Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is your quarterback an extension of your offense or is your offense an extension of your quarterback?

I recently was watching the NFL channel recap of the super bowl game when I heard a discussion from Brian Billick and Jim Mora jr. concerning the success of Aaron Rodgers. In the course of the conversation they based their opinion that the Packers would have continued success because Aaron Rodgers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning executed the offense as it was drawn. They, like Rodgers, fit the skill set defined for the execution of the offense and stayed within the structure of the philosophy set forth by the coaching staff. In Rodgers case, the skill set was a quick release with a strong and accurate enough arm to throw the vertical seams, an intelligence to execute hot reads, and the ability to make rhythmic drills down the rhythm. Tom Brady's arm is not as strong, yet in the New England offense his skill set fits the need. Peyton Manning brings a whole different set of requirements in executing the audible rich Indianapolis offense. The final word was that these quarterbacks were basically an extension of the coach and the playbook. They were essentially, "redrawing the play from the playbook to the field."

This conversation struck a chord because a number of years ago I heard Bill Walsh describing the same "fit" when finding a quarterback for his offense. It was his basis for drafting Joe Montana when many people passed. Put Montana in a vertical stretch offense and you probably don't have a hall-of-famer. His arm simply was not strong enough. He went a little further to explain that one of Montana's strong suits was that he thoroughly understood what they (the 49ers) were trying to accomplish and was able (and happy to) function within the parameters set forth by the system.

On the other hand, we've all seen the other side of this. We've all been brainwashed by raw athletic ability and over the last quarter center we've all been "espnized" with highlight reel quarterback. The ad-libber! The guy who makes plays outside the offense. The reversed field scramble followed by the 60 yard heave for the miracle touchdown that is forever imprinted in our minds. And at some time in our career we've all gotten caught up in a great athlete who just "makes plays." And therein lies the problem! An opinion biased on a small portfolio of work. Yet, that work is spectacular enough to sway our opinion.

(In another Fox show the announcers were talking about the same thing when they said that Brady and Manning rarely ended up on the highlight reel except to show their high completion percentages within the structure of the offense. In fact their highlights individual are basically a boring procession of normal plays executed over and over again.)

So I started looking back at the quarterback's I had and the success tied into each of them. The three of the five greatest athletes I ever coached were at the quarterback position including one at the college level. Their highlight film of individual plays would make your jaw drop. Many of their greatest plays were outside the system. Yet, despite all this ability to make plays, I had the worst years of my coaching career. With these "circus," "freak" type plays in our minds we forget the attempted plays outside the system that put us in the hole or, worse yet, came at such an inopportune time they cost a big turn in the game's outcome. We let the great play cloud our overall judgment. Like a high-tech car chase in a bad movie that leaves the crowd buzzing and telling friends to go despite the overall lackluster performance.

(I'll use the quarterback from Georgia Tech as a prime example of what I'm talking about. In a televised game a couple of years ago, on an early drive he started with triple to the right then reverse 180 degrees and ran to the left 60 yards leading to a touchdown. He also pulled the ball down very early (THE RUSH WAS NOWHERE NEAR HIM!) and outran the defenders for a crucial first down that kept a scoring drive alive. Sounds great doesn't it. However, in the 4th quarter, now trailing, he made the same 180 degree cut on 3rd and 2 and lost 4 yards. Then in the two minute offense he pulled the ball down early again scrambled and lost 18, effectively ending any chance of success. When I talked to my option friends they were enamored by the plays he made and chalked off the others as trying to make a play. They were in essence "espnized" by the human highlight reel.)

These out of the system plays don't have to just involve the feet. They can be the QB that holds the ball extra long to make a 30yard fade completion a pass that travels 60 yards in the air. Or a quarterback who ignores the reads of the system and forces a pass into coverage. Or a timing route that is held extra long so as to have to force a ball into a now constricted window. You see it all the time. The throw makes espn and people rave at the strength of the quarterback's arm and his courage to throw it into such a small window.

The fact that we had little success with these great athletes lead me to continue my investigation. Was it me? My coaching style? Why were we lacking success with such great athletes? We had great success with lesser athletes! Why then? Certainly a search into this topic would help my overall coaching success.
The answer it turned out was simple. It's what Billick and Mora talked about. The others were an extension of myself and my play calling. Don't get me wrong, the others were good athletes who "made plays." However, they made them within the structure of the offense. This may be a great cut off a scraping linebacker. Or outrunning the safety in the alley. Or making a perfect over the shoulder throw, right on rhythm, on the wheel. (Staying with Rodgers, he certainly made his share of plays in the super bowl. Whether it be the vertical he threw on the last drive or the post he hit splitting three defenders, he made great plays. He did them tough within the structure of the offense.) How many of us remember marveling at Thomas Lott or JC Watts dazzling us once in the option alley.

It's a simple formula. If you have a sound complete system, one that holds up to everything and contains a logistical methodology of getting into and out of the right plays, then the execution is the essential element. (Which I believe we do) If you believe that coaching up your system gives the players the best chance of success, then a "system" quarterback is what you are looking for. You don't need the plays, both good and bad, outside the system to be successful. In fact the more the quarterback gets away from the system the less chance you have to win. If the quarterback understands what you wants and plays within this system then you always have a chance. You have narrowed the game down to two aspects: coaching and execution. The first is 100% on you and the latter is a reflection of your teaching and preparation. So in essence, you've put the game on your shoulders as a coach.
On the other side of the spectrum, I don't know how many times in the course of the technical aspects of the game and in clinics I've heard coaches say "well the player has to make plays too." Think about that answer. First of all, you've eliminated yourself from the formula for success. It's now him adlibbing. It has become his play. Secondly, you've coped out. What most coaches need to say is "I can't figure out an answer so I'm hoping he does!" It's the football equivalent of a bailout of a bankrupt coach. It's your job as a coach to give him the answers. And, if you don't know find out. If you're one of these coaches then you better have a "magician" to create an offense where it isn't there by design.
In the end, these kind of "outside the box" players will lose more games for you and get you fired quicker than you can say "wow!" to his last great move. If you don't believe that, do some research on Jeff George, who many say had one of the greatest physical skill sets to enter the NFL. His arm strength, release, and athletic ability caused coach after coach to risk their careers on him. Many lost that risk. Over and over again, as he traveled from team to team, you read "he just doesn't play within the system. The fans love the individual plays but they'll quickly blame you when the adlib goes astray. They'll blame it on the lack of structure or bad play-calling. It can't be the quarterback, he just went 60 all on his own.
So now, when defining our offense, we include as the first "skill sets" for a quarterback three aspects that have nothing to do with physical or mental capacity:

Understands what we are trying to accomplish schematically with the offense

Is able to manage and execute within the limits of the offense (this may include other physical skills listed later on.)

Has a burning desire to run the offense as described (this is important because we've all heard the phrase "I just want to make plays."

If you find somebody with some athletic ability that can adhere to this and you have a complete sound system then you have it all. If you don't have that great athlete or if you have to settle for a little less ability, by sticking to these principles you still have a chance the offense will do as it was designed to do and score through execution and coaching.

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