Gorge yourself on football talk, as Inside the Pylon’s writers and editors sat down to talk about football. All the fixings are here – quarterback play, draft strategy, play design – because we’re football nerds and we give thanks to you, our readers, for loving it as much as we do.
reverend: I think there’s something there, Mark. Tell me more.
David R. McCullough: I smell what the Rock is cooking….it’s a generational thing, eh Mark?
reverend: How many coaches still seem to believe you need a balanced offense?
David R. McCullough: WAY TOO MANY.
Mark Schofield: We’re on the verge of a paradigm shift in how NFL offenses handle QBs as a natural result of the perceived crisis at the QB position. Crisis, after all, often spurs scientific discovery.
Here we have a crisis in how QBs enter the league and how NFL teams handle them. But we also have a fascinating test case playing out right now: Two QBs in the NFL this year have two 4 TD/0 INT games: Tom Brady & Marcus Mariota.
Jason Michaels has embraced elements of Mariota’s college offense, with good results. Add in the fact that the NFL is a copycat league, and you will see more teams follow suit.
David R. McCullough: Counterpoint: The Shanahans adapted an offense for Robert Griffiin III, and had initial success. The 49ers did same for Colin Kaepernick, going so far as to hire his college coach as an assistant to translate the offense. Both eventually proved to be less than what we expected with the modified college offense.
reverend: So which traits can migrate effectively and which cannot? One thing that marks a lot of good social science but you rarely see in football coverage is precondition analysis. I think Mark’s trait based approach series could apply this concept and become a big deal. Like, everyone focuses on excellence. Start at the other end: What are the necessary preconditions to success?
And what things that people usually look at are NOT.
David R. McCullough: You can’t make stupid, preventable mistakes. You can’t screw up the play call and/or formation, and get penalties.
reverend: Right. What we’ve been seeing is that a lot of the more mundane issues with QBs may be more important as veto points than the sexier shit.
Cannon arm? Useful. Avoiding turnovers? CRITICAL.
I’ve been really noticing lately HOW Tom Brady takes sacks. He takes HIMSELF down to protect the football. Not everyone does that.
How many positions besides QB would benefit from a couple years of learning? I don’t think redshirt seasons are used nearly enough. But the time pressure on head coaches is huge. And ironically counter-productive to their goals. Owner impatience sinks potential.
David R. McCullough: I’m pretty convinced that if the NFL had a “farm league” where teams could develop talent in an academy like Euro soccer operations, the quality of NFL play would go through the proverbial roof. Specialization and system familiarity would eliminate lots of the bugs, leaving just design flaws.
Bill Belichick would never lose again.
reverend: I laughed at that last line. Just design flaws…
I mean, yeah, people wonder why there are so many draft busts. They’re drafting guys playing a fundamentally different sport.
David R. McCullough: One of the things Football Manager really, really messes with you on is “soccer culture.” You buy a guy who grew up playing one style/system and bring him to another league/system and there’s a good chance he’s gonna be a bust out of the gate. Then, it’s about mental makeup of the player. And when the player folds, the manager (you) gets fired for failing to make an impact signing.
The logic is sound – back to QBs, RG3 & Kaepernick played a totally different type of football, and they are “failures” in the context of the coach’s system. It is SOOOO screwed up.
David R. McCullough: Brady and Rodgers have “Exceptional, Maybe Legendary Processing Speed” in common, along with Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, and a couple other QBs. They also have other, different traits, but the mental processing speed is the one thing you can’t play QB without.
reverend: Agree. And both didn’t start their rookie season. Watching the faster game from close up for a while without worrying about getting drilled seems important.
reverend: Tell me more.
David R. McCullough: Luck played right out of the gate, in a pretty complex system, and was good. He’s an extreme outlier – even Peyton sucked as a “start immediately rookie” – but it has to be accounted for, somehow.
Mark Schofield: Luck also started all four years at Stanford. In effect, his apprenticeship was his senior year. Peyton took over as the starter midway through his freshman year, but because of injuries.
reverend: Did you know Luck threw at a 54% completion rate his first year? He’s never broken 62% on a season. He’s buoyed by the division.
David R. McCullough: Luck then regresses under his college coordinator?
