Awareness and Urgency on Third Down (with Sam Bradford)

A quarterback earns his stripes in critical situations. Whether it be 3rd/4th down, in the red zone, in the 4th quarter, etc., quarterbacks have to be able to operate when the stakes are higher. Quarterbacks must be able to assess the situation and execute accordingly.

3rd/4th down situations can be especially tough. More often than not, teams are bringing extra pass rushers in order to force the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. Quarterbacks have to be able to identify the number of pass rushers and where the blitzers are coming from in order to know when and where to get rid of the ball. When facing the Houston Texans in Week 5, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford showed that seemingly minute mistakes can be the difference between having to punt instead of earning a fresh set of downs.

The Vikings were in a 3rd-and-7 situation here. The Texans defense came out in a Man-Free look (man coverage with one deep safety). There are five defenders on the line of scrimmage, while another defender is lurking close to the line of scrimmage about five yards off of the left guard. Given the pre-snap look, it would be fair to assume that the Texans are bringing at least five and the critical defender is the player creeping toward the line of scrimmage over the left guard. If he comes, the ball should replace him; if he stays in coverage, the quarterback needs to go elsewhere.

The creeping defender ended up being a blitzer and ultimately the sixth rusher. For Bradford, that should have confirmed that he had 1-on-1 coverage across the board and a deep centerfielding safety over the top. Bradford’s first look should be to the slot receiver Jairus Wright running the skinny post. Furthermore, the ball should start coming forward as Bradford completes his three step drop. Fortunately for the Texans defense, that is not what Bradford did. Bradford took an extra ‘reset’ step at the end of his drop, which gave edge rusher Whitney Mercilus just enough time to sack Bradford from his blind side.

Bradford’s left foot is hitting the ground. This is his first step. As his first foot hits the ground, it’s already apparent that the Texans are, in fact, bringing six rushers. Unless there is an unexpected late drop from one of the rushers, there won’t be a defender hovering the short/intermediate middle of the field area.

Second foot in the ground. The Texans are still showing six rushers. By now, Bradford needs to be deciding if he wants to throw the skinny post to Wright or not. If not, he needs to set up to go vertical to one of his outside receivers or prepare to wait on the late-developing route from his tight end.

The ball should be coming forward right now. Bradford’s back foot is coming down at the end of his drop and Wright looks to be starting his break to the inside. The throw is there if Bradford pulls the trigger from this platform.

Instead of throwing at the top of his initial drop, Bradford waits on the route and takes an extra ‘reset’ step. This still shot show Bradford bringing back his left foot in order to begin his reset, as opposed to bringing that foot forward in order to plant and throw.

As a result of not anticipating the route opening up, Bradford held onto the ball too long and got sacked inside of his own 20-yard line. Bradford, a seven year veteran, should have been able to recognize the coverage and execute accordingly, but he fell short in this instance.

Now, in all fairness to Bradford, he had a quietly impressive season and played about as well as the Vikings could have expected him to. He executed well in plenty of other situations like this one, and this sort of piece could be written about any quarterback. Every quarterback has botched a third down like this at some point or another. Sam Bradford just happened to be the unlucky pupil that I chose to use as an example of how precious every morsel of time is on 3rd/4th downs.

The fragility of decision making on 3rd/4th downs is something that can make or break quarterbacks. Good quarterbacks must be able to handle these situations and be able to convert at a high rate. The better the quarterback, the more likely it is that they are excellent on 3rd/4th downs and being able to sustain drives. Even a couple more critical conversions per game than the “average” quarterback can be monumental to a team’s success. 3rd down isn’t referred to as the “money down” for nothing.

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DeShone Kizer and Winning in the Red Zone

Confidence is a necessary trait for quarterbacks. If a quarterback doesn’t believe he can hit the throw, he won’t hit it. Quarterbacks have to take a number of factors into account before determining the confidence they have in themselves to complete a pass. Anything from the intended target, opposing talent, coverage scheme, and so on and so forth, can boost or diminish a quarterback’s confidence in a particular route concept.

Part of confidence is knowing what the defense is going to do. Quarterbacks can operate much smoother when they have a good idea of what they are in for. Of course, defenses can disguise and shift coverages, but every quarterback does his best to identify coverages pre-snap and reassess the coverage post-snap to determine where the ball will go.

In the red zone, confidence is necessary. The field is shortened and mistakes are magnified. Quarterbacks have to be even more aware, precise and, most of all, confident than they are between the 20’s. The difference between one extra hitch, a slight misread or a slight hesitation can be the difference between a touchdown or settling for a field goal.

