For the first time since I have been studying the draft, I have to seriously study the quarterback class. In previous years I’ve educated myself about them, but mostly for the purposes of figuring out where they fit in with the rest of the class and how they could effect the rest of the draft.
For the New York Giants, having to worry about the quarterback position was something that happened to other teams.
But the march of time is inexorable, and eventually all things must come to an end, including Eli Manning’s career. We don’t know how much time he has left, but a fairly practical timeline would have him retiring when his current deal expires after the 2019 season.
So with three years remaining, the Giants have to start looking for their next franchise quarterback.
There’s just one problem with that: The college game has changed in the last 13 years.
In fact, for many quarterbacks there is almost nothing in common between their college’s offense and professional football. They get the ball from their centers and throw the ball to receivers, and that’s about as far as the similarities go.
Even then most of the passes quarterbacks throw are bubble screens.
What is the Spread Option and why is it so frustrating when it comes to scouting quarterbacks?
At its heart, the Spread Option offense is the thought-child of the read-option and the Air Raid offense. Both offenses are similar in that they want to use numbers to stress defenses then put the ball where there are the fewest number of defenses.
The Read-Option did this on the ground, by using athletic quarterbacks who can run the ball. By making the quarterback a viable weapon and not just a distributor of the football, the defense is forced to play 11-on-11, giving up its numerical superiority. From there the use of a mesh-point where both the quarterback and running back have the ball, it forces the defense to commit, then whoever isn’t being targeted runs with the ball.
The Air Raid does something similar, only (predictably) through the air. The Air Raid is a simple offense that has its roots in both the Run ‘n Shoot and West Coast offenses. The idea is to get ball to receivers in space and let athletic young men do athletic things. The space is schemed for them through formations and route combinations. The majority of the Air Raid’s passes are within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and many of them even go behind the line of scrimmage.
The Spread Option combines the aerial attack of the Air Raid with the running element of the read-option. But not only that, it takes the basic tenant of both — simplicity — and drives it to its ultimate conclusion.
Gone are the days when quarterbacks would call the play in the huddle, line up under center, read the defense, and then work through progressions. Now the entire offense looks to their sideline as coaches, graduate assistants, or players on the side hold up big signs, which tell every element of the offense what their job is.
From that the offensive line knows their blocking scheme, the running backs and tight ends know their assignments, the receivers know what route they’re running, and the quarterback knows what his read is. Everything is predetermined and there’s no thinking necessary.
As far as routes are concerned, two concepts dominate the passing game. The “4 Verts” concept, which sees four receivers run down the field to stretch the defense with one designated to stop and turn back to the quarterback in the open field.
Pressing down the field vertically opens up the run game and creates the possibility for match-up problems as the defense is forced into 1-on-1 situations.
The other is the bubble screen.
This is a horizontal play that essentially functions like a running play, if the quarterback were Plastic Man (or Mr. Fantastic for the Marvel partisans).
One or two outside receivers block their corners while the intended ball carrier makes an easy-peezy catch behind the line of scrimmage. This simulates a running attack without all the pesky blocking up front. There is no read, and the throw should be an easy pitch and catch for the quarterback.
So why has the Spread Option taken over college football?
The truth is that there aren’t many “Pro Style” franchise quarterbacks in the world. There aren’t even 32 of them in the NFL itself, let alone in the pros and college. The combination of mental and physical ability required to execute a complex Pro Style offense at a high enough level to win is just rare and it often takes time for quarterbacks to be able to truly learn the offense. If the league is lucky, they can find one or two new ones in each draft.
However, it is easier to find athletic young men who can throw the ball with accuracy and execute a relatively simple scheme.
(Note: This is in no way meant to disparage the work college quarterbacks put into their craft. But I think even the most proud player or coach would admit that the average NFL offense is at least an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the average college offense.)
And more importantly, they can get up to speed and win games quickly. Dana Holgerson, architect of West Virginia’s Spread Option offense needs only three days to install his offense. While college is (ostensibly) about preparing young men and women for the lives and careers ahead of them, football is about winning, and winning now.
If a program couldn’t find and recruit a “Pro Style” quarterback they are unlikely to win using a “Pro Style” offense. The coaches whose jobs depend on winning need a system that can cycle players through on a regular basis and still win, and as of right now, that’s the Spread Option.
So what does it all mean for the draft?
The current quarterback generation is playing a game that is only tangentially related to the professional game. They are always in the Shotgun or Pistol, they can run the Read-Option, they don’t have to scan the field and go through their progressions to find an open target, their receivers rarely run a full “Pro” route tree, and often their completion percentages are almost artificially enhanced with passes that are practically gimmies.
It makes separating the wheat from the chaff much more difficult. That is especially true out here where we don’t have the access to the players and coaches nor the plethora of resources that the NFL has.
All we can do out here is watch games and look for physical traits that can translate to the next level. Things like height, arm strength, footwork, accuracy on “NFL” throws, players who flash the ability to read coverages or go through their progressions, or the ability to manipulate defenses with their eyes.
That’s what I can look for on tape. The hints that a prospect has “Quarterback DNA.”
But there’s another part of it, and that is between the ears.
Does the prospect have the work ethic and discipline to commit himself to learning a whole new language and way of thinking? To drill himself to perfect new technique?
Does he have the mental processing speed to not just read defenses, but do so at the speed of the NFL game?
Does he have the leadership ability to command a huddle, earn the respect of his teammates and the ability to effectively communicate the offense to them?
Those are the things NFL teams like the Giants can, and must, find out. But they can interview players, coaches, and teammates; and they have the opportunity to put the players on the white board and see what they can do in the classroom.
There are still “Pro Style” offenses in college, and the quarterbacks that excel in them are certainly easier to scout. It was plain to see that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater, and Jameis Winston had the tools and experience to succeed at the next level.
But if teams limit their search to just prospects that come out of Pro Style systems, then they will miss out on talented players like Marcus Mariota and Dak Prescott.
Are Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Davis Webb, Joshua Dobbs, or Jerod Evans future franchise quarterbacks? Maybe, but the trick is finding which ones have the physical and mental traits expressed by “NFL QB DNA.”