Barbecue, Poker and Cody Kessler


David Igono takes a deeper look at USC’s starting quarterback and admires the elegance of his skill sets.

A QB that can extend a play is a valuable asset to an offensive play caller. USC’s Cody Kessler shows an advanced ability to be accurate on the move. Kessler manages pressure very well. He also displays poise when moving to his right or left.

Kessler plays with a composed, but controlled aggression. He’s a subtle improviser who exploits defenses when he extends plays. Matt did a RSP Boiler Room feature on Kessler here.

Mobility is a tool that a quarterback can use to beat pressure while dropping back to pass. Most young quarterbacks fall into a habit of using the tool of mobility as a primary or secondary option to advance the offense. It’s enticing and easier at the college level to tuck the ball and run for a first down.

At the next level, it’s imperative that the starting quarterback avoids any additional punishment to the pounding he already takes in the pocket. A quarterback’s best asset is always his arm. The threat of the forward pass neutralizes a defense’s ability to make an offense one dimensional. Kessler understands this and rarely attempts to beat pressure solely with his feet.

The exposure above initially doesn’t look like much and doesn’t account for a significant amount of yards. What it does show is Kessler’s ability to avoid pressure while picking up positive yards. As Kessler rolls to his right,  he has the option to beat the linebacker to the edge while keeping his eyes up looking for an open receiver. He opts to “fake” his set up and by motioning like he’s about to throw the ball, it forces that oncoming linebacker to adjust his angle to the quarterback and it causes the defender to lose contain.

I’m fairly confident Kessler set up the linebacker. It bought the TE more time to uncover from the defender because the intended receiver comes across the formation in this designed bootleg to chip the edge rusher and become a check-down if nothing presents itself down the field.

Kessler sells the intent to go for the touchdown with his eyes. The key thing to remember is that it’s 1st and goal at the beginning of the first quarter. There is absolutely no need to force the issue on this play. Kessler takes what he can without forcing the ball into a bad situation.

There is a time and a place to go for the glory, to “air one out”. Usually that’s in the fourth quarter, down double-digits. Although conventional wisdom would applaud a quarterback in this challenging situation to be more risky and seek out the bigger play, the opposite mindset of the gun-slinging quarterback dragging his team to victory is often way more effective.

Aaron Rodgers was able to connect on an improbable Hail Mary throw a few weeks back and it sparked an interesting thought; I can’t think of many instances when a top tier quarterback has chosen to air it out with deep balls consistently instead of intermediate and underneath throws.

Top quarterbacks opting to take what’s there and trusting the play-makers to build on the decision is a learned skill that often originates with a quarterback losing some of his mobility or better yet, experiencing the realization that the guys running the routes are probably better running with the ball.

Kessler is an advanced facilitator of the offense. This next cut exemplifies his awareness of the situation and the best solution.

It’s 3rd & 7 in the fourth quarter and USC is down by 10. The offense has plenty of play-makers but interior pressure prevents Kessler from having the time to find the best option.

Instead of trying to scramble, which he is good at, Kessler opts to throw the check-down at the sticks. He knows if his guy makes the catch that the receiver will at the very least get a first down.

Note where the ball is placed and how easy it was for the receiver to catch it in stride to pick up the extra yardage. Managing pressure isn’t just about being able to move, it’s also about making quick decisions that benefit the offense by exploiting the defense.

There is a time and a place for a quarterback to believe in himself and roll the dice. In any game there are a handful of plays that define the outcome. Sometimes the best way to punish a defense is with your legs.

In the red zone Stanford sends five rushers on 2nd and long to force Kessler to take a sack or throw it away. Kessler responds by avoiding a sack and taking off for the endzone. Kessler’s arc to the endzone belies his craftiness. He knows the secondary is in man coverage and since the defense blitzed, there’s no one to account for him if he runs for it. He takes some punishment for his effort, but it’s apparent that this is a quarterback who understands situational football and can calculate when to risk it.

Poise and Poker

Kessler demonstrates a consistently high standard of poise when he is forced to move his platform. His mobility allows him to avoid pressure and it enhances his decision-making. In this next clip, Stanford sends a delayed blitz, forcing Kessler to his right. Notice how quickly he identifies his hot receiver.

Stanford sends seven defenders to ensure that Kessler has as little time as possible to complete a pass.

The context of this play is important: Even with the completed pass, it still becomes fourth down and the offense is forced to kick a field goal, which cuts the lead to seven in the fourth quarter. Game management is an important trait for young quarterbacks because it challenges the human instinct to smash and grab as much you can with every attempt.

I don’t play poker, but I’m fascinated by the psychological prowess of professional poker players. Andrew Brokos, is a professional poker player with over 10 plus years of experience. I asked him what the main difference between a professional poker player and an average player and he gave me a mental framework that has stuck with me:

There are so many. In most cases there’s a mindset difference. The pros are focused on playing each hand as well as it can be played. Amateurs try too hard to win, or, even worse, to not-lose.

Young quarterbacks try too hard to win on every play. It’s not a question of work ethic or desire or even ability. It’s about understanding situations and exploiting them. Young quarterbacks have to learn what to NOT do.

