Ruining Quarterbacks 2.0: Zheng He, Admiral James Stavridis, And the Precarious Handling of Young Quarterbacks


Mark Schofield draws upon recent football history as well as U.S. and Chinese military history to define the parameters that are designed to develop quarterbacks but has also led to their detriment. 

I consider myself a bit of a reader.

With the demands of everyday life, however, my time spent reading is less and less each year. Whether due to family obligations, household obligations, or just a preference for spending my free time traversing around Skyrim rather than putting my nose into a book, I have found myself reading fewer and fewer books with each trip around the sun.

Of course, during the football season, you can add another demand for my time, which makes it even tougher to read.

But still, even if it is just a few minutes before the head hits the pillow, I try and find a way to squeeze in a few pages.

The books I tend to read are almost always of a historical bent. This is partly due to my interests outside of the game of football, but of course, there is usually a football angle.

One of the podcasts that I co-host, The QB Scho Show on Bleeding Green Radio with Michael Kist, focuses on quarterback play but we begin each show with a historical reference that we then tie into the players we will discuss that week. It is odd, to be sure, but we make it work.

So the football mind is always turned on, even when reading about the Spartans at Thermopylae or American Presidents during times of war. This allows me to make my first book recommendation of this piece: Presidents of War by presidential historian Michael Beschloss. It was in that book that I learned about this fascinating moment during the Civil War:

The well-heeled [Union General George] McClellan lived in the house, facing Lafayette Square, where the aged Dolley Madison had resided as a widow during the Polk years. One evening, a few weeks after Ball’s Bluff, [Abraham] Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, came to see him and were told that the General was out. They waited for an hour; when McClellan arrived, he went upstairs and let his visitors wait for another half hour before having them informed that he had gone to bed. “Better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity,” Lincoln told John Hay. “I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success.”

That is one way to handle your boss during a time of crisis.

The current book I am working through is a new-release from Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.). Stavridis spent more than 30 years in the United States Navy, rising to the rank of a four-star admiral.

He served as the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and also commanded the US Southern Command. Upon his retirement, he served five years as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he obtained his Ph.D.

His newest work is titled Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character and Stavridis examines ten historical admirals, their leadership style and their character. 

The second admiral that Stavridis puts under the microscope is Zheng He, who served China during the early Ming Dynasty. He was born Ma He and was actually captured by the Ming army during fighting in 1381.

Ma He was castrated but would grow to earn the trust of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan who would later become the Yongle Emperor. When Zhu Di assumed the role of emperor, he conferred upon Ma He the name of Zheng, in reference to He’s service defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba during fighting in 1399.

In addition, Zheng He was promoted to the role of Grand Director of the Directorate of Palace Servants. He would later earn the title of Grand Envoy, which is where his service to China as the nation’s leading admiral would come into play.

These passages from Stavridis, discussing Zheng He’s various sea voyages on behalf of China, struck me:

At every port of call, Zheng He was confronted by new and often dangerous situations, which required him to make a range of quick decisions weighing his mission, the safety of his ships and crew; and his perception of the scene on the ground. During his third voyage, Zheng He called in Sri Lanka in the midst of a three-way civil war between a Sinhalese Buddhist kingdom in the south, a Tamil Muslim kingdom in the north, and a rebel Sinhalese warrior who fought both.

His instructions to establish relations with the people on the island were silent on this unforeseen and challenging situation, which must have taken the admiral himself some time to decipher. (By chance, Zheng He’s first contact was with the rebel leader, which could not have made things easier for him.) He was forced to adapt to the events on the ground without recourse to “instructions” from higher authority. He was able to establish trading relations with all three groups and kept Chinese neutrality – and opportunity for further trade – alive.

Even with the ubiquity and speed of modern communications, today’s leaders still frequently find themselves called to make similar decisions: on the scene, on the spur of the moment, and on limited situational understanding. In many cases, developing the ability to operate autonomously while remaining within the intent of one’s mission is an important part of a leader’s developmental process–and one that today’s leaders may have to develop on their own initiative. If a young leader comes to over-rely on constant and near-instant access to higher authority, he or she can miss out on this crucial maturation step. (Emphasis added)

It was then that my football-senses kicked into gear, and my thoughts turned—as they often do—to the quarterback position.

Those of us who cover the game, particularly from an evaluation standpoint, have devoted hours and hours to the concept of developing quarterbacks. Given the importance of the position, the hours spent studying the position, and the various ways teams have approached the development question, it is stunning that in the year 2019 we still do not have a firm grasp of the right approach to take when turning a young draft prospect into an upper-level quarterback talent.

With the depth of human knowledge at our disposal, we still cannot crack this code. While we can put men and women into space, prepare for a voyage to Mars, travel around the globe in hours and not years, and unlock the vast wealth of human knowledge by simply unlocking our phones, we cannot find and develop 32 people to play a single position in just one of humanity’s sports. It is almost unfathomable. 

Now, in the past few years, this question seemed to lose its importance. Perhaps Sean McVay had cracked the code in a way that few could see coming.

Instead of developing the quarterback the old-fashioned way, by having him sit and learn and then start to learn by doing, and seeing if the QB can “sink or swim,” play him right away and hold his hand the entire way, McVay used the helmet radio rules in his favor, getting Jared Goff to the line of scrimmage early in the play clock so he can continue to relay information to his young passer. The technological version of a college quarterback peering at the sidelines to read big poster boards with funny pictures on them. McVay did not rely on his quarterback to make audibles and changes at the line of scrimmage, he would make them for him.

