Quarterback has always been the most important position in football, and arguably in all of sports, and it’s never been more so than it is today.
Without a top quarterback it is almost impossible to win in the NFL consistently anymore, and if you have an elite guy taking snaps you can paper over almost all cracks in your roster. The Arizona Cardinals discovered how bad their offensive line was when Kurt Warner was no longer behind it making plays, and Eli Manning last season won a Super Bowl behind a line that allowed more pressure than any other in football.
The sphere of influence a quarterback can have on a team and a game has never been larger, and the relentless pursuit each team has for the hand full of elite quarterbacks in existence is becoming ever more fierce.
Find yourself an Aaron Rodgers, things will be good for the next decade; fail to do so and you could be the Browns, aimlessly lurching from one face of the future to the next, hoping to one day find yourself a legitimate stud who can bring the team back to the promised land.
A truly elite quarterback is an extremely rare animal and not an easy thing to find. Definitions obviously vary, but fewer than half of the teams in the NFL have a signal-caller that they are truly happy with. Even players like Tony Romo are perpetually on the hot seat, and Tony Romo is a very good quarterback. Those are the kinds of standards people have these days.
There is only a handful of people on this planet capable of getting that job done (the job of being an elite QB, not simply playing QB in the NFL). That is down to the sheer volume of information that those guys need to be able to process in split seconds before and after the snap. No longer is simply having a rocket arm and good accuracy enough. These guys have to be able to process massive amounts of information in extremely small windows of time and ultimately arrive at the correct decision.
If they don’t, bad things happen and more often than not the opposition comes up with the football.
Part of the reason it’s so tough to accurately evaluate quarterback prospects is because it’s difficult to get an accurate assessment of a player’s ability to process that information without watching him do it, live, in game circumstances. College tape will often not do that because most college offenses don’t ask their passers to process nearly as much information. As the spread becomes ever more popular, most reads are done before the snap and the volume of information quarterbacks have to decipher after it is extremely small. The call has already been made and they know where they should be going with the football barring something unforeseen cropping up.
Players that looked like studs on the chalkboard or in their college offenses suddenly wilt in an NFL offense when they have to deal with far more than they ever did before. It’s a task few can handle and even fewer thrive with.
However, there are some things you can look for to give you an idea of whether a quarterback can succeed in the NFL. We’ll look at a few of the most important.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of a quarterback’s play, especially when he steps up to the NFL level. Can he remain calm in the pocket while also having a good feel for when the pressure is coming and get rid of the football accordingly?
You hear people talk about the clock NFL quarterbacks must have in their head. On any given play they need to know when the pressure is likely to get there and make the adjustment to the check-down receiver if nothing else has opened up in that time. Some guys are masters at this. Peyton Manning took far fewer hits than anybody else in football despite a patchy offensive line for most of his time as a Colt because his internal clock was immaculate. He looked downfield until he knew he should get rid of the football and then went check down. Some players never master that and force poor decisions when they are suddenly surprised by pressure.
The second part of pocket presence is whether the quarterback make good decisions with the football when he knows pressure is coming. Pressure gets to all quarterbacks eventually, but the best ones don’t let it force them into panicking and making bad decisions. They remain careful with the football, and they have an answer to the pressure. Watch what a player does when he gets pressured—does he panic and throw it away, or does he have a plan?
This is closely related to pocket presence and is the single most important part of a quarterback's mechanics. Good footwork will allow a passer to be more accurate, gives him the ability to get out of trouble and allows him to slide and adjust his position inside the pocket and still deliver a throw when and where he needs to when all around him is breaking down.
You hear people talk all the time about what a problem it can be for college quarterbacks adjusting from an offense purely in the shotgun to an NFL system that will require them to drop back from center. The reason that is such a big deal is because of the complex footwork in those drops and how that relates to the timing of patterns being run by receivers in NFL offenses. Windows are so small and fractions of a second so important at this level that any variance in footwork in the drop can kill a play before the ball is thrown.
You only need to watch the videos of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana breaking down footwork in a West Coast offense to understand why it's such a learning curve for a guy who has only ever needed to rock back from his shotgun stance.
Hitting your target is still one of the most important aspects of quarterback play. Drew Brees has laser accuracy, and so do Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Accuracy extends beyond simply getting the ball to your receiver, but in today’s NFL you need to be able to hit the right shoulder, to lead the receiver to space, to hit small windows in zones and to perfectly place balls away from defenders where only your receiver can get to it.
An accurate quarterback has a big leg up his competition, and an inaccurate one will never reach the pinnacle of the game.
Watch not just for completions, but also for ball location. There is a difference. Is the quarterback able to make his receivers look good? Do they have to adjust constantly or do they catch the ball in stride and in rhythm?
Most quarterbacks can make all the big throws. They don’t make it to the NFL without having talent. What separates those guys who keep bouncing around the league from the elite is that the first type flash the talent, while the second type display it every snap.
When watching quarterbacks, don’t get carried away by the occasional great throw. Go into the game presuming they have the ability to make big-time throws, but look instead at how consistent they are. Watch how often they make the bad throws to balance out the good.
It’s far too easy to get carried away with the ceiling and upside of a quarterback and ignore what the game tape is trying to tell you if you just watch enough of it and listen. That’s how project or raw quarterbacks get over drafted on a regular basis. Coaches fall in love with the upside, the flashes of brilliance and ability that these guys have and they talk themselves into overruling hours of tape that says they shouldn’t pull the trigger.
Trust in the tape. Over the long haul it rarely lies.
Accuracy is nice and having an arm is great, but a less physically gifted quarterback can do a better job with inferior tools if he has the anticipation with his throws. Chad Pennington had a very marginal arm after multiple injuries, but he threw a far better deep pass than Joe Flacco does, and Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the league. Watch the number of times Flacco’s receivers are open deep and have to come back to the football that seems underthrown. Well, it’s usually not underthrown as much as just late getting in the air, giving him too much work to do.
Pennington was able to anticipate his receiver getting open and put the ball in flight far earlier, allowing the receiver to run under it and catch it in stride. He couldn’t air it out 60 yards, but he would put it in the air so early that he didn’t need to—he could make the deep bomb with a 40-yard throw.
Escapability and the X-factor
This one is far less defined than the others, but no less important.
In the NFL today every passer will face pressure, and every quarterback will find some plays blown up by defenders, but the game still comes down to single plays and one big play can be the difference. Every top quarterback has the ability to make something out of nothing. Eli Manning twisting out of a gaggle of defenders to launch the ball downfield in the Super bowl. Tom Brady making stick throws with a defender charging in to lay him out. Aaron Rodgers spinning out of harm and taking off for a first down with his legs.
Elite quarterbacks have a special something else that separates them from the pack, the ability to make a play when it seems like all is lost, without letting that become a negative by becoming careless in those situations. It’s tough to put your finger on sometimes, but that is the X-factor these guys all bring with them.
In the end, quarterback play will always be tough to evaluate because it all hinges on one square foot of real estate between the player’s ears. There are things you can look for, though, and generally speaking any players with major flaws in any of the above areas will always have a clear and defined ceiling at this level.