Fixing the QBs: Solving the vertical passing game with Teddy Bridgewater
The combination of Teddy Bridgewater and Norv Turner in Minnesota brings together two people who have faced their share of criticism in recent times. Turner, the Vikings' new offensive coordinator, has long been known as one of the better offensive minds and quarterback developers in the NFL, but he has generally been a walking disaster as a head coach.
Most recently, he led the San Diego Chargers from 2007 through 2012, where he was at first unable to transcend what he had with a supremely talented roster, and later he was unable to navigate former general manager A.J. Smith's ego-driven destruction of the roster Smith had built. But when given the tools to succeed, Turner has generally been very successful from an offensive standpoint with his own iterations of the vertical, power-based passing game.
San Diego finished in the top five in points scored in his first four years before everything fell apart. Turner may be best known as the man who ran the Cowboys' offense from 1991 through 1993, helping the team win two Super Bowls in the process and establishing Troy Aikman as a future Hall-of-Famer.
Bridgewater has seen his own demons lately. He didn't throw at the 2014 scouting combine, which left all the pre-draft analysis in the hands of his pro day ... and as you may have heard, that didn't go too well. Bridgewater took a pass on using his usual throwing glove at the event, and he was erratic in an environment that is usually a gimme for quarterbacks -- a shirt-and-shorts exhibition in which the primary subject is throwing unpressured to uncovered receivers he knows well.
The cognoscenti were not impressed.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, perhaps the most respected independent draft analyst in that ever-burgeoning field, allowed Bridgewater's pro day to skew his perspective of the former Louisville star to the point where he stated that he would not take Bridgewater in the first round of the draft, and he quoted "league sources" who questioned Bridgewater's ability to be the face of his franchise. Whatever that means. And there was a lot of it going around. Never mind that in three seasons for the Cardinals, Bridgewater's completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating improved every year. Never mind that he completed 71 percent of his passes in 2013, for 9.3 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns and just four picks.
In any case, the Vikings did indeed trade back up with the Seahawks to the last pick in the first round to select Bridgewater, which put the rookie quarterback in Turner's sights as his latest quarterback project. It's an interesting match, as Turner has generally preferred traditional pocket passers with strong arms, but by all accounts, he was in the driver's seat when it came to the decision to pick Bridgewater and ostensibly make him the Vikings' next franchise quarterback -- something the team really hasn't had since Brett Favre's first season in purple. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel are placeholders at best, which means that if Bridgewater can attack the vertical elements of Turner's concepts, he'll have the best shot. And that's where we must focus when analyzing how this fit will work -- Turner's vision of the passing game, and Bridgewater's ability to take it on.
"You know, it’s not really hard at all if you put the time in," Bridgewater said after the team's first minicamp, when asked how hard it is to work Turner's offense. "Just learning from Coach Turner, Scott [Turner, Minnesota's quarterbacks coach] and Norv, it’s a great feeling because Norv, he’s pretty established in the league, and Scott, his son, he’s pretty established also learning from his dad. Just being able to learn this offense, it hasn’t been a challenge or anything at all -- as I continue to say, just go and put the time in and go the extra mile because we’re in the NFL now. It’s your job now. You have nothing to do but learn football, so that’s been my mindset so far and I’m going to continue to learn it."
The vertical game
There's a natural assumption that when we talk about the vertical passing game, we're automatically defaulting to an Air Coryell system in which everyone is running go routes all the time. In truth, the ability to consistently and efficiently complete deep passes against modern NFL defenses is perhaps the hardest thing to do in any sport. In Turner's case, and as Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup recently told me, play-action gets the ball rolling.
"Norv's offenses have always started with the run game. It works off that, and the passing game has been more intermediate to vertical. He effectively uses play action, and historically, his receivers have tended to average, by NFL standards, higher yards per catch."
In addition, Turner doesn't automatically retrofit his offense to whoever he has -- any successful coach will tailor his preferences and tendencies to what his players can and can't do.
"I can remember with Troy Aikman -- a lot of out routes and comeback routes and skinny posts to Michael Irvin because Troy could make those throws," Cosell continued. "When Norv was in Washington [from 1994 through 2000], I remember Michael Westbrook averaging 16, 17 yards per catch. At its core, play action is deception. People don't think of it that way, but that's what it is. So, I think Norv likes to open up the field, whether it's for wide receivers or tight ends, so they can get down the middle, or in-breaking routes... but he likes to get the ball down the field."
In Westbrook's best season of 1995, he caught 65 passes for 1,191 yards (18.3 yards per catch) and nine touchdowns. His quarterback was Brad Johnson, whose 7.7 yards per attempt that season was a career high.
