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NFL EVOLUTION: GOOD ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR QUARTERBACKS

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  • NFL EVOLUTION: GOOD ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR QUARTERBACKS

    NFL EVOLUTION: GOOD ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR QUARTERBACKS

    "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
    picture.


    Quarterback</p>


    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
    positions.</p>


    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>
    “Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.” MB Rule # 1
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