Mark Schofield begs to differ with Ted Williams by revealing how even the most mundane decisions for a quarterback often require an immense amount of on-field awareness and split-second processing.
Follow Mark on Twitter @markschofield
So you want to play quarterback in the NFL? Good luck with all…that.
It is a standard line, one that I have relied upon often: “Playing quarterback is the hardest job in sports.” Ted Williams famously said that hitting a baseball is the toughest job in sports—my high school baseball coach would agree.
The Splendid Splinter was onto something, given that a .300 batting average is great, but a 30 percent completion percentage gets you cut.
When you factor in everything else that goes into a single passing play, I still stand by the proposition that nothing is tougher than playing quarterback.
Let’s look at this one play from New England Patriots’ rookie Jarrett Stidham, a two-yard scramble in Week 1 of the preseason against the Detroit Lions:
At first blush, this seems like a non-event—a play that no one likely remembers when the game is over. A play that no one will ask Stidham about in the post-game scrum, and a play that those in attendance will not be telling their co-workers about at the water cooler in the morning.
Still, this two-yard scramble is just one more data point to support the idea that playing quarterback is the toughest job in sports.
Frankly, it is a play that I even sped past when I watched Stidham’s performance. It was only when Bryce Rossler, who works for Sports Info Solutions and covers the Lions for The Lions Wire, started looking at this play from the defense’s perspective on Twitter that I noticed what was happening.
More on that in a moment.
Let’s first look at the route design of the play. Stidham will open to the right side of the formation and work the two-receiver concept that the Patriots are running, known as “Rope.” In New England’s playbook, this is a combination of a “return” route from the slot receiver.
A return route—sometimes termed a whip or a pivot route—begins as a slant but then breaks to the outside and then a route on the outside that changes based on the coverage.
When Bryce brought up this play on Twitter, Zach Dunn chimed in about the Rope concept. There are few in football media who have a better understanding of the Patriots’ offensive playbook than Zach.
He pointed out that in this concept the return route from the inside receiver is “locked,” meaning that he runs it no matter what. The outside route, which is dependent on the coverage, is usually a hitch route—even against press coverage—but will convert to a fade against “rolled” coverage, i.e., Cover 2.
This coverage is what it appears the Lions are running, judging by their pre-snap alignment:
So putting yourself in Stidham’s head for a second, he is expecting Cover 2, perhaps Cover 2 Man Underneath given the alignment of the corners, before the play and knows that the outside receiver will run the fade against this rolled coverage. Provided the cornerback drops with the vertical release, it should open up the right flat for the return route from his slot receiver.
Also, look at the alignment of the cornerback to the outside. He is using inside leverage, another indication that he is in man coverage as he will force the release to the outside, and try and make this a tougher throw for the QB.
Now the fun begins.
When working this kind of concept, a quarterback needs to be aware of what is often termed “2 Trap.” That is a coverage design where the defense shows Cover 2, the cornerback sinks for a moment with the outside vertical route, and if he sees the inside receiver run this route to the flat, he peels off the outside receiver and crashes—or “traps”—the out route.
It is a coverage call designed to take away this play, because after all this kind of route concept is designed to attack Cover 2. The circle of schematic life…
So Stidham needs to be wary of that coverage, and usually what you look for is the cornerback backpedaling a bit with his eyes on you and/or the inside receiver, and not really looking at the outside WR.
Here’s what Stidham sees as the play begins:
All good, right? The cornerback executes a man coverage turn, putting his back to the quarterback and running with the vertical release of the outside receiver. Stidham is free to throw the return route to the flat. But…he does not. Why?
People like me, who focus on offensive schemes and execution, talk about how we are entering the great era of schematic design. Teams are increasingly using Air Raid designs and we are seeing innovation working into the league thanks to coaches like Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury.
Don’t think defensive coaches are just sitting idly by.
This is the point when the Twitter discussion of this play was aided by two defensive minds: Coach Vass and James A. Light. They pointed out that the Lions were running a variation of Cover 2 Man Underneath called “5 Cougar.”
In this variation, the outside cornerback executes a man coverage turn—like the Lions’ CB does here—but is still reading the slot receiver. Yes, with his back to him. That helps sell the quarterback that the CB is bailing, but it is really just a wrinkle looking to bait the quarterback into throwing the flat route, and potentially an interception.
Stidham, somehow, sees it late, pulls it down, and scrambles for two yards:
What Stidham can do the next time he sees something like this is make the hole-shot throw. With the cornerback peeling off the vertical route to trap the slot receiver, Stidham needs to flash his eyes to the boundary and throw that fade route into what Jon Gruden describes as the “Turkey Hole.”
With the cornerback now down in the flat, there is a chance to deliver on that vertical route before the safety rotates over to the outside.All of which has to happen in around three seconds.
Not over the course of a Saturday afternoon on Twitter.
With all due respect to Ted Williams, quarterbacking is the hardest job in sports.
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