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.

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