The ‘Just OK’ QB Who Could Go in the First Round
I’m sitting in a Cal football office with Davis Webb, preparing to shoot a video of us watching his game film. But Webb says he won’t begin until I change shirts. The one I’m wearing is Stanford red, a most egregious offense here in Berkeley. I tell Webb I’ll change, but only if he’s willing to do this sort of good-natured bullying while the camera is rolling. He laughs and ultimately relents, though not without referring to my shirt once we sit down and begin.
Until this point, I wasn’t completely sure that Webb was joking. He strikes you as an alpha who might stringently adhere to some quirky, offbeat principles—you know, the type of stuff that’s celebrated in country music. Webb, at 6’ 5” and 232 pounds, cuts an imposing figure. He shakes your hand almost a little too hard. Posted in his locker, reportedly, is a list of all the people who have ever doubted him. He paces around the film room with command.
He probably spends more time in this room than he does in his apartment. “I’m very comfortable in this setting,” he says, after I confess that I’m afraid to ask if I hold the remote. “I have to have the remote with me . . . I’ve been [studying film] since a very young age.”
If Webb comes across as a prototypical Type-A quarterback, well, it’s true. The son of a high school coach, he grew up in four different Texas towns near Dallas, his family moving every time his dad, Matt, was offered a better job. After high school, Webb attended Texas Tech, where he was the starting quarterback for part of his freshmen and sophomore years. Midway through his sophomore season, he tore the labrum on his throwing shoulder and hurt his ankle; that’s when Patrick Mahomes took over. Webb has lamented that he never got an opportunity to win his starting job back. But in our time together, he shows no animosity toward Texas Tech. He pulls up his phone and checks in on their spring game. He also refers to having graduated from there, which he did in 2016.
That graduation came expediently so Webb could transfer to Cal and not have to sit out a year. Though going to Berkeley after a life spent in Texas is akin to moving abroad, Webb’s authoritative swagger did not waver at Cal. If anything, it grew. NFL executives would come to scout players and be surprised to see the new quarterback running practice. On Fridays before games, Cal’s then offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, let Webb run the meeting.
Webb aspires to coach after he’s done playing. His favorite thing is talking the nuts and bolts of football. Upon arriving for our meeting, I listed the plays we’d watch. He pulled them from the computer program almost instantaneously and then spent the next half hour reviewing them while the video crew set up.
We start by watching Cal’s game against Stanford. We see Webb loft a beautiful deep fade to receiver Vic Wharton (who dropped it). Stanford had jumped offside, giving Cal a free play. I’ll let Webb take it from here.
I get the play call from coach. I signal it out. I tell the line what the protection is, tell the running back. I look at the defense. We’re trying to move fast at the same time. We’re trying to run 90 to 100 plays a game. So we have to think pretty quickly.
I look to both sides [of the field]. I felt like this was the “best look” side and I could go to [receiver Chad Hansen] because it’s Cover 1 [i.e. man-to-man with one high safety]. We know they jumped offsides, so, take a chance.
At the snap, the defense switched from a Cover 1 look to a Cover 2 zone. This made Webb’s throw to the sideline considerably more difficult.
Up top, not many people can make that throw. I can. It’s a weird look. It’s a Cover 2 look. Could be a Tampa 2— which it is. See . . . you can see this guy going deep [Webb points to the middle linebacker]. In the NFL, what they do a better job of, is the corners in a Tampa 2 defense get back 14 yards. In this situation, you can see the corner up top, he gets back six yards. In Tampa 2, in the NFL, you can’t make that throw. You have to go inside vertical [down the seam] or to your running back. Which our back doesn’t get out in this situation. He has to run through [a crowd]. I know the inside seam route will hold that safety for a count. I know I can make that throw all day. Vic made another catch later in the game that kind of made up for [this drop].
I ask Webb if he’s surprised that Stanford’s corners did not press the receivers off the line. Press is critical in Cover 2.
