Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The new politics of NFL quarterbacking

This morning I heard someone on a national sports radio program say that he couldn’t believe that Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins was “that bad,” while another said that Robert Griffin III should be given every opportunity to “prove” that he is a “franchise” quarterback, right down to the bitter end. Colt McCoy will now start until RGIII is “healthy,” although it should be noted that after that 70-yard touchdown against Tennessee with his first pass, McCoy’s next 10 completions covered only 58 yards—while Cousins had been averaging more than 300 yards passing per game. 

It is worth noting that both Cousins’ career passer rating and QBR are essentially equal to that of RGIII’s, even though they are two entirely different styles of quarterback—not to mention both having “equal” success with winning in Washington. This brings up the essential question: Why is RGIII the darling of the media? Why is he being given so much rope to disprove what so many of us suspected from the beginning—that he overexcited a great many people over the first half of his senior year at Baylor, the same people who neglected to take into account his prior knee injury and how that effected his play. He wasn’t that good—after all, he played in an offensive system that maximized quantity over quality—as he is unlikely to be in the future, unless he can somehow develop into an efficient pocket passer with all that requires.

The answer, of course, is politics. Some people are desperate to see quarterbacks like RGIII, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and (ugh) Geno Smith succeed in the NFL, apparently for social equality reasons; it makes them “feel good” about themselves. High schools are relying on such “athletic” quarterbacks who are more about run than passing threats because it takes “time” to develop pocket passing skills, and many college coaches don’t have the time or inclination to do it, so they either utilize “read-option” or spread offenses that rely on speed and running rather than standing back in the pocket, reading defenses, and dissecting secondaries. Andrew Luck is probably the only quarterback to come out of college in the past four years who is of that caliber. 

Somehow, quarterbacks in those offensive systems that rely more on athletic ability than football savvy have to be shoe-horned into the NFL and somehow made to “work.” Seattle did demonstrate that it is possible to make it “work” so long as the offense isn’t based on the passing game and doesn’t turn the ball over, and the defense is one of the best the NFL has seen (for at least one season anyways). But it is a fair question to ask if this is just a “gimmick” to draw fans and provide them a new “reality” with different possibilities—such as making at least losing “exciting.” 

Two weeks ago, Russell Wilson looked awful at home against a Dallas defense that was still giving up over six yards per play (Seattle averaged only 4.3 against it), and then became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 against a mediocre St. Louis team this past week. But both games had the same result: Defeat. With the 49ers suffering a bad loss to Denver, if Arizona can win at least one game against Seattle (having already beaten the 49ers), it is certainly a possibility that the Cardinals can win the NFC West, and the Seahawks and 49ers sitting at home watching teams from the NFC North and East playing in the post season—perhaps the first sign of the end of the “new era” of quarterbacks.

I remember how politics entered into the Seahawks’ decision to pick Wilson over Matt Flynn in 2012. Flynn was signed by Seattle as the “presumed” starter, but it was easy to tell early on that the local sports media was enamored with Wilson, and were not particularly eager about the prospect of Flynn starting. When Flynn’s arm went south (supposedly) in the preseason, it was all over for him. Even early in the season when Wilson was not playing particularly well, only passing for 594 yards in his four games, Pete Carroll refused to consider benching him. Even though in “hindsight” it was probably the right call for Seattle, I always felt that politics played an important role in how things transpired there. 

Ditto for Flynn in Oakland; people became “enamored” with Terrelle Pryor over Flynn. Flynn started one game, and when he didn’t win, he was suddenly “awful,” and then cut. Anyone in Green Bay knows that Flynn is the kind of quarterback who needs to “warm up” before he gets going, and he was never given that chance in either Seattle or Oakland (or Buffalo, for that matter). Instead, the Raiders stuck with Pryor, who didn’t even last the rest of the season before being benched. Last I heard, he is still an unsigned free agent who might be given a tryout by the Giants in their by-week. Flynn is back in Green Bay, having proved last season that he is still the team’s reliable “fireman” if Aaron Rodgers goes down.

Because the Seahawks won the Super Bowl with Wilson, it is easy to assume that the “right” choice was made, and perhaps for a team with its kind of demographic make-up it was. Just look at the comments of two players after the Percy Harvin trade:

Marshawn Lynch: “damn, they got my nigga…”

Bruce Irvin: “Shit crazy”

Harvin was apparently “very welled liked” by some of the Seahawks; even Doug Baldwin, who received a cut lip after an altercation with Harvin in the preseason, defended him (maybe because he didn't want to be on Lynch's bad side). It is safe to say that if they found his thuggish behavior “acceptable,” than what would they say if some white guy from Green Bay was picked over their “boy”? 

It is perhaps also safe to say that coaches around the league are trying to catch “lightening in a bottle,” and failing miserably. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said that he told NFL teams that E.J. Manuel didn’t have the “skills” to be a successful NFL quarterback—yet the Bills picked him in the first round.  One NFL analyst, Gary Davenport,  admitted that on almost every quarterback measuring barometer, Manuel was one the lowest rated quarterbacks in the league, but pulling him in favor of Kyle Orton was an act of “desperation.”  If anything, it was the coaches’ “fault” for “forcing” Manuel to do things he couldn’t do, like being relied on to move the team through the air. Isn’t the ability to pass where and when needed the principle “benefit” of having a quarterback?

And don’t get me started on Smith. He’s better than Cousins—or Mike Glennon, Derek Carr or Blake Bortles?  The only way that the new “version” of quarterback is going to succeed long-term in the NFL is if college coaches completely abandon “traditional” quarterback play and NFL coaches are left with few options; it will then be the “best” of a bad lot that wins. I suspect that if it ever comes to that, those now rare “traditional” pocket passers will become the “new” breed of quarterback much sought after—politics or not.

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