The Cat-and-Mouse Game of Young NFL Quarterbacks

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The Cat-and-Mouse Game of Young NFL Quarterbacks

Football is all about what's next. 

A few weeks ago, I used that maxim to discuss the continuing evolution of NFL offenses. However, the statement is true not only from a global, long-term perspective, but also in a much more immediate sense. In fact, the statement is true in the most micro of ways when it comes to in-game/halftime adjustments. 

For last year's bumper crop of young passers, however, the thought of what's next has to be a somewhat troublesome topic. What was was pretty great. What's next, for all of these young men, is the great unknown. It's easy to theorize a constant, upward trajectory. It's also easy (and lazy) to consider the possibility of a "sophomore slump." (Note: That theory's been pretty well debunked.)

When I took my own look at sophomore slumps, I, too, found that they really didn't exist. It's mostly a factor of expectations. If and when small statistical regressions do happen, it's likely to do with the "what's next" question not being answered fast enough. 

This is the cat-and-mouse game. 

To extend the analogy, consider last season's group of young quarterbacks as the mice. The mean old nasty cat? Why, that's NFL defenses. They're trying to catch the mice at all costs and will do anything to grab them. Mice, however, aren't stupid. You know the phrase "build a better mousetrap"? That's because mice are always figuring out the old ones. 

For this group of young quarterbacks, nothing could be more important in 2013 than figuring out what comes next in their respective situations and executing it to absolute perfection. 

A Tale of Two Seasons
Quarterback 2012 Y/Att 2013 Y/Att 2012 TD/Game 2013 TD/Game 2012 Cmp% 2013 Cmp%
Andrew Luck 6.98 7.17 1.44 1.25 54.1 64.1
Robert Griffin III 8.14 7.07 1.33 1.5 65.6 62.4
Colin Kaepernick 8.32 7.32 0.77 1.25 62.4 58.1
Ryan Tannehill 6.81 7.58 0.75 1.25 58.3 65.5
Russell Wilson 7.93 8.2 1.63 1.5 64.1 61.5

Stats via ESPN.com

 

What These Quarterbacks Bring to the Table

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So, which quarterbacks are we talking about here?

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the first overall pick of the bunch, but all of these guys are premier prospects and have big expectations. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the "elder statesman" of the group. While 2012 was his first season getting significant time at QB, he's turning 26 later this season. 

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson are both mobile quarterbacks who made the playoffs last season, but Griffin is coming off of major knee surgery, while Wilson has more help around him than anyone in this bunch. 

Rounding out the list is the forgotten man—Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Physically speaking, Tannehill is extremely gifted. We almost forget that he was a first-round pick. He languished last season in Miami with little-to-no help around him, as he sought to become a better craftsman with all of his natural tools. 

This offseason, I took a deep dive into the scouting reports of all of these quarterbacks (and more). 

The best arm of the group resulted in a big ol' four-way tie between everyone but Luck, who fell just short of the 8/10 I gave the other four. If I had to make an absolute decision, Kaepernick might grab the honors, but it's extremely close and really depends on the throw. 

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The best mobility of the group goes hands-down to Wilson. I know RGIII is a world-class athlete, but Wilson has a running style that is a) more effective at remaining a threat to pass and b) safer. Wilson learned to run away from contact at North Carolina State. RGIII is still learning that lesson the hard way. 

Pocket presence was a tie between Wilson and Luck. However, based on this year's play, I would say that Luck is excelling there. He's still not as good as I'd like him to be (i.e. the level he was on at Stanford), but he's improving. 

Overall, I picked Wilson as the best of the group, but it was close enough that arguments could be conceivably made for any of these young men. That's what makes it so exciting; all of them entered the league at or around the same time and made one big splash together. 

 

The Excuses

When I say "excuses," I don't mean that any of these athletes would make excuses for themselves. 

Yet, each of these young passers could have something to fall back on if they weren't Type A personalities who didn't do such a thing. You'll hear these excuses from fans, coaches, media, etc.—just never from the players themselves. 

Luck is in his second season with his second offensive coordinator (albeit a familiar face, as Pep Hamilton was Stanford's OC during Luck's time there). He's also on what feels like his umpteenth running back, with an offensive line that's been shuffled more than the playing cards in your grandma's Gin Rummy set. 

Kaepernick's favorite receiver—Michael Crabtree—is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with an Achilles injury. That leaves tight end Vernon Davis, who has been banged up this season, and receiver Anquan Boldin, who is as old as the playing cards in your...what? I used that metaphor, already? Fair enough.