Mark Schofield: But that’s a different scenario. By all accounts Luck could do all the things NFL coaches seem to expect a college QB to be able to do, such as identify defenders, read coverages, etc. He wasn’t operating in a spread, run/pass option system.
The teams that draft Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch, for example, will face the choice of forcing them to adapt to what the offense already does, building an offense around what they can do, or a blend of the two elements.
That’s why a trait-based examination of players, particularly QBs, makes sense.
Here’s what the guy can do. Here’s where he struggles. If you can make it work with these traits, if you can fit an offense around these abilities and you are comfortable with that design, go for it. If you cannot, he’s not your guy.
reverend: I’m having an interesting time poking around on ProFootballReference and looking at which season various QBs hit a good completion %. Like, how many seasons does it take to get to, say, 65%? Most of the good QBs in the league don’t start getting the % together until season 4. Which is more rope than a lot of players and coaches have. That’s a structural problem in how GMs/Owners make decisions.
Philip Kibbey: Random thought about Luck and Mariota. Both played in the fast paced Pac-12. Wonder if that upped their mental processing game as they had to think faster due to both offenses and defenses.
Mark Schofield: Back to my point about the Mariota test case, I broke down their OT drive.
And basically every single passing play on that drive was a scheme/concept that he ran in college. All curls. RPO mesh with a half-roll using a smash concept. Stick concept. Stick concept with the backside slant.
The TD was a rollout with an away route/crosser. So it wasn’t something he did a lot of at Oregon. But everything else was.
David R. McCullough: Luck sure doesn’t look like a guy with excellent processing in the NFL yet. Lots of dumb mistakes with the ball.
Philip Kibbey: Are all dumb decisions the result of processing? Also, it could be they’re ahead of their peers but not yet at the elite level yet.
Daryl Sng: Mark, does that suggest the way to make someone a better pocket passer is to ease them into it? Use mostly schemes/concepts that a QB is familiar with, and then add in more “NFL-type” plays gradually?
Mark Schofield: I think with the guys who were primarily spread, RPO types in college, yeah, that’s the roadmap.
Dave Archibald: Worth noting: Both Kaepernick and RGIII have been pretty good, or at least OK, at avoiding turnovers. Turnovers aren’t what sank either of them. And both were replaced by horrible turnover machines.
David R. McCullough: Yeah, a person can avoid accidents and still be bad driver, Dave
reverend: Yeah, and the teams suck.
Mark Schofield: “Failure of existing rules is a prelude to the search for new ones.” Kuhn p. 68
David R. McCullough: EXACTLY, Mark.
Philip Kibbey: I also think part of the RGIII failure was that his shredded knee changed how the offense worked. And instead of shutting him down and letting him heal, Shanahan forced him to play on it.
reverend: Football coaching is based largely on the apprenticeship model, though, which is inherently conservative. Hence, the persistence of stuff that isn’t correct.
Everyone keeps saying, “It’s a copycat league,” without really understanding the mechanics.
I’m wondering if the next step in the trait-based systemsTM is to identify necessary traits, complementary traits, and supplemental traits… or something. Terminology. Which ones are critical. And which ones are gravy?
What are the five for QB?
David R. McCullough: My list:
- Process information with bodies flying around
- Take accountability for team failures and be a good teammate
- Understand all the elements of the playbook – and it’s permutations – in all situations
- Have the agility to avoid the rush
- Have enough of an arm to make the throws
- Arm Talent
- Play Speed
- Play Strength
- Decision-Making/Athletic Ability
reverend: But these aren’t equally important, yeah? Is it even clear that the ranking of importance would be the same for different schemes?
Daryl Sng: I think too many teams try to work with the QB they wish they had, not the QB they do have.
David R. McCullough: I call that the “Tebow Argument,” Daryl.
Dave Archibald: I think that’s part of Mark’s point about the paradigm with the new QBs. The problem is that, sooner or later, you have to be able to pass from the pocket. You can build an offense that incorporates the running talent of a guy like Kaepernick and takes advantage of it, but you run into a ceiling somewhere along the line unless you can develop them as a passer.
