Josh Liskiewitz’s Decision on “Change Horses?” (RSPWP III)

He'll be back . . .
Colt, Bronco, Mr. Ed . . . Manning is a different, but good player example to broach for this scenario.

See why Liskiewitz puts this horse into the discussion.

What is 2014’s Writer’s Project?

This year’s RSPWP is a different take on team building. I will have 15-20 written scenarios based on true NFL stories provided to me from current and former NFL employees (scouts, players, and consultants). In each scenario, the participating writer is the general manager of an NFL team has a decision to make. Each scenario will have at least two different writers. I will post the writers’ responses and the actual outcome of the case study (if applicable).

Find out more about RSPWP3 and see other GM Scenarios.

GM Scenario No.5: Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream?

You were hired last June for a big-market team after its GM passed away. The team has had a 7-9 record for three straight seasons, but despite the same season-ending record it is the model of inconsistency. In 2011, the team started the year 6-0 and blanked the eventual Super Bowl Champion 31-0 only to lose eight of its next nine.  In 2012, they started 0-6 and won eight of its final nine games. Last year, the team won its first four, lost its next six, and then ended the year 3-3.

In a fitting touch of symmetry to this organizational profile, the team’s best player might also be its worst: A starting quarterback with athleticism and passing skills capable of transcending the ordinary and lapses in decision-making and judgment that could make Troy Polamalu bald by midseason. The media and fans are mesmerized with his highlights and he’s a huge reason that this organization has great season ticket and merchandise sales.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say their party line is to give the quarterback a pass and blame the surrounding talent. Much to your chagrin, you’ve seen incredible amounts of backlash to valid criticism of the quarterback’s game from football minds you respect that are now in the media. There are a lot of interesting factors that you think is the cause for his favoritism of your quarterback that could branch off into sociology, journalism, and analytics, but it’s a discussion you might get to have as a panelist when you retire.

Right now, there’s three months until the NFL Draft and your coaches have a decision to make about your starting quarterback, your offense, and the future of the franchise.

There’s no doubt that this quarterback is an incredible talent—as a 5’10”, 211-lb. passer he has to be. Blessed with 4.31-second speed in the 40, your offensive leader also has shuttle and three-cone times that puts scat backs to shame. Oh by the way, he sports a rocket arm and incredible accuracy.

Imagine if a mad scientist with a radical new method of gene splicing discovered how to take John Elway’s arm and accuracy, Michael Vick’s speed, and combine them with Marshall Faulk’s frame and agility only to discover that the recessive gene it activated was Jake Plummer’s on-field judgment. When your quarterback gets hot and understands what the defense is doing, he looks like a Hall of Famer. When the defense makes the right adjustment and confuses him, your quarterback loses feel for when to stay in the structure of the play and when to use his athleticism to improvise.

He once threw for 68 yards in a game while rushing for 211 yards on 17 carries and scored four touchdowns—in an improbable comeback win where the meaningful plays came from the defense and special teams. In another game, he went 31-for-36 for 422 yards and 5 touchdowns and completed 17 and 13 passes in a row—in a last-minute loss where he threw the game-sealing pick-six. He has broken the record for interceptions thrown in a game—twice.

He is the only player who could have his own NFL Films episode that features both the greatest plays and dumbest moments in the history of the game. He is the most frustrating quarterback in the world and only Saturday Night Live would pair him as a spokesman for a brewer.

Your quarterback lacks field smarts and leadership. He likes to characterize his leadership style as “leading by example,” but he’s too nice and rarely shows the assertiveness he needs to keep his teammates focused—especially when his decision-making has crazy-erratic moments.

The staff has done its best to work with him. The last GM brought in a veteran receiver and tight end two years ago to aid the development plan. The receiver was so frustrated with the quarterback’s on-field swings  that he retired with a year left on his contract despite the fact that your staff believes he has another 2-3 years of starter play left. You were at least appreciative that the receiver—a real pro—kept his concerns in-house.

