The Spread: An Editorial Meditation on NFL Quarterbacks
There is a sports talk show I watch called First Take on ESPN. It is hosted by Molly Querim; and its two permanent correspondents are Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayliss. A few weeks ago all three of them had that week off, and they were replaced by guest sports journalists.
As you football fans know, free agency frenzy is going on in the National Football League. This is the case especially with quarterbacks, it seems. The question is: What will the future hold for Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick? What teams will they end up on?
There are other QBs involved in free agency, but I want to focus on RGIII and Kaepernick, for the purposes of this editorial.
Back to last week's First Take. The guest commentators were talking about this. The discussion got on to what teams are willing to pay, how much, for which QB; why or why not? I'm talking about money.
Expressions of wonder were voiced, at the tremendous amounts of money being commanded by many mediocre signal callers in the League. The conclusion was drawn that this was because of what the market is willing to bear, quarterbacks coming at such a premium. By the way, I'm not calling RGIII or Colin Kaepernick mediocre quarterbacks; and neither was anyone else on First Take.
Stay with me as I connect things up.
At any rate, the question came up. That question was this: Why are there so many mediocre quarterbacks in the NFL?
ESPN's Freddie Coleman gave the answer. But before I tell you what he said, this is a good point to interject my theme.
Our theme for this evening, brothers and sisters, is this: Shortcuts are never a long-term path to or substitute for genuine innovation. We are going to come back to that word, "innovation," and "revolutionary," and "change the game of football," and all that.
So, the question is: Why are there so many mediocre quarterbacks in the National Football League?
Freddie Coleman gave an answer that goes something like this: Many of these quarterbacks are products of schools were they do the spread offense. The way he seemed to be using this term suggests that this particular "offense" is a shortcut, which has hurt quarterbacks coming into the League, in the long run.
The way he was using this term, it sounds like back lot ball, "catch and shoot," as it were. The key thing he said was that this approach to offense has left many quarterbacks unprepared to really play the position properly in the NFL; it has left them unprepared to actually read defenses and make the correct play based on that.
It sounds like this "spread offense" business is quite ad hoc and impromptu. It sounds very seat-of-the-pants improvisational. It sounds like: Okay, everybody just run when I hike it, and whoever gets open first, the ball will find you, somehow.
It sounds like many high school and college football teams find this "spread" to be a convenient way to win a lot of games fast, provided there is sufficient raw athletic ability at the quarterback position.
The way Mr. Coleman was using the term "spread" offense, in contradistinction to what is required to "read defenses," it sounds like this is yet another, unfortunate way that schools are retreating from teaching fundamentals of the game.
Now, what is curious about this is that, even as fundamentals are, apparently, being taught less at the high school and college level, as it pertains to the quarterback position (and maybe other positions, for all we know) ---- more emphasis is being place on "combines" and "pro days," as a means for judging college players for their suitability for the NFL.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are those who might say that a parallel development is happening (and has been happening for years) in academics. I'll just make that suggestion and move on.
Say, remember when everybody and his mama were talking about how revolutionary the so-called "running quarterback" was, and how this figure, along with the so-called "read-option" was going to "change the game of football," forever and ever?
I certainly do. Knowledgeable people who raised questions, were dismissed as old fashioned. I specifically remember a radio sports commentator, who defended the new wave, saying that because it works in college, it should work in the pros. He said it is the same game they play in college that they play in the NFL; he said it wasn't all that different and that the "read-option," "spread offense," "running quarterback" kit and caboodle could revolutionize the game.
Anyway, all of that is a package, whatever terms you want to use. "Read-option"; "running quarterback"; "spread offense."
You see, we were told that the "running quarterback" was the quarterback of the future.
Now, I raised the names of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick because they are two of the most prominent products of this new wave. There is no doubt of their athletic talent. They are fast; and at least in the case of Kaepernick, durable. They have "big arms." They have "escapability." They have the ability to "make plays with their legs as well as their arms." They're both good at "throwing the ball on the run."
It is agreed that they are at their most "lethal," outside of the pocket.
There is no doubt that they both had transcendent first years. What football fan can forget that magical first year RGIII had with Washington. After a 3 and 6 start, they won seven straight and went to the playoffs. That team looked invincible with RGIII at the helm.
It was hard to see who had the ball at hand off. Remember that? You wondered how a team like that could have lost six games?
