Monday, October 6, 2014

Big college numbers don't always "add-up" when evaluating quarterbacks

Coming out of high school, Jake Locker was one of the top quarterback prospects in the country. He surprised some observers and delighted the locals when he chose to play for the University of Washington. Yet he never played to expectation. Playing a “pro-style” offense under center, he never looked comfortable, and his numbers were clearly substandard. The fact was that in high school he ran with the ball far more often than he passed it. He was a virtual one-man show; if he had played for another college team with a more “wide-open” style of offense, he might actually have been more obviously the talent that led the Tennessee Titans to inexplicably make him a top-ten draft pick. Perhaps it was believed that since he played one full season under former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s “pro-style” offensive, he had a leg up on his competition. 

But while Locker is still in the NFL and has displayed some occasional patches of competency, his injury-proneness seems to mitigate against a long-term career. Additionally,  his career to date does seem to show that quarterbacks who are naturally of the “run-first” mentality rarely make great NFL quarterbacks unless they have the capacity and will to change how they play. Only a few quarterbacks have successfully made the transition, such as John Elway and Steve Young; most do not.

On the other hand, college football is littered with quarterbacks who have put up huge passing numbers but flamed out miserably in the NFL. Case Keenum  threw for a career record 19,217 yards Houston’s spread offense, but after being drafted by the Houston Texans, he didn’t play a snap in his rookie season, was 0-8 in relief of Matt Schaub last season, and is currently doing nothing on the St. Louis Rams roster. Going down the list from there, we encounter names like Timmy Chang, Landry Jones, Graham Harrell, Ty Detmer, Kellen Moore and Colt Brennan. It isn’t until we reach number 8 that we encounter a quarterback who has actually had success in the NFL—Philip Rivers. He is followed by Corey Robinson, Colt McCoy, Aaron Murray, Kevin Kolb, Dan Lefevour, Derek Carr and Tim Rattay.

The list goes on and on; it isn’t until we reach Carson Palmer at 27 where we see a name of someone else who at least had a modest career in the NFL and Drew Brees at 28 who is having a Hall of Fame career. Russell Wilson is 30th (mostly from his pass-happy stint with NC State) and Geno Smith comes in at 31. Peyton Manning is 42nd, Ben Roethlisberger is 57th, Robert Griffin III is 70th, Andy Dalton is 72nd, Eli Manning is 80th, Colin Kaepernick is 83rd, Nick Foles is 85th, Andrew Luck is 112th, Dan Marino is 170th. Brett Favre is only 235th on the list, and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are not among the top 250. 

We also have to go far down the list find Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks on the single season passing yards list. Matt Ryan had the 27th best season, Rivers 28th, Drew Brees 81st and 91s and, Steve Young at 92. 

Many, if not most, of these quarterbacks (and that includes Geno Smith) played the “wide-open” offensive formations such as the “spread” and “read-option” that are run mostly from shotgun, and it is clear that it makes for poor NFL quality quarterbacking, unless a quarterback already has the necessary “intangibles.” Denver Broncos coach John Fox, who was forced to make due with Tim Tebow before acquiring a “real” quarterback, has said of such quarterbacks "They have to learn how to play from under center. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's a big deal…It affects all the mechanics. There's mechanics in getting away from under center, the footwork, the timing, the depth. In the shotgun, all that stuff is done.”

One may ask why the NFL simply has not changed to a “shotgun” league if mechanics and footwork are so much more “complicated” when playing under center. The problem is that the shotgun formation reduces the number of play options an offense can run. A quarterback needs time to concentrate on the catching the ball from center first, thus has to make that “split second” decision afterwards on what to do with the ball once he gets it, and this requires “guessing” where a receiver will be at a given moment. This is why passes out of the shotgun tend to be short passes to the “easiest” target. The shotgun also mitigates the running game; from under center, a running back is moving forward to take a handoff; from the shotgun, he is standing still, without any forward momentum. Another minus of always running from the shotgun is that a quarterback without natural footwork ability never learns it. And of course the NFL defensive game is much faster than the college game.

