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Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Dr Saturday follows up on the weird storyline of trying to get Tim Tebow "NFL Ready" (by doing more under center, etc) even though he is still the quarterback for the defending National Champion Florida Gators who has excelled in a shotgun offense. In other words: what are they doing?
Maybe it is hype, maybe it is real. But at some level it (either the reality or the hype) is driven by the very real fact that NFL scouts now seem to spend the time from the end of bowl season until the draft railing against "spread" and "system" quarterbacks. When pressed to explain this, they proffer ridiculous reasons like the fatal flaw that spread quarterbacks can't take snaps under center and perform traditional drops. (Mike Leach remained unimpressed.) But no matter what the form, the consensus among NFL scouts seems to be the same: "system" quarterbacks (most notably "spread offense" quarterbacks) are bad.
But what are they talking about? Don't they have at least a bit of a point, considering that some college QBs put up huge stats and then are never heard of again? Let's take a step back.
NFL scouting is, of course, very difficult. Scouts must evaluate a player in one environment (college, certain workouts) and extrapolate how that will work in the NFL. In other sports -- most notably baseball -- there's been great strides in taking a player's high school or college numbers (most reliably with college) and getting a decent picture of how good a pro they will be. And this is huge: scouts do not have to solely rely on gestalt impressions like "well, he looks like a ballplayer"; they have at least some degree of certainty.
NFL scouts are not so lucky: many positions -- most notably lineman -- produce very few statistics, and what statistics players produce, whether pancake blocks or touchdown catches, are heavily dependent on the other players on the field. So it's really difficult to turn football data into something meaningful.
Yet, for a time at least, quarterback statistics at least seemed to indicate what talent lay within. A guy couldn't have a great TD-INT ratio or throw for a set number of yards without knowing the game. Or could he? In the late '80s and early '90s some West Coast Offense and Run and Shoot QBs came out of college with huge stats, only to fail miserably in the NFL. They weren't the first QBs to fail, but they had come out with such pedigree -- look at their stats!
So the term "system quarterback" became a slur, roughly translating to: "He who throws for lots of yards and touchdowns in college but will be crap in the NFL."
College coaches -- like Leach -- bristle at the very idea. And it's hard to argue with that: is Leach supposed to apologize for the fact that some guy named BJ Symons threw for nearly 6000 yards and the next year someone else named Sonny Cumbie who threw for 4,700 and then yet another fifth-year senior named Cody Hodges with another 4300? I mean, he throws the ball a lot and would like to win games; it's not to have his guys perform at a level exactly commensurate with their talent to ensure that they don't send any fake signals to NFL scouts.
But, to an extent, I sympathize with NFL scouts. Stats used to at least mean something. But when 45 touchdown passes could equally mean Arena League second-stringer as it could NFL starter, scouts are left again with not a lot more than: "well, he looks like a ballplayer." It's not a very scientific way to pick players, and it's hard.
And in the hyperbolic pre-draft world (Mel Kiper on Percy Harvin: "He’s not that big, and he’s taken a lot of hits. But his explosiveness after the run is explosive.") this confusion injected by good coaches who squeeze talent out of their shotgun operating signal callers arises something like resentment and at minimum a lot of skepticism.
It sounds like I'm giving NFL scouts a break here. And I kind of am: there's not a lot for them to go on. But that doesn't change the fact that they are just guessing and most don't know what they are doing. In Malcolm Gladwell's "quarterback problem" article he sat down with an NFL scout who sat around drooling over Chase Daniel, who might not even get drafted. In baseball, when the Moneyball crowd came in, lots of old school scouts that had dominated for years were swept away like discredited mystics of some defunct religion. If football ever figures it out, the same thing will happen. The guys harping on somebody's "hips" as code or their size of their pinky toe will finally look as foolish as they sound. (Even if there is validity in some of these minor details the question remains what on earth someone could do with all of it to aggregate it into some kind of player ranking.)
So if I have to take sides, put me with the college coaches who aren't afraid to put their QBs in the shotgun and let them run with it and sling it; system moniker be damned. (And I would recommend the same to players considering where to go to school.) And my advice for (most) NFL scouts? Quit, or be fired: NFL drafting would probably be fine without any of this ridiculous minutiae and hyperbole.