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Philosoraptor’s corner: The intangible traits of franchise quarterbacks

The mental aspect of quarterback play is probably more important than the physical... And that much harder to evaluate

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers

The New York Giants will go into the 2022 season with more than a few questions. However, few of those questions will be more urgent than the ones surrounding the quarterback position.

Do they already have a “Franchise Quarterback” on the roster in Daniel Jones? If not, is there one to be had in the 2023 NFL Draft?

There are probably only about eight teams in the NFL who we can confidently say have franchise quarterbacks. There are a few more with quarterbacks who are capable of being players you win “because of..The rest of the NFL is either hoping their young quarterbacks develop into franchise quarterbacks, or are looking for a player who can be their Franchise Quarterback.

Obviously, there are no sure things in player evaluation and that’s particularly true of quarterback evaluation. If there was a sure way to find a Franchise QB, every team would have their quarterback and few GMs would be fired for missing on a quarterback pick.

However, we can look at some of the franchise quarterbacks to grace the NFL and see what traits they share.

Last time we looked at the tangible, measurable traits that top quarterbacks share. Now it’s time to try and identify the intangible traits that make those measurable traits go.

Intangible traits

A franchise quarterback’s physical traits are important. We’ve seen that there’s a wider range of shapes, sizes, and throwing abilities than gets highlighted in draft previews. Players with less than ideal physical traits have succeeded at the highest levels, while “prototypical” players have failed miserably. Often there’s a baseline of “enough,” but that can be a fluid concept which is defined by a quarterback’s individual situation. Tom Brady may never have won a single game if Bill Belichick insisted on him running a read-option offense.

That’s because height, weight, speed, and arm strength are only part of the equation. The other part is what lies between the quarterbacks ears: the intangibles. What we refer to as “intangible traits” are all those things that play important roles in quarterback play but aren’t easily measured. Evidence of them can be seen on tape, in biographies, and in player interviews, but this is where evaluation becomes more art than science.

Background and progression

If the past is prologue to the present, then it only makes sense to look at a quarterback prospect’s personal history when evaluating them.

No player enters the NFL fully-formed, and their development is really a continuation of their development in college. We can see growth and development

It must also be noted that it’s entirely too easy for evaluators to bring their own baggage when looking at player backgrounds. We need to carefully control our own biases when when it comes to reading player biographies.

Broad strokes of players making an effort to improve their weaknesses, become more mature, or overcome adversity should be noted. However, we can’t leap to judgement of young men without first hand accounts or full context.

We should also pay attention for multi-sport backgrounds for prospects. Noting a basketball background in skill position players or a wrestling background for linemen is an established bonus for those positions. It’s understood and accepted that excelling in another sport can imply and impart a whole host of skills and traits in a prospect — in addition to multi-sport backgrounds just producing more well-rounded young athletes.

Lately we’ve seen a number of quarterbacks entering the NFL with a background in baseball. Seeing NFL quarterbacks go to local MLB teams for advice on sliding or shoulder health is nothing new, but seeing quarterback prospects who are former baseball players should be regarded similarly to an offensive or defensive lineman who was a stand-out wrestler.

Baseball players need arm strength and accuracy to play their positions well. Infielders need quick reactions and great agility, while outfielders need speed and range. All baseball players need to be able to throw accurately and far without necessarily being able to set their feet and throw from a good foundation. Pitchers need power, pinpoint control, and to pay close attention to their mechanics for long-term shoulder health.

We’ve seen some absolutely phenomenal things from Russell Wilson, Pat Mahomes, and Kyler Murray. And despite his occasionally reckless decision making, even Jameis Winston (a former pitcher) is an impressive thrower of the ball.

Accuracy and precision

I mentioned both of these traits when talking about the tangible, measurable aspects of quarterback play. And you certainly can look at stats to get an idea of a quarterback’s overall accuracy and the tape to see just how precise a passer they are. But there’s also the aspect of the quarterback understanding the “why” of the play, as much as having the physical ability to execute it efficiently.

