Like any good researcher, Mark Schofield despises a small sample size. Unfortunately, prospect evaluation is almost always too early, or without all the information necessary. Thus, we have our series: On Two, in which Inside The Pylon examines two plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.
Examining the decision-making process of a quarterback is one of the more difficult tasks of the evaluation process, particularly when trying to judge ability without immediate access to the player himself. From a distance, we lack the wealth of information available to the quarterback during a specific play, such as the play call, his progression reads, and the game plan. How the coaches on both sides of the ball “draw it up” informs the options available to a quarterback on any given play. For example, the coaches during the week may have instructed a quarterback to simply ignore a backside dig route on a particular play, given how the opposing safety plays that route. But on Saturday, when that safety falls and the dig breaks wide open, we can be too quick to criticize the QB for failing to find an open receiver.
Given the importance of this trait in the process of projecting how a quarterback will transition to the pro level – or not – we must continue to try and gauge the mental process of each player. We can use contextual clues like the route structure. We can look at specific game situations and outline what a player does well, or poorly, in identical decision-making situations.
And sometimes, the game situation, route structure, coverage and overall scheme combine to provide evidence a guy has “it” – as these two plays show from Carson Wentz.
Situation: The 2014 FCS National Championship game between North Dakota State and Illinois State. The Bison trail 7-3 with 8:46 left in the second quarter, facing 3rd and goal at the Redbirds’ six yard line. They line up in 12 offensive personnel, with Wentz in the shotgun and a two-tight end wing to the left and slot formation right. Illinois State has their 4-2-5 defense showing Cover 1:
From the slot side of the field, the inside receiver runs a skinny post while the outside WR comes underneath on a slant route. The two tight ends run a compressed version of the Mills concept, with the inside TE cutting under on a very short dig route, while the wing TE runs a post route:
On the slot side of the field Wentz has a post/slant combination. Pre-snap, the Redbirds slide the free safety over to the hashmark, just inside of the slot receiver. This puts the FS in position to help on some of the standard end zone routes, such as a smash concept with the slot WR breaking to the back corner of the end zone, or a goal line fade from one or both WRs. The quarterback knows he has a 2 on 3 disadvantage to his right side.
The left side, with the two TE set, has four potential defenders: the two linebackers, the strong safety and cornerback Mike Banks (#24). The corner is on the line of scrimmage, well outside of the two tight ends, perhaps trying to get a better angle on a potential flat route to the outside from the running back. Or perhaps he is blitzing.
Even if the CB blitzes on this play, Wentz still has a 2 on 3 disadvantage on his left side as well. But remember where the free safety is, shaded to the other side of the field standing just inside the hashmark. This means the middle of the field is open, and with the route concept from the two tight ends, the inside short dig should occupy both linebackers underneath, leaving room in the middle of the field for the post route from Luke Albers (#88):
Wentz takes the shotgun snap, immediately opens to his left, and sees Banks blitzing off the edge. He also sees the underneath dig route occupy the two linebackers – as expected. With the free safety occupied across the field, Albers is finds acres of space in the middle of the field. Wentz delivers the ball perfectly, and the Bison regain the lead. Here’s another view of this route coming together:
In the box score it goes down as a short touchdown pass, but dive deeper, and Wentz’s understanding of the game and decision-making abilities are highlighted. Wentz recently spoke to Dane Brugler and acknowledged his biggest weakness is bird dogging, or staring down receivers, and analysts can find plays on tape where Wentz makes his mind up pre-snap where he is going with the football and forces throws.
While that is present here, you can understand how he handles this play: a quarterback rarely gets an end zone with no one in the middle. A great play call, Wentz reads this properly before the snap, knows where to go with the ball against this coverage scheme, and which defenders to key on, given the positioning of each defender and pre-snap blitz indicators, and then makes the right read, decision, and throw.
Another aspect of the decision-making process for a quarterback is the ability of the player to balance taking care of the football with maintaining aggression in the downfield passing game. There is a right time to bring the ball down to an outlet, and a right time to challenge a defense.
One of the things that I like about Wentz is his ability to stay aggressive in the passing game. He is not afraid to fit the football into narrow throwing lanes, even in crucial situations. During his game-winning drive in the Illinois State game he took a number of deep shots, including one against a blitz that set up the game-winning score. This was something Matt Waldman and I discussed at length during our RSP Film Room session on Wentz.
In 2015, the senior QB led a game-winning drive against Northern Iowa that began deep in Bison territory, and without timeouts. He made a number of impressive reads and throws on the drive, but his best might have been this play, which also illustrates his decision-making and timely aggression.
The Situation: The Bison trail by four, facing 3rd and 3 at their own 44-yard line. They line up with 11 offensive personnel in a 3X1 alignment, with hybrid FB/TE Andrew Bonnett (#46) on the right side of the line. The Panthers, as they had throughout the drive, deploy a 4-3 defense and show Tampa 2 coverage before the snap, with the middle linebacker at an intermediate depth between the linebackers and the safety:
UNI does drop into Tampa 2, while the Bison look to attack vertically:
Bonnet runs a post route from his TE alignment, and Wentz looks to him first. There is a reason for this, as a post route from an inside receiver against Cover 2 or Tampa 2 is a quick, “alert” read in most systems. One of the ways to attack Cover 2 is to find that soft spot between the safeties, and if they widen at the snap in response to outside threats, an inside receiver can exploit that with a post route, like Bonnet here.
The key for the quarterback is to identify quickly whether the route is an option or not, and if the safeties stay to the inside, to come off the post before finishing your drop to allow sufficient time to get the ball to an outside receiver. I was taught that on a five-step drop your mind needed to be made up by your third step, or second right foot.
Here, Wentz sees that playside safety widen just enough, so he takes his shot:
The QB delivers a perfectly-placed throw, and Bonnet looks to secure the reception. Only a great recovery by the playside safety, with a well-timed shot on the receiver, prevents the big completion.
From this angle, you can see how Wentz reads this route, looking at Bonnet, before flashing one final quick look to the outside to check the weakside corner route and freeze the opposite safety, before releasing the ball:
The play goes as an incompletion in the box score, but on a drive filled with Sunday reads and throws, this might have been his best. It is a perfect example of a quarterback making an aggressive read and decision, even in a crucial moment. Plays like this inspire confidence in a coaching staff to keep the entire playbook open even in the biggest of spots.
If you have read me at all the past four months, you know that I am a fan of Wentz. I believe he has a number of traits and skills that bode well for his transition to the professional game, including his arm talent, his short and intermediate accuracy, his athletic ability and his experience in a scheme that requires him to operate both under center and in the shotgun and make progression reads and anticipation throws. But it is his decision-making, and ability to stay aggressive regardless of situation, that make him a very intriguing prospect. While he has been sidelined for the rest of the season due to a wrist injury, his film and traits should keep him near the top of most quarterback boards come draft time.
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.
Illinois State video courtesy of DraftBreakdowns. Northern Iowa video courtesy of GoBison.com