Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room examines QB Sam Darnold’s (USC) game and explains why evaluating this 2018 NFL Draft prospect to the letter of the law misses the mark.
Whether you earned your Ph.D. at Harvard or the School of Hard Knocks, there’s a common path we all take as learners. First, we grasp simple truths.
Hot and cold. Left and right. Up and down. Night and day. Good and bad. Always and never.
Then, we’re gradually exposed to the spaces in between these simple truths —measurements that reveal there are degrees of temperature, direction, time, morality, and frequency. Over and over, we’re learning the differences between simplicity and complexity.
Later, we’re introduced to exceptions and ambiguity — scenarios where rules don’t apply to what we’ve learned before or when the truth is layered and messy. Many of us compartmentalize the areas of our lives where we’re willing to face the exceptional and the ambiguous on a daily basis because these advanced lessons are the most demanding.
Because the exceptional and ambiguous are often addressed during the later stages of learning a particular subject, we discover when we apply our early lessons that our inability to see beyond the letter of the law is often the source of our failings.
I relate quarterbacking to music, martial arts, cooking, and management because all of these mediums have a lot of rules, techniques, science, philosophies, and craft. Students — and even experienced practitioners — get caught up in the hard and fast rules.
They’re going through poet William Blake’s stages of innocence and experience.
Those who have mastered a field have returned to a stage of innocence. They’ve gained enough information and wisdom to realize that if it sounds good, neutralizes an opponent, tastes good, or gets others to do the job effectively, they can transcend the rules.
Sometimes, those who haven’t even reached their stage of experience possess a masterful innocence with certain parts of their craft. These are people with exceptional talents. It doesn’t guarantee their success, but it does give them notable advantages if they possess the other traits that help an individual continue learning and living in a healthy and functional manner.
When evaluating Sam Darnold to the letter of the laws that fans, media, and many scouts consider the basic tenets of quarterback scouting, the USC passer’s technique is a hot mess. Turn on the tape, and Darnold’s footwork and arm motion are all over the place — and often in all the wrong places.
However, the best scouting is as much about seeking the exceptional as it is identifying the prospects whose risks are the most and least favorable for an organization’s investment. When working as it should, the safe investments gradually build a consistency of effective performance in a competitive environment. When an organization identifies an exceptional investment and combines it with these safe building blocks, we see massive returns.
Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Antonio Brown, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, and others like them elevate teams from average or slightly above average to conference title contenders. Early on, they also give their teams a fiscal advantage to acquire additional talent.
The players mentioned above were drafted much lower than their actual career value and its unlikely Darnold will last beyond the first round. However, this exceptional behavior also applies to early-round picks that people thought were questionable due to the common positional rules of the law.
Jerry Rice’s 4.6-second, 40-yard dash didn’t dissuade Bill Walsh because the masterful coach understood that in his new offense, speed within the first 15 yards of the line of scrimmage mattered most. Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys saw Emmitt Smith’s vision, balance, and short area agility as far more important factors than long speed, size, and raw strength.
Most people who watch Walter Payton run for the first time are shocked to learn he was 5’9″, 200 pounds and lacked top-end speed. It didn’t dissuade the Bears from taking one of the greatest football players in history as a first-round pick.
Sam Darnold may never become a great quarterback but when I watch him, I see a future NFL starter who transcends his technical flaws to the point that it may not matter if he ever fully eliminates them. If you get bogged down in Darnold’s technique, you may miss results that are projectable to NFL tape.
I expect Darnold to have moments in games where his windup and footwork will prevent him from delivering easy plays within a rhythm that masterful technicians can generate under difficult circumstances. However, I also expect Darnold to have moments in games where his style will help him deliver plays within a rhythm that only a handful can — and do it enough that his team won’t regret having a pristine technician.
Brett Favre’s throwing motion was often less technically sound and more ‘Git-R-Done’. He won three MVPs and essentially created the RPO.
Tim Tebow’s arm motion made the Miss Manner’s set of quarterback evaluators faint but I’d argue that Tebow’s demise was his lack of sophistication as a reader of defenses and the NFL’s unwillingness to maintain an offensive system that greatly diminished the value of wide receivers — on the field and ultimately, the free agent marketplace for those working in that offense.
Darnold’s issues are much closer to Favre’s than Tebow’s and it’s for that reason you should at least consider the exceptional when studying his tape.
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