Effective personnel evaluation requires a little bit of time travel, seeing double, and a rich imagination. See below.
I’m among the football writers you’ll read or listen to on a podcast explain that it’s important to know the difference between “college” accuracy and “pro” accuracy. When described, it often means tighter passing lanes against zone coverage or tighter windows against man coverage. It also means what is acceptable anticipation and timing.
This is a fundamental detail of good player evaluation: You have to see two games in one–the literal events happening on the field and the imagined events as to how they’d likely play out against a highly athletic, technically sound, and experienced NFL opponent.
The sentence above might be the best description of film study for personnel evaluation that I’ve written thus far at this blog. A simple example of this sentence played out for a quarterback comes from my old backyard: Georgia quarterback Huston Mason completing a vertical throw up the seam.
Tonight is my first time taking a close look at Mason’s game and the first play of UGA’s September tilt with South Carolina exemplifies what I’m describing above.
Georgia’s offense begins in a 2×1 receiver 11 personnel pistol against a South Carolina nickel defense with the two linebackers play a little pre-snap game to test Mason and the Bulldogs’ offensive line’s work against interior gap pressure. Meanwhile, Mason is also reading the deep safety at the right hash–who you’ll only get a brief glimpse of his feet entering the edge of the broadcast frame–climbing the hash momentarily before returning to a deeper spot.
None of this distracts Mason from doing his job on this play, reading the right side of the field and determining if he’ll throw outside hitch or the deep seam to the slot man. Georgia’s offensive line also handles the linebackers’ games that end with a layered, double A-gap blitz.
Mason completes a 33-yard pass to the slot man for a total gain of 37 on a throw that covers nearly 40 yards with adequate trajectory The pass arrives ahead of the safety and with enough trajectory and velocity for the receiver to make an uncontested catch. That’s what happens on the field, but you only example the literal events as you see them you’re stuck in the present and missing the future.
Imagining what might happen against an NFL opponent in this situation is about understanding the game within the game of personnel evaluation. When I watch this play through an NFL lens in my mind (or a jeweler’s glass, a microscope, or a tinfoil hat–you decide), I imagine how this throw would have fared if the safety got a quicker jump outside and took a tighter angle to cut off the pass where he played the ball rather than the receiver.
I visualize this situation because it’s likely that starting NFL safeties far less talented than Earl Thomas will often diagnose the play faster and play a better angle than what’s seen in Columbia, South Carolina this early fall afternoon. Would this pass have made it to the receiver on-time, in stride, and in a position where the receiver didn’t have to fight off or fight through the defensive back to make the catch?
Because the answer here is an obvious “No,” the next question is “What would it take for this pass to meet these three conditions?” The answer is similar trajectory with greater velocity and distance. Place this pass 3-5 yards deeper and the receiver runs the ball with his back to the defender, effectively shielding the opponent from the ball thanks to ball placement.
This answer takes us backward to Mason’s mechanics and arm strength. His drop is sound, but his stance when beginning his release is a little wide off the hitch in combination with a shortened rotation with his hips. When he delivers the pass you can see that he’s the type of quarterback who generates velocity with his hips versus the passer who uses his legs to drive the ball (for a terrific explanation of how this works, listen to Alex Brown’s commentary on the differences between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the RSP Film Room on Nick Marshall.).
Although Mason generates some torque with his hips to drive the ball, it’s not as complete of a trunk rotation as you’d like to see. It appears that the pressure up the middle influenced Mason to cut off that full rotation and deliver the ball in a stance where he’s still reclining a bit. This might be the culprit for the shortened pass that would not meet the NFL standard I’m imagining in the game within the game.
Be warned that this is one play. It may not be a true depiction of Mason’s vertical accuracy. Until you see multiple plays where this happens in similar situations, it’s not a tendency or a problem.
Remember that this literal event that happened on the field often happens on an NFL field even if I’m imagining what might happen on Sundays to a higher standard of performance for the opponent.
Some fans will stay this is nitpicking. I had a recent reader say this about certain criticisms that Eric Stoner and I leveled at Brett Hundley’s game. However, you must have a high standard to separate the tiers of poor, mediocre, good, and excellent. Otherwise, you won’t be able to tell the difference.
At the same time, there are scenarios where we can be guilty of seeing only excellent, mediocre, and poor and discounting “good enough.” It’s why I believe scouting is a craft that includes both scientific and artistic elements to make the process work.
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