Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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If I'm a top executive of a team entertaining the possibility of picking up a young franchise quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, I'm spending the next few months studying the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams, to see how they were able to get their young field generals playing at a Pro Bowl level by their second seasons.
After watching Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Jared Goff compile a 21-10 combined record in 2017, I'm more convinced than ever that these teams have given the rest of the league a blueprint for developing young quarterbacks while also winning games. From a team standpoint, the Eagles and Rams reside atop their divisions while the Cowboys are within striking distance of a playoff berth, despite the loss of their top running back.
While some observers object to judging quarterbacks solely on wins and losses, the individual performances of each passer suggest these teams have figured it out. Just take a look at their stats:
Carson Wentz: 59.7 percent completion rate; 25:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 103.4 passer rating.
Dak Prescott: 63.7 percent completion rate; 16:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 87.6 passer rating.
Jared Goff: 61.3 percent completion rate; 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 98.9 passer rating.
In a league where a 60 percent completion rate and a 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is desired by every coach in the game, this trio of second-year passers has exceeded that standard in spectacular fashion. But the numbers don't tell the entire story, as each of these playmakers could be viewed as a top-10 player at the position, regardless of the applicable metric.
With that in mind, I decided to see if I could find a common denominator that led to each player's success, and I believe there are three factors that have helped these young quarterbacks succeed:
- Creative coaches with adaptable systems.
- Veteran supporting cast.
- Strong offensive line.
That all might seem like Captain Obvious territory. But it's worth noting that the Eagles, Cowboys and Rams figured it out while others (see: the Cleveland Browns) have been unable to nurture a young playmaker at the position. Thus, I believe there is merit to discussing how each of these factors is critical to the development of a young QB1 in this league.
For years, there was a belief that college quarterbacks weren't prepared for the NFL game, due to the proliferation of the spread offense. According to traditionalists, the predominant scheme of choice in college stymied the growth and development of players at the position.
"So many times, you're evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle, never used a snap count. They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine back in 2015. "That ain't playing quarterback. There's no leadership involved there. There might be leadership on the bench, but when you get them and they have to use verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out and change the snap count, they are light years behind."
It's time to debunk that myth. Wentz, Prescott and Goff each played in a version of the spread as collegians before making their way into the league. While the success was immediate for Wentz and Prescott, the rapid development of Goff in his second season continues to affirm my notion that coaching matters in the league. Looking at each of their respective situations, I believe you can see how creative game-planning helped each player succeed.
In Philadelphia, Wentz was surrounded by three QB gurus (Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo) who were willing to build a system around his talents as a mobile playmaker. The Eagles have incorporated several spread-offense staples, including RPOs (run-pass option) and zone-read plays, to help their young passer find his groove as a passer. Keep in mind, Pederson is a former high school coach (he compiled a 33-7 record during a four-year stint as the head coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana) who was forced become more flexible and adaptable with his schemes to elevate the performance of his players.
Prescott didn't step into a system that was built for him in Dallas, but the coaching staff slowly integrated comfortable concepts to help him thrive as the team's surprise starter last season following Tony Romo's injury. The Cowboys extensively featured empty formations on passing downs to clear the picture for the young quarterback (defenses are unable to disguise against empty formations due to the spread alignments of the receivers) while creating high-completion-percentage-passing opportunities on the perimeter. In addition, the team mixed in some zone-read and designed quarterback run plays, particularly down in the red zone, to take advantage of his skills as a dual-threat playmaker.
The Rams are really the team that others should watch, based on Goff's transformation this season under first-year head coach Sean McVay. The second-year passer was widely viewed as a bust after a dismal seven-game showing as a rookie, but the team's new head coach has helped him play at an MVP level this year. McVay's clever scheming has put Goff in his comfort zone and increased his big-play production while reducing his miscues. He has blended some quicks and Air Raid staples into a game plan that also features a play-action passing game stocked with vertical routes. As a result, Goff is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt while posting an impressive 98.9 passer rating.
