The most important thing an NFL franchise can have is a “franchise quarterback.” While it’s possible to win a Super Bowl without one, a top-tier quarterback can make a franchise a contender for a solid decade, and sometimes for multiple decades. Indeed, the single biggest difference between the Green Bay Packers and their NFC North brethren is quarterback play, where the Bears are hopeless, the Lions top out with the good-but-not-great Matthew Stafford, and the Vikings occasionally hit on someone like Daunte Culpepper, but never for long enough.
In college football this is not the case, which is actually kind of weird. If you have Patrick Mahomes, as the Chiefs do, you can count on being a perennial contender every year. Mahomes went to Texas Tech, and in his final two seasons, Texas Tech wasn’t very good. That was in no way the fault of Mahomes (QBWinz are, after all, not a quarterback stat), but it’s interesting how much bad defense (or perhaps, better overall league offenses in the Big XII) made Mahomes less of a factor. And if you look around at your perennial powerhouses, it’s also interesting how often dominant teams have lackluster quarterbacks. They say you can’t judge a draft for 3 years; looking back at the 2017 NCAA playoffs, Deshaun Watson did lead Clemson to a title and is an excellent professional quarterback, but aside from Watson, things look dicier. The jury is still very much out on Jalen Hurts, now of the Phliadelphia Eagles. The jury is very much in on Dwayne Haskins, and has ruled that he is as big a bust as you’ll find. Washington’s Jake Browning, a fine college quarterback, is now a practice squad arm with the Vikings.
So what gives? Why are high level college programs able to run roughshod over their competition with quarterbacks who frequently don’t pan out as pros? NFL teams can almost never pull off sustained excellence with poor quarterbacking. Is this simply a fact of life given the unbalanced talent levels and schedules of college football? Or is this another instance of college football, with its 130 FBS teams, just out-competing and out-innovating its NFL sibling?
While college football is the Wild West in terms of scheme, the NFL isn’t as slow to pick up on useful trends as they once were, and that fact, plus added front office sophistication in quarterback development and quarterback scouting, have led to a golden age of NFL quarterback play that’s really just getting started. In this three-part series I’m going to break down each part of the quarterback process individually, discussing how it was done, what has changed, and how, with modern advancements, the age of quarterback scarcity is over.
First off, let’s talk about scheme.
Part 1: Scheme is Everything
Alabama’s Mac Jones is coming off one of the most incredible seasons a college quarterback has ever had. He completed 77.4% of his passes at a clip of 11.2 yards per attempt. He threw 41 TDs against just four interceptions. That’s absolutely incredible. But Jones is not considered a surefire prospect for a variety of reasons. For starters, he lacks mobility, which is our first clue that the NFL is a vastly different place than it used to be.
Just 10 years ago, there’s a good chance Jones would have been the most sought-after quarterback in the draft. 30 years ago, there would be no question about it. He’s a big “prototypical pocket passer” who can stand in the pocket, take a lick, and deliver on time and with accuracy. That was, for most of modern NFL history, the only kind of quarterback that teams liked. In the modern NFL though, Jones probably can’t work in a number of schemes, including Matt LaFleur’s.
PFF has a stat that grades QBs on throws where they were forced to go beyond their first read.— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) February 22, 2021
Over the past two seasons, among the top-5 QB in this class, the lowest-graded in this metric was, of course, *NOT* Justin Fields.
It was Mac Jones.
Jones’ lack of mobility is highly atypical for a modern college quarterback. Most high-level college quarterbacks are great athletes in addition to being great passers, like DeShaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and Jalen Hurts. Perhaps Jones will work for an old-timey team running an old-timey scheme but as Doug Farrar recently wrote this:
As a bootleg quarterback, Jones had 23 dropbacks, completing 12 of 21 passes for 135 yards, 63 air yards, three touchdowns, one interception, two sacks, and a passer rating of 96.2.
Why is this a problem? Again, in the NFL, the expectation is that you’re able to deliver just as well outside the pocket as in. Patrick Mahomes led the NFL last season with 169 dropbacks outside the pocket; he finished with 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in such instances. Six other quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff) had at least 100 dropbacks outside the pocket; they combined for 69 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. 16 more quarterbacks had at least 50 dropbacks in which they wound up outside the pocket; those 16 combined for 62 touchdowns and 30 picks. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, who I’d put No. 1 and No. 2 in my quarterback rankings, have no issue with this. They can plug and play when the NFL comes calling.
Not that long ago, mobility was as much a negative on a quarterback as it was a positive for an NFL quarterback. The ability to make throws out of the pocket was seen as more of a parlor trick than an important part of a quarterback’s game, and if they struggled from within the pocket, it was a non-starter. While NFL quarterbacks still have to deliver in the pocket, of course, the increased importance of the mobile game allows quarterbacks who may struggle in the pocket to still be valuable.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens
Nowhere is this truer than in Baltimore, where Lamar Jackson is coming off his second impressive season in a row after winning the MVP award in 2019. Jackson was a controversial prospect specifically because of his reliance on his mobility, and some in the NFL old guard were calling on him to switch to wide receiver.
Instead, Jackson landed in the perfect spot. The Ravens are among the most progressive organizations in the NFL, and rather than hold out for an old-school “big statue” at quarterback, they instead found an exceptional college player and tailored their offense to his talents. The Ravens run a run-based modern throwback offense, which creates easy passing opportunities for Jackson by making defenses respect his, and his teammates’ legs. Such an offense would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, but more and more frequently, NFL coaches are looking at the college game and asking why they can’t do that.
