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May 04

The NFL Quarterback Theory

Editor’s Note: With the 2014 NFL Draft set to take place this weekend, we will look at the impact of drafting a quarterback in the NFL over the next four days. We will focus on NFL quarterbacking theory, as it relates to style of play, and try our best to determine which quarterbacks are best fit to succeed in the NFL when drafted to become a “franchise player.” Today, writer Adam Dobrowolski explains his quarterback theory as it relates to the types of successful quarterbacks in the NFL.

Joe Montana won four Super Bowl rings and is regarded as one of the best quarterback ever. What made him so successful? (photo rights to Walt Smith / Impact Images)

“Joe Cool” Montana won four Super Bowl rings and is regarded as one of the best quarterback ever. What made him so successful with the 49ers? (photo rights to Walt Smith / Impact Images)

In the NFL, most fans don’t care how you play as long as you win. However, if you struggle to win, fans will break down any errors in your game and style of play. No players face greater scrutiny in this regard than NFL quarterbacks. Quarterbacks are revered for their big plays, but despised for their key mistakes. They are admired for their leadership and knowledge, but critiqued for their command of an offense. One great year make a career, but one awful year can break it.

This turns an NFL quarterback’s job into a severe mental battle.

For the all-time great quarterbacks, winning and statistical success are ultimately the common threads. This can be accomplished in different ways, though. As Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Porfolio once claimed, there are two types of quarterbacks: the task-oriented manager and the creative manager.

Here at TABMathletics, we often like claims like this, but they can be explained one step farther. This situation is no different. Within those two quarterbacking categories, we have two more specific types in each subset. That means two types of task-oriented managers and two types of creative managers. We feel this distinction will best help to explain which quarterbacks succeed and which quarterback don’t.

For the task-oriented manager, we have what the pundits call the “game manager” (used pejoratively, but not for this study) and what the pundits call the “system quarterback” (once again, not intended to be used pejoratively here). The “game manager” works under the foundation of a specific style of game flow. For example, Alex Smith works within a conservative passing offense that pairs well with a strong running game and defense. Meanwhile, the “system quarterback” works under the foundation of a specific set of offensive play calling used by the coaching staff. For example, Aaron Rodgers generally works in the West Coast Offense.

For the creative manager, we have what the pundits call the “gunslinger” and what the pundits call the “scrambling quarterback” (once again, we strip any pejorative use of these terms). The “gunslinger” generally gets creative with the arm, using mobility simply for the means of getting into position for the creative throw. For example, Jay Cutler gained the reputation of making risky throws into tight spots, and he may roll out to give him space to use his strong arm for that throw. The “scrambling quarterback” generally gets creative with his legs, using mobility to stay alive in a play until he finds a throw that seems optimal. For example, Ben Roethlisberger made his name by eluding pressure in the pocket until he found an open receiver, either short or deep into coverage.

If we look at a quarterback that will be a successful “franchise” player in the NFL, we want him to fit into one of the two primary subsets while being good at the other style of management. Just look at the two quarterbacks that played in Super Bowl XLVIII. Peyton Manning exemplifies the task-oriented manager, as his attention to detail more or less led to him creating his own offensive system.  He can also side step pressure in the pocket, despite his lacking athleticism. On the other side, Russell Wilson has already made some legitimate comparisons to Fran Tarkenton due to his scrambling abilities. Yet he has applied the tasks at hand well enough to command his offense with elite efficiency in each of his first two seasons. By all means, these are the two “types” of successful NFL quarterbacks.

On the flip side, an NFL quarterback can fall short of the “franchise” label in two ways.

First, he can manage in one style, but not perform well enough in the other half. For example, Matt Stafford is currently a gunslinger that does not perform the tasks well consistently enough. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan performs his tasks superbly, yet did not develop enough creativity to make enough big plays to bail out a Falcons team that fell apart around him last year.

Second, he could simply fall short of establishing himself as a certain type of manager. For example, Christian Ponder showed only flashes as a scramble-based creative manager and failed to handle task-oriented management consistently enough to command the Minnesota Vikings offense. He ended up standing out in neither area, although he had potential to become “either or” as a manager.

Just look at any great “franchise” quarterback. Even Hall of Fame “game manager” Bob Griese used enough creativity to led the league in touchdown percentage twice. Even hated-or-loved “gunslinger” Brett Favre wrangled himself enough to learn the tasks needed to hold command of a West Coast-style of offense. You have to manage in both styles to succeed, but specialize in one area.

Now that we established the quarterback style needed to win, it’s paramount to understand that there are two more factors that more or less “make or break” the signal caller in NFL. A quarterback’s success also ultimately relies on two more factors: his mental quickness and his work habits. I guess you can say these are the “intangibles” that pundits point to in a quarterback’s ability.

To explain mental quickness, you simply just need to watch the game. We can see the mental quickness on the film. A quarterback’s mental quickness will be determined by timing. By the time a defender crashes into the pocket or a defender makes a break against the offensive formation, does the quarterback know (1) where everyone is on the field, offense and defense, and (2) where the ball needs to go to make a successful play? In theory, a quarterback can have all mechanics and knowledge needed to succeed as a task-oriented manager, but he will fail if he crumbles under pressure or becomes too indecisive against a well-covering defense.

However, we cannot see the work habits on film. Unfortunately, an outsider who doesn’t scout and coach simply does not get to see the work habits as they unfold. We only get a second-hand account of these work habits when we hear or see certain statements applied to a quarterback. Perhaps we may hear of the “film junkie.” Perhaps we hear coaches and players laud about his leadership and maturity. Perhaps the quarterback doesn’t put himself under too much pressure, allowing him to handle clutch situations like “Joe Cool.” We can attribute the following things to work habits: dedication, leadership, maturity, perseverance, confidence, humility and stability.

While this website focuses almost exclusively on the numbers, any student of the game must recognize how context bridges a gap between stats and the immeasurable factors. Stats provide context for analyzing a quarterback’s success. Understanding the abstract nature of statistics will open avenues to more accurately analyze what the quarterback does well. Meanwhile, the stats must also be understood within the context of the quarterback’s style of management.  Understanding where the stats fall short in evaluating the quarterback will allow the analysis to move to another method.

Today, I simply gave my honest theoretical analysis of what determines a quarterback’s success. I need this just as much as the numbers. I can use this theory to guide how I use statistical evidence. Perhaps more importantly, I can use this theory to know when the numbers aren’t telling me the whole truth. In the case of NFL quarterbacking theory, we now have both statistics and context.

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