Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spiral Evolution: Is this the beginning of the end of the Archetypal QB?

- By Travis Lund

     With the NFL draft coming up, Cam Newton has triggered yet another debate about the benefits of drafting a hyper-athletic quarterback with questionable passing accuracy and pocket presence.  (Let’s blissfully ignore the fact that this draft may not be followed by an actual season.  Shut your eyes, clap your hands over your ears, and repeat after me: “La la la la la la la la …”)  All good?  OK.  The thing is: this isn’t the first time we’ve heard such a debate.  Last year, we went through it with Tim Tebow.  We’re still going through it, actually.  And before him it was Vince Young and Michael Vick.  It’s safe to say this is becoming somewhat of a trend.      

Like many things in life, football has survived and flourished largely on the basis of evolving. Popular music was different before Les Paul invented multi-track recording and the electric guitar.  Literature was different before James Joyce started pushing the limits of what constitutes a novel.  In every arena, new innovations are usually met with a mixture of enthusiastic embrace from those willing to take the leap and studied skepticism or outright disgust from those who think things ought to remain as they are.  Football is no different.  Seventy years ago, no one would have believed the forward pass would become the sport’s primary offensive weapon.  Forty years ago, people couldn’t conceive of hybrid backs like Reggie Bush.  Heck, as recently as fifteen years ago, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that the game would someday be populated by 300 lb. defensive ends who could run a 4.6 forty.  Evolution is the name of the game. 

So where is pigskin Darwinism taking the modern quarterback?

Increasingly, we’re seeing an athletic sea change at the game’s most important position.  In colleges and high schools across the country, the statuesque, cerebral pocket passer that has been the game’s ideal since the days of Montana and Elway is being replaced by a fresh paradigm. The new breed of QB seems to be predicated on explosiveness and athleticism, while exhibiting a pronounced, if fixable, downturn in the well-drilled fundamentals of generations past.  They throw too many picks, but they evade sacks.  They don’t plant their feet properly, but they turn routine draw plays into sixty-yard gains.  These are today’s college stars, and therefore theoretically tomorrow’s (possibly elite) NFL QBs.

Non-pro coaches are more than willing to embrace these athletes, because keeping their jobs means scoring points, and if the most effective way of doing that is letting their quarterbacks dart around the field like whirling dervishes, so be it.  And maybe they’re on to something.  Of course, there are numerous points of contention over how such players will ultimately translate to the NFL.  Draft geeks and scouts are always leery of them, cautioning that while they may have “tremendous upside”, there are concerns about their ability to operate effectively at the next level.   

The reasons:

-       Pro-style offenses don’t really cater to this type of player.  Teams mostly draft to fit an offensive system, and no NFL organization currently runs the kind of offense that makes the Tebows of the world so effective in college.  (Though the Eagles gave it a shot last season with Vick.)
-       Nearly every previous attempt at integrating college-style play into the NFL has been a failure.  Tennessee tried to integrate Vince Young’s prodigious running skills into their playbook.  Didn’t Work.  Miami started running the Wildcat in 2008.  Defensive coordinators figured it out, and we now only see it in specialty packages that don’t get a lot of use.
-       The speed and power of defenses in the NFL is nothing like what these kids see on Saturday afternoons.  Even with the recent rule changes designed to protect offensive players, the hits are still far more vicious.  If you’re an NFL owner, you surely don’t want your multi-million-dollar, face-of-the-franchise QB subjected to the kind of weekly punishment and potential injury that comes with an offensive system looking to take advantage of these new-school players’ skills.

Michael Vick’s season last year was a great test case for both the aforementioned concerns and the benefits of utilizing this kind of quarterback:

When the nation tuned in to the Monday Night Eagles/Redskins game this past season, we bore witness to one of the great performances in NFL history.  Vick shredded Washington’s D in every way, from every conceivable angle.  He threw accurate deep bombs to receivers, he rushed for touchdowns, he evaded pressure and made difficult throws in heavy traffic.  It was a virtuoso performance, the likes of which had rarely been witnessed before at the NFL level.  Maybe, just maybe, this stuff could work after all.

Of course, the downside of playing this way was in evidence as well.  When Vick went down with a rib injury earlier in the year, it was on one of those athletic running plays.  Eagles coach Andy Reid has more than once voiced concerns about Vick’s ability to remain healthy while consistently absorbing the kind of punishment that comes with frequent runs.  But you can bet the Eagles are scheming right now on ways to maintain that element of unpredictability while ensuring Vick’s safety.  As for our other test cases, Tebow and Newton, we’ll just have to wait and see.  We don’t know what Tim Tebow’s ultimate roll with Denver will be yet, and we probably won’t for another year or two, because the Broncos’ organizational and systematic direction is, to put it politely, up in the air at the moment.  We don’t know who Cam Newton will be playing for or in what capacity. 

The question is: will there come a time in the NFL when Vick-esque quarterbacks are equally as coveted and utilized as the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the league?  If the proliferation of the quarterback-as-playmaker/athlete in the college game continues, I can’t help but think that the answer is yes.  Maybe not soon, but sometime down the road., we could see teams borrowing more aggressively from high school and college playbooks or concocting entirely new schemes designed to take advantage of these remarkable athletes.  The pocket passer will probably never die, but the influx of this new breed of elite quarterbacks may eventually alter the offensive status quo. 

Eddie Vedder said it best: “Do the evolution, baby!”

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