Jackson is an example of the league having created an elite quarterback that could not have existed before through the simple acts of understanding a player’s strengths and weaknesses and scheming appropriately. Jackson is the most extreme example of this phenomenon currently playing, but we have almost as good of an example here in Green Bay. Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan run similar offenses, and it’s a blessing that we have both of them for the sake of comparison. It’s also a blessing, for analytics purposes, that we have a large sample size of Aaron Rodgers in an old-timey conventional NFL system run by Mike McCarthy, as well as in LaFleur’s system.
Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur
From 2015 (post Jordy Nelson ACL-tear) to Mike McCarthy’s final season in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers ranked 13th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) with 6.68. Rodgers’ draft-mate Alex Smith is 14th over the same time period with 6.66. For context, Mahomes was first with 8.72 followed by the usual list of greats, in order: Tom Brady (7.70), Drew Brees (7.62), Matt Ryan (7.47), Ben Roethlisberger (7.03), Philip Rivers (7.0) and Russell Wilson (6.97). Rodgers is an all-time great, and he shouldn’t be separated from this group by the likes of Kirk Cousins (6.86) and Jared Goff (6.85), but he is.
There was a large contingent of analysts who thought that Rodgers’ best days were behind him, and that, even though he still posted the occasional highlight reel play, that he would never again rank alongside the Mahomes of the world. The steep decline in his stats after 2014 coinciding with the Nelson injury raised questions about just how reliant Rodgers was on having elite weapons, and whether his legacy was justified at all. It was, as of 2018, very possible that Rodgers was finished as an elite passer.
The transition from McCarthy to LaFleur involved almost no significant shifts in offensive personnel, but Rodgers immediately benefited, jumping from 13th in ANY/A in 2018 to 8th in 2019 and first in 2020, besting Mahomes by an entire half-yard. While McCarthy made the quarterback and receiver work for every yard, only relying on Rodgers to improvise outside the pocket, LaFleur uses proven deception techniques like pre-snap motion and play-action in addition to planned rollouts to create simple looks for Aaron Rodgers. Also, Rodgers is still one of the most accurate throwers of all time.
LaFleur is a disciple of Kyle Shanahan, whose calling card at this point is running an offense that succeeds regardless of the quarterback. The 49ers struggled this season due to an insane number of injuries and a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak, but despite only getting six games from starter Jimmy Garoppolo, they still ranked 20th in DVOA. Not many teams could outplay a third of the league splitting time between two backups, and this is all even more impressive when you consider that Garoppolo is no one’s idea of a great starting quarterback in the first place. Indeed, the 49ers were the 7th-best offense in football in 2019 despite their quarterback ranking 11th in DVOA. Creating an offense that ranks higher than the underlying quarterback play is no small feat.
The Packers, then, have taken a creative system along the lines of what you might see in college football and inserted one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time into the equation. It is incredible to take a 63.2% passer averaging 7.1 yards per attempt (which is what Rodgers was from 2015-2018), add no significant offensive players, and turn him into a 66.2% passer averaging 7.6 yards per attempt (2019-2020), especially when half of that sample size went to learning the new system. Rodgers’ 2020 season is, technically, probably his second best season ever behind the incredible 2011 team that was undone by a poor defense. That team featured Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb, and Jermichael Finley. Rodgers’ ANY/A in that season was a league-leading 9.39. In 2020 it was 8.89, which also led the league, and was the second-highest mark of this career. His receivers were Davante Adams and a bunch of guys. Some might argue that the upgrade from Jimmy Graham to Bob Tonyan was crucial, but it’s worth noting that Tonyan was likely helped by the scheme as much as Rodgers, and his his real weapon was Matt LaFleur.
While the Ravens, Packers, and 49ers excel at this, the league as a whole is catching up. Andy Reid is basically a pioneer in scheming success for quarterbacks, and it’s no surprise that Mahomes has succeeded as much as he has. Veterans on the move have also taken notice of the importance of scheme, as Philip Rivers decided to spend his final, successful season with Frank Reich in Indianapolis and Tom Brady moved to Bruce Arians’ talented and quarterback friendly Bucs. Reich is worth focusing on as he managed to coax a Super Bowl out of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles in Philadelphia before resurrecting Rivers for one more run. Reich was never considered the true guru of the offense in Philly until he left, but it’s clear now that Reich made everything work.
Finally, consider Ryan Tannehill, who was buried in a terrible situation in Miami. Upon moving to the Titans, who use play-action more than almost anyone in the league, he has become one of the NFL’s most efficient players, and his success and struggles are completely dependent on the amount of play-action Tennessee runs on any given day. Tannehill never finished above 18th in DVOA while in Miami, but has never finished lower than 6th as a member of the Titans. While Tennessee’s roster is more talented than Miami’s, Tannehill’s extreme splits when in a play-action heavy scheme make it clear that scheme, not talent, is the big differentiator.
Without progressive schemes, it’s very likely that Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, and Ryan Tannehill would currently be considered average quarterbacks, and in Jackson’s case, there a decent chance he wouldn’t even be in the league, let alone an MVP candidate. Teams have managed to elevate mediocre quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, and Jimmy Garoppolo to Super Bowl caliber players through quarterback friendly scheme as well.
Adapting your scheme to fit your talent is such an obvious concept that it sounds almost insulting to describe it as a strategy at all, but it’s finally catching on the NFL. With it comes the opportunity to succeed with vastly different kinds of quarterbacks. It’s incredible that Lamar Jackson has succeeded, but it’s also an indictment of the old NFL, caught up in old stereotypes of how the game “should be played” while being too myopic, and often too racist, to see what was in front of their faces all along.
Scheme has made quarterback play in the NFL simpler than ever before and better than ever before, and because the NFL is taking a broader look at the talent base, there are more potential good quarterbacks than ever before. That game is better for it.
Coming up next in Part 2: How Josh Allen and Jordan Palmer gave new life to project quarterbacks.