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Evaluating the quarterback position: Competitive toughness

Let’s look at how that is quantified

NFL: New York Giants-OTA Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Leadership. Moxie. The “It” factor. Competitive toughness. While these sound like nebulous terms used to describe a quarterback, they do matter when it comes to evaluating prospects at the position. Do not just take that from me.

“The quarterback has to be a leader. He has to be your coach on the field. He is the person you trust with the football every single play. His job is to make everyone else successful, and when things break down, he has to make a play...The great quarterbacks are not the ones who have the most talent. They are the ones in the huddle who show leadership and confidence. They get the players on their team to play better than they are.” -Mike Bellotti, Former Head Coach, University of Oregon

“Another key attribute for quarterbacks is being a positive leader. He has to be an encourager, not a discourager. Probably the number one thing I talk to quarterbacks about is to be an encourager of other people. I have heard coaches talk about their team having a chance to be good, if only their quarterback had some leadership ability. We teach ‘leadership’ the same way we teach the quarterback to read cover 3 or cover 2. It takes no special ability to be an encourager of his teammates. The quarterback is a player who is looked up to and a person who typically gets much of the glory on your team. If he is constantly encouraging his teammates, he is building respect for himself on the team.” -Todd Dodge, Head Coach, Carroll High School (TX)

“I can’t stress enough to you the importance of the leadership attribute. Is he going to be a leader? This may be the most important point here. Is he going to be consistent in everything he does, both on and off the field? Many of you are teachers. Many of your best leaders are the students that you never hear about. They are never in trouble. They are not sitting in the office for some discipline problem. Is he a leader in drills? Is he the first to finish? Is he going to be the person who makes sure everyone is on time for practice and class? Is he the player who is going to finish the last rep when no one is watching? That is what we are looking for. In the end, he must be a leader on and off the field.” -David Huffine, Head Coach, Chaparral High School (AZ)

“He must be a competitor. He must hate to lose. He must be competitive in practice. He must be ready to compete in all phases of the game. He must be confident. He must have confidence to the borderline of being cocky. He must inspire confidence in his teammates. He must have credibility. We hear the expression, ‘You’re the man.’ In football, the quarterback must be The Man. His teammates must believe in him. When it is third-and-six on the last drive and you must stick the ball in the end zone, the team must believe in him. -Bobby Lamb, Head Coach, Mercer University

That is just a sampling of coaches opining on the quarterback position from various coaching clinics, and more wisdom will follow. But as these quotes demonstrate, many coaches look to non-athletic traits as the most important factors when evaluating and choosing a quarterback. As previously outlined, the quarterback position is unique when it comes to evaluation in that it goes far beyond a mere “snap-to-finish” checklist. When studying a quarterback you might term it a “huddle-to-finish” position, as the quarterback’s responsibilities on a given play extend beyond the action on the field. In reality it goes even beyond that, as these coaches attest to. The quarterback is a leader of those around him, and it begins on the practice field, in the weight room and in the film room. Does the quarterback approach every opportunity in a competitive fashion, constantly trying to improve himself and those around him?

“Many people do not think about toughness at the quarterback position, but we believe the quarterback has to be the toughest player on the field. I think it requires more toughness to stand in the pocket, knowing you are going to take a shot and deliver the ball, than it is to come downhill and hit a ballcarrier. I played quarterback, and I know it takes a lot of courage to stand in and take the shot after you have been hit a number of times...The next area involves the most difficult parts of evaluating a quarterback. These are the million-dollar questions as to whether a quarterback will be successful or not. These are the things you cannot see on a film. They are the intangibles in a quarterback. The first quarterback intangible that we consider is his drive to be the best. We look for the quarterback who comes in every day trying to figure out the game of football. He has the inner drive to work every day to get better. I believe the quarterback must have that more than any other position. There is so much that has to get done at that position, that if he does not have the inner drive, he cannot succeed...The next intangible factor is leadership. Everyone talks about leadership. However, you must study and clearly understand leadership before you can develop it...Leadership to us is helping your team and other players achieve their goals. That is our definition of leadership...We want our toughest most competitive player with the ball in his hands on every play. I love to see what those players are all about. I like to hear his coaches talk about how competitive he is. They will tell you he is the worst loser you ever want to be around. It does not matter whether he plays ping-pong, TiddlyWinks, Monopoly, or football, he does not like to lose.”

