If Dak Prescott continues his march toward superstardom, a footnote in his history will be the conversation that took place between Cowboys executives in April 2016. At the draft, the Dallas decision-makers put Michigan State’s Connor Cook ahead of Prescott on their boards.
“The only reason we had Connor ahead of Dak is he played in a pro-style offense,” COO Stephen Jones said during training camp. A quarterback from a pro-style offense, the team believed, could have been an NFL backup immediately—unlike someone coming out of a spread system.
Cook, in a lucky break for the Cowboys, came off the board at pick 100 to Oakland. He was last seen throwing for 161 yards on 45 attempts as a last-resort starter against Houston in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Prescott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 season and an NFC East title.
That the Raiders saved the Cowboys from making a franchise-altering mistake sums up the NFL’s quarterbacking fiasco quite nicely. No personnel problem that exists at the moment has vexed the league so thoroughly and produced fewer answers: The NFL is getting worse at evaluating quarterbacks.
About half of the league’s starting quarterbacks will be 30 or older this season. Eleven of the top 15 passers by quarterback rating in 2011 will start Week 1 in the NFL in 2016. There’s a reason Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, and Andrew Luck have taken short, months-long turns as the highest-paid player in the NFL: If you’re under 30 and have a pulse at quarterback, you’re about to be rich. The rising number of older players at the most important position in sports has led observers like former NFL player and scout and current NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks to suggest the league is at a crossroads: It’s time for teams to adapt to new methods of finding quarterbacks or suffer through some ugly games and, perhaps, an ugly league.
There are plenty of reasons behind the league’s quarterbacking conundrum, but most of them relate back to this: NFL coaches still can’t understand collegiate offenses.
The general problem, according to Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith, is that the word “spread” is mostly useless. “We use this generic term ‘spread offense,’ but it is not the same in any place,” Smith said. In that way, it’s like “millennials” or “fake news”; it means so many different things that it means nothing.
According to coaches, general managers, and players I spoke to over the course of training camp, teams spend too much time on what the offense looks like and far too little on how the quarterback is processing it.
One general manager said that if it’s a “true tie” between prospects, he will always give the tiebreaker to the pro-style quarterback because he’s seen those “pro” principles on tape. Another general manager said this method is the prevailing sentiment around the league. Many evaluators think that spread systems are overly simple and don’t require their quarterbacks to make the kind of complicated reads they have to in the NFL. Plus, they run too much and typically don’t huddle.
This is, to put it bluntly, a bad outlook to have in 2017. By downgrading any spread quarterback, evaluators are eliminating large swaths of players from the quarterbacking pool—even though there’s no data to suggest that pro-style offenses produce better NFL players. As “spread” offenses continue to proliferate throughout college—even holdouts like Nick Saban are now spreading it out—the old rules of quarterback play are changing.
Creating a great quarterback starts with knowing how to identify them. With limited reps in the pros and limited attention available from coaches, identifying the right quarterbacks and putting them on the right developmental track is crucial. If a player falls through the cracks and is not identified early in his NFL career, he’ll likely never get the chance to succeed.
With the ever-growing number of spread offenses populating college football, that’s happening more than it should.
Scott Linehan was uniquely qualified to give his blessing for the Prescott selection. Now the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, Linehan is one of the godfathers of the modern spread offense who thrived as an assistant at Louisville from 1999 to 2001. Around that time, Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen stopped by to learn some of his schemes. Mullen, of course, was later Prescott’s head coach at Mississippi State.
With Prescott’s college film, Linehan saw none of the stereotypical problems with a spread quarterback: “I watched the end zone copy of the tape and saw him go through the progression with his eyes and feet, and I’m saying, ‘I don’t see a difference with what the other guys are doing.’”
Linehan also saw NFL-style routes: “True NFL high-lows and drive reads. I was convinced he was doing the same things that the higher-rated, classic dropback passers were running.”
Many smart people in the NFL say the spread vs. pro-style question should not be a debate about scheme; it should be a debate about responsibility. Spread coaches have become famous for calling plays from the sideline with signboards held by student assistants. But in the NFL, so much of the pre-snap play-calling onus falls on the quarterback.
But not all spread offenses take the pre-snap responsibility away from the quarterback—and that’s a crucial part of all of this and why evaluators are wrong to dismiss spread signal-callers. Derek Carr’s college offensive coordinator, Dave Schramm, told me that Carr was allowed near-limitless freedom to change into plays at Fresno State despite their spread principles.