For a while, it worked. So much so that teams began to copy the approach. If you so much as waited in line for coffee with McVay you were linked to a head coaching job. Every owner of a team with a young quarterback wanted to find their McVay. People like Matt Nagy, Zac Taylor, and Matt LaFleur were given head coaching jobs. 

This all seemed to make sense, and the economics of the day backed up this approach. In a piece I wrote for last year’s Pro Football Weekly draft preview I examined how teams were starting to handle their young passers. This is how Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and the current Director of the Scouting Academy, crystalized the new world for me: “We don’t have three years to develop QBs anymore. We want them to perform at a high level on their rookie contracts.”

So that means doing what you can to make them perform during that rookie window. If it means simplifying the offense and holding their hand every step of the way, that is what you do.

That brings us to the words from Stavridis: “…developing the ability to operate autonomously while remaining within the intent of one’s mission is an important part of a leader’s developmental process—and one that today’s leaders may have to develop on their own initiative. If a young leader comes to over-rely on constant and near-instant access to a higher authority, he or she can miss out on this crucial maturation step.”

Is this approach version 2.0 of Ruining Quarterbacks?

Because what have we seen over the past eight to ten months? In a vacuum, this approach to developing the passer might work, but outside of a vacuum there are defensive coordinators and defensive-minded head coaches who are hard at work coming up with answers for the questions now being posted to them by these offensive systems.

Last season the Los Angeles Rams seemed to be the offense and approach everyone wanted to emulate. But in a late-season game against the Detroit Lions—one that the Rams would win—Matt Patricia took the approach that McVay’s jet motion was eye candy. A distraction to draw the defense away from the true intent of the play. 

So they ignored it.

That would be a model for teams who faced the Rams later that season, such as the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles and of course the New England Patriots to follow.

Of course, Bill Belichick took things a step further. Since McVay insisted on feeding his quarterback information at the line of scrimmage, creating a situation where Goff had come to “over-rely on constant and near-instant access to a higher authority,” Belichick severed the connection.

How? By calling two defensive looks in the huddle. One to show during the early part of the play clock, when McVay could still communicate with his quarterback, and the second to shift into after the rules mandate that the headset radio is turned off.

Forcing Goff to operate autonomously. 

The Rams scored three points in that game. 

Now this season the Rams and their offense continue to struggle. Other elements that teams saw the Patriots implement in Super Bowl 53 are being used against them now, from 6-1 fronts to late shifts to Cover 4 looks in the secondary.

Although there are more problems beyond the quarterback position, there is still a question as to whether Goff can be counted upon to function outside of what his coach puts in front of him. A similar situation is playing out in Chicago, where Nagy and his young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky are facing an offense at a crossroads. While the offense of a season ago worked well enough to make the team competitive, there are strong signs that when forced to work autonomously and outside simplified designs that defenses know to key on, Trubisky is going to struggle. 

Now perhaps Lamar Jackson disproves this theory. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback seems to be growing into a star in this league, and he has Baltimore riding high after a road victory over the Seattle Seahawks. But his success could speak more to the talent level of the individual player, and not the developmental philosophy of the offense and the organization. 

So where does that leave us?

We can return to the words of Stavridis:

Finding that balance—between “checking with headquarters” and acting boldly—is a crucial part of character development. At each stage of my career, I found myself making mistakes, generally on the side of acting a bit too boldly.

As a young destroyer captain, I had impulsively turned my ship toward the Suez Canal during a crisis in the Gulf, assuming I’d receive orders to head that way. After we had steamed through the night for a couple of hundred miles, my commodore awoke to find my ship well off station.

He sent me a message in code that when broken said simply, “Your movements are not understood.” It was an old sailing command often sent via signal flags in the days before radio communication. I was quickly reeled back into station, and my next report of office fitness was a bit less glowing than it could have been. But I learned a valuable lesson in the balance between bold autonomy and organizational fidelity.

Young passers need to learn that lesson as well. They need to learn by making mistakes of their own volition, and how to strike that balance of safe play and aggression, otherwise they will not be ready to handle the challenges that newer defensive approaches will place in front of them. 

The conundrum of young quarterback development, as it pertains to Goff and McVay, was made clear in this recent thread about the Rams’ passer:

In this discussion, the idea of McVay perhaps holding Goff and his development back through reliance on his scheme and approach was posited. This might be Ruining Quarterbacks 2.0.

By making the reads and decisions for them, by simplifying the game to the point that a rookie can come in and have success, these systems have stunted the necessary and critical maturation steps they will need when it comes time to answer the challenges of defenses adjusting to what they are doing. 

Which may eventually force the organization to try again with a new young passer.

I’ll leave Matt to write Ruining Quarterbacks 3.0. 

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Categories: Analysis, Mark Schofield, Matt Waldman, Players, QuarterbackTags: , , , , , ,

1 comment

  1. Mark, great post. I’m a retired plumber and building engineer and I’ve seen the same approach toward skilled jobs in general. I have seen major companies such as AT&T eliminate skilled and experienced craftsman in favor of manual-following technicians. Manuals with detailed instructions that outline all the steps they think are necessary to finish a task or solve a problem can be useful but they have been viewed as a way of using cheaper (less skill and experience) labor. In my experience, this minimization of human skills and ingenuity is rampant. Unfortunately it will probably take some disasters for the technocratic approach to be found wanting on multiple levels.

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