Griffin has the best "excuse" of them all. He's coming off his second catastrophic knee injury and had one of those "accelerated timetables" that's all the rage these days. In all honesty, Griffin wouldn't be playing football right now if this were just a couple of years ago, so a slow start is both expected and reasonable. 

Wilson has pretty much the same crew he had last season, but is without receiver Percy Harvin, for whom the Seahawks traded away the farm this offseason and spent a good deal of their time planning around. We can't know for certain just how much of the offense was going to be geared toward Harvin, but we can assume it was something just north of "all of it."

Finally, Tannehill. Of all these guys, Tannehill's biggest "excuse" is that no one expects much out of him outside of Miami. As I said before, he's the forgotten man of this group. Other than that, Tannehill has the worst offensive line of his peers, is working on gaining chemistry with his No. 1 receiver—the overpaid Mike Wallace—and has a subpar rushing attack as well. 

 

What Defenses Are Doing

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Did you hear the one about the NFL team planning to stop the read-option this offseason?

It seemed like almost every team leaked a headline similar to that over the summer. Some reached out to college coaches. Others brought in scout-team quarterbacks with mobility. Still more told tales of how they hunkered down in the film room to search for the secrets of stopping the option. 

Seriously, guys, if most high school teams can figure it out by Week 6 of their seasons, I don't think the big, bad option should pose such a problem. 

It's assignment football, period. Take away the freelancing. Take away the "duh duh duh, duh duh duh" SportsCenter hits. Take away the unholy desire to sack the quarterback at all costs that drives every single perimeter player to lose his ever-lovin' mind and forget that "contain" is important as well.

Take all that away, and stopping the option is actually pretty easy—especially at the NFL level, where the athletes are so fantastic that getting from hash to hash is nothing more than a couple of bounds in the twinkle of an eye. 

Still, every team committed to stopping the option this offseason, and many of them seem to have it figured out. 

Here's the read-option on film (screenshot courtesy of Matt Miller, who wrote a great piece on stopping the read-option.) Outlined in the picture is the read that the quarterback is making. The key, as Miller said, is a "slow read." Another way to put that is: Stay home and keep contain.

From there, we can talk all about the dynamics of who has which runner and whether to use a scrape exchange or a slanting line. In the end, though, defenses that start out sound and assignment-oriented are always going to have the advantage over those that aren't.

This play, (screenshot courtesy of BJ Kissel's article on how defenses are trying to stop Kaepernick) shows a defense using the aforementioned scrape exchange.

The defense looks different up front, but in reality, it's still the same fundamental theory—just flipped. Rather than the defensive end keeping contain, the end crashes toward the "mesh point" (where the handoff should happen) and the linebackers slant toward contain on the outside.

It's the same defense, just inside out. Depending on a team's athletes, it can often put defenders in a better position to do what they do best. This is an example how coaches have to tailor the scheme to fit the personnel they have. 

That's the scrape exchange in a nutshell. For an even better explanation, watch this video by Matt Bowen centered around Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who could be counted among this young group of elite dual-threat passers when all is said and done. 

A lot of this read-option stuff pertains to Griffin, Wilson and Kaepernick and not Luck or Tannehill. To stop those two—dangerous passers with enough athleticism to run—let's look at the New Orleans Saints' plan to neutralize Tannehill in Week 4.

This play resulted in an interception by Saints cornerback Jabari Greer. Look at his eyes before the snap. Does he even care about the receiver? In short, no. He's playing a soft coverage to bait Tannehill. There's a shell over the top that protects Greer from a longer route by receiver Brian Hartline, but that shell has forced Tannehill to pass short the entire game. 

Greer jumps the route and takes it 22 yards the other way. 

That over-the-top shell can be obtained a number of ways. Some teams (primarily the Dallas Cowboys these days) use a Cover 2 look but drop their middle linebacker into a shallower middle-third of the field. That's the Tampa 2. Other teams use a Cover 3 with a cornerback and both safeties taking a third of the field (or three safeties, depending on the team's nickel and dime personnel).

And other teams prefer the Saints' method. Because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan wants to rush the passer, he's in a Cover 1 look with a safety over the top just out of the picture. Inside that, he has soft coverage in what creates another shell underneath the safety. 

Tannehill sees the alignment, knows the rush is coming and wants to get the ball out quickly. Recognizing the single safety and soft coverage, Tannehill believes he can get the ball to Hartline, but he doesn't know that's exactly what Greer is expecting. 

It's a rookie mistake from the second-year player. 