Daryl Sng: Sure, but what if that ceiling is good enough? Like, not top-10 QB good, but good enough to be an average QB, and definitely worth more than tearing down the QB and attempting to reconstruct him.
David R. McCullough: I see Daryl’s point – maybe without a power failure, Kaepernick’s a guy who you can eek out a Super Bowl win with?
Daryl Sng: If NFL teams really want pure pocket passers – think those are skills that can be developed – and think there is a crisis in the pipeline, then they really need something more akin to a farm system that focuses on developing those skills rather than relying on college teams that have their own differing priorities.
That’s the other possible paradigm shift in response to the QB crisis: Instead of rejiggering NFL schemes, you change the pipeline into the NFL.
David R. McCullough: The World League might have been a way to do that but, short of an NCAA unionization crisis, I see no way the NFL institutes a real minor league. Expanding the rosters further, codifying some of the shadow roster stuff, and expanding programs is more likely.
Daryl Sng: Yes – maybe not a real minor league, but if the NFL really wants more pocket passers, it will have to find ways to develop them other than relying on the NCAA as the farm system.
I don’t really know if there is a QB crisis, but Mark isn’t the only person I’ve heard mentioning this idea that the college game doesn’t produce the kind of QBs that the NFL wants.
Dave Archibald: The weird thing about a farm league is that it doesn’t seem like the other 21 positions on the field need it. And then you run into: How much does it help a guy’s development to play regularly throwing to subpar receivers against subpar defenders blocked for by subpar linemen against subpar pass rushers?
(presumably with subpar coaching)
Dave Archibald: Projecting prospects always involves some element of attempting to predict the future. That’s for any kind of prospect and especially with QBs where they aren’t good enough as rookies, even the great ones.
reverend: Yeah, but as the games diverge, it gets closer to watching a guy in pottery class and trying to figure out how he’ll do as QB.
Dave Archibald: My point is that what distinguishes the greatest quarterbacks is not how great they were as prospects but how much they improved once entering the league. Brady was a mediocre prospect. Rodgers and Drew Brees were meh. Montana was a 3rd rounder.
reverend: Right. They had to have time for the bodies to catch up to their mental make-up. Or vice-versa. And time for the coaches to identify they had the mental make-up.
Dave Archibald: Their mental makeup improved more, I think. At least some elements.
reverend: Probably. I agree. But it’s much harder to identify and quantify.
Dave Archibald: It might not be identifiable or quantifiable at all.
reverend: Well, the results are eventually identifiable. Like how Belichick says Brady can articulate how many things he sees on a play.
Daryl Sng: But how much of the difficulty is because it’s really hard to project that improvement, or because coaches / scouts are too conservative and traditional at what they look at?
reverend: Yes, that, Daryl.
Daryl Sng: Super combines are fantastic, except QBs are atrocious?
Dave Archibald: I think mostly because it’s really hard.
reverend: In this case, conservatism may be leaving too much on the table. Take the guy that nobody can quibble with because of observables. But then you leave Brady on the table.
Dave Archibald: You’re dealing with largely psychological characteristics, as well as looking at 22-year-olds and trying to project what they will be like as 26-year-olds.
reverend: I mean, think about it – what are the odds that Brady is the only Brady of the last 20+ years? Isn’t it more likely that there were other guys who would have been great but nobody put in the investment?
Dave Archibald: High.
reverend: High? Really?
reverend: Well, no, I don’t mean literally there are lots of GOATs out there. But I mean guys who could have been developed into really good or even great players who didn’t have the proper makeup at the time of drafting to garner the investment.
Dave Archibald: OK, yeah, I buy that.
Daryl Sng: I was thinking Romo is a better example than Brady for that.
Belichick seems really good at looking at players and envisioning the roles they can excel in, rather than limiting things to the roles they played previously. Though I watch a lot more of the Pats so maybe other coaches do it well too.
