Quarterback development in the NFL is like trying to flash-fry something; you either get deliciously seared-in flavor, or a burnt piece of crap.
– Former NFL scout and current consultant to over a dozen teams.
The decision to start a rookie quarterback as the rule rather than the exception confounds me. I’d like to see most early-round rookie quarterbacks sitting for 1-2 seasons as a part of their development track. When I broach this subject, it turns otherwise intelligent people into sound-byte-spewing automatons of entrenched NFL rhetoric:
You’re spending too much money for them not to play.
The reality of the NFL renders the argument invalid.
Coaches are on a short leash, they need to know what they have at the end of year-one.
The new CBA doesn’t allow for long-term project QBs anymore.
One way of looking at my views on quarterback development is that I’m out of touch with the realities of the NFL. Another is that, collectively speaking, the NFL’s behavior with management and development is rife with impatience and fear–and not just with quarterbacks.
Teams have resigned themselves to the idea that, on the whole, the approach has failed, but they’re holding out hope that they’ll be the exception.
Want a Productive 1st Round QB? Flip a Coin, You Have a Better Shot
Two years ago, I did an informal examination of first-round quarterbacks since 1993 who achieved what I call “capable starter status.” I used the following criteria:
- Led his team to the playoffs at least once.
- Earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
- Earned top-5 production in a meaningful passing category (yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, or QB rating) for multiple seasons.
Of the 8 prospects that turned into studs, which is what I expect from a first-round quarterback, 5 of them played less than 50 percent of their rookie years. However, the 13 prospects that developed into capable starters 10 played right away. That sounds like a pretty good indication that the sink-or-swim approach works, but the overall success rate of all first-round picks is 45 percent.
That’s an abysmal failure in academia, but it’s not a realistic expectation for NFL teams to have even a 70 percent hit rate with first-round quarterbacks. Mel Kiper estimates that 50 percent of the draft picks wash-out as it is. However, the fact that the NFL generally has equal or greater success predicting the outcome of a coin flip than its highly scrutinized, multimillion-dollar investments is a concern.
Top professional poker players have a more valid argument that they aren’t gambling than a team that is selecting a first-round quarterback in the NFL draft. Strategically speaking, it’s a foolish spend, because there is not a sound process behind the investment decision or the subsequent development program.
Beer Goggles In Effect
The most important word from the paragraphs above is “expectation.” What should we expect when a team drafts a first-round quarterback? Before we truly answer this question, let’s examine the NFL’s approach that sadly parallels many bars and clubs across the country.
The NFL Combine has the atmosphere of happy-hour and the NFL Draft feels like the bar an hour before closing time with quarterbacks as the target for that potential hook-up. Any quarterback with the pulse of projectable dimensions, athleticism, and flashes of talent are objects of affection pursued with desperation.
When I shared this analogy with Sigmund Bloom he added, “And the blood-alcohol content is inversely proportional to the team’s winning percentage.” (In other words, the Terrelle Pryor Beer Goggles Effect)
This is essentially what Bill Parcells told Mike Tirico on the first broadcast of ESPN’s NFL Draft Confidential. Parcells and Tirico were discussing the low success rate of quarterbacks drafted by round, including the first round. When Tirico referred back to these statistics and asked why teams still draft quarterbacks so high when the failure rate or return on investment is so poor. Parcells’ response was that everyone else is doing it and “you keeping doing it because you fear not getting one.”
Ladies and gents, it sounds a lot like closing hour at a singles bar, doesn’t it?
I understand the logic is based on the current reality of the league. It’s a reality that ownership can change, but they refuse. Chad Reuter, a talent evaluator with economic training who has provided analysis to NFL teams NFL.com, NFL Network, and CBS Sports, gives a sound explanation of this dysfunctional dynamic:
The fear of not finding a quarterback certainly comes into play for most teams. Let’s face it, coaches without a strong quarterback are probably going to be looking for work sooner than later. I have a mathematical background so I have a bit different way of looking at this problem that a lot of coaches and football guys like Parcells may not. My research into drafting quarterbacks reveals a second-round prospect’s chances of becoming a solid starter is around 20 percent, maybe a little higher for earlier picks in the round. But the likelihood of a second-round pick at another position becoming a true difference-maker is probably 50-50 at best.