-Chris Petersen, Head Coach, University of Washington

Petersen outlines the importance of the intangibles in this clinic discussion, and he also outlines the difficulty in identifying these traits on film. You might not always be able to gleam a quarterback’s toughness, competitive nature or leadership abilities no matter how much film you watch of that player. However, there are moments you can identify, or situations that test the player, that can help illuminate these issues.

For example, whenever I study a quarterback I try and watch games against elite competition, games on the road, games in adverse weather conditions, and games where the quarterback’s team loses. How does the player handle those situations? Is the player still fighting until the very last snap, or does the QB seem to pack it in as the going gets tough? Does the player look to fight through adverse conditions, or adversity on the field?

One of my favorite games to study last season was Dwayne Haskins and Ohio State against Purdue University. The Buckeyes got down early but Haskins kept battling until the final whistle, despite some struggles in the contest. Late in the fourth quarter down multiple scores, he delivered on this play. This comes on a fourth-and-5 play late in the game, with the Buckeyes trailing by 22. As you can see, Haskins adjusts the protection and slides the tight end into a wing to help in pass protection, anticipating a blitz. The blitz does not come, but Haskins still throws a rope on a quick post route for six:

Then there are moments that grab your attention just as a spectator, and you know in your heart they inspire that player’s teammates to go out and win for that player:

I remember watching Deshaun Watson in that National Championship Game as he put his body on the line in a third and long situation. While Alabama stopped him on that play, they could not stop Watson and his teammates from pulling out the victory. One could not help but be reminded of a similar play from years ago:

Those are the moments were as a teammate you see that, and you want to match your quarterback’s commitment to the greater cause.

“The first thing you think about when you think about quarterback play is arm strength and throwing the football. A lot of people think that is all that the quarterback is made up of. As we go through the characteristics that we are looking for, first, we want to see physical and mental toughness in our quarterback position. It is imperative to have great physical and mental toughness. The mental toughness to be able to stand in there after you have thrown three interceptions, when the fans are booing you, and be mentally tough enough to get back in that huddle and lead your team down the field. Physical toughness is very important, because when you get hit and you are bleeding from the chin, are you going to be the guy that gets back in that huddle and gets it done? Can you demand the respect of your teammates by your mental toughness? Everybody on the other team wants to get after the quarterback. You have to have the physical toughness to be able to play through an injury like a cracked rib or a hurt ankle.”

-Jeff Tedford, Head Coach, Fresno State

“He must always be himself. He cannot be a phony. The only way he can be himself is by knowing what to do as the quarterback. If he is not a rah-rah type player and all of a sudden he starts the rah-rah stuff, the players will see through this. He must show the team he knows what to do and he is in control. The quarterback must take charge in the huddle. He must demand respect in the huddle. To do this he must be able to perform. We talk about leadership by the quarterback. To me, leadership is not getting on another player in the huddle. He cannot give the left tackle the devil because the quarterback got sacked by the defensive man the tackle was supposed to block. Leadership is not getting on a receiver in the huddle because he dropped a pass that could have been caught. To me, leadership is when the quarterback goes to the guard that was offside the play before and his head was down, and he tells him to forget that play and get ready for the next play. That, to me, is leadership. This will command more respect from teammates.”

-Mike Shula, Offensive Coordinator/QBs Coach, New York Giants

These traits might be tough to identify. We have covered in so many words how they are important. What happens when you miss on a player’s competitive toughness as an evaluator? Let’s close with a quick lesson. Every two years I revisit my quarterback rankings from a prior draft class, and recently I took a look at how I viewed the 2016 quarterback class. Jared Goff was my top quarterback in that group, with Carson Wentz second. Maybe I got those right. But I’m more perplexed to this day about the player I ranked 17th in that class, behind even Christian Hackenberg.

Dak Prescott.

As I outlined in my piece on that class, the part I missed on Prescott? HIs competitive toughness. I had even identified it in him but despite my own experience playing the position, and despite everything I had been taught about studying the position, I failed to give Prescott’s competitive toughness the weight it deserved. Going back through my notes on him and through the film on him, there were moments like those described in this piece, with him fighting through adversity, even against elite competition, and putting his body on the line for his team. But I failed to weigh it properly, leading to a miss on him as an evaluator.

The next year, after that helicopter spin of his own, Watson was my QB1. Competitive toughness was a huge reason why.