Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at one of the most enticing storylines of the young season ...
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Why are so many young, inexperienced quarterbacks thriving this season?
That's the million-dollar question being asked around the league, with evaluators having watched Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Trevor Siemian, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett play like seasoned vets in the pocket over the first three weeks of the 2016 campaign. Their collective success -- despite their collective inexperience -- could lead some general managers, coaches and scouts to rethink the traditional methods for developing a signal caller in the NFL.
Remember, playing quarterback in this league is supposed to be the hardest job in sports. We've heard coaches and scouts frequently cite that narrative as an excuse for some of the pedestrian play that we've seen at the position for years, but the success of this young crop of quarterbacks is making it harder for decision makers to justify playing and paying mid-level tenured veterans when they've already shown the football world they are nothing more than "bridge" quarterbacks.
That's why emergency meetings are being held everywhere to discuss how these teams have been able to quickly prepare these young quarterbacks to not only step onto the field right away, but to play winning football with nothing more than a few OTAs, minicamps, training-camp practices and preseason snaps under their belt.
How is it possible to get a young guy ready to handle the rigors of playing a complex position at a high level with minimal preparation? To me, it boils down to three key elements: system, supporting cast and coaching staff.
Now, I know it is impossible to reduce succeeding at the highest level to a handful of elements that should exist within most high school football programs, but I truly believe the teams succeeding with young QBs at the helm are built to succeed regardless of who takes the snaps. These teams not only use adaptable systems or schemes that can be molded around the talents of their young passers, but they have enough playmakers on the perimeter to allow the quarterback to act as nothing more than a mailman from the pocket. In addition, these teams are loaded with excellent teachers with real NFL experience.
Sounds so simple, right?
I'm not trying to undersell the challenge of building a winning team, but there's something that we all can learn from evaluating how a group of inexperienced quarterbacks can combine for an 11-1 record through three weeks of regular season play.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I'm convinced the adaptability of the scheme and play caller has helped each of these quarterbacks enjoy immediate success. Gary Kubiak and Doug Pederson run variations of the West Coast offense in Denver and Philadelphia, respectively. The system features a number of traditional concepts (Y-stick, double slants or slant/flat, flanker drive and all-go) that are staples of nearly every high school, college or pro playbook. While those elements make up the core of the game plan, Kubiak and Pederson have sprinkled in their own spices to accentuate the talents of their players. For instance, the Broncos have thrown more speed outs and hinges (10- or 14-yard stops) to take advantage of Siemian's strong arm. Meanwhile, the Eagles have used more bubble-screen concepts and movement-based passes to maximize Wentz's skills and experience as a mobile playmaker adept at running a spread offense.
In Dallas, the Cowboys have featured a number of empty formations on passing downs to allow Prescott to play in a version of the spread that mirrors the scheme he thrived in at Mississippi State. In addition, the Cowboys also have called a number of bootleg passes that allow Prescott to utilize his skills as a run/pass threat on the perimeter. Considering how comfortable he is executing those kinds of plays, it is not surprising that Prescott doesn't have a single giveaway through three games.
While those examples are certainly impressive, the Patriots' flexibility with their quarterbacks takes it to another level. Josh McDaniels and his staff featured a quick-rhythm passing game with Garoppolo operating from the shotgun or under center, but New England modified the offense to better suit Brissett's skills when he started for the team on a short week. The rookie executed some spread concepts and movement plays, including a handful of speed-option runs that showcased his athleticism. The stark contrast between the play calls for each guy highlighted the depth and diversity of the Patriots' playbook.
That brings us back to the impact quality coaching has on the performance of these young quarterbacks. I don't believe it is a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the rookies or inexperienced quarterbacks who are thriving are being taught by former NFL players with extensive experience as backup QBs or spot starters (see: Pederson and Frank Reich in Philadelphia; Jason Garrett and Wade Wilson in Dallas; Kubiak in Denver). These coaches not only understand the challenges of playing the game, but they also have a keen sense of the level of preparation that it takes to succeed with limited reps. As former backups, they rarely took extensive snaps in practice, but they were expected to play well when their number was called. This could allow them to streamline some of the information needed to play the position because they have a better perspective on what is really necessary to succeed on the field.
