It won’t last. They take too many hits. They can’t win in the pocket. It’s a gimmick.
After a torrid, albeit brief, love affair with the so-called “running quarterback,” the NFL has apparently soured on scramblers. Bad news for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was just as likely to dust a linebacker on a run as he was to torch a corner with a seam throw in his three-year run at Oregon.
If 2013 was the year of the running quarterback, of the spread option and all of its beguiling professional permutations, then 2014 was the year of the throwback, the year the arrow tilted back toward pocket passers. Just look at the scramblers who transfixed the NFL: Cam Newton’s development has stalled. Colin Kaepernick appears to be going in reverse. Robert Griffin III can’t stay on the field. And despite a number of clutch performances, some have wondered how successful Russell Wilson would be if Beast Mode didn’t reside in the backfield.
Can Mariota succeed in a pro offense coming out of his grip-it-and-rip-it passing game in Eugene? More specifically, are his estimable physical tools and a seemingly preternatural ability to avoid mistakes enough to overcome the perceived schematic disadvantage that plagues all spread quarterbacks?
Further, why is the transition so difficult? What are NFL teams not getting, or what is it about these quarterbacks that just don’t seem to translate?
College offenses have always been different. But the spread is unique, especially Oregon’s version that puts points on the board better than most Big Ten basketball teams. For some in the NFL, it’s perilous, reducing quarterbacks to catch-and-throw robots, rather than read-and-react professional signal callers.
And it’s not a secret to the NFL—or college coaches for that matter—what these quarterbacks lack coming out of school.
“One of the problems is the spread offenses have a lot of real quick throws that don’t read the full field. They [the quarterbacks] catch the ball and they throw in one or two steps,” explains one AFC scout, who assessed Colin Kaepernick for his club.
He says he put a late-round grade on Kaepernick and hasn’t put many high grades on players coming out of these systems.
“There’s no proof that they can throw and be effective from the pocket. There’s just no evidence that they can do that.”
Chris Ault recruited and coached Kaepernick at Nevada, and may very well be the godfather of the pistol offense that the NFL has appropriated from the college game. The Chiefs recently hired Ault to consult on their offense, which now features option looks.
“There are very few Andrew Luck’s in the world who can get under center and drop back and play right away for you,” Ault says, adding that it should have been clear a player like Kaepernick would need time to adjust to the NFL game.
And this is a sentiment heard over and over by personnel people, coaches and talent evaluators: Quarterbacks have to learn to play in the NFL. Mariota will be no different.
But, we’re still talking about a quarterback who hasn’t called a play from the huddle since high school.
“I haven’t huddled in a while,” Mariota told reporters at the combine. “It seems like a little detail, but that is kind of a big thing. There’s other things as well. Three-, five-, seven-step drops under center. That’s all stuff I’ve been able to work on the last month."
Even if Mariota can adapt quickly, teams are still left wondering if players of his ilk can handle the mental processing of more complex plays, line checks, audibles, intricate NFL defenses and so on. No more “line up and run it.”
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer has taken over the Elite 11 high school QB camp and in his post-pro football career has dedicated his time teaching quarterback play.
“They throw the ball in rhythm to one [option], and if one isn’t open or if the pass rush gets them, they run around make a play … You can get away with inefficient mechanics and eye placement when you’re told where to throw the ball and that guy is open most of the time.”
The schematic criticisms are one thing, but spread coaches like Ault flatly dismiss the notion that these mobile quarterbacks are a long-term risk because they take too many hits. Ault points to a study Kyle Shanahan did in Washington on Robert Griffin III where they found RGIII got hit far more often in the pocket than outside of it.
Throw on the tape of Marcus Mariota at Oregon and you can go the whole game without seeing him take a shot in the open field.
“We don’t want our QB carrying the ball so much, so on and so forth. Take Kaepernick. You don’t see him get hit running the football,” Ault insists. “He gets down or gets out of bounds. Same with Russell Wilson.”
So what does this mean for Mariota, the record-breaking, ultra-efficient, run-like-the-wind quarterback from a spread offense?
“I think Mariota is like Kaepernick in his athletic ability. I think he can run like the wind and I think he can do some of those things with the ball,” one scout told SI.com. “I think he’s a much better pocket passer potentially. He may not have as strong an arm as Kaepernick, but he’s much more accurate.”
But the rub for Mariota stems from what has become a football cliché when talking about quarterbacks. On third-and-8, with a defense disguising—showing blitz, then showing Cover Three or man—can the quarterback make the play from the pocket?
For spread or running quarterbacks, the answer often gets complicated. In college, the wide hashes create unique space with which to operate, while superior recruiting at a school like Oregon allows the offense to maximize mismatches.
Mariota isn’t making tough reads, or throwing into tiny windows that close at warp speed. But just because he hasn’t done it, doesn’t mean he can’t.
So you have to extrapolate, like with any prospect. Find skills that will translate. For Mariota it’s his accuracy, calm feet in the pocket, ability to throw on the run and improvise while also keeping his eyes downfield.
This is where teams have a critical role to play. They must develop those skills and craft an offense around those players. You don’t make Chad Pennington, for example, a down-the-field thrower.
This seems obvious, but these mobile quarterbacks seem to run into these issue with more frequency. Coach Ault insists the 49ers, for example, rushed the development of Kaepernick, forcing him into becoming something he wasn’t ready to be: namely, a pocket passer.
This leads to the critical question for Mariota: Will a team at the top of the draft be willing to be patient and malleable?
Yogi Roth, an Elite 11 coach with Dilfer, and a former quarterbacks coach under Pete Carroll at USC says the NFL must adapt to the crop of kids coming up.
He relates it to the story of when Drew Brees first connected with Sean Payton and Payton asked Brees what plays he liked to run on third downs and in certain specific situations. The Saints then tailored their offense around what Brees did well and his career took off.
New Orleans built an offense for Brees and he was already a capable NFL signal-caller. If you’re bringing along a rookie, why wouldn’t you give him every opportunity to succeed by putting him in a position where he feels most comfortable?
Asking Mariota to come in and run the West Coast offense as a rookie just doesn’t make sense.
“It’s silly if you’re an offensive coordinator, if you have a quarterback who’s never made a throw before and then ask him to make it,” Roth says, having seen Mariota grow abundantly in three seasons with the Ducks as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network.
He says the Hawaiian-born signal-caller will do whatever is asked of him by an NFL team.
“He’ll take the drops, he’ll make the reads, he’ll learn it, but to expect him to, in Year 1, be successful, I don’t think that’s fair.”
So for the next few months, thousands of words will be written and spoken about how Mariota fits in the NFL and what he needs to do to be successful in the pros. But the reality is the approach his future team takes with him will be every bit as important.
To hear Dilfer tell it, how the NFL adjusts to these kids–and not the other way around–is the most important issue when it comes to quarterbacks.
Teams will have to find the places Mariota wins, where he excels, and it shouldn’t be that hard given the vast wealth of physical tools he possesses. He won a lot at Oregon. He excelled his fair share a lot, too.
Forget about the offense he ran at Oregon, or don’t. After all, he ran it with surgical precision on his way to one of the most efficient college careers in modern history. Even Jameis Winston defended Mariota at the combine for that very reason.
Drafting Mariota, the Heisman winner and owner of myriad records, laurels and plaudits—that’s the easy part. Putting him in a position to succeed is a challenge both he and his future team will have to tackle together.
The first time Mariota outruns a linebacker to the corner for a 40-yard touchdown, or throws a perfect corner route for a key first down, we may forget entirely about 2014 being the year of the throwback.
After all, it is 2015.