|Eric Gay/Associated Press|
|Before he was an NFL star-in-the-making, Robert Griffin III was learning the game in Texas at Copperas Cove High.|
This is no mere piece of trivia. In fact, it says a lot about the origins of the NFL's transformation into a league dominated by the pass. Contrast the number of Texan quarterbacks in the NFL today with the number 15 seasons ago before passing offenses really took off. During the 1998 season, there were just six Texas-raised quarterbacks in the league, and none were regular starters (see box, right).
What's the connection? The answer involves the prevalence of the spread offense in Texas, as well as the year-round warm weather and the popularity of offseason 7-on-7 football. By taking a closer look at the development of some of today's top Texas-raised QBs, we can get a better understanding of how the state changed football forever.
Where it began
Brees became the NFL's all-time single-season passing leader in 2011 when he threw for 5,476 yards. But he'd been breaking barriers long before he set that milestone. Brees, who prepped at Westlake High School in Austin, was one of the first successful passing quarterbacks in Texas high school football history.
Brees, who lettered in basketball and baseball, was an athlete who also played quarterback. Most of the high school teams of the time were run-oriented, but a few were taking to the air. Brees was part of this group; he attempted a ton of passes (including 83 in one game), throwing for 3,528 yards and 31 touchdowns in his senior season. Behind his arm, Westlake walloped Abilene Cooper, 55-15, to win the Class 5A Division II state championship in 1996. A run-first team had been trounced by a pass-first team, and the lesson was not lost on high schools across the state.
The trend toward passing had not quite caught on at the higher levels when Brees was coming up, as evidenced by the relative lack of interest in the passing prodigy among college programs. Eventually, of course, he proved himself to be one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history.
There's a direct connection between Brees and Stafford, who also topped 5,000 passing yards in 2011. Stafford attended Highland Park High School in Dallas and his coach, Randy Allen, had been coaching Abilene Cooper when it ran up against Westlake's Brees-powered aerial machine. Allen was smart enough to realize that teams could win a lot more games passing than running, and he became a full-on convert.
Like Brees, Stafford was an all-around athlete, a great baseball player for Highland Park. Under the tutelage of Allen, Stafford led Highland Park to the Class 4A Division I championship in 2005, throwing for 4,018 yards and 38 touchdowns that year.
The evolution of 7-on-7
Where high school players in cold-weather states like Wisconsin tend to participate in other sports during the offseason, players in warm-weather states like Texas and California keep developing their football skills in increasingly popular 7-on-7 leagues, which feature a non-contact, passing-only version of the game. Shortly after the school year ends in these states, many high school football players jump right into 7-on-7.
Ryan Tannehill, who prepped at Big Spring High School, told me that he threw about 7,000 passes in 7-on-7 play between his junior and senior year of high school. Despite going to a school that focused on the run, Tannehill was able to hone his passing skills, which explains the appeal of 7-on-7 football. It's like golf; if you practice your swing 200 times more than I do, you're going to be a better golfer than me.
This innovation absolutely influences the way the game is played today. I don't think that, for example, Roger Staubach played 7-on-7 football.
Likewise, Andrew Luck (Stratford High School in Houston) and Robert Griffin III (Copperas Cove High School), epitomize the kind of quarterback that Texas produces today. Both are athletic, versatile signal-callers who benefited greatly from playing 7-on-7 football.
Nick Foles is not a starter -- at least, not yet. But the current Philadelphia Eagles backup attended the same high school, Westlake, that Brees did, and smashed many of Brees' records, including career passing yards (5,658) and passing touchdowns (56). Another standout athlete, Foles was also an MVP for the Westlake basketball team.
All of these quarterbacks came up in a state where, according to Allen, more than 80 percent of high school teams run passing offenses. The pass-heavy game gives quarterbacks the chance to get in on about 20 more plays per contest than they would in run-centered offenses.
People are copycats. If a system helps one team win, other teams will implement their versions of it. The wishbone was once very popular in Texas, where it originated. But then Brees and others helped show the world a different way, and now the state is making quarterbacks like Tannehill and Foles.
In the process, the famously football-mad state has helped to change the game as we know it today.