"They've lived it." one AFC executive told me, explaining the advantage a former NFL quarterback-turned-coach could offer a young signal caller. "They understand how to prepare to play with limited reps, and that insight is invaluable. Plus, they are probably a little more patient when it comes to teaching skills and concepts in the classroom and on the field. They aren't 'textbook' coaches, but real-life teachers. I think that helps."
Although I don't believe playing in the NFL is a prerequisite for coaching in the league, I do feel it provides a different perspective that can help the coach when he's offering tips to accelerate a player's development. For instance, Pederson's experience as a bridge QB to Donovan McNabb might've helped him craft a plan for Wentz's offseason work. He personally watched how the Eagles developed McNabb into a Pro Bowl player, and I'm sure he referenced those notes when he mapped out a blueprint for his prized pupil in 2016.
Speaking of blueprints, I think we are seeing that plugging a rookie quarterback into a lineup that already features established stars on the perimeter can accelerate his development. Pro Bowl-caliber pass catchers and runners not only alleviate some of the pressure on a young quarterback to make plays from the pocket, but they can erase his mistakes with their playmaking skills. When I look at the situations in Dallas (Dez Bryant and Jason Witten), Denver (Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and a star-studded defense) and New England (Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett and now Rob Gronkowski), it is easy to see how a young quarterback could lean on his playmakers to carry the load. This allows the coaching staff to put together a game plan for the rookie to simply act as a distributor from the pocket. This might not appear to be a big deal on the surface, but think about the confidence an inexperienced player gains from looking around the huddle and seeing some of his favorite "Madden" players at his disposal.
This is rarely the case with a top pick, but teams picking later in the draft are normally playoff contenders -- and their rosters are typically stocked with elite talent at key positions.
Overall, the early success of these young quarterbacks probably can't be replicated by downtrodden franchises, but it could encourage the decision makers of mid-level squads and perennial contenders to take more chances on quarterback prospects on draft day. With young players forced to play on budget deals, the thought of a rookie passer surrounded by veteran playmakers and a quality coaching staff has more appeal than it did a few weeks ago.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Is Odell Beckham Jr.'s emotional style a legit problem?
Odell Beckham Jr. has dominated the NFL like no young receiver since Randy Moss. He's set a number of records in his first 30 pro games while showcasing a flair for the dramatic as a playmaker on the perimeter. Although his spectacular catches and exuberance have made him a cult hero among young fans, Beckham's unbridled emotions have made him a bit of a powder keg on the sidelines when things aren't going his way. Last week, we witnessed one of his outbursts when he lost a fight with a kicking net. After hearing Ben McAdoo say this week that Beckham "needs to control his emotions better and be less of a distraction to himself and his teammates," I couldn't help but wonder if his behavior really does affect Big Blue's performance on game day. To get some perspective, I reached out to some folks around the league and asked them the following question:
Do you think OBJ's flamboyance and sideline antics are a distraction to his team?
NFC scout: "It has to wear on guys after a while. It doesn't matter how good the player is -- it eventually rubs some guys the wrong way."
AFC defensive assistant coach: "You just ignore him. He is, who he is ... As long as he is making plays, it doesn't matter to me what he is doing on the sideline."
NFC pro personnel director: "He definitely needs to keep his emotions in check, but it's a part of who he is and it's his competitive nature."
AFC senior personnel executive: "OBJ's flamboyance only becomes an issue when his numbers decline. If he stops making plays, then you begin to worry about the impact that it could have on the team. But criticism is a little overblown at this point."
