Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: #Bengals QB Joe Burrow’s Film Room Progress Report

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines the early progress of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. 

I promise, this is about Joe Burrow, but first, we’re going to talk about Marcus Mariota and quarterbacking in the NFL.

“Opinions on Mariota now, LOL.”

This is a comment from a viewer after watching Mariota’s NFL debut when he went 13-for-16 for 209 yards and delivered four touchdowns against Tampa Bay in 2015.

The viewer had watched my 42nd RSP Film Room on Marcus Mariota with renowned quarterback coach Will Hewlett months earlier. In this episode, we have a balanced review of Mariota’s game, but the viewer didn’t appreciate us pointing out troublesome flaws that Mariota would have to address in the pros.

So it was one of those typical fan moments to react too soon to a quarterback’s performance in an attempt to claim victory in what he perceived as a slight against a college prospect he loved. Fast-forward six years and I posed the same question back to him on the YouTube channel–not so much to be vengeful as much as to make a point:

We need a lot more time to properly evaluate the NFL development of quarterbacks than a season, much less one game!

As Russ Lande and I discussed this week on our Scout Talk Podcast, NFL teams accumulate massive amounts of data on how the quarterback plays the game and executes a game plan:

  • Alignments.
  • Player positions within those alignments.
  • Where the quarterback throws the ball.
  • The quarterback’s accuracy from a variety of ranges of the field, delivery platforms, targets, blitzes, and coverages.
  • How well the quarterback makes line adjustments or responses to late pre-snap changes by the defense.

A quarterback won’t see all of the scenarios that an NFL defense can use to challenge them in the span of a rookie year. Opposing defenses during the earliest phases of a rookie’s season won’t create specialized gameplans without that data that will point them in a direction to specialize. This takes 4-6 games of information.

Even when young quarterbacks display an ability to adjust to what defenses pose as new challenges based on their 4-6 games of tape, opponents have an entire offseason to study even more data and present obstacles at the beginning of year two, mid-way through year two, and the beginning and midseason of year three.

It can take this long for the league to get enough information to fully determine where a quarterback wins, where he struggles, where has he adjusted and overcome the challenges presented to him during the second halves of years one and two,  and whether these defenses have the personnel to present an optimal gameplan.

It’s why Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Blake Bortles, Paxton Lynch, Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota can have good weeks, if not strong seasons, early in their careers and then appear to “regress.” In most cases, the truth is that a regression in production isn’t a  regression in development.

A more accurate way of seeing this phenomenon is that these players have reached a point where they’re struggling to overcome challenges that have not been thrown at them in the past and they may never have the skills to handle them consistently. They’ve reached their ceiling.

Tom Brady bumps his head on his ceiling when defenses move him off his spot and don’t let him reset his feet. But it took years for us to see that consistent ceiling in that room of the house that’s his overall game. There are other rooms where the ceiling hasn’t been reached.

This brings us to Burrow. So far, Burrow has delivered excellent raw production that looks good in the box score. There are also several positive qualities from his college tape that are translating well to Sundays.

He trusts his receivers to win the ball. His pocket management has been strong. And, he displays excellent accuracy on the move in and outside of the pocket.

In lieu, of what I just shared about NFL quarterback development, his is how I prefer to summarize Burrow’s performance thus far. All of these positives I shared about Burrow are also pieces of intel that opponents will use to formulate gameplans that attempt to limit these strengths.

While most will feel compelled to tell you that he’s going to be great or anticipate a potential downfall 1-3 years early−and often for accurate reasons—if you don’t have a strong point of analysis that compels you in either direction, I suggest leaning on the fact that quarterback development takes a lot longer than we acknowledge.

Yes, most fans and a lot of media give lip service to the fact it takes longer, but they say that in the same way that people state what they know to be the right thing to do but are open to self-rationalizations or rationalizations from others to make emotional decisions that stray from the logic of what’s best.

I like Burrow’s game. However, I’m waiting for the NFL to make the next move in this chess match that is the quarterback’s development trajectory.

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