The NFL Quarterback Spectrum: Analyzing the Various Models for Success

Alen Dumonjic@@Dumonjic_AlenContributor IIDecember 3, 2012

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 2:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos adjusts the play at the line of scrimmage during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 2, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

If Thomas Jefferson were a football fan today, he would have coined the phrase "all quarterbacks are not created equal," noting that there are varying styles of success at the position.

Not all signal-callers are stationary in the pocket and not all possess the mobility to elude pass rushers. It could be said that there are five groups that combine physical talent and passing styles that NFL quarterbacks can be categorized in. They are pure pocket passers, mobile pocket passers, downfield passers, gunslingers and game-managers.

The five categories feature several quarterbacks who fit into each of the groups. The names include but not are limited to Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers), Tom Brady (New England Patriots), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys) and Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Each of the five quarterbacks listed have specific traits that have enabled them to succeed in the league thus far and their styles should be emulated.


Pure Pocket Passer

Starting with pure pocket passers, this one is perhaps the most difficult of the five groups because it features athletes who are limited in mobility, thus having to rely heavily on their arm. When a quarterback has to rely on his arm, he has to be consistent with his technique and understanding of defenses before and after the snap.

Before the snap, the passer must survey the defense and understand what the players are doing by going through his given keys.

The keys will lead the quarterback to the defensive scheme because there is a great chance that at least one defender is tipping off the entire coverage based off of his alignment.

For instance, the quarterback at the line of scrimmage may notice that the defense has two deep safeties in coverage, and the cornerbacks are staring at the receivers across from them. However, one of the cornerbacks is lined up outside of the receiver as opposed to inside, which suggests some form of zone coverage.

If there are two deep safeties and the cornerback is lined up outside, it is likely to be Cover 2, which is a five under, two deep zone concept.

The best at identifying these tip-offs and tendencies are Tom Brady of the Patriots and the Broncos' Peyton Manning. Similarly, they are both limited athletically and are forced to rely on their brains to get in the correct play before the snap. Further, as noted, both quarterbacks have to rely on their arm because of their athletic limitations, which means their technique must be consistent.

Technique is vital to every quarterback regardless of style, but it is especially important to pure pocket passers. They have to be efficient with their footwork and crisp with their throwing motion. The delivery has to be followed through with every throw, and the weight has to be transferred from the back foot to the front with every step.

One would be surprised how often these things aren't done after the snap, but to be a great pocket passer, they must be.


Mobile Pocket Passers

Mobile pocket passers are slightly different than the likes of Brady and Manning; they are not athletically challenged, as it serves as an important part of their game.  

The likes of Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Redskins' Robert Griffin III have changed this aspect of the game entirely in recent years. It was not long ago when Michael Vick was hailed as a revolutionary talent because of his great mobility, but he never lived up to his potential. Conversely, Rodgers has.

Rodgers is probably not the first quarterback that comes to mind when it comes to mobility, but he's more athletic than given credit for. He does a great job of buying time to let routes develop down the field or escaping the pocket when under duress. In both situations, he becomes a significant problem for defenses, who have tried to scheme for it but to no avail.

One example of a defense attempting to slow down Rodgers' mobility was the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the 2011 playoffs, who were picked apart by his pocket movement and outstanding passing skills.

The same can be said for Griffin, who has taken the league by storm with his running threat. Griffin has thrown passes over the top of defenders who were said to be watching the ball but were really trying to keep track of where he was going.

Both quarterbacks are dangerous with their running ability but still understand that they have to win games with their arm, which Vick never truly figured out. They are able to make defenses account for their mobility, which is essentially another ball carrier for the defense to worry about, and take advantage by throwing over them.


Downfield Passers

This category is one that has caught some heat in years past. It's not just because passing down the field is a mixed bag in general, but because of the style that a quarterback plays with.

Quarterbacks that are labeled downfield passers are those that are very tough in the pocket, possessing brute strength, subtle play-extending movements, and that can hold onto the ball while routes develop down the field. This type of passer is one that is criticized for holding the ball too long in hopes of making a play and sometimes loses yardage by taking sacks.

Despite the criticisms, they are a model of success because they are able to execute the most difficult throws in the NFL. Perhaps the finest example of a downfield passer is the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger has a tendency to hold the ball for what seems to be ages but makes breathtaking throws that deflate the opposition. He's most commonly associated with vertical threat Mike Wallace and injuries, which he gets while holding the ball in the pocket. His offensive line can only block for so long, sometimes getting beaten by a rusher and allowing a hit or a sack of him.

To a lesser degree of success, but in the same mold, is the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco. Flacco has had staunch critics but has displayed a strong arm and a knack for throwing the deep ball well off of play-action.



Gunslingers tend to drive fans crazy and coaches crazier because of their sometimes errant ways. Ill-advised throws are the norm, but so are eye-popping ones that are only fathomable in dreams.

These types of passers tend to be the most confident of all the styles, willingly throwing into tight windows  as they look to make plays. They believe in the velocity that their strong arms produce and that they can make throws from all platforms. Although they may not seem to fit the winning style of the previously discussed styles, it is one that has had success in the past.

One quarterback that typifies the gunslinger way of passing is the Cowboys' Tony Romo.

He's often playing in front of the largest crowds and has made many great throws, but many questionable ones as well. The majority of the Cowboys' woes in recent years have been blamed on his style, but he's had many games which he has played well and the team lost.

Despite the criticism and questions, it takes a special quarterback to be a gunslinger. One of the most underrated aspects of quarterback evaluation is confidence in what the passer is seeing on the field. Many quarterbacks simply check the ball down to not make mistakes, which doesn't always win games.


Game Managers

They don't always win games, but they don't always lose them, either.

Game managers are said to be the least talented of the five styles. They are lacking great physical traits to carry their teams or simply make far too many mistakes and are limited to simply not screwing up. However, deep down inside, every quarterback is a game manager.

Turnovers are the key to winning and losing games in the NFL. If a team loses the turnover battle, it is more than likely to lose the game. Naturally, not every passer that commits a turnover can get his team back in the game in a hurry.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting quarterback Josh Freeman is not going to get his offense back in the game as quickly as Rodgers will. That's the difference, and it's why one is largely considered a game manager while the other is not.

Josh Freeman is at his best when he doesn't have to carry his team. Although he possesses a lot of physical talent, he does not always make the smartest decisions, which has cost his team games in the past.

This year, he only has seven interceptions, which is down from 22 last season. A big reason why his turnovers are down this season is because he's not only throwing less (three less attempts per game), but he has a running game to rely on. The Buccaneers' running game, powered by rookie phenom Doug Martin, has been one of the league's best in the second half of the season.

As a result, Freeman has managed games, noticeably taking only what's given to him and only throwing the difficult passes when he is called on to do so. That's what a good game manager does.



Unique is the word that comes to mind when describing the quarterback position. It's unlike any other; aside from the press it receives, it is one of the very few positions that has varying styles of play.

From strictly working in the pocket to extending plays for downfield routes to managing games with short throws, there are several quarterbacking styles in the NFL. And neither of them is wrong. All can be successful to different degrees and serve as models for franchises to strive for.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all seem to think so. And none of them have a losing record.


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