No doubt. That’s for their defensive coaches to talk about. But the film I’ve watched of the best defenses in the country, they do jam them up pretty good. And reroute them. That’s what it’s about. As a receiver, you want to run through contact. That’s the biggest coaching point that most coaches give them. You’re going to get grabbed and you’re going to get into adverse situations. But if you run through contact and do not confuse the quarterback, more than likely you’re going to get the football.
So that’s what happened on the play.
But Webb’s not done. What would have happened if Stanford hadn’t jumped offside?
Let’s just say we called a normal six-man protection, pure progression play. Then I would check out of the play entirely. And maybe give the slot receiver up top a little hitch route. Or a little seam route. Or a quick slant and have a play-action to hold that weakside linebacker. But it’s “42 even”. That’s the defensive front. It’s nickel personnel. It’s a free play, so we’re just going to take a chance.
The one thing you want to find very quickly is where’s the isolation. If you’re in press-man on defense, you know we’re either going to run a fade or a slant. Those are probably the most successful plays versus press-man. But if you’re in off-coverage, there are 15 routes you can run against that. Whether it be a dig, a sail, a stop, a comeback. There’s so many plays you can run against off-coverage. That works to our favor as an offense.
Webb dives this deep on all 40 snaps we watch together. This knowledge and passion for detail is what will likely propel him into the first round on Thursday night. He’s reveled in opportunities to meet with NFL coaches this spring. He’s worked four days a week with former Redskins coach Jim Zorn, learning the parlance of different NFL offenses so he can communicate with teams in their language during meetings. Webb has officially had five team visits and five private workouts. He proudly shares stories about impressing coaches by drawing up plays on whiteboards.
Of course, meetings only mean so much. Maybe down the road they’ll help Webb get that coaching job he covets, but the job he wants now hinges on his play. Mentally, Webb is almost certainly the most pro-ready QB in this year’s draft. Physically, he’s in the eye of the beholder.
Everyone, including Webb himself, agrees that he’s not yet fully refined. “I have to be more consistent with my mechanics,” he says. “That’s something Coach Zorn and I have been doing a good job of.” Where opinions might differ is in how much improvement is possible. Some believe Webb’s arm, already NFL-caliber, will get stronger with sharpened fundamentals. In pro football, arm strength increases are rare but not unheard of.
It starts with the lower body. In football IQ, Webb in his final days at Cal was well ahead of Jared Goff. But Goff, not Webb, was a projected first overall pick because he had, among other attributes, incredible passing feet. Goff moved very well in the pocket when it got messy. There might not be a more important trait to pro quarterbacking. In muddied pockets, Webb can be erratic. Overall, he must get better with defenders in his face. We watch him throw a horrendous interception in the end zone at Washington State. “Not a good play,” he says. “I feel like there’s clutter [his word for pressure], which there really isn’t.”
When comfortable, Webb can be as picturesque as any passer in this draft. And his arm can look great. He’s not interested in ranking his top throws. “I think that’s childish, or just pointless,” he says . . . but he can’t help himself when we get to his 59-yarder on third-and-23 against Washington State. “This is up there,” he grins before the film even plays. “This one’s up there.”
On top of the questions about pocket passing, there’s a more nebulous one to raise: Can Webb grow as a player without being the alpha on his team? It’s one thing to own the room in college; it’s quite another in the NFL. If Webb walks in on Day 1 with the authoritative air he had at Cal, his veteran teammates’ efforts to ground him will be ruthless.
I ask Webb about this.
“I’m just going to be a sponge,” he says. “I’m going to be a good teammate. I’m going to be a hard worker, earn my respect first. However long that takes, we’ll see what happens. Because every situation is different. You could be The Guy on Day 1. You could be The Guy on Day 761. You just don’t know.
“But I ran my own meetings here every Friday afternoon. I had the key play [video] cutup with our receivers and running backs and I went through it for about an hour or so. I want to be a coach one day. This is important to me. I think I have a pretty good foundation of football schemes and X’s and O’s. But I’m going to get better. I haven’t arrived. Trust me. I think I’m going to get a ton better. I think I’m just an OK quarterback. But I feel like I can throw the ball pretty well, and I feel like my work ethic separates me. We’ll see.”
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