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Tales of Mythology III

Myth #3: Mobility and the Quarterback


"He makes plays with his feet!"

That's something that you frequently hear from color announcers on football games when trying to explain the value of a quarterback. They're talking about the guy who can move the pocket, who can gain you yards out of the pocket, who loves the bootleg and the roll out. There's not a thing wrong with that - in Elway Country, there had better not be if you want to avoid being spammed, flamed, tarred and feathered (in no particular order). But the quarterback who really makes plays with his feet isn't necessarily the guy who leaves the pocket.

As always, it's best to define terms. This is not an argument against a QB who can roll out, bootleg, play action and throw across his body and even across the field. That requires a big arm and a natural skill that you will only rarely see; you have to love those guys. John Elway was the king of them; Jay Cutler can do it at times. That kind of skill is a huge boon if it's used right. There is a common debate as to whether the oft-heard idea that a college QB's ability to run with the football is really going to "re-define the QB position."

You will also hear this while listening to endless pre-draft and post-draft discussions: "He makes plays with his feet. That’s what sets him aside from other quarterbacks." How often have you heard this? You used to hear it with Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb. Michael Vick was another one of the supposed ‘new movement’ in quarterbacks (he came closest, before losing control of his life, and might achieve this yet, but he's a surprisingly patient pocket quarterback). Vince Young was a third. There were/are many. The running ability of these quarterbacks was going to redefine the position. What happened?

What happened in nearly every case (the jury remains out on Vick, who may play again) was that the demands of the modern NFL quarterback position are such that the position increasingly redefined these players rather than the other way around. The ability to process information, to make good decisions in a split moment and to make the throws that you need to requires all of the time that a good offensive line can give the quarterback. Over and again, what we saw from these players was that they had to do one of two things. They needed to stay in the pocket, look for their receivers and make the throws or give up on the pass quickly and try to run. If they did try to run, two things would consistently occur:

  1. They would miss receivers and the passing game would suffer.
  2. They would run, and in doing so they gave time to the faster modern NFL CBs and linebackers to converge on them and make tackles for short (or no) average gains.

Over and over, what we have seen is that the footwork that really does make the difference for an NFL quarterback is the ability to move within, not beyond, the pocket. Who is the best in the NFL? People’s opinions differ, but two names are never far from the top – Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Manning’s mechanics may be the best in the NFL. If you carefully watch his footwork, he shuffles his feet in the pocket. No, it’s not ‘happy feet’ – he’s constantly lined up with his targets, shoulder’s squared, arm just right, doing all the tiny things that change a quarterback from good to great. He’s not going to make a lot of plays by running the football. That’s why he has running backs and receivers. He knows that his job is to calmly survey the chaos, dissect the defense and throw a dagger into it. By focusing on those functions, Manning has risen to the top of the quarterback position.

Coming from the lineage that he does, Manning has had the benefit of many years of top coaching, coaching that not all quarterbacks receive (to put it mildly). One of the things that stood out when Broncos HC Josh McDaniels ran his first minicamp was that he gave minute, detailed instructions to both Kyle Orton and Chris Simms on how to take instruction, run the huddle, call the plays, take the snap, and throw the ball. His approach was that no matter which QB took the #1 slot, they would know how to do everything the Broncos Way and the rest of the players in the huddle would be able to count on things being done a certain way and done right. Since then, McDaniels has spent huge amounts of time working with each QB on footwork and mechanics, breaking down even the smallest movements. Orton’s habit of patting the football – called ‘burping the baby’ – will be a thing of the past. Simms’ inconsistency is going to be diminished or eliminated. What kind of a difference could that make?

Another example is coming to us out of Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers had what was, for all purposes, a rookie season last year and he made some rookie mistakes. As he came into minicamps and OTAs this year, his coaches presented him with a list of 10 things that he needed to change in order to become the kind of QB that he clearly has the skill to be. The very first on his list was changing his footwork within the pocket. Keep in mind what kind of QB you are looking at with Rodgers; he put up over 4,000 yards, threw 28 TDs with only 13 INTs and yet his first job in the offseason will be changing his footwork. I thought that summed up the importance of this factor.

