It is a hundred-million dollar question: Where are the next great NFL quarterbacks?
On the heels of the notable struggles of former college stars such as Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “Why the NFL Has a Quarterback Crisis”. Several NFL coaches and executives were quoted pushing a similar theory: the proliferation of the no-huddle, spread offenses at the college level is churning out quarterbacks unprepared for success at the next level.
“They don’t coach anything,” Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan was quoted as saying about college coaches.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, one of the more celebrated quarterbacks coaches in the game, saw the article and chuckled to himself.
“I think that’s kind of nonsense talk, to be honest with you,” he said.
Trent Dilfer, the 14-year NFL veteran who now oversees the Nike and ESPN-backed Elite 11 high school quarterback competition, also saw the article. He tweeted it out, along with a one-word commentary: interesting.
There is no doubt that there are significant differences between the role of the quarterback at the college and NFL levels – “I could make a very strong argument that from a quarterback’s perspective, they are almost different sports,” Dilfer said. But he doesn’t buy the idea that all potentially great NFL signal callers have disappeared.
“When I hear the term, there’s no good quarterbacks coming or they’re all bad, it’s so wrong. High school quarterbacking is better than it’s ever been. The talent pool for quarterbacks is off-the-hook good. It is ridiculous how many kids have NFL potential.
“I saw 50 kids this year – 50! – that were better than me when I was 18. They were better than me when I was 20. Better than me maybe when I was a junior all-American (at Fresno State). They can do more with the ball. They are better athletes. They’ve been exposed to more football.”
Somewhere along the quarterback pipeline, there is a disconnect.
Uptempo pace slowing development
The NFL types are right about one thing: The version of the spread-option offense popular at the college level is markedly different from the offenses run in the pros.
Take former Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, who completed 62.2 percent of his passes and threw for 8,055 yards and 61 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions in his final two years in Waco, Texas. He had to wait until the third day of the 2015 NFL draft to hear the Jets call his name with the 103rd overall pick in the 4th round.
“Honestly, when I did Bryce Petty’s film – and I love Bryce, he was my favorite quarterback in the whole draft, in terms of a project – but there were like 25 transferable snaps from the entire season,” Dilfer said. “I watched every snap, and there were, like, 25 times where he did something he was actually going to do in the NFL.”
Baylor is at the apex of the uptempo spread-offense trend, getting an offensive play off every 18 seconds in 2014, according to data from SB Nation’s Football Study Hall. In comparison, the fastest NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, ran an offensive play every 21.95 seconds, according to Football Outsiders – that would rank 29th in the FBS.
Locally, North Carolina ranked fourth nationally in terms of tempo, running a play every 18.8 seconds. Duke ran one every 22.2 seconds, good for 32nd nationally, and N.C. State’s play every 24 seconds ranks 69th. Duke and UNC run no-huddle offenses with spread elements and quarterbacks who can run and throw. The Wolfpack huddle, but quarterback Jacoby Brissett certainly fits the dual-threat mode.
Last season, UNC quarterback Marquise Williams ranked 11th in the ACC with an average of 60.23 rushing yards per game. Brissett had the next highest average for a quarterback with an average of 40.69 rushing yards per game, and he rushed for 167 yards in the Wolfpack’s best game of the year, a 35-7 win at UNC. Brissett is the best QB prospect out of the ACC for the 2016 NFL Draft, and he is projected by CBS Sports as a mid-to-late-round pick.
“He’s exactly what they want,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said of Brissett. “He’s big, he’s strong, he can make the throws, he’s intelligent, competitive, mobile, he puts in the time, mentally tough.”
No time to adjust
With college offenses moving at breakneck speed, a quarterback isn’t spending much time, if any, making pre-snap adjustments based on what the defense is showing, and he is probably taking less than 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped to either throw it, hand it off, or tuck it and run himself. At the end of every play, as the referee spots the ball, college quarterbacks look to the sideline, where the play is signaled in either by a big sign held up or a staff member making various arm motions. And then it’s go time.
In the NFL, plays are radioed into the quarterback in complicated sentence-length strings, and then the quarterback evaluates the defense and makes any necessary adjustments before the snap.
“That’s the biggest thing that the pro guys are frustrated with, is that the college quarterback, for the most part, is managed from the sideline,” Dilfer said. “They are making very few dynamic decisions at the line of scrimmage or after the ball is snapped. Dynamic decision-making before the ball is snapped and after the ball is snapped is what separates the best pro quarterbacks from everybody else.
“I put no blame on the colleges – it has become so intense at the college level, winning and losing,” Dilfer said. “It is all about winning to generate revenue and filling the seats and paying for other programs, because football plays for the rest of your sports. So if you have to win, you’re going to find the easiest, most repeatable way of winning. For the quarterback, that’s going to more of a catch-and-throw offense.”
But just because a team runs an up-tempo, spread-option offense doesn’t mean a coach can’t teach his quarterback the finer points of the position. At Duke, for example, starting quarterback Thomas Sirk practices taking snaps from under center (even though Duke has lined up in the shotgun exclusively for years), and his day always begins around 7:05 with a 45-minute briefing with offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, who breaks down film with him and relays whatever observations Cutcliffe has made.