The coaches are now split on the quarterback’s ability to develop. He’s in his fifth year and both the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator have presented a case supported by film that he’s learning to recognize defenses that bedeviled him. But the head coach and defensive coordinator have countered that the passer’s issues have lasted longer than most teams would have patience for this mercurial passer has cost the team 11 wins during the past three seasons—enough for three playoff appearances.

The offensive coordinator and quarterback coach believe that change to a spread system with read-option plays would simplify many of the defensive looks and allow them to keep the passer’s decisions focused. The fact that the quarterback’s moments have come a west coast offense that utilized a lot of three and five-step drops from center encourages these offensive minds that there’s still gains to be made.

However, the defensive coordinator—a respected football mind across the league, who is normally deferential about not overstepping his bounds has been unusual vocal about the quarterback. He believes this passer lacks the “IT” quality and he has some psychological/emotional block that often takes over in critical situations.

The head coach—one of the best in the game—is ambivalent about his quarterback. The defensive coordinator has been “his guy,” with two different organizations—including a Super Bowl win and two Super Bowl appearances so he’s paying close attention to this unusual outspoken stance on an offensive player. Still, he seems willing to entertain the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach’s solution.

One thing you know about this head coach is that he has no qualms about allowing the best player to start. He had a knock-down, drag-out with the last GM who wanted to force a committee with two running backs—one, a second-round rookie speedster with questionable vision and the other a free agent bruiser with excellent feel between the tackles. The coach conceded a committee to start the season. It lasted seven quarters before he benched the second-round pick and the UDFA became the conference leader in touchdowns and went to the Pro Bowl.

It’s indication that if you draft a quarterback and that quarterback shows enough, the coaching staff won’t play favorites. And you have your eye on a prospect. He’s not the all-world athletic talent of your starter, but he’s the consummate pocket passer with size, grit, and enough physical skill to operate a west coast system.

In fact, he ran a west coast system in college. It was a small school program, but they did play Division-I talent and he performed well. There was a game against the No.2 team in country two years ago where he hung 35 points on this unit that had eight of its players drafted in the first two rounds last year and five of them started and played well as rookies. He only took four sacks in this contest and his skill at changing plays and tricking the secondary kept his team in the game until the final drive.

It wasn’t the only game against top competition where he excelled. However, his arm strength is average and to describe him as “nifty” in the pocket is a compliment of his awareness, not his mobility beyond the line of scrimmage. Your scouts love him and the coaches agree that he has the potential to fit well in the current offense. In fact, they were shocked by his maturity, leadership, and ability to pick up concepts fast and apply them on the field. You wondered if this had more to do with the long-term frustrations with the current starter than what they saw on the field.

You have a feeling this rookie prospect could provide the steadiness and production to elevate this team in ways your veteran hasn’t shown. At the same time, there’s also a lot of love for a game-breaking wide receiver with size, speed, and great hands who could make it very difficult for opponents to load the box. This could make your current quarterback’s job easier.

The team has the 15th pick in the draft and there’s little chance that the receiver makes it past the 20th pick and without trading veterans you need plus a high enough draft pick next year that you don’t really have, there’s no shot of acquiring a second, first-round pick this year. Unless, of course, you trade your current starting quarterback and put most of you chips into the quick development of this small school rookie.

It’s either stay the course with Mr. Excitement, who sells tickets and maybe with the right scheme adjustments can still take you to a Super Bowl, or a steadier presence who won’t do anything special as an athlete, but he has the personality to push this team to be better and the smarts to execute in situations where your current starter has failed. Still, there’s no guarantee what you see with his college tape will translate to the NFL.

What do you do? Trade Mr. Excitement and have a solid shot at the receiver and quarterback? Draft the rookie quarterback and hold a competition with Mr. Excitement for the job? Draft the rookie QB and force him to sit for a couple of years? Or do you not draft the QB and take the receiver?

Josh Liskiewitz’s Decision

Patience? Heh. Long-term development? Heh. The modern day fan and beat writer craves not these things. My QB in this scenario is reckless, but so was Peyton Manning, if you’ll remember.

Through his first five seasons with the Colts, he accumulated Interception and fumble totals of 31, 21, 20, 30 and 25. Everyone remembers Jim Mora’s infamous 2001 “playoffs” rant, but how many remembered it was yet another Peyton Manning pick-six that precipitated the meltdown? What would we think of ex-Colts general manager Bill Polian had he jettisoned Manning after that ill-fated 4th season?