The job of an NFL quarterback is to effectively analyze the defense, call the play, receive the ball, and either hand it off or pass it. If a quarterback is noted for running – and I’m thinking of Dante Culpepper, Michael Vick and Vince Young among many others, including Donovan McNabb in his younger days – they tend to think pass, no, run!. But the reality is, that’s not their job and it’s not generally an advantage to the club. 

Consider this question answered by Ross Tucker of Tucker is a former NFL player:

Could you comment on the issues that a 'mobile' QB creates for an offensive line in pass protection? I have noticed that various athletic and mobile QBs (Daunte Culpepper pre 2005 injury, Mike Vick, Matt Cassel, Ben Roethlisberger) seem to have a high number of sacks, even though they are considered to be very elusive and tough to bring down. Is it all on the offensive line for the high number of sacks?

--No name given, Corunna, Ontario

In my experience offensive linemen typically get excited when they initially work with a mobile quarterback because they feel as if that will help them give up less sacks, i.e., if they get beat, the quarterback may be able to avoid the pass rusher. That excitement, however, quickly gives way to the reality that a lot of times scrambling quarterbacks rack up higher sack numbers because they aren't always where you expect them to be when you are blocking for them and their confidence in their mobility leads them to try to extend plays when sometimes they should just cut their losses.

Ultimately, the most offensive-line friendly quarterbacks are the ones that get their team into the right play or protection at the line of scrimmage, set up in the pocket exactly where the linemen expect them to be, move subtly in the pocket to avoid pressure, get rid of the ball on time, and if all else fails, throws the ball away when nothing is there.

That's a third reason that mobility in the pocket has huge advantages. Do QBs really avoid sacks when they like to run outside the pocket? Tucker would say no, but conventional wisdom would say yes. It's a very good question.

The two best QBs right now are Brady and Peyton Manning, in either order. Both are talented field generals. Neither often ‘makes plays’ with their feet in the common parlance, but both do so constantly, in reality. Watch Manning’s feet carefully some time. He shuffles them within the pocket: his shoulders are always squared, the ball held perfectly, he’s constantly ready to make the throw and he can change directions by shuffling slightly within the pocket. Manning is thinking pass, pass, pass, okay, run. And that’s his job. His ability to make decisions is also otherworldly and no one doubts his leadership. The same is true of Brady. It's not coincidence that those two are the best in the business. Both avoid sacks regularly by staying in the pocket, concentrating on their art and throwing the ball promptly, even if it means throwing it away. By the way, that's one area where Kyle Orton has room to improve.

The reality is that when I was young, back in the 1950s and 60s, I was taught that a QB had 5 seconds in the pocket. If he didn't get rid of the ball within those 5 seconds, bad things would happen. In modern times, that's down to 2.5 seconds. Ben Alamar of the Journal of Quantitative Analyses in Sports puts it this way:

Time in the pocket and the rate at which the quarterback is under pressure are the two most important aspects of a team's performance (both offensively and defensively), yet no record of it is kept."

This is borne out by a simple story regarding Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants. In Week 10 of the 2004 season, Arizona sacked New York's QB Kurt Warner 6 times en route to a 17-14 victory. The New York media predictably piled on the offensive line, shredding them in print. Coughlin, though, went back over the tape with a stopwatch. He found that Warner wasn't getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds, nor 3 seconds. On thirty of the thirty-seven pass plays, he held the ball for 3.8 seconds or longer. Coughlin promptly benched him, and Eli Manning got his first start. The media was predictably clueless as to why the change was really taking place, but it's a great illustration of why the importance of a quarterback's mobility outside the pocket is often overstated. 2.5 seconds from snap to throw is all you get (Yes, Elway was, as always, a definite exception).

Watch Brady carefully. He constantly laughs about his own supposedly poor mobility, but that’s totally deceiving. He’s very mobile – within the pocket. His mechanics are tremendous; textbook, in fact. Where his hands are, his shoulders, his feet, how he moves any part of his body - every movement or position is scripted and purposeful. Manning’s may be even better. Those specific mechanics are the product of intense training, constant year-round repetition and careful coaching; they are the stuff that really wins games, week in and week out.