So, if you value a QB 3-4 more times than a typical position player it is understandable to me why people will take that 20 percent chance on finding a quarterback . . . If somebody says, “I’ll flip a coin and I’ll give you $100 if you guess correctly,” you expect a value of $50 because you have a 50-50 shot of getting it right. If someone else says, “If you cast this die, and you roll a one then I’ll give you $400,” then that expected value will be $66.66 (1 out of 6 x $400). The math of it makes sense for teams that believe the QB is worth the chance.
That’s not exactly what Parcells was saying, but that’s what most coaches would tell you if they had the mathematical background. A 20 percent hit rate in the second round isn’t very good, but it continues to get worse and worse as the draft goes on. The Bradys — and even the Hasselbecks — come few and far late in the draft. So I can understand why teams take the chance.
The problem I have with this explanation isn’t with Reuter–he’s sharing the current reality. The math makes sense to the degree that it explains the results of the decisions that NFL teams are presently making. However, it’s a portrait of the current paradigm, which is not a good strategy.
The math also doesn’t show why a second-round prospect has less of a chance being a difference-maker than the first-rounder or why the Bradys and Hasselbecks are rare. The standard explanation is that better talent tends to be drafted earlier than lesser talent. This is a misinterpretation of the data because talent evaluation is so subjective and poorly defined in the NFL that no one is on the same page to the degree that it appears on the surface.
Finding a stud–an exceptional quarterback–shifts the landscape of the league. Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Russell Wilson are three exceptions to the rule and the greater the exception, the more dramatic the advantage. Playing the percentages of the current reality may keep a team from making draft-day mistakes that compound with each pick, but it can also keep a team from winning big.
Organizations often use the data “not to lose,” and avoiding egregious errors with the help of data is valuable. However, teams are still committing a slew of non-fatal errors because they’re leaning too hard on percentages and ignoring the “why and how” behind a player’s prospects.
Owners, general managers, and coaches must make a strategic commitment to a well-rounded evaluation process and be patient with it. Otherwise, they remain slaves to the current reality of the league where they forego a safer or better talent at a different position in lieu of a first-round quarterback who lacks the tools and/or wherewithal to handle the league’s current development strategy.
A Rookie’s Intellectual and Emotional Maturity: Construction in Progress
Player evaluation will never be foolproof because among the variables in the process include a player’s capacity to mature emotionally, but there has to be more attention given to this point when thinking about a developmental plan. Individuals in their early 20s still have a lot of ground to cover, according to Jill Jeffery’s article Cognition and Brain Development in Students of Traditional College-Going Age:
Findings suggest that higher-order cognitive capacities that begin to develop in adolescence do not fully develop until surprisingly late (Luna, Thulborn, Monoz, Merriam, Garver, Minshew et al., 2001), perhaps even into the 30 (Lenroote & Giedd, 2006). One facet of this late maturation is increasing functional integration of brain regions (Davies, Segalowitz, & Gavin, 2004; Luna & Sweeney, 2004). A rapidly expanding body of research suggests that the brain’s ability to synthesize activity between different regions underlies development of higher-order cognitive capacities such as abstract thinking, metacognition, self-regulation, and goal-setting.
These are all important skills for succeeding at a professional level. Abstract thinking (offensive scheme and reading defenses) and goal-setting are obvious, but metacognition and self-regulation–the ability to observe your own behavior and adjust it–are less-discussed aspects of maturation that are vital to great quarterback play. Range QB coach/consultant Will Hewlett and I say as much about these four cognitive aspects during this 5-minute segment that I’ve queued below:
These components of cognitive maturation combined with a stable learning environment that helped players like Steve Young, Steve McNair and Drew Brees develop into MVP-caliber quarterbacks. This especially true with Young, who has repeatedly discussed on ESPN how the game slows down for players as they get older if they continue to work at the fundamentals of the game. “I had the dynamic ability [like Colin Kaepernick], but I couldn’t become that CEO, that orchestrator, until I tied my legs up and learned the job,” Young elaborated to Peter Panacy of Bleacher Report last April. “And that’s the challenge.”