I don't really understand why Beckham's sideline demeanor has generated so much attention. Part of our love and adoration for him stems from the swagger, energy and enthusiasm that he displays on the field. Whether it's his celebratory dances after touchdowns or the way he energizes the crowd on the sideline after big plays, OBJ's flamboyance adds some sizzle to the Giants, and I believe his teammates feed off his energy. While he certainly needs to control his emotions in order to consistently perform at the highest level, it is important for the team to allow him to express himself, thus enabling him to reach his comfort zone. This might require dealing with some of the outbursts that we witnessed last weekend, but at the same time, he posted another 100-yard game and dominated his matchup with nemesis Josh Norman.
In the end, Beckham's performance and production will outweigh any of his antics. He is unquestionably one of the best players in the NFL and teams tolerate more from their elite talents. Considering how his spectacular play has benefitted everyone in the organization, including McAdoo and Eli Manning, I think the Giants would be wise to pause before making their star player the scapegoat in press conferences.
NEXT-GEN STATS: What's up with Carson Palmer and the Cards' offense?
Carson Palmer, for the most part, has played at an extremely high level since linking up with Bruce Arians in the desert in 2013, enjoying the best season of his career last year. But I'm beginning to wonder if the 36-year-old is starting to lose his mojo. Despite starting the season with a pair ofsolid performances in which he posted passer ratings of 104.7 and 124.9, respectively, Palmer hasn't looked like the same pinpoint thrower who has diced up defensive backfields with a chef's precision for most of his tenure with the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, I know it's easy for me to suggest the veteran is a little off after his four-interception effort against the Buffalo Bills last week, but I believe Palmer's play started declining near the end of last season, with the regression continuing through the first three games of the 2016 campaign. Here are some numbers for you to chew on ...
Since Week 16 of the 2015 season (including the playoffs), Palmer has posted a 58 percent completion rate, with a 12:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 77.1 passer rating. Not to mention, he posted just two 300-yard games during that span after surpassing the 300-yard mark nine times in the 14 games preceding his slump. With those numbers in hand, I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film to see if Palmer's sagging play was due to his physical deterioration or wily defensive coordinators finally catching up to the Cardinals' scheme.
From a talent standpoint, Palmer remains one of the best pure passers in the NFL. He whips the ball to every area of the field with exceptional zip and velocity. In addition, he continues to show outstanding touch and ball placement on intermediate and deep throws. When he's disciplined with his footwork and fundamentals in the pocket, Palmer is not only capable of making every throw in the book, but he can still do it in spectacular fashion.
Granted, he's not the spry athlete he was when he entered the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, but he remains an upper-echelon quarterback with solid physical tools. That's why I believe Palmer's recent struggles can be blamed on opponents figuring out the Cardinals and not on a decline from a physical standpoint.
That's not to diss Arian's play design or scheme. The clever offensive architect does a great job of creating big-play opportunities for his playmakers on the perimeter on deep balls. Last season, Palmer thrived in the "bombs away" scheme on the way to ranking third in the NFL with 15 passes of 40-plus yards, behind only Ben Roethlisberger (17) and Eli Manning (16). In addition, he finished with the third-most passes of 20-plus yards (65) and tied Blake Bortles, Cam Newton and Eli Manning with the second-most touchdown passes (35).
Considering Palmer's success pushing the ball downfield, I'm not surprised teams are taking the vertical game out of the equation when facing the Cardinals. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I've noticed that defensive coordinators are positioning their safeties deeper in coverage, to discourage the veteran from taking shots. Although defensive play callers are mixing in a variety of man or zone looks, the elimination of the deep ball has been the focal point of the most successful defensive game plans against Palmer and the Cardinals. Going back to last season's NFC Championship Game, the Panthers used a variety of zone-blitzes and split-field coverages (Cover 2 or Cover 4/Quarters) to take away the deep shot.
