Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio delves into effective red-zone quarterbacking with clips from Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, and Matthew Stafford.
The Red Zone And the Pro Game
The Red Zone is a daunting place. Coaches devote a ton of daily practice time to it and yet, consistent production in the red zone can elude an offense.
Ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the Dirk Koetter Era.
Data indicators of strong red-zone production for a quarterback can also be deceiving when assessing the skill of a passer. Baker Mayfield had awesome red-zone production at Oklahoma and last year as a rookie in Cleveland. However, it was a deceptive piece of data.
As most of you have heard, the challenge of red-zone performance is the compressed field. With less space to cover, passing windows are smaller and they open for a shorter period of time.
The red zone magnifies the importance of quarterbacks predicting the future. This bit of football fortune-telling is rooted in anticipatory passing—reading the position of defenders on receivers (their leverage) before receivers execute their breaks.
Even during his collegiate years, Mayfield wasn’t identifying and processing this information fast enough on a full complement of routes. Despite the positive results on Saturdays and, the Sundays of his rookie year, the production wasn’t rooted in strong processes that project for sustainable performance in this area.
This is a common issue for young quarterbacks and shouldn’t be an alarming thing about Mayfield. However, the public’s outsized expectations for quarterback development in year-one are stratospheric.
We should give quarterbacks at least 2-3 years to show that they can perform to the enhanced speed, strategy, game-planning, and subsequent Year N+1 adjustments from opponents. We don’t, and now we’re flummoxed with Mayfield, Trubisky, and countless others who appear to backslide when, in truth, they haven’t finished the early phase of development that Year N+1 adjustments from defenses.
Account for these Year N+1 adjustments before we celebrate a young quarterback’s arrival—call it a capstone course in the NFL’s School of Hard Knocks
Leverage-reading and timely processing aren’t the only musts for effective red-zone performance. It’s an absolute must that quarterbacks have some manipulative tricks in their toolbox. Although the available time to trick a defense is even briefer than when in other areas of the field, manipulating opponents separate top prospects from long-term NFL starters at the position.
Jameis Winston was a top prospect and he remains one now that we’re years beyond his selection in the NFL Draft. When he was at Florida State, the label was a compliment; now, the label is one of unfulfilled promise. The potential remains but with each passing year, the opportunities to reach his ceiling will dwindle if he doesn’t refine his game.
Too often, the red zone remains a wilderness for Winston’s game and one of the problems is the lack of manipulative tricks in his toolbox. The two plays below show how Tom Brady uses a pump fake to hold the defense that’s watching his eyes from the beginning of the play and then what happens when Jameis Winston tries to fire the ball into Mike Evans with blunt force.
Here’s the Winston attempt where a pump fake would have been helpful pic.twitter.com/E1cQbxvl0m
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 28, 2019
Say what? The plays aren’t similar enough? I’m comparing apples to oranges. I disagree, but I get it. So, here’s Matthew Stafford working with a two-man route combination in the red zone a week later and he holds the linebackers and safety by initially opening his body to the opposite side of the field of the intended target.
Instead of staring down the two receivers on his left and expecting the defense to guess wrong about which he’ll target, Stafford has a plan that avoids the area entirely and delivers the manipulative ploy and subsequent throw with crisp execution.
This play is very similar to the Jameis Winston attempt to Evans vs Titans where Winston states down the twin left side and LBs read it all the way.
Watch Matt Stafford open to the right to manipulate an easier throw and TD. pic.twitter.com/F3W6q3JkA2
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 4, 2019
How Does This Apply to the Evaluation of College Prospects?
First, red-zone accuracy and efficiency statistics can be deceptive because top prospects often have an advantage of athletic ability on Saturdays that usually narrows dramatically on Sunday. As a result, quarterbacks get away with a myriad of bad behaviors that lead to good results in the college game:
- Arm strength and bigger windows allow college quarterbacks to wait as long as 1-3 beats later than the proper point of anticipation to deliver the ball. You’ll sometimes notice this isn’t working as well when they face defenses with top athletes playing tight, man coverage.
- Mobility that’s considered good for the college game often allows quarterbacks to buy time beyond the expected span of execution for a red-zone play. However, Paxton Lynch, Johnny Manziel, Mayfield, and Winston are among the long list of young quarterbacks who discovered that they needed elite quickness, vision, and processing skills to be on par with exceptional scramblers like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger—and even this trio doesn’t win with mobility in the red zone often enough to lean on it.
- General vs. pinpoint accuracy: Placing the ball in a catchable range for the receiver but in an area where he must work for it beyond what’s necessary for a catch—and that qualifying statement is very important because some coverages will require necessary effort for the receiver to extend for the ball away from his frame—is something that college quarterbacks get away with more often than pro passers. Even if the accuracy percentage is sky-high for the quarterback, if you’re not studying placement based on coverage to project future success, you’re potentially missing whether his skill will translate to a far more demanding level of competition.
Be it a pump fake, the complete sale of a play fake, opening one’s body to a certain side of the field, or a look-off, manipulative techniques are essential for NFL quarterbacking. Young players can develop these tools as they refine their game but they won’t do them any good if they haven’t developed the pre-snap and post-snap identification of advantageous leverage and quick processing that underscores anticipatory throwing.
Until more organizations discontinue their high valuation for athletes lacking the intuitive thread that ties these skills together, anyone emphasizing these skills and traits in quarterback evaluation will be ahead of the curve—even if it means knowing which batch of top prospects will flame out.
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