How DeShone Kizer Attacks the Red Zone

Cover-2 is one of many coverages that a defense can employ. Below is a diagram from Inside The Pylon of a basic Cover-2 look:

Cover 2

The two deep safeties have a lot of responsibility on this play. They must be able to cover one half of the field from beyond about 10 yards. The position of the safeties help take away the seams (around the numbers), but leave some room for the quarterback to fit the ball down the hash marks or on the sideline. Quarterbacks have to be able to manipulate the safeties to stay away from their desired route, as well as have the arm to fit the tight windows down the hashes or to the boundary.

In the red zone, Cover-2 bodes well for the defense because the shortened field makes throws to the boundary even tougher, while the bevy of linebackers over the middle give a clouded view of the middle of the field. That doesn’t seem to matter to future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer.

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Kizer talked about this play during his ESPN visit at Jon Gruden’s QB Camp. As Gruden and Kizer went on to dissect, this play should have been dead. Trying to fit this ball into that window requires great confidence, timing and arm talent. Kizer put all of that on display here.

Through his drop back, Kizer must quickly determine the position of the field side safety and decide if he can make the throw around the safety. Kizer notices that the safety is still in a stationary position by the time his drop is finished. Without second guessing, Kizer fires over the cornerback and wide of the safety, perfectly placing the ball in a spot where only wide receiver Will Fuller could get to it. Few quarterbacks have the talent to complete this pass, let alone the gall to even attempt it. Great quarterbacks can hit throws that aren’t really there, and Kizer has that ability.

Kizer can attack the area between the two deep safeties, too. During Notre Dame’s battle against Texas at the beginning of the season, Texas tried to stop Kizer with a two deep safety look in the red zone. Although the receiver couldn’t hold onto the ball, Kizer fired in a dart that ranks among some of the best passes from any player in this class.

Once again, Kizer attempted to fit a window that few others have the talent or bravado to attempt. Texas rolled out in what looks Cover-2 coverage where the outside linebackers are carrying the vertical threats up the seam to high-low them with the safety on their side of the field. In all reality, this is good coverage. The safety near the left hash is holding outside leverage and the linebacker is playing just under and inside of the receiver. The window for this throw is virtually nonexistent.

Instead of backing down to the coverage, Kizer trusted his ability and fired away. The ball was rifled into the receiver’s mitts, both away from the safety on the left hash and above the linebacker underneath the receiver. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the far safety read this play well and was able to fly over to hit the receiver as he was coming down, ultimately forcing the ball out of his possession for an incompletion. Regardless of the result, Kizer made a special throw to try to give his team the lead.

Of course, Kizer can beat more than just two deep coverages in the red zone. Duke attempted to slow down Kizer’s red zone triumphs by employing a Cover-3 look that was heavily shaded to the short side of the field. To no surprise, Kizer found a way to beat it.

Duke heavily shaded their coverage to the trey (trips with a tight end) side of the formation. With so many defenders to that side of the field, it would take a massive blunder for someone to come open on that side, assuming the defense doesn’t blitz from that side. Kizer is then left with essentially 1-on-1 coverage to the far side of the field.

To make sure credit is given where credit is due, the receiver runs one hell of a route on this play. The way he helped sell the inside slant was perfect and gave credence to Kizer’s pump fake. With Kizer and his receiver coming together to sell the inside slant, the task then becomes fitting the ball somewhere between the defender and the far boundary. Luckily for the Fighting Irish, they had one of the only quarterbacks in the country who could hit this throw–if not the only one.

Not unlike the other examples above, there is no margin for error on this throw. The timing, velocity and placement has to be perfect. Also like the examples above, the sheer confidence that Kizer possesses to believe he can make this throw is mesmerizing. He knows that is going to be a daunting throw, but he wastes no time in going for it.

As the cherry on top of Kizer’s red zone ability, he is a legitimate running threat. Notre Dame often used him as an integrated part of their run game, whether it be speed options, read options, or quarterback power.

Here’s a shot of Notre Dame’s speed option. Kizer measures in at 6’4″, 233 pounds and has enough speed to force defenses to account for him. On this play, Kizer shows his ability to stick hit foot in the ground and get up the field once he decides that he isn’t going to flip the ball to the running back. Once Kizer has his path to the end zone, he wiggles through the traffic and marches into the end zone for a touchdown.