Colin Kaepernick reached even more breath-taking heights. He was a red zone completion away from winning the Superbowl.
Then there was the drop off. The arc of their NFL careers are two well known to dwell on here. But there was a substantial and seemingly bottomless drop off.
Well, the consensus, as I gather it from the professional football analyst community, is that defensive coordinators around the League have figured things out. They have figured out how to neutralize this "spread," "read-option," "running quarterback" business; and even to cripplingly neutralize the effectiveness of such extraordinary athletes like Griffin and Kaepernick.
It is also generally agreed that if Kaepernick and Griffin are to remain in the League, as successful quarterbacks, they are going to have to learn to play the position "from the pocket," to go back to the fundamentals they were not taught, evidently, at the high school or college level. Being so athletic, they can always have running as an "option," if all else fails.
But anyway, this is what I mean when I say that cutting corners is never a long-term substitute for or path to genuine innovation. What I'm saying is that finding a way to do something faster, is not always doing it better. But of course, this is all very basic. We know this.
At any rate, the question is: Can Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick learn to play from the pocket in time? I say this because I had the impression that a signal-calling maestro like Peyton Manning learned his craft, "above the shoulders," over a period of many years.
I would imagine that the ideal situation for them would be to end up on teams with low expectations, teams without winning cultures. That way anything Griffin and Kaepernick can do for them will be seen as gravy, while those two quarterbacks "learn on the job," how to play the position from the pocket.
We know that there is another factor. Incoming quarterbacks to the NFL are not given the time to develop, the former apprenticeship structure has broken down. For instance, we know that Aaron Rodgers, the QB of the Green Bay Packers, must have gained tremendously by being able to sit behind and learn from the legendary Brett Favre, for a few years. And, as anyone familiar with the NFL knows, Mr. Rodgers is on his way to becoming a legend himself.
That kind of thing used to be the norm. Now, players just out of college are thrown to the wolves.
Then again, there are not a lot of high-quality quarterbacks for incoming quarterbacks to sit behind and learn from. For example, Mark Sanchez, formerly of the New York Jets, has been sent to the Denver Broncos. Surely he is not to be the starter. That means that they will have to either get a competent, professional signal caller by way of free agency, a competent "game manager" type; and, perhaps, also draft a quarterback.
Mark Sanchez, then, would probably end up as the third or fourth option, I would think, on the "depth" chart. Or, if the Broncos can only get a quarterback through the draft, that kid will have to start on Day One; the team is probably not going to sit him behind Mark Sanchez.
I think it is the present-day dearth of high-caliber, if not "elite" quarterbacks, that explains, at least in part, the impatience of teams who are "built to win now," and all that.
There is something else I would like us to consider. I am proposing yet another possible answer to the question: Why are there so many mediocre quarterbacks in the National Football League?
It could be that there are too many "quarterbacks" in the NFL who are playing the wrong position to suit their skill sets!
For instance, let's consider the case of Tim Tebow. Let's face it, anyone who's watched a handful of his games starting for the Denver Broncos, knows that actually throwing the football was basically an afterthought! I have been thinking that he could have stayed in the League, could be in the League today, if he had switched the position he played, going from college quarterback to NFL fullback/tight end (leaning more toward fullback).
After all, is it not true that there are a lot of college football players who have come into the NFL, having changed the position they play? Is it not a common occurrence to hear that this or that outstanding NFL wide receiver, for example, was a quarterback in college.
Well, he came to the realization, in one way or another, that his true calling was at a position other than that which they played in college. Does this not happen all the time with various positions? College running backs become pro receivers and vice versa. Tight ends become defensive linemen. And so on and so forth.
I mean no disrespect when I say this---and I say this with the utmost respect for the athleticism of these two players---but it very well may be the case that Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III should be wide receivers (Kapaernick might also do well as a tight end, a la Jimmy Graham).
What on Earth made Tim Tebow think he had the skill set to be an NFL quarterback?
The question is: Why are there so many mediocre quarterbacks in the NFL?
Yet another answer I would give to that question is this: Maybe there are too many quarterbacks, coming into the National Football League, whose college game does not translate very well to the professional level.
Johnny "Football" Manziel
Those of you who follow American football a lit bit, have heard the name "Johnny Football." He was formerly with the Cleveland Browns in the National Football League.
