The Myth of the "System" Quarterback

Seattle Lion FanAnalyst IIFebruary 14, 2009

First, let’s dispel of the notion regarding being a system quarterback is a knock against talent.

In the NFL, there are 32 starting quarterbacks that are indeed, “system” quarterbacks.

The current urban myth around what a system quarterback is one that is successful but not talented.  The term was coined to diminish inflated statistics of quarterbacks that run spread offenses.

They put up strong numbers not because of any talent on their part, but rather they were part of an effective offensive system.

The question is: just what does an NFL head coach want in a quarterback?

First, a lot depends on the type of offense that is being run.  Below are the different types of offenses that can be used:

·    West Coast Offense:  Ball-control offense using short, high percentage passing routes.

·    Spread offense:  Relies heavily on multiple wide receivers and is normally run out of the shotgun.  Both the run and pass can be used in this offense.  The objective is to take out the linebackers with three- and four-wide receiver sets.

·    Smash Mouth:  The most traditional offense and one that’s been around forever.  A grind-it-out type of offense with a large dependency on the run, it uses tight ends and receivers as blockers.  Passes are considered a necessary evil and used most effectively with play-action passes.

·    Vertical Offense:  An offense using a combination of deep passing and power running.  The goal is to have at least two wide receivers deep downfield who can adjust to deep passes utilizing a sturdy, strong-armed pocket quarterback. This offense could be used to eat the clock as well as to strike deep and fast.

There are many variations on each of these offenses but basically, these are the four main offenses run in the NFL.  What is a challenge to a general manager and a head coach, when looking for a quarterback, is finding the balance for what “system” you want your quarterback to run.

A team that relies heavily on the run, such as the Baltimore Ravens, isn’t going to draft a rocket-armed QB that ran a spread offense in college.  Not unless they collectively decide to change their system to utilize those talents.

An example of this would be how Don Shula, one of the most successful head coaches in the NFL, changed his run-first philosophy when the Miami Dolphins drafted strong-armed Dan Marino.

Granted, Marino and Shula only got to the Super Bowl once during their time together but went 127-79 in 12 years and made the playoffs in six of those years. 

Some would say Marino could play in any system.  He might have been successful in other systems but that would only make him a multiple “system” quarterback, right?

What attributes does an NFL head coach want in a quarterback?  Listed is what I consider the most important attributes any quarterback could have.  We must assume that there isn’t one quarterback out there that would score perfect in every category.

  • Leadership skills – The quarterback is the field commander.  He is the trigger on every offensive play, he calls the signals and is the most responsible for offensive production.  By nature, the quarterback is looked to as the leader.  It is his command presence in the huddle that wins games.  Execution is perfected in practice, but to get your teammates to execute under game conditions is the mark of a true leader.
  • Decision making – A quarterback who can make good, consistent and solid decisions gives a football team a huge advantage in the outcome of football games. 
  • Accuracy – A strong arm is good, but I will take accuracy over arm strength.  A strong armed QB throwing a pass behind the receiver is nothing more than an incomplete pass with a lot of zip on it.  Leading a receiver, hitting him in stride allows for big gains and scores.
  • Toughness – He must be a tough customer both physically and mentally.  A QB who does not have the confidence to keep firing passes even after several incompletions in a row will become a liability to a football team.  Physical toughness shows more to teammates that even after getting hit hard, the QB gets up and calls the next play.  This is an intangible that leads to respect and loyalty from teammates.

Every NFL team has an offensive system.  By that statement, one has to logically assume that every quarterback that plays for an NFL team is a system quarterback.

The key to any success a team has relies on talent.  Not just at the quarterback position, but at every one on the offensive squad. 

A smart GM and head coach will get players who match their offensive system is.  And by that statement, one has to logically assume that there are “system” running backs, “system” wide receivers, and “system” offensive linemen.

General Managers and head coaches either have to get players whose talents match their current offensive system or they need to adjust or change their systems to exploit the talents of players they draft.

There are always exceptions.  Quarterbacks like Dan Marino, Brett Favre, John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Kurt Warner would be successful in most offensive systems, making them multiple “system” quarterbacks.

But even the knock against players, such as Colt Brennan, there has to come into play his level of talent.  The Run-and-Shoot offense, a variation of the spread offense, allowed Brennan to set the NCAA Division I record for touchdown passes with 58.

But his talent is under suspicion because of the offense run.  I argue that he does have skill, since he had to make those passes and adjustments to hit those receivers as often as he did.  How he will adjust to an NFL style offense remains to be seen.

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