I’m not saying my QB (we’ll call him “John Vlummer”) simply needs time and experience to magically become the best player of all time – this situation is much more complicated than that. However, I feel strongly that smart coaching and proactive planning from the front office can maximize a player with Vlummer’s immense talents.

I feel it’s important to start the defense of my position by expounding a bit on my philosophy with quarterbacks. While athleticism and arm strength are sexy traits that sell tickets and jerseys, in my opinion they are mere bonuses when prioritizing what characteristics really matter to the NFL starter. Yes, the ability process information efficiently and correctly is paramount to a QB’s success at the highest level, but all the football intelligence in the world means nothing if he can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Accuracy is the one trait I value above all others, the one trait that makes the difference between great and elite, and the one trait that so few truly possess. Luckily for me, this is one of the positive traits in Vlummer’s arsenal, and the single biggest reason I want him on my team (for now, at least) and am willing to be patient with his more underdeveloped skills.

My QB coach and offensive coordinator, the two people who interact with Vlummer the most on a day-to-day basis, want to work towards more of spread offense with a large element of read-option. This was something I subscribed to for this scenario even before reading that key members of my “staff” favored this approach. It doesn’t make sense to expect a QB struggling with decision-making to work through a full progression, and it’s a no-brainer to take full advantage of his athleticism (especially considering his durability). Structuring the offense in such a way to give Vlummer less complicated decisions to make should not only immediately increase the efficiency and consistency of the offense, but also allow him to see the field better, thus also improving his long-term outlook.

While I am determined to put Vlummer (and of course, the team) in the most optimal situation considering his skill set, I am not so blindly committed to my approach that I don’t see the obvious need to put talent around him that will complement his skill set, as well as create a backup plan. Finding a new “bail-out” option at WR would be ideal, and luckily I have just such a talent available to me in the draft (for the sake of utilizing a recent and familiar comparison, we’ll call him Mike Evans). Pairing Evans with an elusive, gun-slinging QB – sound familiar?

Now I’d also love to be able to add the QB prospect described as well in order to encourage competition and set into motion a plan of succession if Vlummer does not elevate his play, but as the scenario states, this simply isn’t feasible without compromising the defense or future high draft picks. With this being said, I still have every intention of bringing in multiple new options at the position.

One of the only pieces of the puzzle not fully laid out for the scenario is my team’s salary cap situation. Entering his fifth season in the league and considering his contract was not discussed likely implies that Vlummer at some point signed an extension. As Colin Kaepernick’s new deal suggests it is now very possible for teams to structure contracts in such a way as to be able to move high-priced under-performing players without crippling cap penalties.

The bigger issue for me is the available space, as an additional $5-10 million would mean I’d have a shot at wooing the top free agent available at the position, which in my opinion is the optimal approach. Assuming I don’t have the kind of money at my disposal to spend $5 million plus on a backup QB, I should still be able to pursue a cheaper, Shaun Hill-type option who could provide the experience and stability needed to supplement Vlummer.

I also subscribe strongly to the concept of drafting a QB every year, regardless of how I feel about the team’s current starter. Not only is it the position most vital to a team’s success, but it is also the most difficult position to evaluate and develop (hence the current dilemma). The more QBs I bring into my organization the higher the probability I hit on a prospect, and if I happen to hit on two I’ll either have a capable backup or significant trade currency. Considering our offense’s focus on utilizing spread and read option concepts, I’d prefer to target a prospect on day two or three with college experience in a similar system as well as positive athletic traits. By bringing in a QB with a somewhat comparable skill set to Vlummer I should at least have a chance to keep some of the elements of the new offense in tact should he miss time due to injury.

Bringing in new options at the position sets the team up to have a shot at moving on next offseason should Vlummer fail to develop this year. This, combined with drafting Evans and restructuring the offense, although I have put my personal and public support behind my much maligned QB, allows me to foster an environment that leaves little room for excuses; excuses not just for Vlummer, but for myself, the offensive staff, the media and even the fans.

