04-23-2012, 03:24 PM
NFL EVOLUTION: GOOD ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR QUARTERBACKS (http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/23/n-f-l-evolution-good-isnt-good-enough-for-quarterbacks/?ref=football)

"The numbers, film and public sentiment agree: the N.F.L. has evolved into a
passing league. Professional football as we know it is transforming before our
very eyes. It’s not as simple as “more passes = greater importance of
quarterback and receivers.” Each and every position is impacted multifariously.
Here’s the rundown of how, and what all it means for the bigger


Virtually the entire league agrees: in order to compete for a Super Bowl, you
have to have a star quarterback. The last game-managing quarterback to win a
title was Brad Johnson in 2002 with Tampa Bay. Since Johnson, the list of
quarterbacks who have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy reads like a roll call for
future Hall of Fame inductees: Tom Brady (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Peyton
Manning, Eli Manning (2), Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Front offices around the
league have taken note. On Thursday, after the Colts draft Andrew Luck and the
Redskins draft Robert Griffin III, 28 of the 32 starting N.F.L.quarterbacks
entering 2012 will have either been drafted in the first round or will be
playing under a contract worth at least $20 million guaranteed. The only teams
that won’t have first-round or $20 million signal-callers are the Dolphins
(unless they draft Ryan Tannehill; many expect they will); the Bengals (they
took rising star Andy Dalton early in the second round last year); the
Browns (who seem anxious to replace Colt McCoy); and the Seahawks (who just
signed the free agent Matt Flynn to a contract worth $10 guaranteed).</p>

Of course, just because 28 teams have made star-level investments in their
quarterbacks doesn’t mean the league has 28 star quarterbacks. Many quarterbacks
are overrated entering the league or wind up underachieving. But the results
aren’t the focus here – the intentions are. Twenty eight teams have
committed heavily to building primarily around their quarterback. The next time
someone tells you that a team can win a title with a great defense and a Trent
Dilfer-esque signal-caller, tell them that seven out of eight N.F.L. franchises
think that’s nonsense.</p>

Obviously, having a middle-tier quarterback does not instantly render you
noncompetitive. The 49ers technically have a first-round quarterback in Alex
Smith (the No. 1 overall pick in 2005), but the modest three-year, $24 million
contract they just gave him affirms what Jim Harbaugh’s play-calling already
revealed: the team considers Smith a puzzle piece, not a building block. But
Smith and the Niners are the exception, not the rule. And even the Niners know
that it’s difficult to sustain success while hiding your quarterback. That’s why
they went after Peyton Manning this off-season.</p>

So what defines a great quarterback these days? Raw tools – like size, arm
strength and accuracy – are important (no matter what the Tebowites say). So is
the ability to read a defense. Or, more precisely, manipulate a
defense. Because the game has gotten so complex and the athletes are so much
better, it’s no longer enough for a great quarterback to drop back and simply
know what he’s looking at. A great quarterback now must figure out what he’s
looking at before the snap. This is for two reasons: 1. with more
quality pass rushers, faster blitzes and the increased complexity of defensive
schemes, a quarterback doesn’t have enough time after the snap to process
everything he’s seeing; 2. much of today’s offensive strategies center on making
defenders guess wrong; a quarterback can’t influence a defender’s guesswork if
he doesn’t begin the play with at least some idea of what the defender is first
going to be guessing on his own.</p>

The proliferation of presnap quarterbacking is one of the main reasons
completion percentages have gone up. (The creation of more anti-defense rules
and improved passer training at football’s amateur levels are probably the two
other biggest reasons.) Great quarterbacks do much of their work before the
snap. The really great ones can make drastic adjustments to their teammates’
assignments because of it (hence all the pointing and audibling you see from
guys like Brady, Brees, Rodgers or the Manning Brothers).</p>

Another reason presnap recognition has become vital is that in
spread-oriented systems – which most quality offenses run a version of these
days – the ball often comes out on a three- or five-step drop. With more action
taking place earlier in the down, more of the mental legwork has to be handled
before the down. More and more passes these days are quicker, shorter
and more horizontal. This, of course, is another factor helping completion
percentage, though in this style of offense, a catchable ball is not enough.
Quarterbacks must throw a catch-and-runnable ball. You can’t just put
it on the receiver, you have to put it out in front, chest-high and with the
perfect amount of touch so that he can snag it without breaking stride (Rodgers
with the Packers’ receivers and Brady with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are
two great examples). Precision-accuracy has always been important – especially
since the rise of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense. But in a lot of offenses
nowadays, it’s mandatory.</p>

When you think about it, all the attributes that have defined great
quarterbacking over the years are still the same – the significance of those
attributes has just been magnified. Greatness by N.F.L.standards is a lot to
ask of any quarterback. There are plenty of quarterbacks who can simply be
“good.” The problem with having a “good” quarterback is, in order to succeed,
your team has to be good at every other spot, and probably great in the run game
and on defense. With the salary cap and the heightened competitiveness of the
league, it’s nearly impossible to be good at 21 other positions, let alone
great. A team with a great quarterback, on the other hand, can mask weaknesses
(see the Patriots’ defense, the Packers and their so-so running backs, the
Saints offensive tackles or the Manningless Colts and their “everything else”
last year). Keep this in mind as we analyze the evolution of all the other

Wide Receivers</p>

As we <a href="http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/why-receivers-have-ruled-free-agency/">examined
early in free agency</a>, no longer do teams have a No. 1, 2 and 3 wide receiver
pecking order. Sure, there are still prototypical roles for receivers (Wes
Welker is a consummate slot weapon, Plaxico Burress is a quintessential outside
red zone target), but with elite teams being able to put so much more on their
quarterback’s plates these days, offenses have become more complex in ways that
have receivers lining up all over the field. Passing games have become about
creating one-on-one mismatches through various formations and receiver
distribution (“receiver distribution” refers to the where and
who for how receivers line up).</p>

If you have a true No. 1 receiver, things can be easy. Calvin Johnson is a
one-on-one mismatch against anyone. Because of this, he almost never faces
single coverage, but that means one of his teammates does. And chances are, that
teammate creates a one-on-one mismatch because, as an offensive player facing a
defender, he has the advantage of knowing where the next step is going.</p>

The problem is, most teams don’t have a Calvin Johnson. In fact, only the
Texans (with Andre Johnson) and Cardinals (with Larry Fitzgerald) do. Yes, there
are other N.F.L.star receivers, but they’re not megastars. Most players – and
heck, even the megastars, since it doesn’t hurt – need the occasional benefit of
drawing a formation-created mismatch.</p>

Some of the best examples of formation-created mismatches: the Packers’ 3 x 1
receiver sets; the Saints putting Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham in the slot or
tight splits; or just anything the Patriots do with their tight ends (who are
often used as de facto wide receivers). These leaguewide trends create value in
receivers who have niche talents (mainly slot guys) and shifts some of the
emphasis from a receiver’s physical talents to his coachability and
fundamentals. In a vacuum, not a single wide receiver from the Packers, Saints,
Giants, Patriots or Chargers is a surefire top-five talent at his position. But
a lot of the wideouts on those teams have thrived because their specific
abilities fit perfectly in their team’s evolving offensive structure."</p>