Some years ago, a young quarterback finished his freshman year of high school playing in a grind-it-out, run-first offense. But his father wanted his son to play for a coach who would develop his son’s talent for throwing the football. The father found his man in Jack Neumeier, coach for Granada Hills High School in California. Neumeier had recently developed a pass-first, madcap, spread attack featuring multiple receivers each adjusting their pass routes on the fly to find openings in the defense. The son played for three years at Granada, set numerous passing records, and went on to an illustrious career at Stanford University, after which the Colts selected him with the first pick in the NFL draft.
This is not the story of this year’s first pick, Andrew Luck — whose father was a former NFL quarterback — but instead that of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.1
Ever since the rise of the T-formation and the modern notion of the quarterback as passer and team leader, young QBs have received varying amounts of training for the position. If his father was a coach — like Elway’s was — or if he happened to live in Granada Hills, California, he might learn the sophisticated skills necessary to continue developing. But if not, it was unlikely that he’d ever receive that sort of necessary coaching. The long history of quarterback draft busts has taught us that athletic ability alone does not make a quarterback. A great quarterback is instead one of sport’s oddest confections: He is the athlete whose success depends as much on his brain as on his body. One can’t help but wonder how many would-be great quarterbacks never had the chance to develop because no one taught them the intricacies of the position; like some football equivalent of Gray’s Elegy, who knows how many mute inglorious Mannings remain forever obscure to history.
In recent years, however, the situation has changed. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are harbingers of an approaching age of quarterbacks who are both better athletes and better trained at a young age than ever before. In a decade or so, the debates about a player like Tim Tebow — that NFL teams must choose between quarterbacks who are passers and quarterbacks who are athletes — will seem quaint and ridiculous. Nowadays, coaches at the lower levels put their best, smartest, most charismatic kids at quarterback and develop them. The new age we’re entering will be something of a Hunger Games for young quarterbacks: By the time they reach the NFL draft, they will be among the best, most talented, brightest, and best-trained candidates we’ve ever seen. Instead of asking ourselves what traits we prefer, we’ll be asking why we ever thought we had to choose.
The two prototypes for the future are Luck and Griffin, the top two picks in the NFL draft, who were both among the greatest I’ve seen at the college level. Each perfectly orchestrated his offensive attack — Luck as the surgeon in his pro-style offense and Griffin as the lead assassin in the most vertically explosive spread offense we’ve seen to date. Both have the talent and skill to start right away in the NFL. Indeed, despite the differences between them — their divergent paths, the different offensive styles they came from, their (supposed) difference in athletic ability, given that Griffin is a former track athlete — these two quarterbacks are incredibly similar.
None of this guarantees either player’s success. Drafting is not an exercise in certitude, and a great NFL career is the product of many things, with luck and circumstance both high on the list. But in an inexact science like drafting quarterbacks, these two are as close as it gets to being a sure bet. Both are physically ready to play in the NFL. They have good size and can make all the necessary throws. The remaining question is whether they possess the combination of skills — concisely if imperfectly put, both brains and brawn — that will allow them to perform on the level of the best NFL quarterbacks.2
Both Luck and Griffin were molded and shaped during their prep and college careers, and both went to what seemed like off-the-radar destinations to learn their craft. Luck, under current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and his Stanford successor, David Shaw, led a once moribund Cardinal team to a 23-3 record over the last two seasons. Griffin, under longtime high school coach Art Briles, led Baylor to one of the year’s most shocking turnarounds, with several electrifying wins along the way. By becoming elite college quarterbacks at nontraditional football schools, both players proved that young quarterbacks can find great coaching in lots of places, from high school to once-downtrodden college programs to USC. The big prep programs, the traditional college powers, and the NFL itself no longer have the market cornered on quarterback development. And this is a very good thing.
Today’s young players have greater access to coaching, training, and information than ever before. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic rise in quarterback camps, where high school and youth quarterbacks can learn the art and technique of dropping back and throwing a football. Even prolific college passers seek out such specific training, both while they are still in school and as they prepare for the draft, as evidenced by the rise of George “the broom guy” Whitfield, who mentored Cam Newton last year and Luck before the 2012 draft. Meanwhile, in the last 10 years pass-first offenses have become prominent at every level, often in the form of prepackaged systems complete with the necessary tools, installation manuals, and training guides for coaches to use when teaching their players.
