player. Seems to be the direction the league is headed for now.

by RickG (not verified) :: Fri, 02/22/2013 - 4:41am

First of all, I'd cut Doug Farrar a break on his comment because it came from Twitter. 140 characters won't carry much for explanation. Mel Kiper on the other hand...

Second, short spry quarterbacks have been around for ages. Russell Wilson had the opportunity to meet with Fran Tarkington, the early 70's scrambler whose style has been pointed to when comparing RW. Sure it was a different NFL at the time, but the front lines were still a lot bigger than Fran was and he has a HOF career to show for it. Standing side by side, you couldn't see that much build difference. And, honestly, I think Wilson has a better arm and more accurate placement than Fran did.

Lastly, even the best analysts miss a Russell Wilson call. FO's own Aaron Schatz posted an article in these pages (March 12, 2012) on his Lewin Career model that points to the success of college football quarterbacks in the NFL. This pre-draft model did indeed show that RGIII and Luck had outstanding numbers in his model and would succeed. However, Aaron had to declare that he had one significant outlier - Russell Wilson. His Lewin factor was higher than RGIII's, something he knew was a mistake. Aaron came within a pencil width of making a great call if he stuck by his model with Wilson's number. But, Wilson's height overrode his faith in the model and declared that it was a mistake.

by Noah Arkadia :: Sun, 02/24/2013 - 9:04pm

IIRC, it wasn't Wilson's height that drove Schatz (if it was indeed him that wrote the column) to set Wilson aside, but the fact that he wouldn't be drafted in the first two (three?) rounds. The model is designed only for QBs drafted in the first two (three?) rounds.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!