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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

More thoughts on pro scouts' anger at "system quarterbacks"

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.


BR said...

I think you're overrating the objections. "Fatal flaw" is too strong a term to describe what I've heard and read. Rather, I see concern and skepticism. That's not off-base.

To defend the criticism somewhat, consider what you've written. Scouting is not an exact science; stats have become harder to take at face value, due to the proliferation of unusual, pass-heavy offenses; and a number of high-stat guys from spread and run-and-shoot offenses have bombed hugely in the NFL.

Is it really so bizarre for them to consider QBs in such systems as high-risk? Because, historically, they've bombed at higher than normal rates.

The difference in demonstrated skills between a shotgun spread QB and a pro-style offense QB isn't just "can run backwards without tripping." For example, a rap on shotgun spread QBs is that they haven't done a "turn the back on the defense" playfake in their careers. To be able to turn around and make the quick read after turning one's back is not easy. It's an important skill that the "system" QB has never demonstrated. Wouldn't that constitute a little cause for concern? Also, don't spread offenses place enormous emphasis on pre-snap reads? That doesn't prepare them for NFL offenses' strong need for post-snap reads.

None of this is to say that such skills can't be taught. But each skill left undemonstrated in college is yet another area where a young QB could be shown to be ineffective. A kid in a more conventional offense has already demonstrated how he does those things. If he stinks at them, the scouts will already know. If a shotgun spread QB stinks, how would they be able to tell?

The pre-draft hype about downplaying "system" QBs is almost certainly overblown in the press. I'd wager that NFL scouts would not write anyone off just because they play in, say, the Airraid. However, scouts would be foolish not to look at such players with a skeptical eye. Those players have not developed important, if teachable, skills, and a higher-than-average percentage of their predecessors washed out as major busts. Were I an NFL scout, I'd certainly be more cautious in judging them.

BR said...

Whoop -- I thought this piece was dated 3/31, not 4/1.

Never mind.

Anonymous said...

The reason why there is tslk about the term system Quarterbacks. The problem is bad habits and it makes it difficult to scout a player.

You develop bad habits in the Spread offenses. Since most of the throws are one on one and short throws you are not through the ball with timing or antication you are sort of waiting for your recievers to get open. Also Spread Quarterbacks tend to stare down targets since in the offense every thing is just one on one.

While Mike Leach win like to laugh at the fact thst you csn teach 3 step drop and 5 step drop easily it is not true. In the NFL when you make your drop by time that back foot hits the ground you have to already have read the coverage, decide who your are throwing it too and deliver the ball. Also when you have experience from under center you already develop the habit of makig pre snaps read and reading the safeties.

The biggest reason might be the fact that you don't have a good measure of arm strength. Since you are throwing mostly hitches and screens you don't get a measure of functional arm strength. You are not making throws into tight windows and making plays down the field. Big Ben Joe Flacco and now Bradford while they operated mostly out of the Shotgun they were attacking teams vetically in their offenses. Maybe the likes of Texas Tech, Florida, etc are trying to hide their QBs weaknesses in arm strength.

Also the biggest reason is some of the guys simply aren't that good. In the NFL you have to attact the defense in all 3 levels. Guys like McCoy, Tebow and Harrell might just lack the arm strength to do that. Is McCoy really as accurate as his numbers suggest are is he just a great at throw hitches. Same with Tebow and Harrel. Once again they don't have outstanding physical tools like a Big Ben or Flacco.

Chris said...

BR: I agree with you in this respect. I think that with many spread quarterbacks you have to throw all the statistics out the window to evaluate how good they will be as Pros (though their experience I do think still helps them). In that sense, yes, they are higher risk because you have to do most of the scouting from scratch, and on an individual basis. Like I said, I sympathize with scouts; in many ways they have less to go on with spread QB's.

Anon: Not sure I agree with the "bad habits." I do think that one reason coaches go to the shotgun is because there is simply less footwork to be done; but that doesn't mean they learn bad habits. If you watch NFL dropbacks you do not exactly see clinic or summer camp level precision; a lot of all-pros are pretty darn sloppy. This is sort of what I think guys like Leach were referring to in saying they could teach it in an hour. And yes, he was being a bit glib, but his point remains: it's a red herring for evaluating guys.

Arm/strength short passes? Again, I agree and sympathize with scouts that you have to throw out a lot of their stats to evaluate them. But I wouldn't say the short passes mean that they are hiding their QB's arms (though I like teams that push the ball vertically myself), though they might also be playing to strengths. I mean, one example is not enough, but take Joe Montana: think he wouldn't be a spread QB today? The guy did not have a great arm, but he was mobile and was supremely accurate.

All your stuff about staring down receivers applies to ALL college quarterbacks, and so has nothing to do with the spread per se. I'm not even sure why you would think that was limited to spread QBs -- indeed most of them are better at looking off safeties and the like. And look at Matt Leinart: classic non-spread QB who struggled with staring down receivers in the NFL.

Anyway, I agree many spread QBs aren't that great. I never said that spread QBs are better; what I was talking about was that I find the hostility towards them interesting.

Pro scouts seem very good at dealing with spread receivers who lack physical tools to succeed in the NFL. They are very polite, they are complimented on their vast production, and are kindly informed that they lack the speed, agility, hands, and size to make it in the big leagues. Spread quarterbacks? It's like they committed a cardinal sin for putting up the numbers they did, as if it was a vast conspiracy to confuse scouts and cost them their jobs for recommending a David Klingler or whoever.

Anonymous said...

All 0f these guys were largely spread QB's in college, throwing most of their passes out of the gun.

Philip Rivers
Drew Brees
Ben Roethlisberger

I would say those guys have done pretty well in the pros. Rivers ran an offense VERY similar to the one at Texas Tech based on a gun version of the BYU offense.

And Peyton Manning and Tom Brady currently throw most of their passes from the gun.

As Chris says you can't just look at stats with guys from some systems but the fact that they play in that system does not mean that you can automatically discount them either.

Anonymous said...

The problem with "system QBs" is that they run systems predicated on features that are not utilized by NFL offenses. In other words, the bulk of what they learned over 4-5 years in college does not help prepare them to play in the NFL.

Meanwhile, QBs taken high in the draft are expected to (and paid as if they will) start from day one. A "system QB," with rare exception, will be unable to do this because he has not spent the past 4-5 years learning how to do this. Few teams picking high in the draft are willing to let their recently-draft franchise QB sit for multiple years (constrast: Steve McNair, Aaron Rodgers, etc) or have the patenience to deal with a 3ish year learning curve (contrast: Drew Brees).

That said, most college QBs from "conventional" offenses will not be prepared to start from day one, and most highly-successful college QBs, regardless of system, ultimately do not find success in the NFL. But considering the few "system" QBs who were immediately successful - Big Ben, Flacco, and...? - two themes emerge: pre-existing strong defense, pre-existing strong running game. Most teams selecting high in the draft (and notably Flacco fell to the bottom half of the first round) do not have those pre-existing conditions, such that they cannot afford a "game manager" at QB.

Of course, this also supports my theory that 99% of teams that have earned a top 10 draft pick should trade down and take linemen...