“Regardless of what offense that we would run, I’m going to teach those guys defensive football,” Cutcliffe said. “If you understand defensive football and you have good fundamentals and good mechanics, then regardless of what style of offense you’re running, a guy can be fairly successful.”
Even the field is different
It’s more than just pace that differentiates the college from the pro game. The playing surface itself is different. In the NFL, the right and left hashmarks are 18 feet, 6 inches apart, in line with the goalposts. In college football, they are significantly wider at 40 feet apart. As all plays start either on or between the hashmarks, this meaningfully affects the set-up for offenses.
At the college level, if a play starts on the left hashmark, the wide side of the field, from the left hashmark to the right sideline – called the field side – is quite wide, leaving defensive backs with much ground to cover. The spread offense is predicated on spreading the defense out, getting superior wide receivers and running backs in one-on-one matchups with less quick defenders. Tackling in space is quite difficult, especially at the college level, where the talent level varies from player to player. Get the desired matchup, and let the skill player beat his man and rack up big gains.
With the narrower hashmarks, the field side never gets as wide as it does in the college game. This reduces the space the bigger, faster stronger, smarter and more prepared NFL defenders have to cover. And there aren’t large talent gaps from player to player to exploit – only the top 1.6 percent of college players make it to the NFL.
“In the NFL, literally each defender can be two guys in one, almost,” Dilfer said. “They have the mentality to see the patterns ahead of time and physically are fast and strong enough to compensate for any bad position they might be in in alignment.
“The biggest thing you hear from young NFL quarterbacks, is, wait a second, he wasn’t supposed to be there. That one statement tells the big picture of the difference between college quarterbacks and pro quarterbacks. In college, they are where they’re supposed to be. You line them up, you spread them out, they’re there. In the NFL, you line them up, you spread them out and they’re totally in different spots.”
Cutcliffe has a solution to the so-called quarterback crisis.
“I don’t think the Xs and Os have anything to do with it,” he said. “It sounds like a pretty convenient way to say we’re struggling evaluating.
“I’ve always thought most of the time, not all, their evaluation process of quarterbacks is very, very average, compared to how I would go about it myself,” he said of the NFL evaluation process. “So, I’m not surprised they miss as much as they do. Isn’t that what they’re really talking about?”
Cutcliffe declined to reveal all of his tricks of the trade for evaluating quarterbacks, but he did say, “There is a thoroughness, knowing who you are dealing with – there are so many things that you can probe besides just watching tape.”
Cutcliffe was front-and-center for one of the more misguided quarterback debates, as it turned out: In 1998, there was a spirited debate over whether Cutcliffe’s quarterback at Tennessee, Peyton Manning, or Washington State’s Ryan Leaf should be taken No. 1 in the NFL draft. Manning is one of the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterbacks. Leaf started just 21 career games and has almost spent as much time in prison as he did in the NFL.
Dilfer agreed with Cutcliffe’s assessment of the NFL’s evaluating process.
“It is the worst-evaluated and worst-developed position in the NFL,” he said. “I have conversations with GMs and coaches about quarterbacks that literally I get off the phone and I go to my wife and I vent. And I say I cannot believe that this is a decision maker in the NFL, and he has no idea, none, zero, what it means to be the quarterback, what you’re looking for in a quarterback and how to develop a quarterback.
If I was an NFL general manager, I would pay David Cutcliffe whatever amount of money would get him away from Duke, and I would have him be my chief quarterback evaluator/consultant in my organization. That’s what I would do. And I trust myself a lot. There are a handful of people that truly understand all the layers of evaluating and developing quarterbacks.”
Cutcliffe wouldn’t attempt to wow any NFL types with fancy terminology in attempts to sound smart. To him, the answer to the question of what makes a great quarterback is quite simple.
“Quarterbacks can play in any style of offense,” he said. “If they’re great quarterbacks – when people say pro-style, what you’re really saying is: Can a guy throw the football?”
Major differences between college and NFL offenses
▪ 18 feet, 6 inches apart in the NFL
▪ 40 feet apart in college
Significance: The “field” (or wide) side of the field isn’t as wide in the pros, making it harder to create 1-on-1 matchups for offensive skill players to exploit
2) Pass blocking
▪ NFL offensive linemen can move forward one yard before a pass is thrown
▪ College linemen can move forward three yards – and the rule is rarely enforced
Significance: Offenses can better trick defenses into thinking it’s a run play – as the linemen move off the line of scrimmage in a run-block look – before unleashing a pass against an ill-positioned defense
3) Dynamic decision making
▪ NFL quarterbacks receive longer play calls, read defenses, make pre-snap protection adjustments and are more deliberate with throws after the snap
▪ College plays are signaled in via signs or hand motions, the ball is snapped quickly and throws are made quickly, too
Significance: College quarterbacks must adjust to making more dynamic decisions once they reach the pros – easier said than done