There has been a deluge of veteran quarterback moves since free agency opened on March 9. Several teams still have dire needs at the position. And yet we’ve barely heard a peep about free agent Colin Kaepernick. There’s one conspicuous reason why, and it has nothing to do with him not standing for the national anthem last year. It has everything to do with him not standing firm in the pocket.
We might as well bring Robert Griffin III into the conversation, too. He was released by the Browns earlier this week and appears destined to also watch from the sidelines while the QB market shakes out.
Both players had enchanting seasons in 2012. Griffin was the offensive rookie of the year, and Kaepernick became a starter midway through the season and led the 49ers to Super Bowl 47. Neither has come close to recapturing his magic.
There’s a simple explanation.
In 2012, both players presented threats with their legs in ways the NFL had never seen. Griffin ran the read-option. So did Kaepernick, though he was more dangerous as a scrambler. Over time, however, NFL defenses learned how to adjust to these mobile quarterbacks.
This is why playing in the pocket is so crucial. A quarterback can’t rely primarily on his legs. He must be able to drop back and make throws from behind his O-line. We hear this all the time, but nobody actually ever explains why. Let’s change that by further evaluating the Kaepernick/RG3 predicament.
In the NFL, the defenders are extremely smart and athletic, so everything happens fast. Dropping straight back and throwing is the most efficient way to counter this speed. It’s also the safest way. A quarterback at the top of his drop is squarely behind his three interior offensive linemen and flanked by his two biggest linemen, the tackles. He’s also at the physical point farthest away from both edge rushers, usually the defense’s most dangerous attackers.
Behind this five-man wall, not only is a quarterback not getting sacked, but he’s also less likely to have to throw with bodies around him. That makes a world of difference for arm strength and accuracy.
Even the best pass-protection can still leak, of course, which is why part of pocket passing is having the footwork and poise to subtly move in the pocket. In many ways, a quarterback is as responsible as the offensive line for the cleanliness of his throwing platform.
This is where Kaepernick and Griffin get into trouble. Both have a tendency to anticipate pressure that hasn’t arrived yet. They’ll take their eyes off the field and look at pass-rushers. They’ll break down when no one is around, converting themselves from would-be throwers into randomized scramblers. Often, no running lanes exist here, so this scrambling quickly leads to sacks or contested throwaways.
All of this ruins a play’s timing, which nullifies the offense’s best chance at counteracting the defense’s speed. Yes, occasionally you’ll see a quarterback break down, go off schedule and make a spectacular play. Think Russell Wilson and, especially, Aaron Rodgers. But not Kaepernick or Griffin. Look closely and you see that neither is as proficient on the move as their styles of play suggest. Kaepernick is hindered by a long, angular throwing motion; Griffin simply has no idea of how to protect himself.
It’s no coincidence that the best pocket passers tend to be the best field readers. The two go hand in hand. Which brings us to the geometry of football. In addition to keeping an offensive play on schedule, a pocket passer also ensures the integrity of the angles in the passing game. He makes every eligible receiver a threat. This is crucial in the NFL, where the hash marks are closer together than college and the ball, therefore, is always spotted almost right down the middle. You need a quarterback who can survey and attack the entire landscape from there.
As we’ve covered, Kaepernick and Griffin don’t have sufficient pocket poise to give themselves a chance to survey. Even if they did, there’s no evidence they would. As throwers, both struggle with timing and anticipation. And, based on how they look on film, both seem to have a disconnect with why a play is called. Too often you see basic designs with basic route combinations going unrecognized.
When that happens, life becomes difficult for the other 10 guys on offense. Linemen can’t be sure what pass-blocking technique to employ because they can’t trust that the man behind them will be where he’s supposed to be or throw when he’s supposed to throw. Receivers stop trusting that the ball will come to them when it should (should meaning either “on time” or “at all”), which eventually impacts their execution.
There are many flawed quarterbacks still on the market: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Cutler, Geno Smith, Josh McCown. But these QBs at least have a demonstrated ability to play in the pocket. It’s infinitely easier to plug one of these guys in than it is to plug in Kaepernick and Griffin.
This raises an interesting question: Will either Kaepernick or Griffin even be in the league in 2017? Though blemished, both are still talented enough to be on rosters. However, their playing styles are so unique that they’d change an offense’s entire identity upon taking the field. Ideally, you want your backup quarterback’s skill set to be similar to your starter’s. Unless it’s the Bills, who go to great lengths to accommodate Tyrod Taylor’s similar pocket-passing woes, no offense will be a natural fit for Kaepernick or Griffin. We said it last year—wrongly, as it turned out—but it’s worth saying again: It’s possible we’ve seen the last of these guys.
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