Understanding drafting at the quarterback position

One of the most important abilities as a general manager, a coach or a scout is the ability to analyze talent. Each of these professions needs to understand what a players strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and what they will and won't be expected to be able to do. It's particularly important - and difficult - when it comes to talking about quarterbacks. What is it that makes a quarterback successful? How can you structure an understanding of how effective a player will be in 1, 2, 3 and 5 or more years from when they will be drafted? Why is it, historically, that so many quarterbacks have failed to make the leap from college to the NFL? There have been many quarterbacks who we can look at, to try to discover why it's such a difficult decision.

The first thing that every quarterback's coach knows is that most players at the college level are not really trained in a pro style of offense. The game is very different at the NFL professional level - faster, more complex, more difficult and far more stressful. Years of practice at reading defenses from under center, practicing footwork until it is second nature, working on the mechanics of throwing, developing a feel for the pocket, an understanding of the tendencies of 32 teams (many with playbooks the size of bookcases) is a massive and difficult undertaking. Having four or more additional years of practice at playing a game that mirrors the skills and abilities of the game at the NFL level is a huge advantage when a player reaches the NFL level. The NFL players are bigger, stronger, and much, much faster. Even for the most prepared QBs, the jump to the pros can be overwhelming. IPS, or information processing speed, is not always linked to raw intelligence, although intelligence is obviously a requirement as well to succeed at the position.

Developing a unified and effective footwork and mechanics combination is essentially the Holy Grail of the physical game of football, but they pale in comparison to the amount of information that a quarterback in the NFL has to process. Just the ability to run a huddle, function accurately and instinctively at the line under center, call the adjustments and prepare the team pre-snap is far more complex than most fans are aware. That's what makes players like Peyton Manning as incredibly good as they are. But Manning also had certain advantages, genetic and in the way he was trained, that few QB will be able to boast. He is also as hardworking as any player in the game, studying every nuance of his position and how it relates to every other player on the field. His practice habits are nearly perfect. It shows when he steps onto the field on game day.

Manning grew up learning perfect mechanics from his NFL pro father and from all of the coaches that Archie Manning would bring in. He learned from the best over the years, and has always had marvelous mechanics and remarkable footwork. They are also the product of intense training over a large number of years. If a player comes from a high school and/or college system where they rarely, if ever, play under center, that means that those 8 years of training in proper footwork, proper mechanics and the skills that an NFL QB requires under center - each of which is a major undertaking, it places the quarterback coming into the pros in a difficult position. Sometimes, the QB can overcome that kind of restriction. Other times, he cannot. Despite constant attempts at developing systems for judging QBs who are draft prospects, the approaches still can fail.

Looking through the history of the draft as I have, breaking it down by decades from the fateful meeting of 16 owners and management at an Ohio Hupmobile dealership, a meeting that created the name change to the National Football League in 1922 to the creation of the 1st draft by then Philadelphia owner Bert Bell from the 1930's, the draft has been an exercise in evolution, the lifeblood of the league. I've greatly enjoyed the process of learning the names of the principles, the stories of many of the players. The 30's and 40's saw many changes in the draft - how many rounds? How many players? What special circumstances do you create for expansion teams, losing teams, failing teams? How do you draft players, anyway?What will make one player successful while another with better metrics and physical skill  fails?

The experiences of World War II and the return of the vets in 1945, many of whom were willing to pick up a (small) paycheck for playing pro football saw the creation of a rival league, the All-American Football Conference one that was well funded and dangerous. At the end of the 1940's, the leagues merged for financial stability - they could not afford to bid against each other. Even in the 1950's, most franchises were still just reading magazines like Street and Smith's to choose their players.

1960 saw the first use of a computer to compile and organize draft information - three teams went in on a single computer, because they were expensive and after all, who would ever need one of their own? It took 4 years to develop a program, but it was used in the 1964 draft. And still players came in, covered with accolades. Some rose and some fell. No one ever became prescient, and mistakes were still made.

Also n the 1960's, the rival league called the American Football League began to create many of the same problems as the AAFC had done. The NFL first hired people to stay with their potential draft picks during the last two weeks before the draft until the choices were made - babysitters, in essence, called 'representatives. They included, due to the numbers needed, front office reps from the teams, former players and even local salesmen. Eventually, the leagues could not afford to bid against each other, and once more they merged. This led to the most televised games in history - the Super Bowls. The first player to ever be chosen by computer would play a role there, too, as we'll talk about below.