Notre Dame scored plenty of touchdowns over Kizer’s two years as the starter through concepts like this one. Kizer is good at initially reading the key defender, then making himself a lethal runner, if that was the best option for a given play.

DeShone Kizer is a menace in the red zone. He has the intelligence, confidence, arm talent and rushing ability to be a multi-faceted red zone quarterback. No matter the coverage or defensive front, Kizer has proven that he can find a way to get his team into the end zone. Kizer’s maturity and multiplicity in the red zone will give him a great advantage in the NFL, both as a rookie and as he grows into his own as a veteran. There are a bevy of reasons to buy into Kizer as a top prospect, but his best selling point just might be his proficiency in the red zone.

Take What The Defense Gives You

The NFL’s best passers have a common trait, among others: intuitiveness. They know when to go against the grain of whatever they have been trained to believe is “right” in order to take advantage of specific situations.

This is Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. He is faced with a 3rd-and-5 situation inside Baylor’s 35-yard line; the Sooners are up with a comfortable two touchdown lead near the end of the third quarter. Baylor’s defense has stacked the box and jammed the boundary receiver to the right side of the formation, yet Oklahoma’s slot receiver to the right side (No.3) is given a generous cushion. Not only is there a vertical cushion, but the nickel cornerback is set up to the inside of the receiver.

Lucky for Mayfield, Oklahoma called for a quick out from the slot receiver, making this an easy first down. Except Mayfield didn’t throw it.

Counterargument numero uno would be that Mayfield saw the 1-on-1 jam on the outside and liked his chances. In fact, Mayfield is more than likely coached to take these throws. Anyone who follows my work knows that I love a quarterback who rolls the dice, but there is absolutely no reason to here. Oklahoma already has a 14-point lead and does not need to risk explosive plays when easier ones are almost literally gift wrapped, especially when you are approaching the red zone.

Secondly, there is the concern that the nickel corner is baiting the quarterback into the throw. While that is a valid caution in most every other out route read, it is not in this case. The cornerback is six or seven yards off the ball and lined up about a step inside. That is a lot of ground to make up. If the quarterback does not have the arm talent to hit the out route before a defensive back makes up that much ground, then he is just not a good quarterback. Sorry.

Last and most absurd, there is the question about what the reaction would be if the pass was completed. Simple answer: no different. Results are not sustainable, as they are left up to variables and random chance, to some degree. Process, on the other hand, is absolutely sustainable and better processes more often render better results. Mayfield’s process on this play was too linear. He failed to identify and expose a clear flaw in the defense because he fell back on what he is used to doing in similar, though not identical, situations.

It is no coincidence that Cam Newton, Tony Romo and Tom Brady all dominate the quick out game and are simultaneously among the best handful of NFL quarterbacks. Good quarterbacks see the matchup and expose it; they are essentially free yards to be had. Take what the defense gives you.

Checking Up On Jameis Winston (Part 2 of 4)

Jameis Winston is a blessing to the NFL. 

Man. Listen. Us football fanatics get a handful of players whose play encapsulates everything that makes this sport what it is. The ups and the downs, the brilliant decisions and mind-numbing mistakes, the exciting scrambles and pitiful sacks- all complimented by raw emotion and a fiery, even dangerous, will to win. Eight games through is NFL campaign, Jameis Winston appears to be one of those rare specimen.

Before the “Well, Matt Stafford is exciting too” crowd starts yelling, allow me to clear the air: Winston is not a top level quarterback… yet. To expect him to be elite, or any semblance of it, at this age would be absurd. And yet, albeit juxtaposed by some poor decisions early on, Winston’s tape is littered with throws that maybe a handful of other quarterbacks regularly complete or are even asked to make. It is amazing to see from anyone, let alone from a player who is not yet 22 years old.

The last check up on Winston left a looming feeling of uncertainty. The turnover-prone passer he was labeled to be at Florida State was let out of his timeout corner a bit more than he should have, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. The past four weeks, though, have been euphoric to see from a rookie quarterback. Of course, the turnaround from the first quarter of Jameis’ games to the second quarter of games has been centered around protecting the ball.

After a few “mixed bag” games and whatever the hell his four interception performance versus the Carolina Panthers was, Winston snapped into a heightened sense of pre-snap awareness and summoned an infallible pocket presence. While his brains and poise had always been on display during some parts of games, the past four games have surfaced the best parts of Winston. For Winston, a gunslinger through and through, being able to minimize turnovers and poor calculations has made all the difference.