Dave Archibald: I’m curious as to how much he envisions the role as much as he just determines that “This guy is a football player.” If a guy has the skill set and attitude, we can teach him some things.
reverend: OK, I’ve thought about it, Arch, and I’m going to restate what I’m thinking about the Brady example:
The NFL’s talent evaluation system wasn’t able to identify the GOAT at the most important position as a regular starter. That is inherently interesting. I meant, how much money would we estimate Brady has been worth to Robert Kraft? This is practically a violation of economic theory. (Which I love, btw…)
Dave Archibald: Which is why I think it’s a real limitation. Brady is a dramatic example. Rodgers was the what, 23rd or 24th pick? Brees was the 32nd. Brett Favre was a second-rounder. In general teams do OK drafting QB, but they don’t appear to have any ability to identify the great ones.
We don’t have data on the unknowns, i.e. those guys who would have been good but never got a shot. So our analysis is highly incomplete, but it’s not usually treated that way or acknowledged as such.
Draft analysis usually proceeds as though all the guys playing in the NFL, or starting if you are thinking in terms of successful picks, are the population. In reality, we don’t know what the actual population looks like.
It’s entirely possible that if Belichick doesn’t draft Brady, Brady doesn’t get a real shot. That’s pretty radical when you think about it.
Daryl Sng: Do you mean “never got a shot” in the Romo “played for a lesser-known college and so hardly got noticed” way, or “never got a shot” in the “born in Australia and so became a rugby player, who knows what he could’ve done if he had played football for all his life” way?
“Once inside, the person spends eternity living as it thinks best, usually according to its true (sometimes undiscovered) talent. According to one of the characters, a cobbler who “has the soul of a poet in him won’t have to make shoes here”, implying that he would instead turn to poetry and achieve perfection in it. On special occasions, a procession of the greatest people in history is formed, including Buddha, William Shakespeare, Homer, Muhammed, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and several unknown people whose talents far exceeded those of the world’s pivotal figures, but were never famous.”
Dave Archibald: Sounds like he didn’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
reverend: I don’t think there’s any inconsistency. Outliers doesn’t address opportunity.
Daryl Sng: Brady I think illustrates something different from Romo. I think any QB who plays for Michigan will get some attention. The issue for Brady is more that drafters over-emphasized the wrong things (his combine performance etc.); Romo is more that drafters didn’t care about Eastern Illinois (Belichick, of course, doesn’t ignore QB talent from Eastern Illinois).
Dave Archibald: To some extent they were wrong about Brady, but, looking back, I don’t think there’s anything you can pinpoint that would have predicted what he has become. It’s not like he had unbelievable statistics and they didn’t know how it would translate.
Daryl Sng: Could someone have pinpointed the Brady of 2001-2004 though?
Dave Archibald: Maybe, but I’m thinking probably not. I mean, maybe Belichick thought there was a chance of it but if he thought it was likely he would have taken him before the sixth round.
reverend: Well, then, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? Is there nothing that could have spotted at least significant potential (bracket GOAT) or are there things that might, just nobody does them?
Dave Archibald: I think there is nothing, to be honest.
reverend: Then that’s interesting too.
Dave Archibald: If there is something, it’s probably a psychological attribute.
David R. McCullough: WILL. Or, don’t piss Tom Brady off.
Rev wants very badly for the answer to “What makes the greatest QB ever the greatest” to be something grander than “being drafted so low pissed him off.”
Daryl Sng: I was joking about the Oculus Rift thing, but I do wonder if there could ever be a simulator that can measure/test that ability to make quick decisions. Because of all the essential QB skills, that one about reading defenses seems to be the one that is least tested in the drafting process right now (or is it really well-tested and we just don’t hear the results because it isn’t sexy like combine numbers?).
David R. McCullough: YES. It is hard as hell to gauge that with college defenses and college schemes, and inferior talent, etc.
Dave Archibald: Given that Brady is still pissed off about it this much later, I think it’s safe to say he would have found something to piss him off even if he’d been a third-rounder or something.
Michael Jordan is still pissed about not making his high school varsity as a sophomore. These are not rational people.
Daryl Sng: I really like Brady for that… I still remember almost all my high school academic slights.
reverend: I remember the question I got wrong on the Math SAT. Fat lot of good it’s done me.
David R. McCullough: Yeah… guys? Most of us DON’T remember that shit. Thus, it is a trait exceptional people like you have, this need to be the best. That Brady is wired like this is… not surprising.
reverend: Well, yes, that’s one of the things. His memory and processing speed though are pretty critical too.