In 1971 the first combine was held, but by only three teams. Other teams soon tried to create their own. The league Combine experience, much as we know it now, was started in 1979. Over the past thirty years, players without number amazed at Combine and failed on the field, and others tested poorly and later stood at the podium in the Hall of Fame. Still others were hailed and succeeded. No magic wand for predicting the future was discovered.

To this day, many players who seem to have few flaws just cannot make the jump to pro football. Others have those flaws and for some reason, not always understood, revert to them under the stresses of the game - despite intensive training, muscle memory can be hard to overcome. Some succeed. Some fail. And no one has ever gotten all of them right. Even the great Bill Walsh, one of the best quarterbacks coaches in a very different era, had players who just didn't make it. And therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare said. Hundreds of years later, it's as true as it was then.

There are some things that we do know. For one thing, many coaches have shared their wisdom on what makes a quarterback more likely to succeed. Certain teams have written manuals for each position, covering the physical body type that will fit best into their specific scheme, and they use these to reduce the chances of failure. Knowing exactly what you want from your quarterback is essential. If a quarterback fails, he might have been very successful in a different system. Conversely, some quarterbacks who don't seem to be the 'type' for one team fit perfectly into other systems. The game is increasingly complex with each passing year. Few, if any, fans really know the extent of how specific the needs of these systems are. computerized systems now are used by many teams that can fit the exact proper motion onto the video screen and layer images of the actual throws, one on top of the other, to train the quarterbacks. Technology is beginning to truly be embraced that offer the opportunity to improve in new and more effective ways.

And we still get it wrong at times. What has also changed is that we now have an understanding of some of the factors that go into success and failure. Here are some:

1. Coming from a 'gadget' style of offense. As mentioned, a quarterback can lose as much as 8 years off of his development in terms of three of the most important areas of the job description. No matter how good the QB is as a raw prospect, this has to be taken into account when considering a candidate in the draft. At the least, developing such a player is a longer process and regardless of personal feelings about this candidate or that, there is always the chance of failure. The team has to have a detailed plan in place before taking such a project and recognizing and balancing the importance of that extra roster spot has to come into it. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes it doesn't. Every team is different.

2. Team structure. The first aspect of that structure is whether these is a specific description of the optimum player and a recognition of the faults as well as the strengths of the candidate and an understanding of exactly how to get them ready to play in the NFL. I understand that the fanbase can minimize this at times, but it's more than important - it's essential. Teams such as New England, who have a well-earned reputation for drafting well let their scouts understand that if they put a 1st round rating on a QB who is drafted by another team and that QB doesn't work out, it doesn't reflect badly on the scout or his rating. He's only scouting for NE, and the same QB might have been successful in that system, whereas going to another system might have been inappropriate. Contrary to common knowledge, the system is just as important as the player who goes into it. Drafting a different 'type' in some area or at some position will tend to spell disaster.

3. Having an effective offensive line, and specifically, a left tackle. I cringe when I see a team with no Oline taking a young QB who they expect to start without reasonable protection, the same is true with a shaky running game, or with no quality receivers. Particularly with the line, you're essentially placing a young duck in a shooting gallery, and the shots are taken by 250 to 340 lb men. You're greatly increasing the chances of failure when this happens. It's not that a college QB, coming from a pro-style offense cannot come in and start during his first season. Players like Matt Ryan from Atlanta and Joe Flacco from Baltimore have made that clear. But it's also fair to say that these have been the exception, more than the rule.

4. The quality of the coaching. Players like Kyle Orton and Chris Simms came from environments where they were drafted with clear scouting reports noting that they shouldn't start for a considerable time and they needed proper coaching to become solid backups or starting quarterbacks. In both cases, that information was ignored. In Orton's case, some of it was necessity - Chicago lost one QB and had to bench another. The option of bringing in a veteran to fill in while each of these two developed wasn't chosen. Both lost ground and valuable development time by being put in a situation where they were far more likely to fail than to succeed. In Orton's case, he's now making major strides, but his ceiling is still unclear. In Simms case, he seems incapable of starting, and his injury may or may not come into that. Either way, he has not showed the ability to perform, and that is why he should be released at the appropriate time. Sometimes quality coaching isn't enough, but it always has to be central to the situation.