Many folks think that it's in the West Coast Offense that the quarterback's footwork is paramount. After all, every timing pattern starts and ends with proper footwork, right?  The WCO uses, almost exclusively, timing routes, set to the rhythm of the 3- or 5-step drop, right? That's true, as far as it goes. In the modern NFL, however, nearly every team uses some timing patterns. The term West Coast Offense has come to mean so many things as to be almost useless. Screen passes or no? Reverses, bootlegs? Go routes (Bill Walsh generally disdained them)? Run-based WCOs, such as Chicago's? Anathema! How about 2-TE power formations in the WCO? Well, sure, maybe, but....

What is important here is that all systems for QBs have one thing in common. They require the QB to have good footwork in order to be in position to make the necessary throws in a very specific amount of time. You need to perfect the QB's footwork to maximize the timing, the position of his shoulders and the QB's balance. Most plays aren't scripted to be run outside the pocket. Even those that are will require the same things of the QB - the balance, footwork and mechanics to make the throw. Footwork is a key to the game that may be exceeded only by decision-making and leadership. Beyond those two things (both of which are done without reference to the ball), making the throw you decided on will require the quarterbacking trinity of balance, footwork and mechanics.

If your quarterbacks coach is a good one (and books such as Phil Simms' Sunday Morning Quarterback cast doubt on that for many teams) he'll be breaking down the QB's movements and skillset using modern approaches such as slow-motion video that permits overlapping 4 to 8 images to promote the development of a specific motion until it's perfect. He will also know or employ coaches who know exactly what precise positions the quarterback's hips, feet, shoulders, arms, head and hands should be at every split moment of the progression, as well as how to run a huddle, call audibles, and break down any defense. Frankly, those kinds of coaches don't grow on trees. The Broncos are very lucky to have one, even if he's a head coach. Mike McCoy also has a very good reputation here. That's one reason that Jake Delhomme has done as well as he has.

The quarterback position is about learning incredible amounts of specific minutiae that will permit the quarterback to make good decisions and to throw the ball to his receivers. It’s not about how far or fast he can run or whether he’d make a good running back. So when you hear someone rave about the quarterback who makes plays with his feet, you might also ask how well that guy makes decisions and throws the ball. That’s what he’s really getting paid for.

Mobility to avoid sacks can be a positive. It can also lead to fleeing the pocket to avoid a sack just before your guy is open. Mobility to gain 1st downs is a positive, but only if there's no other choice - QBs get hurt running the ball and take unnecessary hits. The ability to be a 'wildcat' QB is good for a 2nd- or 3rd stringer, ala Pat White - but is nearly useless for your #1 guy. Why? You don't want to be paying that kind of coin for a fellow to block and run when he really needs to be mastering the quarterback position. If he really has mastered it over the years, you don't want to be exposing him to injury.

There is a final reason to respect mobility in the pocket even more than mobility out of it - every year, the NFL is going to seem to get a little faster. Every year, each QB is going to get a little slower, over the course of time. Age and repeated poundings do that to you.

It's not that there is a darned thing wrong with being mobile. It can be a very real benefit at certain times. But don't let it mislead you - first and foremost, the job of the QB is to be ready to deliver the ball, to make the decisions that permit him to do so and to throw it with excellent balance and good mechanics of delivery. Those things require footwork - in the pocket - to achieve good results on play after play.

Have you noticed the emphasis on that type of message from the 'new Broncos' coming out through the media? That's a good thing. As much as the conversation regarding which player is the better quarterback or who fits a certain system better, a better question might be "Which quarterbacks in the league get the teaching and coaching to learn the smaller points that will let them maximize the talents that they have (and do the hard work to internalize it)?" When the quarterbacks are getting that coaching, you can bet that footwork - within the pocket - will be at the top of their list.

Every quarterback makes plays with his feet. With some, it shows more than with others.