Winston is not playing any less aggressive, though. He is still firing shots down the field and stressing the defenses. The difference now is that he is already understanding what he is and is not capable of at the NFL level.

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Take this throw. This throw has to be perfect because of the angle and limited room to work with due to the sideline. If the ball flies a bit too far, the receiver is forced to account for the boundary or the ball may soar out of bounds altogether. On the flip side, an under thrown ball here is the difference between a touchdown and an interception, assuming the linebacker would have gotten his head around at some point if the receiver had slowed down. Winston trusts that he can fit this throw against this match up and attacks. Touchdown Buccaneers.

To match his confidence, Winston’s nuance is unparalleled for someone his age. It is truly special. Winston displays true nuance in that his mental prowess is that of a 10 year veteran’s, whereas many chalk up nuance to mechanics because it is easily identifiable and, as lame as it may be, is a recognizable buzz word topic that sounds like there is substance to it. Nuance is rooted in being able to naturally expose the defense, and Winston already does that at an absurd level.

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On the second play, the safety (#21) is rolling to the play side from the jump as if he knows where the play is going, but Winston keeps his eyes focused away from the “dig” route he will eventually throw. This leads the safety to question himself and move slower than he normally might have. Also, both linebackers stick their feet in the ground instead of continuing to flow toward where the ball will be because of Winston’s misdirection. Winston quickly snaps out of his facade and reveals his intention to hit Mike Evans over the middle. By the time the Giants defense can react to Winston’s action, the ball is soaring down the field in Evans’ hands.

Evans is able to rack up as many yards as he was because of Winston’s placement. Had that throw been behind Evans enough to require him to slow his stride, the safety (#21) would have had time to adjust his and make the tackle. Winston’s placement is consistently at this level. Plays in which Winston completely misses a player are few and far between, and nearly every other pass is as well placed as the throw above, whereas most quarterbacks have a wide spectrum of accuracy.

Winston’s accuracy is not route or depth dependent, either. He deals at all levels of the field, most impressively so at the most critical area of the field: within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. The shallow layer of the field is as important as it is because that is where the most room for error is. A few inches can be the difference between a touchdown and an interception because everything is moving so fast. A ball farther down the field will typically hang in the air long enough to allow for some sort of adjustment, but in a compact area like the shallow level of the field, receivers can’t adjust and the throw has to be there. Winston gets it there with ease.

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Winston isn’t even on his spot here! One of New York’s pass rushers is breathing down his neck and forces him to move a few steps away to make the throw. Pressure be damned, Winston does not flinch and drills the throw to Evans, against quality coverage, no less. Winston places throws like this play in and play out, maximizing what his team is getting out of each pass play. Accuracy at this level will always go under appreciated, but let it be known that Winston is going to make a career of beating teams with precision underneath.

Much like the example above, Winston is also going to beat defenses with how well he maneuvers the pocket. This has been especially prominent over the past few weeks. Winston’s handling of the pocket has always been impressive, but he has improved on it exponentially in the past few weeks and it is stunning. The subtle movements and adjustments Winston made in the pocket over the past four games have been some of the most impressive displays of poise and control that I have ever seen. That is not hyperbole, either.

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A New York Giants blitzer gets free through the B-gap (between guard and tackle) and barrels down at Jameis. Winston does not falter one bit. He trusts his feet to get him where he needs to be, he trusts that his man will be open and he trusts that he will get the throw off in time and to his man. Winston’s confidence is unrivaled. To not flinch at all, knowing he is about to get it, is rare. The written word does not do Winston’s control enough justice; Winston’s demeanor as a player is generational.

For the sake of context, this four game stretch may be Winston’s peak for the year because it was the lowest caliber of defenses they faced, but that does not nullify the things Winston did. Conversely, to show this level of eminence as a rookie should never happen no matter the competition, yet Winston did it. He sustained it over multiple games and situations. Winston is going to show a bit of stumbling over the remainder of the year, but he has made the league aware of him and what he is- an exceptionally rare talent.

John DeFillipo and What Could Be

NFL coaching staffs are constantly changing. Struggling offenses often dismiss their offensive coordinator at the end of the season, while offenses that overachieve lose their offensive coordinator to a better team. The Cleveland Browns lost Kyle Shanahan to the Atlanta Falcons this past off-season, and he left huge shoes to fill. As daunting of a task it was to replace one of the best offensive minds in football, the Browns front office did about as well as they could have with their new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo. 

