When Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron take the field in one of the biggest games of the college football season, NFL scouts will spend most of the day comparing and contrasting their impressive games. While each guy brings a set of skills that is conducive to winning at a high level, it is fascinating to me how their games are so different.
Given some time to dig into the coaches' tape to take a closer look at their respective skills, I thought I would break down each of their games and determine which quarterback enjoys the advantage heading into their colossal matchup on Saturday. Here are my thoughts:
The changing nature of college football has prompted coaches to seek a better athlete at the position. Coaches value mobility and escapability in the pocket, while also appreciating the difficulty in defending a quarterback capable of executing zone-read concepts and designed quarterback runs. Manziel is the quintessential dual-threat quarterback with explosive speed, quickness and agility. He routinely eludes defenders in the pocket with his slippery running style, but he is at his best on the move in the open field. Few defenders are capable of bringing him down in one-on-one situations, which is why he is the reigning SEC rushing champion.
McCarron is not a dynamic athlete of Manziel's caliber, but he displays adequate mobility in the pocket. He routinely side-steps rushers and has enough quickness to escape when protection breaks down. Although he lacks the speed and burst to create big plays with his feet, he is athletic enough to function in movement-based schemes that require the quarterback to maneuver inside or outside of the pocket.
The advent of the spread offense doesn't require quarterbacks to display elite arm talent to succeed, but most offensive coaches covet passers with the ability to make tightrope throws to every area of the field. Additionally, top quarterbacks are capable of changing the speed and trajectory of their throws to fit balls into tight windows. Manziel is one of the most accomplished passers in college football, but he doesn't display elite arm talent. He is a quick-rhythm thrower who uses superb timing and anticipation to compensate for his lack of superior arm strength. In fact, Manziel's success as an intermediate- and deep-ball thrower is largely due to his ability to get the ball out of his hands before his intended receiver comes out of the break. This is important to note because elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning have been able to overcome their limited arm strength by mastering the art of anticipation and timing.
McCarron is an efficient passer with superb arm strength and touch. He capably makes throws to every area with zip and velocity. Although he doesn't get many opportunities to showcase his talents in Alabama's run-first offense, McCarron has shown glimpses of arm talent on a number of deep tosses to WRs Amari Cooper and Christion Jones. In addition, I watched McCarron repeatedly deliver darts on intermediate and deep throws while I checked out his passing exhibition at the Manning Passing Academy.
Elite quarterbacks are expected to possess the skills to win games from the pocket. Whether it's delivering accurate throws on time or anticipating and defeating the blitz with quick-rhythm passes, quarterbacks must be able to function in the midst of chaos. Additionally, it helps to have a quarterback capable of escaping pressure with his mobility to punish the defense for utilizing a high-risk tactic. Manziel has shown exceptional poise, patience and awareness in the pocket. He has a remarkable sense of the pass rush and rarely appears rattled when the pocket collapses. In fact, I believe he is at his best when forced to play a "sandlot" game because he has an uncanny feel for finding open receivers while on the move. This has not only resulted in numerous big plays for the Aggies, but it has made him nearly indefensible even though defenses occasionally come up with the right call.
McCarron is just as effective from the pocket, but he gets the job done in a different manner. He picks apart defenses during the pre-snap phase and routinely gets the Crimson Tide in the proper play call. After the snap, he displays poise and patience working through his progressions to identify the open receiver. He is disciplined enough to take what the defense gives him in coverage. This patient approach is not sexy on the surface, but it is the foundation of success for elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Most importantly, it is a key component of the winning game plan that has helped the Crimson Tide to back-to-back national championships.
Every coach that I've ever played or worked for has stressed the importance of managing the game to his quarterbacks. While the outside world has made the term "game manager" derogatory, championship teams are typically led by quarterbacks that make smart decisions with the ball and avoid the costly mistakes that result in negative plays.
Lost in the commotion created by Manziel's razzle-dazzle playing style and demonstrative antics is superb management of the game. He takes extreme care of the ball (only 10 interceptions in 15 career games) and displays an uncanny awareness of the moment. He appears to know exactly what is needed in every situation, and has a knack for getting it done despite the circumstances.
McCarron has been lauded for his impeccable management style since taking over as the starter in 2011. He rarely turns the ball over (enjoyed a streak of 291 pass attempts without an interception in 2011 and 2012) and understands how to make the winning play when it counts. While he certainly would like the freedom to sling the ball around the yard, he told me at the Manning Passing Academy that he is "obsessed with rings," not numbers, as the starting quarterback at Alabama. With a 25-2 career record and a dresser drawer full of championship hardware, McCarron understands the correlation between effective game management and winning games.
Great quarterbacks are measured by their ability to make winning plays at key moments. Based on that standard alone, there isn't a better clutch performer in college football than Manziel. He plays as well as any player I've seen under the bright lights; he appears to love the big stage. He showcased those traits a season ago when he ventured to Tuscaloosa to lead the Aggies to a shocking upset win over the defending national champions. He dropped dime after dime on the Crimson Tide in critical stages of the game, and he never appeared rattled by their roughhouse tactics. He continued to display that same moxie in a big win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl by delivering colossal knockout shots with his improvisational plays.
In fact, it's not illogical to suggest that his clutch factor was also on display in this year's season opener against Rice when he put on a spectacular three-touchdown exhibition in the second half with the media intensely critiquing his every movement after serving a brief suspension for his role in an autograph scandal. While some guys shrink under the bright lights, Manziel embraces these moments and takes his game to another level. That's a trait that is hard to find in players.
McCarron is also a clutch performer, albeit in a different manner. He has consistently stepped up to play well in big games, including the last two BCS National Championship games against LSU and Notre Dame, respectively. Additionally, he engineered a late-game comeback against LSU on the road that featured a handful of clutch throws with the game hanging in the balance. Although his career resume lacks a number of big wins keyed by his feats as a passer, the fact that he has shown flashes of poise is enough to earn McCarron high marks in the clutch department.
It's hard to make a case against either player based on their individual and team accomplishments. However, I believe Manziel gets the nod in this debate because of his ability to take Texas A&M from an also-ran in the SEC to a legitimate title contender. From his dazzling runs to his improvisational scramble tosses, Manziel makes game-changing plays that help the Aggies compete with traditional powerhouses. Although McCarron also makes his fair share of plays for the Crimson Tide, the fact that he is surrounded by a better supporting cast makes it hard to place him above Manziel in this argument.