Matt’s Notes

This response is one of my favorites thus far. I never thought about Manning as a point of comparison, but Josh’s example of Manning’s high rate of turnovers is a fine example why it might be rash to abandon the type of promise “Vlummer” has–especially when he throws an accurate ball with ungodly athleticism.

I also enjoyed Josh broaching contingencies based on the salary cap. This is a very important aspect of the scenario–even if left unstated. After initially reading the scenario, Josh was quick enough on the uptake to ask me about the salary cap. I suggested he flesh out the possibilities and he did a fine job of it.

Then there’s the underlying philosophy of drafting quarterbacks every year regardless of the quality of the depth chart. It’s a smart move for such a complex position to evaluate. There’s a built-in pragmatism to the process that I like.

Josh Liskiewitz is a College Scout with GM Jr Scouting and is a regular on the GMJrPodcast and contributes to DraftDayCentral. He describes himself on Twitters as a self-styled draft expert and Michigan alum. Media requests can be sent to Follow him on Twitter @JoshLiskiewitz.

4 responses to “Josh Liskiewitz’s Decision on “Change Horses?” (RSPWP III)”

  1. I can’t agree that Peyton Manning is a comparable. Vlummer takes to his heels when confused, not a Peyton problem, and Peyton understands defenses, not a Vlummer feature. The interceptions are based in two wholly different skill sets. I’m reminded of the knock against Jim Zorn – that he had a great, accurate arm, knew the playbook and practiced very well, but couldn’t learn from in-game experience. The quote I recall was, “Every game is like starting over.” The pick you can get for Vlummer’s upside will bring potential riches far beyond anything he’s going to produce on this team.

  2. Love the writeup on this one. In reading this I tried to think of some NFL comparables. Kordell Stewart came to mind (especially in the low key friend, vs. charismatic leader discussion); though talented, Slash wasn’t a cross b/t Michael Vick and John Elway in the arm/athleticism department. I think a half-decent GM comparison is Jay Cutler, who seemed to chronically underperform his entire career (despite good stats) until last season where as a very seasoned vet, better QB coaching vaulted him (along with Nick Foles, another coaching wonder) to just below the Favre/Rodgers/Brees crowd. Cutler is the rare franchise QB to have been traded (showing that at least team thought the draft picks might be better to have). Perhaps the discussion to be having in the offseason is about finding a different QB coach, who can focus solely on this Vlummer’s development. Assuming our current QB coach is a decent coach, even if not a match for Mr. Vlummer he can be moved to a different job. On the matter of coaching in general, I am not sold on our current staff (especially the offensive side of things) an idea which i expand upon at length in the other post on this scenario.

    I have to argue against the ‘draft a QB every year’ viewpoint. There are a few reasons. First and foremost, roster spots and draft picks are limited. Secondly after the first few rounds, QB prospects get much dicier. Practice reps are also highly limited; especially the live preseason reps that you need to tell if a QB can throw under pressure (to get there takes an entire offseason of reps integrating into the offense). I think the optimal QB drafting time for any team with a viable starter is maybe every other year when a prospect the team loves has fallen to them a round past where the team values them. I’m counting Sam Bradford, Mike Vick, and Carson Palmer as viable here. The top 3 rounds (4 if its deep) is the only place to find 6’6 guys with good feet to play the Oline, or players with frightening atheltic qualities to rush a QB. Drafting a yearly QB, means a team will likely be short 1 backup olineman + a developing receiver or pass-rushing specialist. I like Trestman’s plan in Chicago; have 2 QBs you like, when one leaves, draft another one (David Fales). Assuming Fales pans out as a backup, Trestman can wait another year if he doesn’t like the value in the deep parts of next years draft, as Fales has a 4 year rookie deal. I could back this approach only if the scouting department were amazing and the staff good at developing players (to lead to the Favre/Hasselback/Detmer/Warner training camp).

    I take the view that if the team does not have a viable starting QB (Gabbert, Lindley, Cassel, Henne), then I can back pretty much any approach to get one in place be it long term or short term; is this mirrored by the writer or Mr. Waldman.

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