Jameis Winston and Alex Smith illustrate how vertical accuracy begins with the feet and the mindset, not the arm.
There will be no rants about arm strength today. It’s because emphasizing arm strength during a discussion of deep ball accuracy is like having a discussion about Einstein and spending most of your time on his hair.
With noted exceptions littered throughout the game’s rich history, vertical accuracy is the result of a strong connection between the eyes, the brain, and the feet.
The first thing I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about quarterbacking is to study the mental-motor connection of the footwork involved with the position. Learn about drops, hitches, and release footwork and how they are matched with route types. And study how these concepts factor into the way a quarterback reads a defense.
When a quarterback’s understanding of his offense and the opponent’s defense are in sync, his reactions are fluid from one process to the next. His footwork is crisp and decisive.
If something impedes that flow—be it the defense, his understanding of the plan, or his confidence in executing the plan—his feet will often tell the story.
Alex Smith is one of the smarter, technically-sound quarterbacks you’ll find in the NFL. He’s also developed a reputation as a check-down king.
It’s not always a fair assessment of Smith’s style. This year, he has increased his rate of shots down field. Even so, Smith has a lot of deep passing to do before he earns the label of an aggressive vertical passer.
Aggression is the descriptive word that matters as much to quarterbacking as intelligence and technique. On this play below, Smith only demonstrates intelligence and technique.
The drop, set, and look-off of the safety to the right are all good examples of intelligence and technique. Even the three hitches Smith makes before delivering the ball is good technique.
But those hitch steps are the problem. Smith is hitching because he’s waiting for the moment where he feels comfortable with what he sees to make the throw.
Aggression requires risk. You’re going first, which often means you’re basing that initiative on a projected outcome.
Many holes don’t open for running backs until they burst towards that closed area projected to open up when they reach it. Call it vision, belief, or faith, it’s all the same—a player has to act with the initiative and decisiveness that the desired outcome will happen.
This is especially true of the vertical game. If a quarterback waits for proof that the receiver will come open, his pass will arrive late unless he has an ungodly arm. He must act on the criteria that projects a favorable outcome and act without hesitation—throw now or look elsewhere.
Smith hitches three times after it’s clear he set up the throw with the look to the safety at the opposite hash. Those three steps are like three loud “DO I’s” in his head.
When he finally does, the moment has passed, the throw arrives late, and the safety he looked off had the time during those three hitches to cut off the target for the interception.Smith’s feet revealed his lack of faith, confidence, and aggression on the play.
Watch Jameis Winston’s feet at Florida State and his rookie year with the Buccaneers and he had long, loping strides. His footwork was confident, but the lower half of his body often failed to operate in sync with his upper half. The result was erratic decisions and wild flights of inaccuracy.
This accurate go route up the left sideline to Mike Evans is a departure from those early days. Watch Winston’s strides from center on this play and they’re much shorter and quicker.
Also note the hop into his setup that punctuates the end of his drop. One of two things happened here: 1) Winston was scheduled for a five-step drop, felt the impending pressure and cut the process short to get rid of the ball on-time or 2) this was part of his three-step footwork because he was looking off the safety to the right and had to pivot to his left for the throw.
I’m thinking it’s a truncated five-step drop, but neither option impacts the overall point that Winston’s aggressive nature leads to success whereas Smith’s lack of aggression leads to failure. Aggression may seem like an in-quantifiable intangible, but feelings can be quantified as behaviors and behaviors are actions.
Intelligence. Technique. Aggression. Winston showed all three on this play, Smith only showed two.
The feet are a key to seeing the behavior and driving the desired results.