Take this insight from Jake Delhomme, who would most likely not be considered an all-time great but enjoyed a solid long-term career as a QB:

As a new starting quarterback in the league at the time, it took a while for you to get comfortable and believe in yourself and what the team could do?

Delhomme: “Absolutely. You learn what to do – but you learn what not to do, and that’s the biggest thing. That’s what you learn the most the first couple of years while you’re still kind of feeling yourself out – what not to do. Even though I had been in the league for a while, I was still really new to actually playing. There is a big difference between being a backup and playing.”

Playing quarterback at the professional level is athletically, intellectually, and emotionally challenging. This is true for every position on the field, but quarterback is the only position that comes with the spotlight and scrutiny that directly effects the entire trajectory of a team.

One of the most compelling aspects of Kessler’s tape is how consistent and composed his decision-making is. Under pressure, 1st quarter, 3rd and long, or down 10 points,  the situation does not rattle him. You don’t get the sense that he is over-exerting himself.

In this exposure, Kessler feels pressure from his left as he scans the entire field. As he spills to his right, he throws a deep comeback that he completes for a first down. This is a “normal” Kessler play–clean, smooth and simple execution as designed.

Simple, Elegant, and Barbecue

Simple does not mean easy. It’s quite the opposite.

Anybody, myself included, is capable of barbecuing chicken, ribs, or brisket. It’s a fairly straight-forward proposition. We all know there’s a big difference between the barbecue we make at home and the barbecue made by a pit master.

The hours of smoking the meat, the precision of managing temperatures, and the knowledge of smoke rings and tenderness are all simple concepts to know. I’ve charred enough barbecue to witness how specifically hard it is to execute. Great performers are capable of taking difficult demands and crafting simple, but elegant solutions.

In this next clip against Washington notice how Kessler’s eyes are focused on his target while managing to surf through the pressure to complete the pass.

One of my initial concerns about Kessler is his arm strength. Is it strong enough? Sometimes an offense’s framework and play design show more about a quarterback’s ability than the obvious 40-yard throw on a rope. Take this next clip as a primer:

Kessler is in the shotgun in his own end zone and he’s asked to complete a pass from a half-roll to the deep comeback route. The ball is squarely in the middle of the field so he’s not rolling to the smaller side of the field.

It takes a lot of confidence from a play-caller to ask his QB to make a 20-yard throw on the run from his own end zone. The mobility is an added plus, but you have to have adequate arm strength to make this play work.

When you combine arm strength, mobility, and a set of eyes that are downfield, you get plays that illustrate the poise that Kessler exudes:

Kessler operates the offense with a consistency that is accentuated by the calculated risks that he takes. Oftentimes young quarterbacks are prone to using a dominant skill to bail them out of every seemingly applicable situation.

Quarterbacks that are mobile are apt to take and get first downs with their feet. They’re also liable to prematurely escape the pocket to make a more “comfortable” play. Cody Kessler has a bag of skills at his disposal. He can mix it up when he needs to run for it, when he needs to hit a check-down, or when he can attack downfield.

This clip illustrates a confluence of many of Kessler’s skills. First, he takes the snap and uses a pump fake to hold the secondary in their zone drops. He then climbs the pocket while drifting slightly to his right, creating more time. By doing this, he recognizes that one of his top receivers is covered by a linebacker. This is a mismatch that Kessler exploits. Note how the pass leads the receiver into a wealth of space that is turned into a touchdown.

Controlled aggression at the quarterback position has many faces. Sometimes it’s throwing a 50-50 ball to your best receiver on third down. Other times it can be as basic as staying alive long enough to hit a hitch route instead of taking a sack or throwing the ball away.

For me, it remains to be seen how Kessler’s arm strength fares against the rest of the 2016 QB class. Still, this sequence depicts not only the toughness to go for more, but the arm capacity to actually get it. With no-follow through on his delivery, Kessler is able to complete the pass and place the ball where his receiver can earn yards after the catch.

USC’s offense is predicated on getting the ball to elite athletes in space. The quarterback’s main role in this offense is to be efficient and keep the offense on schedule. Kessler fulfills those responsibilities admirably. The element of his game that elevates the offense is his ability to attack in the intermediate game when the situation calls for it.

Kessler’s footwork and precision in moving up the pocket speaks to his overall mobility. The efficiency in which he reset his platform and throw into this intermediate window is a thrill to watch. The end result is spectacular and it’s the little details like his eyes and how he climbs the pocket with a forward lean that intimate a skilled and crafty quarterback.

He’s a quarterback that is able to extend a play and keep an offense on schedule at moving the ball downfield. Cody Kessler is mobile, accurate, and calculating when he applies his skill at movement. He is capable of handling pressure packages quickly, he diagnoses viable options accurately whether he’s moving to his right or his left, and he performs with a grounded perspective of the context of each play which allows him to pick his spots to be aggressive.

Kessler is a nuanced technician who regularly exploits defenses via his mobility and understanding of situational football. A team with a stable front office and coaching staff would do well to groom a prospect like Kessler to take over its offense–at least as a short-term option with longer-term potential.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – early-bird purchase for April 1 download available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2015 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece

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