Flip! If nothing else, DeFilippo has the best nickname of any coordinator in the league. Having a fun nickname is not what has earned Flip his keep, though. Flip is one of the smartest, creative passing game masterminds around. Cleveland’s rushing attack/approach has not been quite as good as it was under Shanahan, but considering Flip’s focus is quarterbacks (formerly Oakland’s QB coach) and Shanahan is a rushing mastermind because of his father Mike, it is no surprise that Flip has not quite been able to live up to Shanahan’s rushing prowess. Flip has made a name for himself through the air, however.

Prior to being scooped by the Browns, DeFilippo worked with the Raiders as their quarterback coach. In both the 2013 and 2014 season, Flip’s effect on the quarterback was evident. 2013 is not quite the same success story as 2014, but what Flip got out of Matt McGloin in 2013 was unexpected. More than anything, Flip got McGloin to believe he was good. Getting production can be as simple as that. Of course, McGloin was no world beater and was rightfully replaced, but the fact that Flip got McGloin to not think and just throw the route was a feat.

A year later, the Raiders gifted DeFilippo with a young, moldable quarterback in Derek Carr (who, ironically, was the preferred quarterback prospect of Shanahan). While at Fresno State, Carr had developed bad habits in pocket movement and reaction to pressure because of the nature of Dave Schramm’s protection calls in his putrid offense. These deficiencies reared their head throughout Carr’s rookie season, but to a much lesser extent than they should have. Carr had finally begun to look comfortable sitting in the pocket, which was a rarity at Fresno State. Carr’s comfort became confidence and so on and so forth, and ,though Flip is no longer in Oakland, he left a lasting effect on Carr that has helped him become one of the best young passers there is.

Now, in Cleveland, Flip has continued to help his quarterbacks immensely, but this time with a much larger tool. With control of the play calls and play designs added to his knack for inspiring confidence in his passers, DeFilippo was the perfect target for Cleveland, who drafted a project of a quarterback in Johnny OVO two years ago. What is interesting is that despite DeFilippo’s lack of experience and the frightening task of harnessing Manziel, Cleveland’s front office still put their faith in Flip. Cleveland is the first team that Flip has coordinated for at any level, though that would be tough to guess based on the success of the offense thus far. Josh McCown has been the starting quarterback in Cleveland this year and has been able to be not-terrible, which is accomplishment enough for any recyclable quarterback. Much of his success is rooted in Flip’s passing concepts, as well has Flip’s ability to coax quarterbacks into taking aggressive shots.

Some of Flip’s concepts are fully dependent on McCown throwing with confidence. In essence, there are a handful of plays that Flip has that are telling McCown, “Trust me, the throw is there. Just make it.” These plays almost always feature Travis Benjamin or Gary Barnidge, both of whom have stepped up this season as key targets. Also, these plays are predominantly deep out breaking concepts, like “Smash” variations or “Corner” throws. Any lack of urgency in these throws and it is an easy incompletion, but because Flip has done a damn good job at timing these play calls and has gotten McCown to buy into his concepts, these tough throws work for the Browns- or at least they should, but McCown can not be counted on to throw accurately.

Here is an example of both Flip creating a simple read/throw for his quarterback and said quarterback then not giving the receiver a chance at the ball.

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The pre-snap motion- a major staple of Flip’s offense, especially with tight ends and fullbacks- clues McCown in on whether or not the defense is playing man coverage. The New York Jets defender follows the motioned receiver on this play, indicating man coverage. With one defender on the play side being ran to the middle of the field and another being ran to the boundary, Barnidge’s deep corner route is a mano-y-mano situation. McCown then proceeded to do little to let Barnidge at the ball, albeit good coverage. Still, DeFilippo pulled his weight on this play, just as he always does.

DeFilippo’s call sequencing/timing and awareness of the opposing defense is outstanding, and that may even be why McCown has bought in so religiously. Flip walks into every stadium with a sound game plan, only to be bolstered by the adjustments he makes as the game ebbs and flows. Weaknesses are attacked often; seldom does DeFilippo over complicate a play call in an effort to look smarter than everyone else (looking at you, Todd Haley). Cleveland’s narrow loss to the San Diego Chargers exemplifies Flip’s ability to work on the fly and keep a defense on their toes.

San Diego has two major defensive weaknesses through the air: their inside linebackers and the infamous Steve Williams. San Diego’s linebackers are neither smart nor particularly athletic, so there is a lot to be taken advantage of. Flip’s favorite way to attack the linebackers was to clear the middle of the field with seam routes to Barnidge or full on “four verticals” concepts. The Chargers linebackers continued to flow down field with the deep threats, opening up the underneath for delayed passes to the running back. These plays end up looking like an elongated high-low concept, and that makes perfect sense as Flip also used more common high-low route combinations. For example, this Drive/Dig combination can catch stubborn linebackers off guard.