"In today's game, coaches have to figure out how to get their young quarterbacks up to speed while having a long-term plan to help them fit into the team's preferred system," said a former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator. "You have to find a way to win games with a youngster, which may require using some of their college stuff early in their careers ... Some coaches will resist doing it, but if you're going to win with a young guy, you need to meet them halfway."
From a personnel standpoint, there are a few things that need to be in place for a young quarterback to succeed. They need to be protected by a solid offensive line, and they need veteran playmakers on the perimeter to enhance their games. The O-line piece is a no-brainer, because we've seen plenty of quarterbacks struggle when they take a beating in the pocket. Quarterbacks young and old become jittery when they feel the pocket collapsing, so it is imperative to build an offensive line around them that allows them to throw without facing duress.
The Cowboys and Eagles have featured two of the best offensive lines in football for the past few years, which is why Prescott and Wentz might've enjoyed immediate success as rookie starters. Neither guy had to withstand a steady beating in the pocket, and that allowed them to learn how to play with their "eyes up" (eyes downfield spotting receivers) at the top of their drops.
Goff, meanwhile, didn't have that luxury, with the Rams' leaky offensive line playing a huge role in his shaky performance. He rarely had sufficient time in the pocket to identify his second and third receivers in the progression, and that certainly impacted his play. This offseason, the Rams fixed the offensive line with the signings of Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan. The Whitworth signing in particular shored up Goff's blindside and provided the offensive line with a veteran presence in the huddle. After taking 26 sacks in seven games in 2016, Goff is on pace to take fewer sacks as a 16-game starter (15 sacks through 10 games), which is a huge development for an offense that struggled mightily a season ago.
On the perimeter, it isn't a coincidence that each of the young passers has performed better since being surrounded with veteran playmakers at wide receiver. Naturally, Prescott fell into a situation in Dallas with Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten occupying the No. 1 and No. 2 options in the passing game. Those veterans could be counted on to be in the right spot at the right time when Prescott hit the top of his drop, which builds trust and confidence between thrower and catcher.
In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Wentz and Goff didn't have those reliable options available to them as rookies, but they've benefitted from the arrival of dependable pass catchers in the offseason. The Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to fill the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the perimeter, with Nelson Agholor moving into the slot. As a result, Wentz has seen his touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating improve significantly.
Goff has thrived with Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins occupying the lead roles in the passing game. Each guy is a dependable route runner and pass catcher with trustworthy games. Throw in a mature rookie like Cooper Kupp, and the Rams' quarterback suddenly has a trio of weapons that he can trust on the perimeter.
SAINTS' OFFENSIVE ADJUSTMENTS: Getting the most out of Drew Brees
Speaking of how a savvy coach can elevate the quarterback play for his team, I believe plenty of lessons can be learned from Sean Payton's retooling of the New Orleans Saints' offense to help Drew Brees operate at an MVP level this season. Sure, we've grown accustomed to seeing the 10-time Pro Bowler's name at the top of the passing charts, but there's something different about the way the veteran is putting up numbers this season. Instead of stepping into the batter's box looking for home runs, Brees has become an Ichiro Suzuki-like hitter adept at spraying the ball all over the yard for singles and doubles.
While the subtle change in No. 9's game doesn't jump off the page when you look at a stat sheet, anyone who's been paying close attention to the Saints should be able to point out the veteran's increased reliance on the short game. From the beginning of 2016 onward, Brees has tossed the fifth-highest percentage of short passes (under 10 yards), with 53.6 percent of his throws targeted at that range.
Although he has posted the third-highest passer rating (105.4) and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25:3 (or 8.3 percent) on "short" passes, I find it interesting that he exceeds the league average (48.7 percent) in short pass attempts by such a significant margin. You always think of Brees as a downfield attacker based on the numbers of deep seam throws that have dotted his highlight reels over the years, but it's simply not the case. The veteran has become a masterful "dink and dunk" artist who prefers to stretch the field horizontally instead of vertically at this stage of his career.