David R. McCullough: How do you measure that thing though? From college film?
reverend: I think one of the reasons we’ve been watching people get excited about running QBs for like 20 years is because that makes sense to people. They can see it.
Daryl Sng: That’s why I think someone needs to create some sort of simulator.
reverend: People like things that seem to make sense. That’s documented in social science.
“Narrative truth” – people find an explanation that sounds reasonable, find it acceptable, and stop looking without first verifying if that is, in fact, the actual explanation or just a reasonable sounding one. That’s one of the reasons we need the scientific method.
Dave Archibald: Did he always have that memory and processing speed? I think probably not.
reverend: I’m not sure you can train a photographic memory in your 20s.
Dave Archibald: I don’t think he actually has a photographic memory, does he?
reverend: There are mental things you can train up. But there has to be a latent potential.
Dave Archibald: He’s just consumed by this stuff so he remembers things. Like Belichick.
reverend: Probably not a true one – people don’t realize there is such a thing when they throw the term around.
reverend: Belichick is close to having one. Ernie Adams might actually have one.
reverend: It’s expected for people at that level. But there’s massive selection bias there – the guys who can’t, wash out. But some people still distinguish themselves even at this level. When Kaepernick started being asked to make quicker reads, he fell apart.
David R. McCullough: I disagree that faster reads is why he fell apart. I think fewer reads, from more traffic, is why Kaepernick fell apart. It’s a feedback loop – he fell apart because he needed to stay in the pocket more, which meant more max protect, which meant fewer receivers, which meant fewer options, which meant more pressure, which made him fall apart.
Daryl Sng: Wait, do people seriously not remember high school slights?
Dave Archibald: I think we’re kind of conflating two issues here: one is what makes QBs competent and the other is what makes the best QBs the best. I’m not sure how much overlap there is.
reverend: I’m actually trying to distinguish them. The reason Brady is an interesting case study is that he’s a massive outlier, but managed to be mostly overlooked.
reverend: I dunno Daryl. I know I remember a lot more of high school than most people. But I also know that people know me consider me to have a very good memory (names and faces notwithstanding – I spent like three minutes trying to remember James Woods’s first name the other night. Seriously.).
Dave Archibald: I would love to know for sure what happened to Kaepernick. I still remember how he torched the Pats in that one game. They kept him in the pocket, too. He hit Michael Crabtree on a post splitting Cover 2, hit Delanie Walker in the corner of the end zone when Devin McCourty tried to help on Randy Moss in Cover 3 (four verticals concept), and then they threw a big blitz at him and he hit Crabtree on a quick hitch – no hesitation – and Crabtree broke Kyle Arrington’s tackle and it was Cover 0 so he was off to the races.
I don’t really think it’s a conscious effort by SF to make him a pocket guy. That might be part of what’s going on, but I think it’s the defenses that are making him a pocket guy as much as anything. Right now against SF basically all you have to worry about is Kaepernick escaping the pocket, which makes it easy to defend.
Daryl Sng: I think Kaepernick is an example where his ceiling was average but good enough to be a Super Bowl QB, maybe with a short career because of the punishment a running QB takes, and then the 49ers really tried to make him something he was not. Which is fine, but at some point, you should have enough data and enough humility to say “hey, this isn’t working.”
Dave Archibald: I had a similar conversation to this with Nath Pizzolatto a couple years ago when the Pats took Jimmy Garoppolo, who is a guy with good tape, but some issues with pressure. Accurate, decent arm, pretty good athlete, pretty good size, really quick release.
Other than his release, I don’t think he has outstanding qualities, but no real weaknesses either… but he is supposed to be an A++ intangibles guy. And I wonder if that’s the right model: enough ability / talent, A++ intangibles. Not for some nebulous Bill Simmons leadership nonsense, but because he will work and work and work and work and be consumed by it.
reverend: That’s sorta what I’m wondering. Like, focusing on the traits that they usually do, teams are locked into a min-max strategy but leaving potential max on the table.
Brady being kept as a 4th QB based on them not wanting to lose his potential is the key here. Like, how did they see that?
reverend: Belichick wasted a roster spot for a season. That’s not something he does lightly.
