Playing quarterback in the NFL has been described as the hardest job in sports, and for good reason.
There is so much that goes into playing the position at any level, but playing it in the National Football League requires players to master a myriad of skills that often get overlooked in favor of arm strength, mobility and the "it" factor. (I'm still waiting on a definition for that one...)
In this How-Not-To guide, I'm going to take a look at a couple of plays that demonstrate traits that make up bad quarterback play. That doesn't necessarily mean I think the quarterback I'm using as an example is a bad quarterback, just that on these particular plays, he gave us all some teachable moments.
1. Bad Decision-Making
Michael Vick has come under increased scrutiny this year for his many turnovers, and most of that criticism is valid. It's one thing for a quarterback to be victimized by a tipped pass that hits a lineman's helmet or by a receiver who has a ball glance off his hands.
It's quite another to constantly be putting your team in tough positions due to bad decision-making.
It sounds so simple: Take the snap, go through your progressions, deliver the ball to the open man. Of course, it's never quite that easy in the NFL. The quarterback is required to make quick decisions in rhythm.
This is something that rarely gets discussed but is a major component of quarterback play. Nearly every passing play in the NFL maps out the number of steps the quarterback is required to take, and those steps are meant to be made in concert with the receivers on their routes. Quarterbacks are asked to hit what is called the "top of their drop," find the open receiver and deliver the football.
In the play above, you see why this isn't always as easy as it is when practiced during the week. Vick's footwork is sloppy here. He shuffles away from center rather than taking steps back. Maybe this is how it was coached, but I tend to doubt it. However, that's not the issue.
You can see the defender come free off the edge, and so can Vick, and that makes any chance to make a play "in rhythm" nearly impossible.
Now, Vick can do one of two things: He can try to stick with the play, or he can improvise. This seems to be where all the talk about Vick needing to be a pocket passer instead of a running quarterback gets turned on its head.
You can see the defender jump when Vick double-clutches. That means it's time for him to take off, scramble away and either wait for one of his receivers to uncover in the end zone, try to get outside for as many yards as he can or simply sidestep the rush, throw the ball away and live to fight on third down.
Vick sticks with the play, makes a questionable throw and disaster ensues. The rout is on.
Again, this isn't to disparage Vick as a quarterback. He does many things very well. On this particular play, however, he gives us an example of trying to force something to work that simply isn't there. You can't do that when you're playing quarterback in the NFL.
2. Bad Weight Distribution/Footwork
When a quarterback finds his intended target downfield, he is supposed to step into the throw, taking the weight off his back/plant foot and bringing it forward to his front foot with his toes pointed directly toward his target.
Naturally, it's not always possible. Sometimes pressure requires a quarterback to throw from a bad position. What he has to avoid is feeling imaginary pressure and allowing that to alter his mechanics. You see this quite a bit with quarterbacks who have spent most of their college career in a shotgun spread-type system and are acclimating to the NFL game.
Where you don't expect to see it is in veteran NFL quarterbacks. Some guys never seem to learn proper mechanics, or at least they never pay attention to their quarterbacks coach.
Brett Favre made a living (and caused coaches and fans alike to sometimes pull their hair out in frustration) by making throws from funky angles when things were breaking down. Jay Cutler has some of the worst footwork I've ever seen in a professional quarterback, but he makes some brilliant throws while falling back on his back foot.
Obviously, the common denominator there is arm strength. But not everyone who plays quarterback is blessed with a rocket arm.
One guy who needs to pay extra attention to his footwork is Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. NFL scouts and general managers had mixed opinions about Rivers coming out of college because of his unorthodox throwing style. Obviously, Rivers has erased any doubts there. He's played QB at a high level for quite some time, before starting to struggle in 2011.
There are many things at play there, some of which is due to the talent erosion around him. But some of it is a lack of fundamentally sound footwork.
Rivers has gotten into an extremely bad habit of delivering the football while either falling away or flat-footed. This affects his ability to drive the football the way he would if he were stepping into his throws. This consequently gives members of the opposing secondary an opportunity to jump throws, as they have been doing with regularity the last two years.
Notice how the top of his drop is not clearly defined and how the throw is made mostly with his shoulder rather than by stepping into it and allowing his weight to help drive the football. Yes, the pressure is closing in, but there is plenty of time to step into the throw.
This bad weight distribution came up again and again in the second half of that Broncos game, including on the interception that sealed the loss for his team.
What's curious is that in the first half of this same game, Rivers did a much better job of stepping into his throws. For whatever reason, he completely stopped in the second half, which led to interceptions and pretty much gave the Broncos the new life they needed to pull off a massive comeback.
3. Lack of Leadership
Maybe this is the proverbial "it" factor that people talk about. The word "leadership" gets thrown around like it can be rated in a Madden game, but to me there are clear signs that a guy is a good leader on and off the football field.
First, how a guy studies and prepares during the week speaks volumes to his teammates. The starting quarterback on an NFL team, whether he likes it or not, needs to lead by example in this area. He needs to be one of the first players in the facility and one of the last ones to leave.
Then, there is how the quarterback conducts himself in meeting rooms, in the locker room and on the practice field. The teams with the better quarterbacks in the NFL—the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, Saints, etc.—all have quarterbacks who try to take nearly every snap in practice.
Peyton Manning is famous for wanting to take every single rep. That sends an important signal to the other players on the team. If our franchise quarterback wants to practice every single play, you should to.
Then there's how a guy commands a huddle and how he deals with his teammates on the sideline.
After a Week 2 showdown between the Packers and the Bears earlier in the year, a lot was made of Jay Cutler berating left tackle J'Marcus Webb on the sidelines. This was followed later in the game by Aaron Rodgers laying into James Jones for running the wrong route.
While Cutler got the brunt of the national attention for his incident, Rodgers was generally excused because Jones had made a mental error while Webb had simply been beaten on a play.
I don't subscribe to that line of thinking. The quarterback is the leader of the team, yes, but I fail to see how a tongue-lashing in front of a stadium full of fans and millions more watching on television will ensure that a mental mistake doesn't happen again. Leave that to the coaches. That's their job.
We saw something similar play out last year when Tom Brady went after wide receiver Tiquan Underwood after Brady had thrown an interception in the end zone against the Redskins. In that instance, then-offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien pushed back on Brady's attack, and rightly so.
Obviously, all the quarterbacks I've mentioned here are good if not great NFL quarterbacks. Yes, it would be easy to pick apart the likes of Blaine Gabbert or Matt Cassel, but we all know they're not very good. I wanted to illuminate the fact that every quarterback in the NFL, even if they've won a Super Bowl (or three), has something he can work on.
Bill Walsh was famous for demanding "perfection" from his players—especially his quarterbacks. He knew true perfection was unattainable, but he also knew that players striving to achieve it would invariably improve by doing so.
That is what every NFL quarterback needs to be doing. There is always something to learn, something to improve upon. These are simply a handful of examples of the many skills every quarterback works to improve every day.