Mullen, too, tried to keep Prescott from simply looking at the sideline every play. “That’s not quarterback play,” Mullen said. He built audibles for Prescott, and occasionally, if both options for the play didn’t work, Prescott would look at the sideline. But that got rarer as his college career went on. Mullen would also have Prescott call two possible offensive line protections.
The Mississippi State coach gave Prescott freedom and then would interrogate his quarterback’s decisions. “I’d just ask ‘why’ to everything and he’d always have an answer,” Mullen said. “[He’d say,] ‘’Cause I saw that; I wanted to take the pitch and walk for the first down.’ That meant he knew what he was doing.”
Mullen thinks the stigma of the spread quarterback is gradually fading, but still exists. He, like the progressive minds in the league, says that the system pales in comparison to what the quarterback is being asked to do.
Teams are learning this lesson slowly, as the Texans showed with the 12th-overall pick.
“With Deshaun [Watson], he had to handle a lot of things on his own at Clemson, a lot of credit goes to them,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien. “They put a lot on their plate—that’s what the NFL is, every quarterback has a lot on their plate. It’s hard to predict what the defense is going to do from down to down, this is a multiple-defense league. I think Deshaun is prepared for that. That’s where he came from.”
“You’re going to throw out about half his completions,” said Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ general manager.
Colbert has spent the past few years studying spread quarterbacks and figuring out how to best evaluate them. This is an era of volume passing at every level of football, so there are more throws than ever to watch. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. The key, he said, is to eliminate all the easy stuff in the evaluation.
“If a kid is completing 70 percent of his throws and 90 percent of those are within 5 yards, is it really 70 percent?” Colbert said. He added that the Steelers have plenty of these gimme routes in their offense, but “any guy with a certain size or arm strength should be able to complete those. If I can’t throw the ball from here to the slot receiver, I shouldn’t even be looked at. But am I leading that receiver into the proper area of the field? Am I throwing him open?”
This year, Colbert said, the team made a concerted effort to divorce the player from the scheme and focus on three areas: physical skill, responsibility in the offense, and play in important matchups. “We wanted to evaluate physical talent: We can all do that. Guesstimate intellect: how much they were being asked to do. And big games—did he play in big games and did he win more than he lost?”
After using this smarts-and-big-game method, Colbert used a fourth-round pick on Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, who can recite the first 48 digits of pi. (Although Dobbs is quick to dismiss much of a link between academic intelligence and football IQ. “They don’t entirely go together,” he said.)
The SEC, Dobbs added, was among the top conferences for deep balls and “explosive plays in the passing game, which correlates to the NFL.” The biggest transition for the former Volunteer was learning how to huddle. “In a game situation,” he said, “the mouthpiece can slow you down.”
“It’s still always a 50/50 shot that a quarterback hits. But the odds are better for quarterbacks coming out of a pro-style system.”
This, again, is a common thought throughout the league, but the person who told it to me came as a surprise. It’s Marty Hurney, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager who drafted Cam Newton in 2011 and recently rejoined the team as an interim GM. Newton, of course, won a national title in a spread offense at Auburn and has been an objectively successful NFL quarterback, winning MVP in 2015.
Hurney spent a lot of time figuring out how skills translate and has thought a lot about quarterback evaluation since drafting Newton: He cared most about accuracy and vision. In the process of scouting Newton, he and his scouts came to realize that height was a big determining factor in vision, and Newton, at 6-foot-5 had height. Then he charted all of Newton’s passes, placing a particular emphasis on his deep passes. “He was in the 66 percent range pretty much every game, and he went downfield a lot,” Hurney said. “There are a lot of plays designed just to get the ball out quickly. Those are going to be more high-percentage passes.”
For Houston’s Smith, the new way to evaluate quarterbacks is to drill down to specifics: He just wants to watch the quarterback as soon as he makes the decision to pass. He wants to see the decision, the throw, and where it’s going. “That’s as good an indicator as anything,” Smith said. “Because that’s a mechanics issue, an accuracy issue, an arm-strength issue, an intelligence issue, that will tell you a lot.” Everything else is impossible to divorce from the scheme.
Smith’s head coach thinks he gets it. O’Brien agrees that responsibility within the offensive system is a massive part of a quarterback succeeding at the professional level. Figuring out just how much responsibility a quarterback had in school comes from asking college coaches about their players’ football IQ, having longer-than-usual discussions about the nuances of football, and most of all, trusting that spread quarterbacks can be just as good as anyone else.
“We’re getting beyond it,” O’Brien said of the stigma of the spread. “Because we have to.”