That brings me to the increasingly tiresome discussion of Geno, whose apologists in the media are far more plentiful than his critics. No wonder fans who make their judgments with the “eye” test are so frustrated with them; don’t the “experts” see what they are seeing? That depends, of course, on what kind of “experts” are being questioned. They certainly don’t include Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, who made the following observations concerning Smith’s attributes while he was still playing in West Virginia’s spread offense: 

There were several plays where it appeared he tried to use just his arm, rather than stepping into throws. That's when the ball fell short or skipped to a receiver. I saw him do that on several deep outs…

He also seemed to try and finesse the deep balls, rather than sticking them with a nice throw. Sometimes, he got away with it because of the speed of the college defensive backs. But that won't work in the NFL. He has to be stronger with those throws and drive the football…

There seemed to be times where he just wouldn't pull the trigger on an open receiver, and came off to a safer throw. That would scare me moving forward. You have to take the chances when they are there…

One such play came against Oklahoma State. On that play, he play-faked to a back out of the shotgun, then faked a reverse to Austin from left to right and set up to throw. He had Bailey wide open in the middle in front of the safeties and behind the linebacker who took a false step on the reverse fake. But he didn't throw it (Former quarterback and now NFL analyst Ron Jaworski has also noted this tendency with the Jets, so this problem has clearly not been “solved”).

He also had J.D. Woods deep on the right sideline wide open, but never threw it. He instead waited for Austin to get into the right flat and he threw it to him for a short gain. That was a safe decision. That isn't what top-level quarterbacks do.

Another time against Iowa State, he had Austin wide open on a cross and held it too long. Eventually, Austin crossed the field and Smith tried to hit him with a soft throw that was easily batted away.

This was a trouble spot for me. His footwork needs a lot of work. He just seemed to use his arm for too many throws. That's a problem. A good quarterback has to step into his throws. That's where the velocity comes from most of the time. Too many times Smith didn't use his legs the right way. And his passes floated.

Former quarterback Scott Brunner praised Smith’s “skill set,” but went on to say that “his physical skill set and his mental skill set are not in sync. As a result his fundamentals regarding his footwork and decision making break down. When that happens, usually in critical situations, he has little chance of success.” 

Nolan Nawrocki  may or may not have much credibility as a draft “expert” to some people, but he turned out to be dead-on in regard to Smith: “Not a student of the game.  Nonchalant field presence — does not command respect from teammates and cannot inspire.  Mild practice demeanor — no urgency.  Not committed or focused — marginal work ethic.  Interviewed poorly at the Combine and did not show an understanding of concepts on the white board.  Opted not to compete at the Senior Bowl and has approached offseason training as if he has already arrived and it shows in his body with minimal muscle definition or strength.  Has small hands and glaring ball security issues (32 career fumbles).  Really struggled handling the snow in Pinstripe Bowl (took two safeties) and will be troubled by the elements.  Needed to be coddled in college — cannot handle hard coaching.”

Nawrocki went on to say that “Smith is a gimmick, overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room. Will be overdrafted and struggle to produce against NFL defensive complexities.” So far, Smith has done nothing to disprove that assessment. Smith is a quarterback who instead of learning proven techniques of successful quarterbacking, simply “reacts” ineffectively once he is forced out of his “comfort zone.”

It has been said that 75 percent of being a successful NFL quarterback is leadership, personality, coolness, intelligence and hard work. Only 25 percent is talent. Too many quarterbacks coming out of college (and Smith is definitely not alone among them) are assumed by teams that draft them that “talent”—which usually implies physical attributes rather than “intangibles”—is all that is required for a starting gig right from the jump. There is no “learning” process necessary, even coming from a non-pro-style system and its inflated numbers fooling many observers. The New York Jets (and their ailing fans) are just one of many teams to learn the hard way that this is more the exception, and not the rule.

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