The 2016 NFL Draft is approaching and many teams are looking for that diamond in the rough at the quarterback position. One key trait that can only be found on film is the ability to make the play flow within structure, something Vernon Adams master of improvisation, has shown an uncanny knack for success.
The NFL draft returns to Chicago for a second year, following its debut as the host city in 2015. Known for deep dish pizza and Portillo’s hot dogs – best in the United States (don’t fight me on this) – the Windy City is home to a number of cultural and social icons. The city is also the birthplace of The Second City, a world-famous comedy theater and improvisational school that has churned out countless comedic icons, among them Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Shelly Long, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Tina Fey. The list is really too long to reproduce.
Another kind of spot-light hopeful who looks to hear his name called in this draft is Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams, who might well find a home with The Second City when his football career is over, given his ability to improvise with the football in his hands.
Before highlighting a few examples, it is worth noting that the ability of a quarterback to succeed when plays break down – when the offense is off-structure – is important for the overall success of a football team. Not every play will unfold as it is drawn up on the chalkboard or, for that matter, the Microsoft Surface Tablet. Assignments will be missed, defenders will react in unexpected ways, and the quarterback will need to adjust on the fly to ever-changing circumstances. How the player reacts in those moments can mean the difference between a turnover and a big play for the offense.
One of the more common examples of improvisation from the quarterback position comes in the scramble drill. Plays may break down and come off-structure either due to a blitz or a win on the edge from a defensive end, and in these moments the quarterback must vacate the pocket and try to extend the play with his feet, while attempting to find a receiver down the field. The passer hopes that his receivers react as expected, working in concert with the QB to find open areas in the coverage for a potential completion.
Against rival Oregon State, the Ducks face a 2nd and 2 at midfield. Adams stands in the shotgun with 11 personnel and the offense uses dual slot formations. The Beavers have a 4-2-5 nickel defense showing Cover 1, with both cornerbacks and the nickelback in press alignment. The strong safety walks down into the box, aligning in off man coverage over the slot receiver to the right. Oregon runs a mirrored passing concept, with both slot receivers running seam routes and both outside WRs running quick outs:After meeting his running back at the mesh point, Adams retreats into the pocket and begins his progression reads. He opens to the right and checks his tight end on the seam route. Seeing this covered, Adams works to the left side, first checking the opposite seam route, and then the quick out.
With his first three options covered and the pocket breaking down, the quarterback needs to buy some time, so he looks to improvise:
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Adams slides to his left as his two receivers on that side execute the scramble drill. The receiver running the seam route breaks toward the sideline, while the outside WR cuts off his out pattern and breaks vertically. The quarterback spots his slot receiver and delivers a strong, well-placed throw from an awkward base. Even without the ability to reset his feet and use proper mechanics, Adams has enough arm strength to deliver this throw – not to mention the vision to spot a target downfield with the pocket collapsing around him.
Sometimes play strength and athletic ability allow a quarterback to remain upright in the pocket and, despite the laws of physics, complete a throw downfield when most humans would be on the ground. Facing a 3rd and 10 against the Beavers, Oregon lines up with Adams in the shotgun and 11 personnel in a TE trips to the left and a single receiver split to the right. Oregon State’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 6, with the weakside cornerback in press coverage.
The Beavers run dual T-E/TEX stunts up front, and immediately after taking the snap Adams has pressure in his face. He tries, without success, to reverse field, but the defensive end has the QB’s ankles clamped in a vice.
Or so the defender thought:
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Adams has enough strength to wheel back toward the line of scrimmage, dragging the DE with him. The quarterback then has the presence of mind to scan downfield for a target, picking out a receiver near the first-down marker. Adding the final layer of icing to this incredible cake, Adams has the upper body strength to deliver a strong, accurate throw that hits his target.
Somehow, the quarterback is able to turn a sure-sack (and subsequent punt) into a fresh set of downs inside the red zone.
The Manziel Quandry
There is a fear with Adams, with a recent historical frame of reference, that might scare some scouts away: quarterback Johnny Manziel. From a purely on-the-field standpoint, the Oregon QB’s ability to improvise, to create offense off-structure, is reminiscent of Manziel’s days in College Station. When you think back to the success Manziel had during college, your mind flashes to plays off-script, when he was simply trying to extend plays and create offense. If you read some of the scouting reports on the former Aggie, this was a concern. Here are some of his strengths, from Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com:
Terrific scrambling ability. Reverse spins and buys time in the pocket while continuing to scan the field — can still set his feet, alter his throwing motion and manipulate his arm and throwing platform. Houdini-like escapability (uses subtle, nifty sidestep moves) and improvisational ability in the pocket to pull a rabbit out of his hat and create magic.