So, that's the template, even with less-than-impressive throwers. And perhaps because of the pro day fiasco, or because he's a smaller player, Bridgewater doesn't seem to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the deep ball. But in 2013, he completed 93 passes of 15 yards or more, and 39 passes of 25 yards or more. Both marks tied for eighth-best in the nation.
Still, there are times when he's not as accurate with his deep ball as he needs to be. One mechanical reason for this is that while he generally keeps his feet in rhythm for optimal velocity and squares his shoulders to the target when throwing on the run, Bridgewater brings the ball up to throw from a flat plane to an overhead delivery. And he's not the kind of plus-thrower who will get away with that against more complicated NFL defenses.
"He holds the ball flat when he throws it," Cosell said. "So, he can't torque it. He's not a 'juice' thrower. In NFL terms, he'd be an average thrower, in terms of how the ball comes out. And in terms of arm strength, he'd be middle of the road. Everybody made a big deal about his small hands, and that may well be a factor, because he sort of lays the ball on his palm to throw it. He doesn't have a strong hand to snap the ball. So, there are certain throws that have a tendency to fall apart the further they go. He doesn't really throw with drive."
Still, when Norv and Scott Turner worked Bridgewater out privately, they evidently saw everything they needed to see. From Dan Pompei of Sports on Earth:
They tweaked some of the footwork that led to the shaky throws to his right at his pro day. They made sure his feet were under him when he delivered, and that his weight was not forward. They increased the "speed at the top of his drop," which means they got him to set his feet quickly on his hitch.
The Turners also asked Bridgewater to make every throw that he would be making in their scheme. It was a long workout, because the Vikings coaches wanted see if his mechanics held up when he was fatigued. They had Bridgewater throw 15 routes to four receivers, and they had him throw a number of them over again. So he might have thrown as many as 80 passes.
Many NFL quarterbacks -- Drew Brees and Tom Brady come to mind -- have greatly improved their arm strength when they made the transition from college to the NFL. With improved mechanics and professional training programs, it's possible that Bridgewater's deep ball issues can also be corrected.
However, Turner's most important gift to Bridgewater will be the kinds of reads that most quarterbacks need to win their challenges consistently.
Creating opportunities through route concepts
According to Cosell, Turner works so well with quarterbacks for two primary reasons -- he creates route concepts that work optimally against specific defenses, and he limits option anxiety in the playbook.
"One of the main things -- and if you talk to coaches just in general -- is that when you eliminate the gray areas in the passing game, and make the reads defined, the ball can come out in rhythm. And that's what you always want. That's also what [Chicago Bears head coach] Marc Trestman does really well. That's why Josh McCown was so successful last year [as Jay Cutler's backup], and McCown would tell you that he'd never been in a system before where he knew all the answers. I think that's what Norv does really well."
Going back to his days with the Cowboys, Turner has preferred the kinds of route combinations that blur the lines of coverage against zone defenses, and force difficult expanded matchups when dealing with man coverage. One of the more perfect examples of this was a nine-yard touchdown from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates when the Chargers beat the Buffalo Bills 37-10 in Week 14 of the 2011 season. This play shows not only the crossing routes that are a hallmark of Turner's offensive philosophy, but also the crossing route from the tight end to further complicate things.
San Diego had a three-receiver set on the right side against the Bills' four defenders to that side, but the key element to this play was running back Mike Tolbert, who motioned from right to left pre-snap and ran a quick Texas (angle) route, taking the right inside linebacker out of the deep play. As the right outside cornerback flared closer to the edge of the end zone, Gates was left with a relatively simple matchup. A 3-by-1 defensive advantage was negated by formation execution and diversity.
You can see several examples of formation advantage in Bridgewater's final collegiate game, when he and the Cardinals thrashed the Miami Hurricanes 36-9 in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28.
Even Bridgewater's critics, or those who don't see him as an upper-tier quarterback, will generally praise the way he sees the field. Bridgewater has a good handle on pre-snap reads, he's played enough in a pro-style offense to have developed multiple read concepts, and he understands the position at a level that should see him transition fairly seamlessly to the next level -- at least in that regard.
"Bridgewater has a lot of things that you really like when you watch them on film," Cosell said. "Not to put him in Norv's offense specifically, but to give you my evaluation of Bridgewater: I think he's good before the snap of the ball, I think he has a good feel for route concepts and where to go with the football, and he has a good sense of when to check down. At the end of the day, what you get with Bridgewater is a guy who is pretty well-schooled in how to play the game -- he's just shorter than ideal. I'm not exactly sure what Bridgewater is as he transitions into the NFL, because he doesn't have outstanding physical traits." Can Bridgewater's physical traits be maximized in a vertical offense? Based on my own tape study, I think he's a few steps away from being able to make it happen.