Young lacked that stable environment in Tampa Bay between the ages of 24-25, but with the good fortune to sit behind Joe Montana and between ages 26-30, Young developed into a capable starter and then a star.
It may have been good fortune for Young, but it was a strategic decision for Bill Walsh and the 49ers to seek Young, a starter with a 3-16 record, sub-55 percent completion percentage, and 11-TD-to-21-INT ratio. Walsh saw what the mobile quarterback could be and gave Young the time to learn the position.
Between ages 26-30, Young started 20 games over the course of 5 seasons, compiling a 12-8 record before he became the permanent starter in 1992 at 31 years of age and reeled off seven Pro Bowl appearances and three consecutive first-team All-Pro designations.
Skeptics of this argument will say that Young’s transformation occurred 25-30 years ago and the game has changed. They’re right that the game has changed, but it hasn’t gotten easier for quarterbacks from a mental-emotional standpoint that matters so much to the position.
Defenses have become more multiple and mobile with hybrid safeties working the slot and LEO linebackers. This has steepened the learning curve for rookie quarterbacks despite the fact that they weren’t even born when NFL quarterbacks were expected to call their own plays.
Drew Brees began his career during this era of change in 2001. He saw time in two games as a rookie, started a full 16 games the following season, and was benched 5 games after he was a combined 35-for-63 for 323 yards and 5 interceptions during Weeks 6-8 during the 2003 season.
Brees, who has been to 8 Pro Bowls the past 9 seasons with the Saints, credits a large portion of his professional development to Marty Schottenheimer:
“I give Marty so much credit as far as my maturation as a quarterback in this league and he benched me three times,” says Brees on NFL Networks’ Marty Schottenheimer: A Football Life. “But there were times where I needed that. It was part of my growth. [During this interview segment with Brees, the director runs a sideline shot of Schottenheimer telling Brees during a game, “Listen to me, if it’s a one-score game your ass will be out there, but I’m not putting you at risk in this situation. You hear me?”] I was still his guy and I felt that all the way through so I love him for that. That carried over to 2004 where we had one of our better seasons.”
Brees made the Pro Bowl in 2004, the Chargers went from 4-12 to 12-4 and made the playoffs, and Schottenheimer was voted Coach of the Year. In 2005, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, in an act of astounding insecurity, fired Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006 after trading away Brees the year before.
Maybe Archie Manning didn’t want his son playing for Schottenheimer, but considering that Bernie Kosar and Joe Montana were productive in the coach’s offense and Brees just came off a Pro Bowl season, I’d put my money on Smith as a big reason why the Mannings balked at going to San Diego.
The CBA and Ownership Avoiding Mirrors
The recent collective bargaining agreement has cut the salary of a first-round rookie quarterback by as much as $50 million dollars. By the end of year three, a team faces the decision of picking up a fifth-year option or signing the passer to a contract on par with what the top-10 quarterbacks in the NFL make. Even with this fifth-year option deadline, the monetary savings of paying an early first-round pick $24 million versus $70-$75 million seems like an incentive to take a more patient approach.
I broached this topic with a former scout and consultant with the league and he agrees that the desire to continue rushing rookie quarterbacks into the starting lineup is puzzling with the new CBA and if it continues, teams need to become more aware of the factors that will make or break this approach:
I’ve scratched my head a bit seeing teams adjust to the $20 million per year rate for quarterbacks. The new CBA should have encouraged teams to sit quarterbacks more than in the past, but it hasn’t happened so far. Ponder, Gabbert, Manuel, and Locker all got sent to the slaughter. Meanwhile, Kaepernick got to sit and look what happened there.
Even Russell Wilson had a great situation where the Seahawks didn’t feel compelled to start him. Although he started immediately, the team limited him early until Wilson displayed a comfort level to do more in the scheme. Wilson also has that mental maturity-leadership aspect for a quarterback that is very important as well. If a locker room can’t support a young quarterback, he’s dead. It’s not just his outward leadership, either. His inner mental toughness and mindset to face and learn from mistakes is vital. A lot of guys are never able to face down their true reasons for failure.