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The circled linebacker is the focal point of this play. The linebacker may peek over and see that the two outer receivers in the trips formations took steps down the field first, meaning they could be getting deep, so the linebacker must too. On the other hand, the linebacker could see the underneath route and jump on it immediately. Against linebackers who were not smart enough to quickly recognize the high-low and not athletic enough to recover from their mental mistake, Flip allowed his quarterback to thrive.

Flip also gave McCown plenty of opportunities to pick on- you guessed it- Steve Williams. The way in which he attacked Williams was a testament to him knowing when to move on from one strategy to another. Namely, Flip called for a lot of plays that stressed Williams, especially when in San Diego territory. There would be stretches where DeFilippo would attack him a couple times in a row, then focus the attack elsewhere in order to not get his offense exposed. Flip gets all he can out of moments of defensive weakness, but is not too stubborn to move on and chip away at a separate weakness.

Though, the best offensive minds force weakness into the defense. On top of using heavy doses of motion, mostly with tight ends and fullbacks, DeFilippo does a good job of cycling the defense out of position. High/lows and wheel routes (undefeated) are the best way to do this- and you bet Flip knows it.

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This play forces a lot of rotation from the defense. Underneath defenders flow to their rights while the defensive backs all move to their lefts. Had the intended target not slipped and fouled up his timing with the catch point, this would have been complete. What makes this particular play work is the tight end’s shallow cross route. Lining up the tight end to move him from the right side of the field to the left forces the inside linebacker to the right side of the field to hold his coverage. If the linebacker vacates too early, the tight can stop his route and make the catch there. Conversely, playing the shallow route with too much patience will lead to a crease in the defense for the “dig” route to be complete.

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Wheel routes are undefeated, especially when aided by misdirection. The boot-action to the right side indicates that the throw is almost certainly going to the right side of the field, so the defense played the odds. The Ravens lost their bet big time as Barnidge was able to slip by the defense by disguising himself as a pursuing blocker. Barnidge broke into open field, turned around for the easy reception and, just like that, put the Browns in scoring position.

DeFilippo controls the skies. He has a gift for exposing defenses and getting his passers to buy into the offense. The same sentiment can not be expressed about his handling of the run game, though. That is not to say Flip’s rushing attack has been a total flop, but DeFilippo is leaving yards to be desired, even if the base of his rushing attack is sound.

“Power” and “counter” concepts are the heart of Flip’s ground attack. Theoretically, this is similar to a lot of successful rushing teams right now, but Cleveland personnel is struggling to hold up. Power/counter plays require a kick-out man, who is more than likely a fullback or a tight end. Nobody in this player group can block adequately. They are pushed back into the backfield more often than they seal off the rushing lane. Granted, expecting a fullback or tight end to be like a 6th offensive lineman is absurd, but they should be able to provide a healthy constant of sealing off linebackers. Cleveland’s do not, and their starting tight end is the worst of them all.

Though, Flip does not get a laundry list of excuses. A good deal of the blame can be thrust upon him. As a young offensive coordinator, DeFilippo has yet to hone his craft as a coordinator of the rushing attack. Often, this means making minor adjustments based on the opponent to better the chances of the unit holding their ground. Flip has been able to show this level of aptitude with his aerial attack, though he does not have a strong identity as a creator for his running backs, largely because some of his blocking schemes fail to create defined rushing lanes, instead looking like a mosh pit of one 300 pound man trying to out-muscle the other.

DeFeillipo’s coordination of the rushing attack is a bit of a clunky mess right now, and that is probably to be expected of a first year coordinator who has exclusively worked with quarterbacks throughout his career. As his career as a coordinator progresses, his understanding and manipulation of the rushing attack will become increasingly evident. Flip’s passing approach, however, is one of the best in the business and he has already done more with Cleveland’s quarterbacks than was to be expected of them.

2015 is not John DeFilippo’s year to shine. Hell, 2016 probably won’t be his breakout year either because the Cleveland offense seems to be a piece or two away. DeFilippo appears to be more of an investment in the future than an immediate powerhouse of a coordinator like Shanahan was.  With as brilliant as his passing concepts and play calling have been at just 37 years old, DeFilippo is one of the best budding minds in the league. Flip’s time to shine has yet to come, but Cleveland has a young mind primed to be a renowned presence in this league.