And the biggest change of all has only really hit coaching in the last few years: technology.3 If John Elway were in high school now, his father wouldn’t have to find him the best high school quarterback coach. Instead, Elway would have all the materials he could ever want, from whatever coach or system he wants, on his computer or iPad. Quarterbacks can live anywhere and still learn state-of-the-art schemes and techniques in their backyards. Then, when they enter the NFL, they can be more physically and cognitively ready, equipped with advanced understandings of defensive structure and leverage, and ready to learn an NFL attack. Combine this robust understanding of the game with raw talent and the sheer volume of young quarterbacks receiving this level of training, and the days of just one John Elway or only a few Mannings, Griffins, or Lucks could be a decade behind us.
Let’s get specific on what an NFL quarterback must do. Generally, playing quarterback is a learnable skill. A good coach can help a player improve his footwork, technique, and understanding of offensive and defensive schemes. Unfortunately, playing quarterback in the NFL is less of a learnable skill than it is some sort of ineffable, uncoachable, and inexplicable black art. But no one ever became a great NFL quarterback without mastering the fundamentals, and that’s what Luck and Griffin have in spades, and the next wave of talent will be no different.
Teaching a quarterback where and when to throw a football is primarily a function of teaching two things: pre-snap reads and post-snap confirmation. On any given play, the modern NFL (and even college) quarterback has a number of responsibilities, such as determining how many deep safeties the defense has, where potential blitzers may come from, what kind of technique and leverage the defensive backs are playing with, and where the offense might have a numerical advantage to run the ball. But all these little points boil down to one instruction for a quarterback: Figure out whether the play will work, and if it won’t, pick a new one.
Both Luck and Griffin shouldered enormous responsibilities in their final college season: Luck often called his own plays, while Griffin’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense resembled Tom Brady’s similar attack in New England. Both players are used to analyzing defenses in great detail and on the fly. But figuring out what the defense has planned before the snap is relatively easy. The trick is to be right after the snap, and that’s where post-snap confirmation comes in. Defenses get better every year at disguising their intentions, but they can still only disguise so much. Quarterbacks can still focus on specific areas and determine who the potential threats are. Then, once the play has begun, the quarterback must determine if his original diagnosis was correct.
One of Andrew Luck’s favorite plays at Stanford will serve as a good example. It’s a packaged play, meaning there are different passing concepts to either side. To Luck’s left is the stick concept, where the slot receiver darts to the flat while his tight end runs five yards, sticks his foot in the ground, and turns around. To Luck’s right is a halfback option concept, where the running back may break outside or inside, with a preference for the inside. Luck’s read is straightforward: Look for the player that the middle linebacker does not pick up.
In this play against Oklahoma State, Luck knew pre-snap that the middle linebacker was not in great position to cover the tight end (and the other linebacker was rushing him), and all he needed to do was to “confirm” this after the snap. Luck took the snap, saw the middle linebacker out of position, and fired a pass to his tight end, all in less than two seconds. For a young quarterback, this is sophisticated stuff, especially when executed with speed and accuracy. Both Luck’s and Griffin’s college offenses were based primarily on short, quick concepts like these, with heavy sprinklings of deep home-run passes.
In the NFL, however, things are more complicated. Defenses are too fast to consistently give up these gimmie plays, and they’re too smart to be consistently fooled with deep bombs. NFL quarterbacks instead live and die with the intermediate passing game and its multiple reads. On these plays, the quarterback still must go through the process of pre-snap analysis and post-snap confirmation, but he has more information to process and more options to choose from.
Next season, on an intermediate passing concept, Griffin and Luck will — after checking the pass protection and identifying the most dangerous defenders — be asked to go through the post-snap confirmation described above and then proceed to the final step. They must identify one of two, three, four, or even five receivers to whom they will actually throw the ball. To be clear, both Luck and Griffin had these sorts of reads in college, but this is the area where the speed and complexity of the NFL can overwhelm even the brightest and most promising quarterbacks. There’s a reason that in their rookie seasons Tom Brady threw only three passes while Aaron Rodgers threw 16, and Peyton Manning, who started every game as a rookie, as both Luck and Griffin probably will, led the league in interceptions.
To illustrate, let’s look at a play both Luck and Griffin will undoubtedly be asked to run, which just so happens to have been Peyton Manning’s favorite passing concept during his 14 years in Indianapolis: the “Levels” passing concept. As shown in the diagram below, the concept to the quarterback’s right is the “Levels” one, so named because of its multiple receivers each running an in-breaking route at a different level. On the left is a basic curl-flat combination, designed to take advantage of the movement of the defender in the left flat. The numbering in the diagram refers to the sequence of receivers the quarterback looks to.