Coaching is a huge part of the equation. It’s one thing Pete Carroll does a tremendous job with, fostering trust. He reaches his players more often than any coach that I’ve met. He give his players a clear vision of the hurdles that they must clear, but he also sees the best in people. Then he turns the mirror around for the player to see how great he knows that they can be. Carroll is definitely the exception and a rare find among coaches these days.
Quarterback development in the NFL is like trying to flash-fry something; you either get deliciously seared-in flavor, or a burnt piece of crap. In contrast, slowly simmering something for hours in the crock pot, you’re gonna get a tender, delicious meal. Too many teams opt to flash-fry.
If they’re going to drop that quarterback in the frying pan, the team better have a good quality frying pan (the locker room), a precise and controlled heating mechanism (coaching staff), and a keen understanding of the combination of the surrounding talent that greases this pan.
Wilson. Brees. Young. See the commonalities with their development? None were needed to play right away; they had coaches who believed in them and didn’t turn up the heat too soon, and they had the right mix of talent capable of setting up these passers for positive growth.
There are quarterbacks with teams that lack that immediate surrounding talent to aid their transition, but this is where patience matters. If a team drafts a quarterback early but lacks the talent to keep him from extreme punishment that will make it difficult for him not to regress, it’s better to sit that passer a year. The worst-case scenario is that they’re picking early another year. Even if they pick early for a few years, it’s not as disastrous as it sounds.
Former NFL scout and Scouting Academy Founder Dan Hatman and I had this conversation about NFL owners and impatient tendencies. “Citing fiscal factors for fast-tracking a quarterback’s development isn’t consistent with the way the NFL is structured. It’s not a purely capitalist system. Everyone gets a healthy piece of the pie,” says Hatman in reference to the revenue sharing among the NFL. “If owners were more accepting of the fact that they benefit from the league’s financial structure and didn’t try to behave like their team was a fully independent business, they might realize that they’d benefit from cultivating patience, loyalty, and implement lasting principles. There’s a reason that the better teams in the league are generally no worse than 8-8 in a given year.”
As mentioned at the beginning, one way of looking at my views on quarterback development is that I’m out of touch with the realities of the NFL. Maybe it’s the NFL that is out of touch with reality. The 1995 NFL Draft was the initial selection process for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers and these two expansion teams made short work of reaching their respective conference championships. As former GM Ron Wolf says, Jacksonville and Carolina were “free agent teams,” not expansion teams–a big advantage to the likes of the Seahawks and Buccaneers of the 1970s. However, the takeaway many in the NFL have is that development time for a team is 2-3 years rather than 4-5.
I don’t think NFL owners truly realize how good they have it. Their financial structure encourages patience and loyalty. Their employees in coaching, scouting, and personnel management have an abundance of football training. And the get the best players in the world. However, many owners churn through these resources like spoiled children who play with their Christmas gifts for a week, grow bored and dissatisfied, and throw tantrums for something new.
Some of these NFL organizations are missing is the gift of strategic thinking and management skill to will harness this wealth of talent, but most have it if they make it a priority. What they’re truly missing is patience and commitment to a process that develops its important infrastructure: coaches, scouts, and personnel management. It’s up to the owner and it’s one of the off-field factors that separate the best from the rest.
Star quarterbacks will always be uncommon, but finding and developing passers who can make a team competitive should be easier. Jake Delhomme, Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, and Eli Manning aren’t top-tier quarterbacks, but they’ve helped their teams reach Super Bowls during this era of the NFL. Many of you will argue that Kaepernick, Manning, and even Flacco, are stars. I’ll argue that they are competent players and competent NFL players often make great plays, but it doesn’t make them stars. They are winning quarterbacks, not great quarterbacks, and there’s a difference.
However, Madden, Citizen, Campbell’s Soup and other corporate entities doling out endorsement deals indirectly contribute to the public perception that these players are star quarterbacks. The NFL came to the realization during the Joe Namath era that the league earned money as much or more from touting its stars as the rest of its product. I think ownership and its infrastructure have unfortunately sniffed too much of its own glue and treats every young quarterback like a star and has encouraged rookies, agents, and the public to expect the same.
These expectations shorten precious development time, create exaggerated perceptions of self among young quarterbacks, and make owners impatient. It’s a time-tested recipe for disaster and on Thursday, April 30th, we’re about to watch more meat throw on the skillet.
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