5. Every candidate for a position as an NFL QB has to have a lot of characteristics in common. All have to be self starters, the first on in and the last one out of the facility each day. They have to be able to tolerate being hit, and hit hard, without losing focus. Drew Brees showed that you don't need a huge body or great height. He's an anomaly, but he and his team won the Super Bowl against team one of the best QBs to ever play the game. By the way, as a student of history, I don't use that term lightly. The more history you study, the more that you realize that there have been heroic and remarkable quarterbacks in every decade. Choosing one as 'the best' is relative at best - the game has changed tremendously. Many modern QBs would not have long survived the forms of the game that have come before. Many from the past would be lost in the modern game. It's apples and oranges, in a minimal sense. Everyone is obviously entitled to an opinion, of course. My experience has been that the more you know from the history of the game, the less certain one often becomes when using such statements. But there is one thing that has been consistent since before they wore helmets: The quarterback, once there was one, has always had to have an extremely strong ego.

Every QB will be yelled at, corrected, put in his place and cajoled. He'll be vilified by fans and praised beyond belief or reason. Sports heroes provide an opportunity to take out the fans frustrations and to be the object of their adoration. There are often only moments between the two. A strong ego is essential.

I recently made a similar comment and was immediately called a racist with a 'liberal dime store philosophy'. Since both religion and politics are now being brought onto the site, I think that it's time that I make something clear - MHR has always held to a tradition of keeping religion and politics apart from this site and from football, and for good reason. My concern with any player who is a candidate for a position on the Denver Broncos is going to be judged by how well he's prepared for the NFL. There is no philosophy involved in my statements other than basic sports psychology. My source for this comment were the words of several NFL coaches, past and present, whose opinions I respect on the subject of quarterbacks and textbooks on psychology, which was part of my professional training. If someone wants to consider science a 'liberal dime store philosophy' and ignores the statements of those managers and coaches who have the highest credentials in the game, well, it's up to them. I analyze QB the same way that I do every other QB in the draft. Every one has strengths. Every one has weaknesses. Not talking about both is a great way to lead to misusing a pick. It's also intellectually dishonest.

I think that some people may have gotten the wrong idea, and I want to clarify something: For me, there isn't anything important about what a player's particular religion is, and I feel no different if they are Muslim, Hindu, Shinto or Christian, agnostic or any other path, nor do I personally feel that one is more valuable than the other. Being of a certain faith doesn't change the trajectory of the football. Character does matter greatly, yet it's only one of a long series of important aspects and attributes that need to be taken into account. I'd suggest that we all stop, take a breath, and go back to football with a renewed sense of community and a willingness to accept different faiths and customs without further comment. Perhaps we are seeing how easy it is for a discussion of a football player to become sidetracked and turn into accusations around religion and politics. That could turn out to be a good thing. It's a very slippery slope and it's worth remembering that. My hope is that all of us can agree that this kind of name calling and accusation is not what we, as a site, have ever accepted or required. Thanks for considering this. Enough on that.

Josh McDaniels comes from the New England approach to the NFL. While most of us appreciate how well NE has drafted, it's worth taking a moment to look at how they did that. Over the decades, no one has been able to determine how successful a certain player will be. Injuries cut careers short, players who look like slam-dunk picks, to mix my sport metaphors, still manage to fail for reasons that are often only clear in retrospect. How do you overcome this consistently? New England, as I've mentioned before, developed an incredibly precise and thorough system of analyzing players, draft and free agent. They wrote detailed manuals for each position, clarifying the system they would put into place, the role of each player, the body type, including height and weight, arm length, foot speed, levels of agility required, etc, etc. The candidates in the draft are then compared to the ideal and measured against the needs of the team.

Vortex 7 managed to beat me to the next section, so I'm going to thank him, compliment his precision and accuracy and quote the man. He said this better than I could have anyway:

What do we know about McDaniels' QB mold? 6'4+, must show the ability to read coverages and blitzes pre-snap, must show the ability to routinely check down through his receiving progressions post snap, must show above-average accuracy and, more importantly, timing on short and intermediate routes - the routes his offense is based around. Arm strength is a must but more so regarding velocity on the short and intermediate throws - not so much with the deep ball. Athleticism in terms of speed and quickness are unnecessary. That's 5 for 5. That's a trend. What I gather from McDaniels' history is that you can teach a guy through improved mechanics and in the weight room (where I expect Kyle Orton is right now) how to drive the deep ball better. Through drills and practice you can get a guy who runs the 40 in 5+ seconds to feel pressure well and maneuver in the pocket. What you can't do (or at least what's harder to do) is change how a guy thinks and processes information. If a guy went through high school and college unable to sense where the blitz is coming from - how's that going to change in the NFL? If a guy has locked onto his #1 option almost every snap of his football career - how do you get him to throw to the #3 guy? That's why we've seen McDaniels succeed with late round picks in the past and why Kyle Orton took a huge step this season. The NFL draft doesn't always put priority on the best college football players, but rather the guys with the most potential. Guys who can run around and make plays, throw the ball 70 yards like it's nothing - they get drafted early because coaches think they can teach them the mental aspects of the game. McDaniels grabs the smarter, less athletic guys in the later rounds and builds an offense around the ability to be accurate and make good reads. I'm not saying it's the absolute best way (though, how can't you love a nerd(ier) quarterback) but it's the way McDaniels seems to operate.

That covers it very well: V7 has described much of what is in the manual for quarterbacks. One thing that you can expect is that McD will stick with that mold. Nathan Jones was just signed as a cornerback. He's exactly in McD's usual cornerback mold, a player about 5'10", 180-190 lb, which is not surprising since Josh McD wrote the cornerbacks manual at New England. He's very clear that he wants bigger men, stronger, tougher men who are as versatile as possible and who show intelligence and leadership - even if they are just being brought in as backups. His adherence to the quarterback mold will tend to be equally firm.

By the way, this is, according to Michael Holley's book Patriot Reign, pages 153-154, a short quote from that manual on quarterbacks. It only covers some of the non-physical aspects of what is expected from the player at that position, but it seemed reasonable to share it:

1. Be the mentally toughest and hardest working player on the team

2. Be able to take a big hit and then walk back to the huddle and call the next play (Note: this may eliminate Tony Pike in 2010)

3. Have his head screwed on straight enough to handle the pressure and scrutiny to which all NFL QBs are subjected (i.e., have a strong ego)

4. If you want to know who the good quarterbacks are, watch the passes they complete under a heavy rush. Watch the first downs they get on third and long, passing into heavy coverage. Listen to what their teammates say about them."

There was more. Belichick is said to have included 11 'commandments' (Michael Holloey's word) for the QB position. I'll add this one from Belichick, for those who like their QB candidates famous. It gives an indication of what is important at the position:

"Don't be a celebrity quarterback. We don't need any of those. We need battlefield commanders that are willing to fight it out everyday, every week, and every season, and lead their team to win after win after win."

This is how New England - originally just Bill Belichick actually, though he and his entire organization brought the system to maturity - has done so well in the draft and in free agency. While it's true that New England has been famous for piling up picks, and having multiples of the best value picks in the second round, they weren't able to do that originally. First, positions had to be filled with players who fit the mold, who fit the manual, and who survived an extensive grading system that used a series of both lower case and upper case letters, any of which can be doubled to show that it's an unusually strong characteristic in a certain player. They finally grade the candidates with a numeric system that is also extremely thorough, denoting precisely what role they believe that a certain player will fill.

Over time, the Broncos fan base may have an opportunity to watch and to see exactly what body types the Broncos are interested in having at each position on the field. Some thought that because a certain body type - 6'4ish, 290, for example - was used at DE last year that we'd see more of the same. Not to hammer a defunct equine, but there was not a lot of time to prepare for that time for free agency and drafting before making the decisions that were required to simply field a team. That was what I liked about 2009, despite the issues in the second half of the season - given the situation, they did it pretty well. I saw what everyone else on MHR did: two big problems, as a general thing. Our offense obviously needs to play better - I don't leave out a single player. And, once the rest of the league figured out our blitz packages, the players weren't of high enough caliber in one on one matchups to stop the opposing offenses, or the defensive changes to mask those blitz calls weren't done well enough (Most likely both). Larry Coyer once had that problem, but he's seemed, from what I watched of him in the playoffs, to have overcome that problem. Wink Martindale will have to do the same. But Wink will do it with bigger players, and the ones that are being brought in for the offensive line show the same tendency to be bigger than most.

It will take time that I hope we have, to see what the manuals must say at different positions. But when you look at the QB position - that's pretty much cut and dried, at this point. The solution that Bill Belichick came up with in many ways takes the approaches of luminaries such as Paul Brown and Bill Walsh and moves a step further. He laid out what he saw as the 'perfect' team on paper and then drafted and acquired exactly those kinds of players to the extent that was possible given the group available each year. This was, in very short, how he decided to try and overcome the 'crapshoot' aspect of the draft. Has it worked? It certainly did in the past decade. Will it work in Denver? That's a different story entirely. But, we'll see.

