It is difficult to evaluate the mental acumen of quarterbacks from the outside. We don’t have the chance as external evaluators to sit down with them, to break down film with them (absent the rare occasions, such as this great video with my friend Matt Waldman and former James Madison University QB Vad Lee), and we can’t go through white board sessions with them. But an important piece to the evaluation process is this mental factor. Can they learn from their errors and mistakes and avoid making them in the future? Do they take to coaching?
There are rare moments when we can see that play out in real time. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 2016 game against Florida State provides one such opportunity. For me, that game goes a long way toward my opinion of Watson as a football player and a quarterback.
On their opening drive of the game, the Tigers face a 3rd and 10 on their own 47-yard line. Using 11 personnel, they align in a 3×1 formation with three receivers to the left and Mike Williams (#7) alone on the right side. Watson (#4) stands in the shotgun with a running back to his right. The Seminoles use a dime package and show potential pressure off the left edge, with a linebacker aligned just outside the left tackle. The secondary shows soft coverage, but for Marquez White (#27), who readies himself in press technique across from Williams:
Watson sees it too, and the QB and WR adjust the play. Williams simply runs a quick hitch route, and Watson takes the snap and gets the ball out to the receiver:
Because of the speed of the read and decision from Watson, the receiver has the football with time and space to make a move on the next defender. Safety A.J. Westbrook (#19) rotates over behind the blitz, but Williams has time to shed the tackle attempt and pick up additional yardage. By the time he is knocked down, the receiver has picked up nine yards, setting Clemson up with a 4th and 1 in FSU territory. They converted the following play, and capped off the drive with a touchdown.
Round 1 to Watson.
Midway through the third quarter the teams face a similar situation. Facing a 2nd and 8 on its own 35-yard line, Clemson lines up in a 3×1 formation. Three receivers align to the right with Williams again by himself, this time to the left. The Seminoles use a 4-2-5 nickel, and both cornerbacks are in press alignment:
This time, sophomore cornerback Tarvarus McFadden (#4) stands across from Williams. He starts in press coverage, but then starts to drift inside:
Williams sees this, and points it out, as he did on the previous play:
From another angle, you can see left tackle Mitch Hyatt (#75) signaling the blitz as well as Watson staring right at McFadden:
Looking back at the alignment of the defense right before the snap, you can see the CB cheated inside, and both linebackers are in blitz posture. One LB sugars the A Gap while Ro’Derrick Hoskins (#18) aligns on the right edge of the offense:
This gives the defense seven players in the box, indicating a blitz is in the cards. With only six players in position to block, if all the defenders come, then someone will be unblocked. Watson will need to get the football out quickly. As he takes the snap, Watson turns to his left, expecting the blitz off the edge from McFadden. Williams releases off the line slowly, looking for the football. But it never arrives:
McFadden set the bait, and Watson took it. As the play begins the DB drops back underneath Williams, right in the throwing lane. Watson starts to throw to Williams, and then seeing the cornerback underneath tries to get cute with the pass and float it over him. But he doesn’t get it over McFadden, who makes the big play.
Here’s the look at this from the end zone camera. In an ideal world, Watson doesn’t try and get cute with this, but resets his feet and goes through the rest of the progressions. But looking at the context of the play, you can see why he gets rid of the ball. The protection is slid to the left, and Wayne Gallman (#9), the running back, also heads to the left edge. This leaves Hopkins unblocked off the right edge, and the LB is bearing down on Watson as he releases the ball. Perhaps the QB is better suited taking the sack here, but Watson makes an aggressive decision, and gets burned:
Can he learn from that?
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. With under 13 minutes remaining, the complexion of the game has changed. The Seminoles lead 28-20, and the Tigers face a 3rd and 4 in the red zone. With the football on the FSU 15-yard line, Watson stands in the shotgun with (stop me if you have heard this before) three receivers to his right and a single receiver to the left, this time Deon Cain (#8). The defense lines up using a 4-1-6 personnel grouping, with linebacker Matthew Thomas (#6) on the field along with six defensive backs, including reserve defensive back Kyle Meyers (#37) who sets up in a linebacker’s alignment. This time it is White aligned across from the single receiver, in press coverage:
Here is the offensive play art:
From the bunch formation, Artavis Scott (#3) is the outside receiver, and he runs a post route. Hunter Renfrow (#13) is the inside receiver, and he runs an under route, starting to the outside and then cutting back underneath. Tight end Jordan Leggett (#16) is the middle receiver, and he releases vertically.
Something before the play catches Cain’s eye, and he points it out to his QB. White looks like he’s coming off the edge:
Right before the snap, White crashes inside, as the blitz is coming once more:
Watson takes the shotgun snap and looks toward Cain. The blitz is coming and the receiver is slowly coming off the line, looking at his quarterback and expecting the football. Safety Calvin Brewton (#10) is lurking but with the blitz and the free release, you might expect Watson to go right to Cain.
But he doesn’t.
He comes off the hot read and stays in the pocket, waiting for a route to develop downfield. As pressure starts to build off the edges, Watson climbs the pocket and fires downfield:
First and goal, Tigers.
From the end zone camera, you can see why. As the routes develop from the bunch, Meyers stays on the vertical route from Leggett. As Renfrow and Scott cross on their routes, that puts Thomas and the CB to that side of the field, McFadden, in a bind. Do they switch these routes or try and stay on the receivers as indicated by presnap alignment? Watson expects them to switch, and right here you can see he wants to throw to Renfrow near the sticks:
From that view, you can see how the cornerback is off Renfrow a bit, and the linebacker has rotated over to Scott. But Watson doesn’t pull the trigger. He sees the LB continue his rotation past Scott and to Renfrow, which means Scott is now uncovered, on a post route, against a Cover 2 look with the middle of the field wide open. He quickly resets and fires to Scott on the post:
Again, Watson has been knocked for an inability to make quick decisions. I would respectfully disagree with that assertion.
Here’s the play from the end zone angle in full:
Clemson scored on the next play.
Maybe this is the one play I’ll pick for Watson’s eventual scouting report. I seem to have a growing list of options.
I firmly believe that the Florida State game is the perfect contest to use when evaluating Watson. Bright lights, big stage, hostile environment, and he faces some adversity along the way. Playing quarterback, for lack of a better phrase, is freaking hard. You face a defensive coordinator who is paid a lot of money, has a ton of experience, and has one job that week – to make you look foolish. You face a multitude of defenders who are trying to assist their DC in accomplishing that goal. Everything happens in split-second increments. If you can handle that, if you can take that – take getting punched in the mouth, making mistakes and coming back, learning from them, and executing at an even higher level – you can play the position. And you can play for me.
Deshaun Watson can play for me.