There’s an understanding on the defensive side of the ball that “there’s no defense for a perfect pass.” The basic sentiment is that sometimes a defensive back can play a pass absolutely perfectly — be in position and do everything right — but sometimes the quarterback places the ball so well that the DB simply can’t make a play on it. That comes down to the quarterback diagnosing the defense, understanding the individual defenders’ capabilities, his receivers’ capabilities, and putting the ball where only the receiver can make a play on it.

The quarterback has a number of options available to maximize his receivers’ chances to make a play. Things such as a well-placed and timed back-shoulder pass, putting the receiver between the ball and the defender, or placing the ball to lead the receiver to the open field and run-after-catch opportunities. There are an almost infinite number of nuances that can be exploited by the offense on a play-by-play basis. Being able to make the most of them is one of the the differences between average and elite quarterback play.

There’s also the matter of the quarterback protecting his receivers. Tom Brady is a master of placing the ball to avoid exposing his receivers to unnecessary hits. Brady has spoken multiple times about the quarterback’s responsibility to not lead his receivers into big hits. He routinely places his passes to give his receivers the best opportunities to protect themselves, even when it might limit the opportunities for an explosive play.

Chemistry between quarterback and receiver is vitally important to a lot of offensive concepts. If the quarterback can do his part to limit injuries to his receivers, that gives him that many more opportunities to build a rapport with them.

Football IQ and mental processing

Mental aspect of the game is a set of traits that figure into every single evaluation for any position. Being able to take in, process, and act on information as quickly and accurately as possible is vitally important for every professional athlete.

It doesn’t matter much if a linebacker has “4.3” speed if he’s constantly in pursuit because he doesn’t react until the play is past him. By the same token, Antonio Pierce was consistently able to play well above his pedestrian (pun intended) timed speed thanks to his sky-high Football IQ and lightning-quick processing.

The quarterback position has to absorb an incredible amount of information over the course of a week in between games. They need to learn the offensive game-plan, the defensive scheme, and individual defenders’ tendencies. They need to be able to recall that information in the heat of a game, sort through the chaos of defensive disguises, and make the right decision in the fraction of a second. It’s unrealistic to demand that every Franchise Quarterback have the seemingly preternatural football IQ and processing of Peyton Manning, but it is an incredibly important trait. In fact, it’s likely the trait that allows the quarterback to make full use of all his other traits and skills.

Quick processing allows a quarterback to recognize safeties flashing underneath routes and use his precision to throw his receiver open. It also allows the quarterback to help out his offensive linemen to recognize pressure and navigate the pocket (ie: have “pocket presence”) and avoid pressure becoming sacks. Donovan McNabb was famous for his ability to “sense” pressure coming and use his athleticism to evade pass rushers in the backfield. It’s very unlikely that he had some sort of “Spidey Sense” alerting him to unseen danger. It’s more likely that his backfield evasiveness was the result of tape study and quickly processing information from his peripheral vision and general situational awareness.

Regardless, it made the lives of his offensive linemen easier and helped extend plays (and drives) that probably should have been derailed.

There’s also the affect that a high IQ quarterback has on his offensive coordinator.

RPOs, half-field reads, and play-action are incredibly useful for simplifying the defense and creating opportunities for big plays. However, using them as the basis for an offense can be limiting. The defense can adapt relatively easily if they’re able to discover the offense’s tendencies and they’re limited to half-field or one-player reads. Having a quarterback able to quickly navigate full-field progression reads and dissect the defense during the play allows the offense much more flexibility in creating game-plans and combining route concepts.

Leadership and competitive toughness

These are the traits that are consistently cited when it comes to potential Franchise Quarterbacks.

After all, the quarterback position is the most important one on the field, so much so that a good quarterback occupies a place more akin to a coach on the field than another player. A Franchise Quarterback is expected to be the leader of the locker room, the lynchpin of the offense and the Face of The Franchise. They’re the player who receives the lion’s share of the credit for a win, as well as the blame for a loss.