"Brees has become more of a short-game specialist later in [his] career," said a former NFL defensive coordinator with a long history of playing against Brees. "He will still take shots down the field, but he has to get it 'out and up' quickly to mask his declining arm strength. He can still hurt you with the deep ball, but primarily carves defenses up with an assortment of short passes."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film confirmed that the Saints' offense features a number of quick-rhythm passes designed for the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands quickly. The Saints will throw the ball to wide receivers or running backs on the perimeter to allow them to chew up yardage on various "catch and run" concepts like quick screens, snags and short-crossers. Those routes not only put the Saints' best playmakers on the move, but they are effective blitz-beaters to counter five-man (or more) pressures from the defense.
With the majority of the routes targeted at short distances, Brees is able to feast on layups to get into a groove. As a result, he is completing a league-best 71.6 percent of his passes. In addition, Brees leads all passers in completions of 20-plus yards with 45 "explosives" on the stat sheet. Looking even deeper at the numbers, I discovered that 74.9 percent of his throws this season were considered "short" passes, per Next Gen Stats, and he posted the ninth-fastest snap-to-throw times (2.55 seconds). Given the fact that 53.5 percent of Brees' passing yards are amassed through "YAC" (yards after catch), the Saints have gotten more production out of their quarterback by featuring layups and the quick game prominently in the plan.
"The Saints' passing game puts the onus on the defensive backs to make tackles," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "If your team can't tackle in space, you have no chance."
That's why I would expect teams to not only copy what Payton has done from a tactical standpoint, but to take a page from the Saints' personnel approach. The decision to feature a pair of hybrids (Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara) in the backfield has made life easier for the quarterback. Each player is a capable runner adept at running between the tackles or on the edges while also displaying outstanding skills as pass catchers. This allows the Saints to use the same plays with either playmaker in the game.
With the duo leading the league in combined rushing yards (1,265), yards from scrimmage (1,925) and scrimmage touchdowns (15), the Saints' 1-2 punch at running back has helped Brees rack up yardage on an assortment of screens (slow and quick) and some isolated routes from spread or empty formations. Not to mention, No. 9 will routinely drop the ball off to his running backs as designated outlets to combat opponents intent on taking away deeper throws.
This brings me to how Payton's retooling of the offense could play a role in retaining the veteran's services going forward. While the free-agent quarterback market could drive up Brees' compensation into the $30 million range when his deal expires at the end of the season, Payton certainly knows his quarterback's limitations and the work the team has done to elevate his play. He can't allow the Saints to severely overpay for a veteran quarterback who is being lifted up by a supporting cast that perfectly complements his game. Sure, you want to bring him back due to his high football IQ, leadership skills and competitive demeanor, but you know that he can no longer get Ws simply on the strength of his right arm alone. If Brees is willing to take a below-market deal, ala Tom Brady in New England, to allow the Saints to keep the support staff in place, Payton and Co. can continue to show the rest of the league how to win with a franchise quarterback that lost a bit of his A-game.
PATS' DEFENSIVE TURNAROUND: How Belichick pulled it off
You remember, right? It was just after the Patriots gave up 400-plus yards for the fourth straight game while stumbling out of the gate to a 2-2 record. If that wasn't enough to generate snickers, the unit gave up 30-plus points in three of the Patriots' first four games, which was shocking for a team that led the NFL in scoring defense (giving up just 15.6 points per game) a season ago.
The critics were out in full proclaiming the demise of the Patriots after most of the football world predicted an unobstructed run at another championship. The haters cited the lack of a pass rush and leaky coverage as major concerns. In addition, the loss of several blue-chip defensive players over the years (Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins were traded away; Rob Ninkovich retired; Dont'a Hightower is out for 2017 with a torn pectoral) led to questions about their personnel stacking up against the elites in the league. While all of those issues were certainly valid and somewhat alarming, I've seen Bill Belichick engineer enough quick fixes before that I was holding off on pressing the panic button.