In Week 1 of this season, New England played an extensive amount of Cover 1 (man-free) in the back end to limit the deep ball. The Patriots positioned their cornerbacks with an outside shade to funnel receivers to the designated helpers between the hashes (post safety or underneath cutter). With the cornerbacks perfectly aligned to take away the go-route on the outside (the outside leverage forces receivers wider to get down the boundary) and slot defenders poised to take away the out-breaking routes by alignment, Palmer was forced to throw the ball into crowds on short and intermediate routes over the middle.
Buffalo used a combination of both strategies to force Palmer into a shaky performance in Week 3. Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman mixed in some Cover 1, with the corners shadowing from distance to complement their "quarters" coverage looks. The corners varied their techniques to keep Arizona's receivers on their toes, but it was apparent they were instructed to stay on top of their assigned pass catchers instead of playing from a trail or hip-pocket position. As a result, the Bills were able to keep the ball in front of the defense and eliminate the big plays that fuel the Cardinals' offense.
Looking at the stats, the tactics have worked well. This season, Palmer has completed just 43.6 percent of his passes that travel 10-plus air yards, for a 47.6 passer rating and a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last season, Palmer posted a 55.4 percent completion rate on such passes, along with a 106.8 passer rating on the strength of a 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
While Palmer will bear the brunt of the criticism for those poor numbers, I think some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of the Cardinals' receivers for their inability to create separation on the perimeter. Michael Floyd, in particular, has struggled to get away from coverage on the outside. Floyd also leads the team in drops (three) and hasn't put his stamp on the game like a dominant playmaker should. In addition, opponents have made a concerted effort to take away John Brown on vertical routes. Last season, he tallied six catches of at least 40 yards, but he has yet to deliver an explosive play in 2016.
While the 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald has played at a high level, he is certainly not a deep threat at this stage of his career. Thus, the Cardinals are forced to play small ball in a scheme that doesn't feature a lot of "dink and dunk" concepts. Until Arians tweaks his game plan or the Cardinals' receivers find a way to shake free from the smothering coverage on the perimeter, Palmer will continue to look like an aging quarterback losing his game, despite possessing the physical tools to play at an elite level.
FALCONS OFFENSE: Why this year is different than 2015
Riding a strong defense has been the formula for success in the NFC of late, but the 2-1 Atlanta Falcons could flip the script by relying on a high-powered offense to spark a playoff run this season.
Dan Quinn's "Dirty Birds" are torching the NFL with an offense that features a red-hot quarterback, a dynamic 1-2 punch at running back and a premier WR1 who is just about unstoppable on the perimeter. Plus, the Falcons have assembled an offensive line that's beginning to own the line of scrimmage while providing plenty of protection for Matt Ryan to direct an explosive aerial attack that's creating problems for defensive coordinators.
Skeptics might doubt the Falcons' nice start after watching the team jump out to 5-0 in 2015 before stumbling to the finish line with a .500 record. But this year is different. The Falcons are a more balanced unit, and their diverse attack makes them a nightmare matchup, particularly when they are taking care of the ball.
The Falconslead the NFL in scoring offense (34.7 points per game) and total offense (448.0 yards per game) while also ranking within the top five in rushing offense (136.0 yards per game) and passing offense (312.0 yards per game). The attack is clicking on all cylinders and maximizing the talents of every playmaker in the lineup.
Starting with the quarterback, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has tweaked his scheme to help Ryan regain his Pro Bowl form. The wily play designer has constructed a complementary misdirection passing game that perfectly matches the zone-based running concepts that have become a staple of the Falcons' offensive attack. From the stretch-bootleg passes out of various run-heavy sets to traditional play-action concepts with intermediate and vertical routes, Ryan has been thriving in a scheme built on deception and backfield illusions.
The ninth-year pro is completing 70.9 percent of his passes with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 119.0 this season. He has averaged 323.3 passing yards per game and extended his streak of passing performances of 200-plus yards to 42 games. Those numbers are impressive, but his ability to avoid the big mistake is what has struck me the most. Ryan only has one turnover through three games after finishing with 21 giveaways in 2015. Part of his success in avoiding turnovers can be attributed to the Falcons' deep and talented pass-catching corps (tight ends included) and a diverse call sheet.