Now, I understand he was an outstanding, spectacular quarterback/football player in college. Some said that watching him go was like looking at a video game. But the few times I've seen him take the field for the Browns, indicates to my unlearned eye that he struggles with the sheer speed of the NFL game. Even when he completes passes for five yards, it always seems like it is such a tremendous effort. Everything seems so very hard for him to execute.
As you know, he is having some "off-the-field" problems, and let's just leave it at that. People are scratching their heads, wondering why he's "blowing his big chance," and all that.
Let me make the following hypothetical proposal. First of all, let me say that I have no first-, second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, ninth-, or tenth-hand knowledge of Johnny Manziel and his football situation. I am speaking from as far a distance as you can get.
Furthermore, let us refer to Player X.
Suppose Player X was a transcendent player in college; and that based on that transcendent college play---running a no-think, spread offense---high hopes are generated for his future in the NFL. Lots and lots and lots of people "believe in him" and all that. He is carrying their "hopes and dreams" on his shoulders, and so forth.
Suppose he is drafted into the NFL, even amid tentative whispers that can be heard in some corners, that perhaps his game doesn't transition all that well to the pro level.
Suppose Player X has the same suspicions percolating in his mind. But, of course, he does not and/or cannot share these doubts with anyone.
There are so many people who Player X does not want to "let down." However, at the same time he "knows" that if he steps up to the plate and tries to be the starting quarterback, he will fall on his face, not only to his own embarrassment, but to the chagrin of all of those "back home" who "believed in him."
What can Player X do?
1. He "can't" just quit football and pursue another line of work.
2. He "can't" actually play because he "knows" he will fall on his face if he does so.
3. What's number 3? Is there a third option?
Yes. He can "mess up" in various ways. That way he can avoid trying and failing to be the starting QB in the National Football League, since he fears his skills are not up to that level.
He can, thereby, keep people remembering fondly his glorious college days. He can keep people guessing and speculating about his "upside" and "potential" at the professional level. And when and if he is finally out of the League, he can have people sadly wondering "what might have been."
Now, I am not saying this is the case with Mr. Manziel. As I say, I have no Earthly way of knowing. I just think that there are occasions when a person has a grand opportunity; and this opportunity is based on past performance at a lower level. The person is given this chance to work at a higher echelon, but then he starts "messing up."
The question always goes something like this: Why is this person messing up when he has this "golden opportunity"?
Maybe the person in question does not view the "golden opportunity" as so golden for the reasons I have outlined.
What if Player X does indeed "get his life together off the field"? Then he would have to play, to "show and prove," as it were.
What if it is the case that Player X must avoid actually playing at all costs?
Let's move on to something else.
Why are there so many mediocre quarterbacks in the National Football League?
It could be the case that too many "quarterbacks" are actually playing the wrong sport to suit their talents.
Let's go back to Tim Tebow again. As I said before, in my opinion he might have been an outstanding pro football player, if he had changed his position from "quarterback" to fullback, especially given the plain fact that as a QB, throwing the ball literally seemed to be an afterthought. But he seems to be a big, tough, durable, strong---if not particularly fast---runner.
I also think that Tim Tebow could have been an outstanding rugby player.
Why do I say that?
Stay with me.
You know something? It strikes me that this "read-option," "running quarterback," "spread offense" business is not so much new, as it is actually a throwback, in certain respects, to the way American football was played in the 1920s.
Stay with me.
It strikes me that the way American football was played in the Twenties, is quite similar to the way rugby is played today.
American Football in the 1920s (and, perhaps a few decades thereafter, let's say through the 1950s)
1. The quarterback position was not nearly as specialized as it is today.
2. The designated quarterback was just as likely to run with the ball as throw it, if not more so.
3. None of the positions on the field, whether on offense or defense, was nearly as specialized as they are today.
4. In short, just about everybody did just about everything. Players often played both offense and defense, frequently from play-to-play.
5. Just about everybody was expected to be able to throw the ball as well as catch it.
Tim Tebow should have, perhaps, been encouraged to play professional rugby.
But that goes to what is still the relative parochialism and narrowness of what we, in the United States of America, consider "sport." I mean sport in the sense of having national teams, such that when they win national titles, are called "World Champions."
This is true for football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. This is not true for soccer, cricket, rugby, and God knows how many other sports America is missing out on. I would like to see the United States open itself to the entire world of sports.
Anything less, in my opinion, is not befitting for a country that still insists that it is the leader of the free world.
Alright, I think that'll do it.
Thank you for reading.