NFL Quarterbacking’s (Unlikely) Future

Every team sucks. Every offense sucks. Every quarterbacks sucks, except for the few that don’t. Though even Jason Pierre-Paul could count the number of upper tier quarterbacks on his hands, there is, in theory, a way to create a league with more good quarterback play. Well, a league with less poor quarterback play, at least. As backwards as it is, the key to developing a league with better professional quarterback play may be to have less professional quarterback play.

NFL quarterbacks appear to be playing worse than any other time in recent memory- the operative word being “appear”. Quarterbacks are not any less talented, per say, but a number of factors, even before entering the league, have played a part in bringing down the league wide perception of quarterbacking. This depreciation of quarterbacks has lead to a lot of questions about fixing it. For each question, there is a (hopeful) answer.

At the most surface level, there is a negative product to quarterbacks throwing more often now than they used to. The increased amount of passing attempts allows for more opportunity to make mistakes. That concept works both ways in that more attempts also gives more chances to make a good play, and that’s fair to say. At the same time, the cliche “they shout my mistakes and whisper my accomplishments” idea applies. It is perfectly logical for someone to get more fired up over a negative play because people have become accustomed to more of a quarterback’s plays being positive. In this era, coaches and fans alike are used to seeing quarterbacks end the year with about 62%-65% of completion, so it’s not odd that the minority sub-40% of the plays feel gross to see.

With part of the quarterback conundrum being that they throw too often, you would think that it would be a largely accepted idea to throw the ball less. With the exception of the Patriots, most every good team in the league this season, and even some of the better teams of the past few seasons, has prioritized running the ball, or the running backs in general. Just two years ago, a run first Seahawks team dominated in the Super Bowl and took home the Lombardi trophy. Marshawn Lynch level running backs are not easy to come by, though, and I am sure that is where the pause would be for most people. Having a running back like Lynch or Jamaal Charles is not necessary for founding an offense upon the rushing attack, though.

The NFL’s best coaches continue to adapt and evolve just before the rest of the league gets around to it, and Hue Jackson is doing that with the Bengals. Through seven weeks in the NFL, Jackson’s offense has thrown the ball 53.81% of the time, which is 26th highest (or 7th lowest) in the NFL and more than 15% less than the most pass-happy offense. Instead of forcing Andy Dalton to bear most of the burden of beating defenses, Jackson has revolved the offense around the running backs, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.

Neither Hill or Bernard are special, upper echelon backs like the aforementioned Lynch and Charles. They are damn good, though, and compliment each other’s skill sets with impeccable harmony. Hill, who arrived one later than Bernard, is the battering ram type force that wears defenses down. A typical carry from Hill is uneventful, but the handful of yards and physical running style that he provides is a healthy constant for the Bengals. With Hill providing stability and the violent demeanor to wear down a defense, a more explosive complimentary player can deliver the knockout punches.

The athletic, do-it-all presence of Bernard is a tough one to contain. His skill set is more suited for perimeter runs and catching the ball out of the backfield, but his compact frame has just enough power behind it to be a threat between the tackles. Defenses can not game plan to stop one aspect of Bernard’s game because it would run the unfavorable risk of giving Bernard leeway elsewhere. When teams leave a weakness, Bernard exposes it. A defense that opts to play conservatively in reaction to Bernard will open itself up to aerial attacks, which is part of how Dalton has (finally) become a player that can lead the Bengals to Lombardi Land.

Better than any other team, the Bengals have centered their offense around the running backs despite not having elite talent at the running back position. A handful of other offenses, such as the Panthers and Bills, have shown varying success in prioritizing the running backs to settle the quarterback, but Dalton seems to benefit from it more than any of the other quarterbacks. The success of the back-focused approach has given him confidence, comfort and, above all else, insecurity out of opposing defenses.

For some passers, like Dalton, success is as simple as comfort and confidence in the situation around them. Other passers require a less direct approach to professional success. In recent years, stories of quarterbacks having success after a few years of sitting behind the starter are rare. Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick are the two most recent examples, but none stand out other than those two in about the last decade, unless Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted in 2004, counts. Whether he counts or not is semantics, but the point is that two or three solid developmental quarterbacks in a ten year span speaks volumes of what the league can do about helping young quarterbacks along.