Last season, Julio Jones accounted for 31.3 percent of the Falcons' scrimmage yards. This season, the team is using more of its weaponry in the passing game. Nine players have caught at least four passes to date, and five playmakers enter Week 4 with nine or more receptions on the books. Thus, opponents are forced to defend the entire field, rather than focusing exclusively on shutting down Atlanta's electric WR1.
Looking at the numbers, the tactic is working out well, with Ryan posting a 121.1 passer rating when targeting all other receivers compared to an 116.3 rating when throwing to Jones this season. This is a significant improvement over the 81.0 rating he posted in 2015 when he targeted any receiver outside of Jones (compared to a 105.0 rating when throwing to his perennial Pro Bowl wideout).
This brings me back to Ryan, and how Shanahan has adapted his system to suit his quarterback's talents. The Falcons are running more no-huddle offense to create quicker tempo between plays and slow down the opposing pass rush. Ryan is given total control at the line and allowed to call his favorite plays. Still, Atlanta will jump in and out of the no-huddle based on the situation. For instance, the Falcons will hurry to the line following an "explosive" play (one covering more than 25 yards) to take advantage of stunned defenses reeling from an emotional turn of events. In addition, they will repeat successful plays (running plays) without a huddle to attack the defense before the defensive coordinator can make a quick adjustment.
With the experienced Ryan adept at directing a no-huddle offense, the Falcons' selective use of "tempo" has sparked an offense that's loaded with dangerous playmakers.
The Falcons' two-headed backfield monster has emerged as one of the most feared position groups in football. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are part of a unit that's combined for the most scrimmage yards (625) by running backs this season (Tennessee ranks second with 529). Unlike most tandems, in which the runners boast complementary skill sets, the Falcons' duo has similar traits (speed, elusiveness, burst, running style and receiving skills) with the ball in their hands. This allows Shanahan to simply call plays without worrying about which runner is on the field or which formation or personnel package is used on a given play. This tactic not only prevents defensive coordinators from honing in on tendencies, but it enables the team to evenly split the touches between the backs.
For Freeman, the move to a platoon system is good for business. Yes, he earned Pro Bowl honors a season ago after gaining 1,634 yards from scrimmage, but he also appeared to wear down as the year went on. The third-year pro entered Week 3 with a streak of 10 straight games with fewer than 100 rushing yards while serving as the Falcons' primary ball carrier. As one half of the Falcons' new tandem, he is leading the NFL in yards per attempt (6.3) this season while displaying the speed, burst and wiggle that made him an unstoppable force during the first half of the 2015 campaign. Check out this 48-yard dash against the Saints in Week 3 (a game in which he rumbled for 152 yards on just 14 carries):
Not to be outdone, Coleman has settled in nicely as the second weapon in the backfield. He does most of his damage as a receiver on screens and swings, exhibiting soft hands and slippery open-field running skills on the perimeter. Coleman gets from zero to 60 in a hurry. Most importantly, he is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
In the play below, from Atlanta's Week 1 showdown with the Buccaneers, Coleman showcases his big-play ability and running skills on a 47-yard pass play. The Falcons are aligned in a split-back formation from the shotgun, with the shifty back set to the weak side. He slips out of the backfield on a rail route behind the snag route by Jones. With the Buccaneers in a blitz and playing man coverage behind the pressure, the free release allows Coleman to catch the ball on the run and jet down the sideline for a big gain:
For years, we watched Atlanta rise above the competition in the NFC South behind an electric offense that lit up scoreboards like a pinball machine. After faltering down the stretch in 2015 with an offense that essentially became a one-man show, the Falcons have had success with a spread-the-wealth approach that could make them a tough out down the stretch of the regular season -- and beyond.