On this play, the pre-snap read and post-snap confirmation are still necessary. The quarterback looks at the number of safeties to determine the coverage. If the defense has only one middle-of-the-field defender, it’s referred to as a “one-high” look and the quarterback will read the 12-yard in route by the tight end but will also look to his left for the curl route and then to the running back in the flat. If the defense plays with a two-deep look, with no defender in the center of the field, the quarterback will read the receivers to his right, first to the deeper square-in route and then underneath to the two short in-breaking routes. Just as with the stick concept above, the quarterback gets an idea of what he’ll do before the ball is snapped and then confirms it after the snap, in case the defense disguised its intentions. After that point, the magic happens.
The quarterback reads the receivers — and in doing so, the relevant defenders — to find the open man and throw it to him before (a) the opening closes, (b) the receiver gets pummeled by some fast-flying defender, or (c) the quarterback himself is crunched by one of several large men closing in on him. It’s not so much that identifying the open receiver and throwing to him is complicated; rather, it’s just plain difficult given the amount of pressure NFL defenses put on passers. “Open receiver” in the NFL is a matter of inches, not feet. To make the quarterback’s job even more difficult, he must get through his progression of receivers as quickly as possible, without indicating to the defense where he will throw the ball. This requires ability but it must also be learned. As a reserve quarterback in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers studied every pass Tom Brady threw during his record-breaking 2007 MVP season. Rodgers observed that Brady looked off his intended target on nearly every throw.
Another technique that Luck and Griffin will learn (and that many of the best NFL quarterbacks already make use of) is abandoning the idea of progression reads and instead using what are known as “coverage reads.” Every defensive tactic has a weakness, and the greatest and craftiest quarterbacks often don’t read receivers but instead read defenses and defenders; they trust that their receivers will be in the spot they know will be open, and much of the time these quarterbacks won’t even look at that spot until they’ve already released the ball. Luck and Griffin won’t be asked to do this immediately, and few NFL quarterbacks consistently rely on such reads. But to some extent this kind of no-look mastery is necessary in today’s NFL. As defenses become more complex and defenders get faster and faster, quarterbacks don’t always have the time to calmly process their reads from one to five.
Will Luck and Griffin master such advanced reads and become superstars? We won’t know until we know, and it will be years before we know. While Luck is one of the most polished and seasoned passers to come out of college in a long time, and Griffin — who ran an equally sophisticated college offense — is potentially better, both players should expect to encounter a steep learning curve. Even so, I feel confident saying that in 10 years both Luck and Griffin will be among the best passers in the NFL. I’m even more confident that in 10 years, if not Luck and Griffin, many others will have risen to the challenge. We’ve seen a massive leap forward in offensive sophistication at the lower levels of amateur football, from throwing mechanics to schemes to simply learning how to find the open receiver. No one can teach a college or high school kid how to be an NFL quarterback; indeed, given their track records, it’s not even clear that NFL coaches can teach players to become reliable NFL quarterbacks. What can be taught are the pre-snap reads and the post-snap confirmation — the foundation that gives a quarterback with elite skills a chance to become a master of the craft.
In recent years we’ve seen a number of quarterbacks — from Michael Vick to Vince Young to Tim Tebow — who were supposed to single-handedly “change the game.” That analysis was wrong because it focused on them as individuals. Instead, those players, like Luck and Griffin, are the results of an aspect of the game that has already changed. They’re the effect of new information, new technology, and new ideas at every level of football. Put it all together and it produces the kinds of unique, dynamic talents we see in the NFL. Players like Luck and Griffin, regardless of how successful their professional careers turn out, are part of football’s brave new future. These young quarterbacks are smart, athletic, possess beautiful throwing motions, and have total mastery of complicated schemes, and they have yet to set foot on an NFL football field. And in years to come, I expect many more similarly gifted players to follow them.
With the increasing flow of information, cloud computing for instant film distribution, interactive PowerPoint presentations replacing playbooks, quarterback camps and gurus, pass-first offenses for 12-year-old players, and year-round 7-on-7 leagues, players like Vick, Young, and Tebow may only be crude prototypes of the next generation of truly great quarterbacks. Year after year, football is getting closer to creating that elusive “perfect” quarterback: the great athlete who can throw like Elway and knows the game as well as Peyton Manning. Good quarterbacking has been democratized, and Luck and Griffin could be the first wave of football’s future.