But here are the weaknesses in Manziel’s game, as identified by Nawrocki:
Undisciplined — plays his own offense and presses to make plays.
The bottom line on Manziel from Nawrocki?
A once-in-a-generation, run-around, ad-lib, sandlot-style quarterback who consistently won games playing a brand of fast-paced, jailbreak football that often goes off script and can be difficult both to game plan with and against.
While the “once-in-a-generation” aspect remains to be seen, in part due to off-the-field problems and struggles the quarterback is facing, there is no denying that there were concerns about his ability to operate within the confines of an offense: whether his improvisational abilities over-shadowed an offense, and whether he could be trusted to stay within structure and win from the pocket.
Return now to Adams, in his first road test as a Duck against eventual Big 10 Champion Michigan State. Trailing by 10 early in the fourth quarter, the Ducks face a pivotal 4th and 7 in Spartans territory. The offense has 11 offensive personnel on the field with slot formation to the left. The MSU defense, with 4-2-5 personnel, shows a double linebacker blitz up front and Cover 6 in the secondary:Oregon runs a smash concept to the left. Bralon Addison (#2) begins the play in the slot and runs a short out to the sideline, while Byron Marshall (#9) runs a corner route. Marshall first cuts to the inside on his release, but then quickly breaks to the outside:
The goal is to set up a high-low over cornerback Darian Hicks (#2). The defender tries to split the difference between Addison and Marshall, sinking late underneath the corner route. Safety Montae Nicholson (#9) widens to the outside, keeping watch on Marshall’s corner route. Together, Hicks and Nicholson constrict the throwing window. Despite the narrow throwing lane and the two defenders in the area, the Ducks face a fourth-down situation and the quarterback needs to pull the trigger: And yet, Adams makes a play:
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The quarterback places this throw perfectly, staying on-script and within structure in a pivotal moment. The Ducks would go on and score a touchdown later in the drive, setting up a thrilling conclusion.
Flow Within Structure
Something magical can happen when a quarterback marries the twin concepts: Improvisation and structure. When a quarterback is able to react to stimuli from the defense, improvise as needed, and still stay within the structure of the play to attack the defense as anticipated, good things can follow. Described by Matt Waldman as “flow within structure,“ this is a concept that can yield unexpected results – even for coaches.
There were concerns prior to this season that, because of the delay in his transfer from Eastern Washington, Adams would be slow in picking up the complexities of the Oregon offense. While these were legitimate concerns, some noted the similarities between the EWU offense and the Ducks scheme. In retrospect, Adams seemed to fit right in with the concepts used in Eugene.
One such play is the mesh concept, a route design dating back to Lavell Edwards at BYU and refined over the years by Mike Leach, now with Washington State. One of the mesh concept variations that teams can use incorporates a wheel route from the running back(s) as another means of attacking the defense.
In 2014, Leach spoke at the Nike Coaches’ Clinic and described the progression reads in the mesh concept, as he coaches them:
If the quarterback has trouble with the progression read, he works the post, front side wheel, mesh, and the backside wheel. That puts him reading from the number-1 receiver across the field to the backside wheel. He reads post, frontside wheel, front side mesh, backside mesh, and backside wheel. The progression goes from frontside to backside. However, he may not get to the backside.*
Returning to the Oregon State game, the Ducks have a three-point lead with just under five minutes remaining, and face 2nd and 15 at the Beavers’ 24-yard line. With 11 personnel on the field, Adams stands in the shotgun. The Ducks have slot formation to the right with the TE to the inside, and a slot formation to the left. Prior to the snap, a receiver from the left comes in deep motion across the formation. Oregon State has a 3-3-5 nickel showing Cover 2:
Adams takes the snap and runs through his progressions as Leach described above, checking Addison on the post, then the WR on the wheel, then to the frontside mesh, then to Baylis working to the backside on his crossing route. None of these receivers are open. Then, Adams goes off script a bit, flowing within structure:
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The QB spots Addison in the end zone on the post route, and, though out of the order of his progressions, hits him for the game-clinching score. While Adams seems to violate a cardinal rule of playing quarterback (never throw late across the middle), this play is a great example of his ability to create offense while yet staying within the structure of the route design. He has the presence of mind to reset his progression reads, basically starting over from the top, and his poise, patience, downfield vision, and yes, improvisational skills, are rewarded.
Adams’s ability to improvise, while also staying true to the structure of a play, make for an impressive combination. When added to his capable set of traits, you find a quarterback who is more than worthy of a selection in the upcoming draft. He is a creator inside and outside the pocket, a player who can pressure a defense on- or off-script. True to the spirit of The Second City, Adams is a talent who can take a script, expand it, and wow audiences as a result.
*This was taken from the 2014 Nike Coach of the Year Manual
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