Part of this is Belichick’s philosophy on those back-end roster spots: You have 46 game day actives (might have been 45 in 2000), you have 7 more slots, plus 10 PS (8 then), plus the “shadow roster.” You manage those according to how much you’re worried about losing them as much as how much they help the team.
Dave Archibald: I have an article in mind leading up to the draft to show how small the difference in physical ability is between early-rounders and late-rounders / undrafted. There’s a perception that the early guys are massively more physically talented and it’s just not true, even by stuff like Combine numbers.
The Steelers just cut the dude with like the best 40 time in 10 years. Dri Archer was only a 3rd-round pick; at the NFL level, being super fast / strong / agile / able to jump high is just not that special.
Chuck Zodda: It’s no different from the wine price tag. The mind takes shortcuts and perceives things that aren’t there based on familiar data points.
Philip Kibbey: The successful scouting departments also seem to properly assess who can make the skill jump from inferior college competition to the NFL
reverend: But it sounds like a good justification you can point to. “He was fast! Seemed like a good bet.” You rarely hear: “He’s a huge dork! He’ll live in the play book and the gym.”
I mean, let’s face it: While DaveM calls it charitably, “WILL,” Brady is a huge frickin’ football dork.
Philip Kibbey: There are probably tons of NFL caliber players at schools like the University of West Alabama. The scouting skill is seeing who there can make a leap like Butler. Not all will be starters or stars, but even effective role players are valuable and could be had for UDFA prices.
reverend: Yeah, exactly. I wonder how much money is left on the table and never gets a shot at all, or a “real” shot.
Daryl Sng: It’s a phenomenon that permeates all of society; in business there’s the old adage that, “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”
reverend: Given the money involved, you would expect that every possibility would be exploited… except that the system isn’t fully marketized given the monopoly.
Philip Kibbey: Right. I hate the term “new market inefficiency” but it is really crazy that front offices aren’t throwing money at scouts for these schools.
Daryl Sng: I don’t think it’s just the monopoly. You’re never criticized for picking brand names.
Dave Archibald: There’s an opportunity limit, too. Only so many roster spots, only so many snaps in games and practices.
reverend: I don’t think it’s just the monopoly. But I think it exacerbates things. I mean, none of these owners can fail.
Daryl Sng: People have limited decision-making capabilities and school pedigree, combine scores, etc. These are easy heuristics.
reverend: Daryl, have you ever thought about how hard it is for Jacksonville to suck as much as they have for as long as they have in a salary cap league? I mean, the Patriots are outliers, but teams are at least TRYING to excel.
Consistently trying to excel and sucking for that long is arguably stranger.
Dave Archibald: Ironically, given this discussion, one of Jacksonville’s problems is drafting too many small school guys. And heuristics have value given limits on opportunity. Probably unavoidable to some degree.
Daryl Sng: The state of Florida has 3 NFL teams, and it’s been 6 years since any one of them has been to the playoffs.
reverend: I totally agree that heuristics have value and understand why people do what they do. I’m wondering what could be done that isn’t being done because, well, it’s not necessary.
Daryl Sng: True, only question is whether teams are really maximizing their opportunities. Do you think teams make enough use of the stuff that isn’t capped? Paying for more scouts, testing for the right characteristics. etc.
Dave Archibald: That’s a great question.
Daryl Sng: Managing in the NFL is a bit like that old joke: You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guys you’re with.
Philip Kibbey: I think that is a great question Daryl. Very similar to what baseball went through a decade ago. Invest in scouting, medicine, and international scouting.
reverend: Coaching doesn’t cost anything compared to other stuff in MLB, and it’s amazing how little goes on in the minor leagues.
Dave Archibald: Pats have just about the opposite approach, obviously also successful. More information doesn’t always lead to better decisions.
Daryl Sng: True, a lot of my job is helping people turn information/data into strategy, and so often people just want data to confirm what they think they know.
reverend: People are basically wired to want that, Daryl. It’s the key issue to try to circumvent to get a competitive advantage. Or one of the key issues. As per the term I mentioned above: “narrative truth.”
Philip Kibbey: That is all true. The data itself is largely meaningless unless you know how to use it to your advantage. There isn’t a formula to make it work either, which is why personnel also matters.
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