Here's another defensive alignment, this time against Luck. The safeties immediately backpedal, but so does one of the middle linebackers. This creates that shell that is going to force Luck to take one of the shallower routes. 

But wait, there's more! 

That's man coverage on all three receivers. This kind of coverage can get a lot of teams killed in the NFL, but not every team has the pass-rushing personnel up front that the 49ers have—knowing they can rush four and still apply a lot of pressure. 

The key here is the other middle linebacker, who steps up and spies the backfield. 

This is the same play from the end-zone camera. Just as Luck attempts to spin out of the sack and break contain, the linebacker darts to the outside. Luck ends up going down anyway, but even had he stayed standing, he wasn't getting that first down. 

 

How These Young Quarterbacks Find Their Counterpunch

Across the board, all of these quarterbacks need to continue to become better pocket passers. 

Don't misconstrue what's being said. None of these teams should abandon what worked last year. In fact, Luck and Tannehill could stand to use their mobility even more outside the pocket. However, as teams work on stopping mobile quarterbacks, it reinforces that this is a passing league and that what makes these young passers dangerous is that they can all throw first and run second. 

That's what separates a Colin Kaepernick from a Tim Tebow and a Russell Wilson from a Pat White. 

Here are the group's rushing attempts through their first four games in 2012 compared to their first four games this year:

Rushing Attempts
Quarterback Rushing Att. 2012 Rushing Att. 2013
Andrew Luck 16 16
Robert Griffin III 41 18
Colin Kaepernick 12 26
Ryan Tannehill 10 15
Russell Wilson 22 27

Stats via ESPN.com

 

Now, the one outlier is clearly Griffin because of his injury. However, for the most part, usage has remained steady. Yet, when one breaks down the tape, there are a lot less designed runs for guys like RGIII, Kaepernick and Wilson. Many of these rushing attempts are actually broken-down passing plays. It's still utilizing mobility, but it's a clear indication of the evolution of their pass game rather than their run game. 

Although he's not part of the study here, one can easily look to Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton as an example of regression from year one to year two. The Panthers pulled out all the stops, running read-option, veer-option, triple-option, sprint-options, designed bootlegs, inverted veers. You name it, they did it.

Now, in 2013, the Panthers have attempted to confine Newton to the pocket a little more and ask him to beat teams with his arm—they're adapting to the league-wide option focus as well. 

Wilson and Kaepernick are both interesting test cases, as both have "fallen back" on scrambling when the going got tough—to various degrees of success. Wilson's two big rushing games of the season were against the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, the Seahawks elected to protect Wilson and keep him away from unnecessary hits. 

Kaepernick, on the other hand, almost seems to use his running ability to clear his mind. He's had a steady stream of rushing attempts in three of the first four games this season, but the 49ers tend to call those runs when the passing game creeps up on him and he begins to look overwhelmed. 

Now, if these young guys are going to be passers, they need to become better passers. For a clinic on how to beat that shell defense, the Atlanta Falcons did well against the Detroit Lions—a team that uses the shell almost exclusively on defense. Although this is from last season, it shows how an extra second of time can mean all the difference in the world: 

Here, Roddy White settles into a zone right below the shell. If the Lions pass rush is better, maybe Ryan wouldn't have the time he does, but the throw is made because it's not to the player, but to the spot. Ryan (with more confidence than a lot of quarterbacks) is able to read the hole in the zone and trust his receiver to see the same. 

The dirty little secret of the NFL is that if Ryan throws that ball and White doesn't read the defense the same way, it's going to be an interception—and it won't be Ryan's fault. 

Overall, however, I don't think the goal should be an either/or proposition between running and passing. It should ideally be a both/and solution. Why not evolve the running attacks and the passing attacks?

To some extent, we've seen that with the increased use of the inverted veer (which looks like the read-option to confuse defenses, but is an entirely different play.) We've also seen more play-action off the read-option, which was the most natural evolution in the world. 

Will we see more inventive offenses out of Seattle when Harvin comes back? Almost certainly. How about in Washington as RGIII continues to heal? We'd hope so. From Pep Hamilton in Indianapolis? It's already happening, as well as in Miami. 

When a boxer's go-to punch stops working, he can't just continue to get punched in the face while trying to throw the same punch again and again. We've seen that analogy in the NFL, and it looks just like Norv Turner pacing the sidelines as Philip Rivers gets blasted. 

These quarterbacks and their teams need to continue to develop both as runners and passers to stay one step ahead of opposing defenses. While of these young men have excuses if they fall short of expectations—they could be the mice finally caught by the crafty cateach must further refine their games and figure out what's next.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route

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