It would also be a mistake to assume that McDaniels has no individual ideas on certain positions, approaches and schemes. He is, although still a young man, very much his own guy. He gives great credit to those who have taught and mentored him, as he should, but he has also made it clear that he has strong feelings about going beyond the boundaries of what other people have done. He's going to do things in his own way, but he will also not try to reinvent the wheel. There is a middle road, and we can expect him to try to take it, integrating his own concepts with the overall structure that has done so well.

That means that we will be seeing specific body types, mental abilities and character traits at certain positions. It's the new way to try and defeat the 'luck' aspect of the draft as much as is possible. It also means that changing the perspective on the quarterback position - from the cannon-armed, mobile player who may or may not make the jump to the pros to an emphasis on height, less concern with 'power', central abilities like accuracy over power and a strong emphasis on intelligence over physical abilities that don't really matter to this approach. What kind of QB McDaniels will chose is more or less a predetermined issue.

You can never really get away from luck. It always comes into the game, from the stray bounce to the untimely injuries that can halt a winning season or destroy a promising career. But since the first scout was hired - His name  was Eddie Kotal. He was hired by the then Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves in 1941. Kotal would create the lifestyle that scouts maintain to this day - on the road 200 days a year, developing relationships with coaches, assistants, athletic directors and anyone else who could provide any insights that might turn the tables on a draft pick.

Coaches, owners and management have striven to change the course of fortune, to overcome the problems of the draft and to devise systems that best employ new skills and new approaches in order to create a winning tradition within the clubs. It's never been easy, and often, innovation found itself the butt of jokes and jibes. Those would turn to accolades if the new innovation worked. By the way, the first player chosen by computer?

Joe Namath. Apparently, even in those early days, some things were starting to go in the right direction. But, as any computer person will tell you, GIGO - garbage in, garbage out - is an essential concept to remember. Dallas was one of the three teams to go in on the computer, and they had set up former hospital baby photographer and part time employee Gil Brandt as one scout. Brandt would later become Dallas' first director of player personnel, as the system evolved. His work, and Tex Schramm's, went a long way into getting the scouting together for the computer to give a smart answer. And that's really what this is all about.

It's about the evolution of the game. MHR members have noticed that over the past year increasing levels of emphasis are being placed on two things - first, studying game film has always been important and people like Ted B made it clear how valuable that was, so the MHR group Upon Further Review evolved to study the film of Broncos and their opponents, and secondly, statistics, which was handled at one point by Doug and has evolved into the work of people like TJ, 'The Dude' Lebowski and Brian Shrout as well as several talented members. It's that same evolution that drives the choices that will be made over the next several weeks, in free agency and in the draft.

There's another thing about the idea that somehow taking a QB in the first round is somehow a better approach than the one that the Patriots and now the Broncos are using. Despite the huge furor that a 1st round QB receives, the odds on success aren't that good anyway. This isn't to say that if McDaniels and Xanders saw a QB who matched their characteristics and was a 1st round choice that they wouldn't go after him - of course they would. But here's something from Bill Billick's book, More than a Game:

I wrote that there have been 40-plus quarterbacks taken in the first round since '95. By any stretch of the imagination, 13 or 14 of them have been successful. "We always say it's a 50-50 crap-shoot when you take a quarterback in the first round. Well, it's more like 70-30 (against). Those are the odds. These guys (recent draft choices) are probably on par with the failures of first-round quarterbacks for the last 20 to 30 years in the NFL."

That's one reason that Bill Belichick decided to take a different approach to developing quarterbacks: The old system just hadn't produced consistent results. As far as the NE system with manuals and specific positional requirements that are unusual, will it work? It has so far. What's the downside? It takes time to change a team this way. It's not a one year proposition, especially with the lack of a CBA and a possible lockout hampering this year's free agency and contract negotiations. Kaptain Kirk even noted, "The Uncapped year is going to turn the 2 year rebuild, into a 3 year rebuild" Kirk may be right - certainly it's an obstacle, of whatever degree. But the system that is in place now in Denver has one key value that can't be overlooked:

It's already won 3 Super Bowls and led to more years in the playoffs. It's just a system, but it's one of the most thorough, intricate and successful approaches in the game today. Now it's time to see if it can bring that level of success to Denver. It's going to be a heck of a ride.

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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