A Quarterback's Most Important Tool

Shaun AhmadSenior Analyst IOctober 14, 2008

One of the things that differentiates the NFL from other major sports is the diversity that can be found at the most important position of quarterback. 

In basketball, one can find point guards to have many of the same capabilities. They are quick to see lanes, excellent at setting up teammates, and have the ability to score when needed. 

In baseball, the starting pitchers can be relied on for consistent outings, smart and quick decision making, and a perfected repertoire of successful pitches. 

However, in football, you find many different types of quarterbacks. You have those that are elusive and give defenses fits while creating valuable extra time to find an open receiver. There are some who have a sense of calm in the pocket, as they wait until the last possible millisecond to make a throw, as if the three hundred pound linemen about to collapse on them didn’t even exist. 

Then you have the guys who have a little bit of everything, but beat you most notably with their minds. They know where defenses are going to be, what packages are going to be present at what points in the game, and use that data to go to work like a surgeon does on a patient. 

Despite all the differences in qualities that quarterbacks possess, there is one common element necessary to substantially increase the chances of success; that element being a strong arm. The chances of a quarterback reaching the pinnacles of success while lacking a strong and powerful arm are very, very slim.   

There are those who feel that having a strong arm is overrated and not necessary for a quarterback to be successful. Take Chad Pennington for example. He’s been able to overcome an arm lacking in strength over his career.

But has he? Pennington has never won anything of significance in his career.

Still, many are quick to shoot down the notion of a strong arm being essential to the growth and dominance of a quarterback. Look at Ryan Leaf, Patrick Ramsey, and David Carr. Each had a rocket arm but never kept a starting role for more than a couple of seasons.

While it is true that each of the aforementioned had more than capable arms, their problems were unique and unrelated to the strength that they possessed. Ryan Leaf didn’t have the intelligence, patience, or commitment to improve in order to succeed. 

Patrick Ramsey lacked the ability to make sound decisions in an instant, which lead to many of his interceptions. David Carr spent half of his time on his back due to an incapable offensive line. His constant beating arguably led to his forever lost confidence in the pocket. 

To be fair, the concept that a strong arm always leads to a successful quarterback is also insubstantial. However, having a strong arm in addition to possessing the other compulsory qualities (awareness, intelligence, accuracy, etc.) is more than just a leg up on the competition.

Reading coverages can be taught by hours of film room work. Understanding and developing the mental time clock to know when the pressure is on comes with practice and game repetition. Being able to perfect a seven-yard out can be done through practice. However, teaching a quarterback how to throw it deep is like teaching a running back how to run fast. 

Either you have it, or you don’t. 

Assuming that a quarterback is smart, understands the defense, and sees the holes to exploit, he still has to be able to deliver the ball. It serves no purpose if you see a crease in the secondary and want to hit a wideout in stride if you cannot deliver the ball in a tight spot. 

It serves you no purpose if you see the safety bite on a play action and have Santana Moss running open on a flare 50 yards down the field if you can’t put the ball in his hands like bread in a basket. It serves you no purpose if you know the defense is playing a cover two and find a hole over the middle but can’t thread the ball over the linebacker’s outstretched arms into the tight end's chest. 

Get the idea? 

Looking at some of today’s most successful quarterbacks, one can mention Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton and Eli Manning, and Tony Romo. Each has a knack of knowing what the defenses are going to be doing, where certain players will be, and what options they will have. Each has a good sense of awareness in the pocket. Yet none of them would be as successful as they are could they not make some of the strong throws that they make.

Consider some of the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks of the past 15 years. You come across names like Tom Brady, Eli and Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Steve Young, Kurt Warner, and Doug Williams. Sure, there are a few with arms that are a little suspect, like Brad Johnson or maybe even Trent Dilfer (maybe), but the common trend is smart quarterbacks that can make any throw on the field.

Someone not on the list; Again, Chad Pennington.

Much gets made of quarterbacks who are successful and how they are “very smart” or “students of the game.” However, it gets forgotten that they also pack quite a bit of heat in their arms.

When a quarterback comes out of college, touted for his ability to throw it 60-plus yards on a two-step drop, but fails in the NFL, critics jump on the bandwagon of saying “You don’t need a strong arm, you need a strong mind.” 

The answer is that you need both, along with a long list of other intangibles. A little bit of luck in avoiding injuries is also helpful. Having the right system and a capable coach along with suitable talent is yet another factor. 

But at the end of the day, a quarterback’s job is to throw just like a pitcher’s job is to pitch and a sprinter’s job is to sprint. Each athlete requires physical superiority to achieve success and an NFL quarterback is no different. 

It all starts with a strong arm.