The five-time Super Bowl winner is a masterful tactician adept at tweaking his scheme to put his players in a position to succeed on the field. Whether it's calling more zone coverage or featuring man-to-man or blitz pressures, Belichick will find a way to elevate the play of his players through clever tactics. Looking at the Patriots' defensive personnel, the unit lacks a dominant pass rusher, and the defensive backs are ideally suited to play man coverage on the perimeter.
With that in mind, the Patriots are a gap-control team at the point of attack fully intent on stopping the run. On passing plays, they use a "mush" rush (controlled pass rush where defenders rush to the depth of the quarterback's drop) to force quarterbacks to throw from the pocket. They complement the controlled rush with simple man-to-man tactics that take away the layups from the quarterback.
"Belichick is a big believer in man-to-man because he can make the quarterback throw the ball towards the sidelines for minimal gains," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "He is always going to keep the middle of the field closed and force the quarterback to throw the ball the farthest for the fewest yards ... some coaches view man coverage as risky, but if you teach it right, you can make life difficult on the quarterback. He's done it for years, and he's doing it again with this squad."
Studying the Next Gen Stats from this season, it is apparent that the Patriots are opting for coverage over pressure. The defense only blitzes (five or more rushing) on 21.2 percent of their defensive snaps, which is down slightly from the 21.5 percent rate from 2016. The low blitz rate coincides with a 20.2 percent defensive pressure rate that puts them at the bottom of the league in that category (third-worst). With the lack of pressure giving quarterbacks more time to throw in the pocket, it's not surprising the opponent's snap-to-throw averages (2.90 seconds) exceed the league average (2.68) by a wide margin.
But here's the thing. This is how the Patriots played in 2016 when they featured a three-man rush on 26 percent of their snaps while logging the seventh-most man coverage plays, per Pro Football Focus. New England is simply not a blitz-heavy team with its personnel, so it is on the secondary to execute a game plan that places the onus on them to stick to their assigned receivers and use the designated help accordingly.
As a heavy Cover-1 (man free) team with a deep middle safety and "low-hole" player (linebacker or safety sitting in the middle at 8-10 yards), the Patriots instruct their corners, particularly their slot defenders, to play with outside leverage to funnel receivers to a help defender. This tactic essentially eliminates the out-breaking throws by alignment while also taking away inside routes with scheming. When executed properly, it forces quarterbacks to make a high number of tight-window throws to move the ball down the field.
"The coverage scheme is simple by design, but there is a nuance to their approach," added the former NFL defensive coordinator. "Players have to understand where the coverage is vulnerable and play with superb discipline to take away big-play opportunities. They work on it from Day 1 of OTAs so they understand exactly where they are supposed to be at all times."
The Patriots will also mix in some "2-Man" (two-deep, man under) to throw in a changeup for the quarterback, but it is another safe-man coverage that takes away deep balls while condensing the field for the passer.
Looking at the numbers, I noticed the Patriots played man coverage on nearly 50 percent of their defensive snaps this season (via PFF), which plays to the strengths of their defensive backs. Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore are bump-and-run corners ideally suited to play tight coverage on the perimeter. With Devin McCourty still considered one of the best centerfield safeties in the game, the marriage between scheme and talent appears to be a perfect match.
It was only a matter of time before the Patriots fixed their early-season woes. The issues that plagued the team were primarily communication errors that were easily correctable. The defensive backs simply needed to understand the "Banjo" and "Switch" calls to handle bunch and cluster alignments (two or more receivers aligned in close proximity). With more reps facing exotic looks and motions, the Patriots' defenders eventually figured out how to communicate the calls to make sure everyone is on the same page.
The added reps and increased communication has certainly worked, as the Patriots have reduced their passer rating allowed to 90.1 after posting a 110.1 passer rating allowed during the first four weeks (allowing 78.2 from Weeks 5-11, 11th best in the NFL). Although the rate is still not at a championship level, it shows tremendous progress and suggests that the defense is rounding back into form. Considering the team has allowed only 12.5 points per game over the past six games, there's no reason to fret about the defense preventing another championship run.