Steve McNair was the third overall pick 20 years ago. McNair didn’t play ball at a Power 5 school, or even an FBS school. The one-day NFL MVP played college football at Alcorn State. The Oilers- who would become the Titans two years after drafting McNair- gave the young passer two years of limited live reps to learn the nuances of the game and get comfortable with the talent level. Just over half a decade later, McNair shared an Associated Press NFL MVP award with Peyton Manning. Developing young backup quarterbacks like this in the 90s, and even early 2000s, was a somewhat common way to find a starting quarterback. Packers and Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren made a career out of developing quarterbacks behind the starter during that span, but the best coach from his tree, Mike McCarthy has run into a wall with his development of backup quarterbacks.

Current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) terms has put harsh restraints on off-season practices, as well as preseason and regular season practices. These practices were an asset that McCarthy used wisely as a part of his annual “quarterback school” that he does for his team’s quarterbacks. His school includes anything from rigorous practicing of mechanics to writing essays about the philosophy of the offense, a test-like task McCarthy asked his quarterbacks, sans Joe Montana, to complete when McCarthy was working with the Chiefs. Four weeks of off-season training were lost in the 2011 CBA ruling, in addition to the in-season practices. The pseudo-snaps that have been lost because of the current CBA rules has made developing young quarterbacks, whose success is largely dependent on consistency and precision, a bit of a lost art. McCarthy is taking on the challenge once again with 5th round pick Brett Hundley, but unless he has adjusted his teaching to fit the limited practice time, McCarthy may end up with nothing more than a backup quarterback.

Another, less talked about issue with the quarterback famine is that active roster requirements makes it tough for teams to rationalize keeping three quarterbacks. The last few roster slots are best used as athletic special team spots because they will get a good handful of snaps per game, whereas the likeliness of a third string quarterback being needed in a single game is nonexistent. Another quarterback on the roster has value in the film room, at the very least. An extra brain and pair of eyes to come up with offensive wrinkles or point out tendencies could be huge for some teams,  especially if the third active quarterback is a veteran quarterback who can help along the young backup. Or, that third quarterback may be another young quarterback meant to spark some competition for the second string spot. Whatever the ideology is when signing a third string quarterback, the ability to do so more freely, which would likely require an expansion of the active roster to more than 53 players, could lead to a better NFL product.

Better yet, the NFL could make legitimate use of a developmental league. There have been arena leagues and there is currently a fall experimental football league (FXFL), but none of them have ever been taken seriously enough by their father league, the NFL. A few players made their way from these leagues to the NFL over the course of the years, but not near enough for those leagues to be considered true development leagues. Granted, college football is marketed more than any other college sport except basketball, so one may make the argument that college football is the developmental league, but that isn’t the case.

The goal for college football coaches and staffs is not to prepare players for the NFL gridiron. Their goal is to win games and propel the program. College football playbooks have been and always will be watered down in comparison to the pro level, but some offenses now, like Baylor, Cal, TCU and others, are so bare relative to professional playbooks that players develop vastly contradicting play habits. In college football now, there is a pandemic of poor footwork and anticipation because offenses operate primarily out of the shotgun and don’t ask the quarterback to match his eyes with certain landmarks in his drop. Instead, college quarterbacks take the snap, take no more than three choppy steps, wait on the play and then throw.

When these college quarterbacks step into the NFL realm, they are overwhelmed with the new verbiage, concepts and play style. The jump from college to professional ball is a nasty adjustment regardless, but a quarterback whose offense was a bit more traditional in college will have the familiarity advantage when trying to soak in all that is being an NFL quarterback. That is not to say that making college offenses more traditional will instantly bring life to quarterback play, though. Rather, it is a suggestion that a more representative preparation environment for the professional level would, in time, produce more sound quarterback play.

And yet, most of this rambling is but a theory. It does seem more and more likely that teams may revert back to a more run-heavy approach, especially with the bountiful supply of good running backs coming from the college circuit, but that is the only likely development in regards to improving the perception of quarterback play. The CBA and roster sizes have not been entertained lately as possible areas of change, the NFL is too greedy to coddle a developmental and college teams are not going to change their offensive styles so long as they keep scoring points like they are right now.

It is a shame that quarterback play is where it is. It’s an incredibly taxing position, true, but for there to be as many bad quarterbacks as there is, factors beyond the stress of the position are at play. Whether or not any of the changes necessary for evolving the quarterback position again is uncertain. It would be best for the league to create more entertaining quarterback play, but where, when and how to start seems like such a daunting task for those in power that we are stuck in a passer-less oblivion, waiting for the script to miraculously flip itself.