Decision making is one of the most important traits for a quarterback to master ‒ when to take a chance, and when to throw it away. Mark Schofield looks at Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and the key question: to throw or not to throw.
Having covered the importance of maintaining aggression as a quarterback, we can now examine the flip side of that coin. When playing QB there are times when you need to be conservative. You need to pull the football down, work through the rest of your reads, and even tuck the ball and run, rather than risk a potential mistake or turnover. We call these decisions “good no-throws.”
Here we have an example from Carson Wentz of North Dakota State. This is a play we have covered before, but it is worth revisiting for this premise. In 2014 FCS powerhouse North Dakota State Bison opened their season traveling to Ames to take on an FBS opponent and Big-12 conference participant, the Iowa State Cyclones. This was the junior quarterback’s first collegiate start and the Bison pulled off the upset, 34-14, thanks to a solid debut from Wentz. The QB completed 18 of 28 passes for 204 yards, and added 38 yards on the ground.
Halfway through the second quarter the Bison trail 14-7, facing 2nd and 10 near midfield. Wentz is under center with 11 personnel on the field, and the defense has their base 4-3 in the game showing Cover 3 in the secondary:
The Bison have trips to the left, running a stick concept. The tight end and middle trips receiver run quick outs, while the outside receiver runs a streak. On the weak-side, the single receiver runs a short curl:
As the play begins, Wentz is looking weak-side from the snap. Facing Cover 3 with the football on the right-hashmark, the short curl route on the weak-side is a very nice option, and a shorter, easier throw. The defensive back will gain depth at the start of the play, and this easy throw has potential for a nice gain. But there is a hitch: the weak-side defensive end drops into coverage from the line of scrimmage:
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However, Wentz sees it. Before releasing the ball he pulls it down, reconsiders, and then works back to the strong side of the formation. He eventually makes a nice throw to his TE on the quick out route, resulting in a nine-yard gain.
This is a good no-throw. He could have been aggressive – like Christian Hackenberg was facing this same look – and tried to work this ball into the short curl route. But, Wentz wisely pulls the football down and works through the rest of the reads.
There Are Bad No-Throws Also
This first play is from Stanford’s season-opener at Northwestern. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan is in the shotgun, and the Cardinal have 11 offensive personnel on the field in a trips formation to the right, with a single receiver split left, for this 2nd and 5 play late in the first half. The Wildcats have their 4-2-5 defense in the game, showing Cover 2 in the secondary wit the cornerbacks in off-man alignment:
Senior WR Rollins Stallworth (#13) runs a weak-side slant on this play, and Hogan looks his way first:
Stallworth is open right at the first-down marker, with the cornerback retreating into his flat zone and the underneath linebacker yet to rotate over. Hogan is about to release the pass, and Stanford should have themselves a first down. But let’s just run through this play to see what happens:
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Hogan pulls the ball down.
Confounding things, rather than look for one of the two strong-side slant routes – both of which are open on this play – the QB tries to scramble forward for the first down, but is stopped after a minimal gain, setting up 3rd and 5.
This is what you might term a bad “no-throw.” Hogan had his primary receiver open between defenders, in a soft spot in the coverage, for a likely first down. Perhaps the QB was worried about the underneath LB breaking under the route, or perhaps he lost sight of the receiver due to movement up front (although that is unlikely, given that both WR and QB are listed at 6’ 4”). But, for whatever reason, something fired in Hogan’s head and told him to pull this football down.
So now Stanford faces 3rd and 5. Let’s see what happens on the next play. Hogan again sets up in the shotgun, with 11 personnel on the field in trips right with a single receiver split left. Northwestern keeps their 4-2-5 nickel in the game, but show Cover 1 in the secondary:
The Cardinal uses a variant of the Hank passing concept, a leftover from the Jim Harbaugh days. The single receiver on the left and the outside trips receiver both run deep curls breaking to the inside, while the inside trips receiver sits down over the middle of the field. The middle trips receiver, and the running back, each run routes to the flat.
Based on the playbook included in that link, Hogan looks first to the middle of the field route, and then to the curl-flat combination on the outside. Here is what the QB sees when he’s deciding where to go with the football:
The route in the middle of the field is covered. The curl route is yet to break, but the cornerback is sinking under that route. However, the flat route is open, at the first down marker, with the flat zone defender trailing and more of a threat to the curl route than the out route. There is an impending problem, as defensive tackle Trent Goens (#54) has beaten his man inside and is breaking free. Hogan needs to make a decision:
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Having passed on the easy slant route on second down, the quarterback now passes on the easy flat route. Hogan looks at the flat route, starts his load to throw, but then comes back to the deeper curl. He hangs in that route, waits for it to come open, and makes a throw under duress that does not reach the target, forcing a fourth down for Stanford. Hogan makes an aggressive decision here, but we show this as an example of what not to do. Again, the quarterback passes on the open receiver at the sticks, a bad “no-throw.” Two straight plays, two chances for an easy throw to convert the first down, and twice he pulls the football down.
Since this Northwestern game, the senior QB has turned in three very solid performances. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns against UCF in Stanford’s 31-7 victory, and 18 of 23 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns in the 41-31 upset of USC. Last week he completed 9 of 14 passes for 163 yards and three more touchdowns, with one interception, in Stanford’s 42-24 victory over Oregon State. But it is a no-throw decision like this that will keep NFL scouts and player evaluators scratching their heads when it comes to evaluating Hogan – and trying to uncover his decision-making process.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy DraftBreakdown.com.