A Franchise Quarterback is expected to be a leader both on and off the field and help to bring the rest of the team in line with the head coach’s vision. Of course, there’s no one way to be a leader. It’s a trait that’s incredibly hard to quantify. There are vocal leaders like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees, emotional leaders like Michael Strahan or Brett Favre, or “leaders by example” like Eli Manning. Each of these styles is effective and can be tailored to fit different situations. Ultimately, leadership is something like art: It’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it and it needs to be authentic.

Competitive toughness is somewhat similar. Part of it is being willing and able to take the punishment that comes with playing in the NFL. It’s also the ability to put in the work and grind out of the lights on a day-in, day-out basis. It also encompasses a refusal to give up despite long odds.

One of the more nebulous traits of a Franchise Quarterback is the ability to inspire the belief that their team is always competitive and is never out of a game. This past year we saw fantastic examples of that in action.

In the 2022 Divisional Round we saw the Buccaneers fall to a 27-3 deficit with 7:07 remaining in the third quarter. Brady lead the offense to four straight scoring drives to pull even at 27-27 with 42 seconds left in the game. Of course, Matt Stafford promptly used those 42 seconds to get the Rams’ offense in position for a game-winning field goal as time expired.

On the AFC side of things we got an even more dramatic example as the Bills and Chiefs combined for four scoring drives in the final 1 minute, 54 seconds of their game — including a three-play, 13-second drive from the Chiefs to send the game to overtime.

As Mark Schofield has said, that had to be a watershed moment for the rest of the NFL. Either their team had a quarterback with the ability and mental fortitude to do that, or they don’t.

Consistency

Finally we come to one of the more overlooked aspects of quarterback play in consistency.

Generally speaking, if you want to win in the modern NFL you need to do it on offense, with the ball in your hand. Many analytic studies have shown us that offensive success is more predictive of team success on a year-to-year basis than defensive ability. A big part of that is due to the consistency that quality quarterback play lends an offense.

A good quarterback is a constant on the offensive side of the ball. They usually don’t swing wildly in production from one year to the next, which makes a Franchise Quarterback is a steady foundation for the offense. The offensive coordinator knows about what he’s going to get out of his quarterback from one game to the next, and from one season to the next. The rest of the team, meanwhile, can be subject to incredible levels of turnover which makes for inconsistency without the quarterback as a moderating influence.

On a more micro level, we can’t expect any quarterback to be perfectly consistent from one play to the next — they aren’t machines, after all. However, a true Franchise Quarterback should be able to execute plays, and the game-plan, at a high level on a play-in, play-out basis.

Final thoughts

While Franchise Quarterbacks may not come in all shapes and sizes, they can come with a wider range of measurables than we typically assume. They can be big and tall or barely bigger than the average young man. They can be athletic freaks or relatively immobile pocket passers. They can have incredible arms or be merely “sufficient” throwers of the ball.

It’s always useful for a quarterback to have as many plus tools at their disposal as possible. However, a player can have a whole Formula-1 speed shop’s worth of tools at their disposal and they’re useless if they don’t know how to use them.

That’s where the intangible aspects of play, and evaluation, come in. A quarterback can have great mechanics and throw an accurate, catchable ball, but they need to know when and where to throw it. A quarterback can have great speed and agility, but they don’t help if he doesn’t identify pressure or runs into a pass rusher’s arms.

The success of Franchise Quarterbacks well into their 30s — after their physical traits have faded in comparison to younger players — suggests that the mental aspect is just plain more important. Unfortunately, those traits are also much harder to identify and we need to look for evidence of them throughout the player’s profile.

It’s common to hear that Franchise Quarterbacks make the players around them better. Personally, I don’t think this is the case. Instead, it might be more accurate to say that a Franchise Quarterback allows the players around him to play up to their potential.

This is why every team without a Franchise Quarterback needs to do whatever they need to do in order to find one. The difference between the best and worst roster in the NFL is actually quite slim — much narrower than the National Champion and even a middling college program. A Franchise Quarterback allows the coaches to get the most out of each of the players on their roster. It’s incredibly hard to win without one, and almost impossible to win consistently year-after-year.

Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to ensure that a team will find one.