x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Quarterbacks leading the league not just a passing fancy

Around the NFL, the elite teams all have one things in common - a top-level quarterback to lead the franchise.

How important is the quarterback to an NFL team? All of Indianapolis is anxiously hoping their star, Peyton Manning, will be able to start the season.
How important is the quarterback to an NFL team? All of Indianapolis is anxiously hoping their star, Peyton Manning, will be able to start the season.

Last week, the NFL held a supplemental draft for college players who were not eligible for the regular draft in April. Among the six players available was a quarterback with a scattershot arm and a trail of off-the-field transgressions that drew a five-game suspension from the league before he even joined it.

Most talent evaluators attached a buyer-beware tag on Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State University, assessing him as worthy of a fourth- or fifth-round pick, someone who could face a two-year learning curve. A risky selection, considering a team taking him would give up a corresponding pick in next year's draft.

But the Oakland Raiders, enthralled by Pryor's remarkable mix of size and speed, ignored his deficiencies and selected him in the third round.

The move illustrates an NFL truth: Quarterbacks are treasured like never before.

For years, they have played the most critical position in American team sports. Now, as changing rules and coaching philosophies have pushed the pendulum toward a pass-first, run-second game, quarterbacks have widened their lead over whatever position is runner-up in significance.

"It has always been the most important position on the field. As the league progressed to the refined passing game, the importance of the quarterback became even greater," said Ken Herock, a former player personnel chief with the Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons.

"As a result, every quarterback prospect, whether proven or with great potential, will be given every opportunity before he fails."

Teams pay top dollar for their quarterbacks. Last season, the average salary was US$1.97 million (Dh7.2m), more than $400,000 higher than the next-best compensated position - defensive end, whose job requirements, not coincidentally, include sacking the quarterback.

For salaries of starters only, the gap is much wider.

This year, the four highest-paid players are quarterbacks. Sam Bradford (St Louis) will collect $18.4 million, Tom Brady (New England) $18 million and Michael Vick (Philadelphia) $15.9 million.

Yet, if those three have lunch with Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), they should expect him to pick up the tab.

Manning is due $23 million.

To Colts devotees, the fate of their team is so intertwined with one player that Manning's questionable availability for the season opener after offseason neck surgery has resulted in mass anxiety.

Given that Manning has not missed a game in his 13-year career, his team has gotten by on the cheap with back-ups. The incumbent second-stringer, Curtis Painter, has thrown 28 passes in an inconspicuous career, completing eight.

So Indianapolis added veteran free agent Kerry Collins last week as an expensive insurance policy. How expensive? For one year, $4 million.

Vick, were he at any other position, might still not have returned to the league after a prison sentence and suspension over involvement with dog-fighting. Because of the premium placed on quarterbacks, the Philadelphia Eagles braced themselves for withering criticism and signed him in 2009 as a third-teamer.

After the fan furore died down, Vick regained his old touch so dramatically that the Eagles traded Kevin Kolb, whom they had embraced as their starter less than a year earlier, to Arizona. Do not feel bad for Kolb, though - the Cardinals gave him a five-year, $62 million contract, never mind that he has more interceptions than touchdown passes in his career.

The adage that teams cannot contend for titles with no running game is coated in cobwebs. Green Bay, the defending Super Bowl champion, ranked 24th in rushing yards and 25th in average per attempt. In passing, the Packers placed fifth and third in those categories.

Conversely, Oakland and Jacksonville was absent from the play-offs despite amassing the second- and third-highest ground yardage.

A series of rules revisions, dating to 1978, was the seed to the trend.

Pass blockers were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands. Contact by defenders on pass receivers was restricted five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

In the past decade, rules protecting the passer from late hits - and any hits to the head and lower legs - were passed or strengthened. As a result, the quarterback can stand in the pocket long enough to type out a tweet until he spots an open receiver.

Four years ago, a "completed catch" was redefined as getting two feet down inbounds and controlling the ball. Before, a receiver was required to make a "football move," or the throw was judged incomplete.

Coaches are becoming aware that the average gain per pass play has inched up to nearly six yards, compared to just over four yards for rushes. The statistic suggests that while the run/pass play balance has stayed surprisingly steady from year to year, teams are taking shots downfield more often. The higher risk factor with play-calling assigns added value to the quarterback.

The changing winds are evident in college drafts. Several lately have produced a feverish run on quarterbacks as teams, fearful of missing out on the next great signal-caller, took passers earlier than their evaluation grade would suggest.

"I have worked with many quarterbacks who I never thought were first-rounders, but teams took chances because if you do not have a good quarterback in this league, you cannot win," said Herock, who operates Pro Prep, an Atlanta-based company that trains NFL prospects for interviews with teams. "For every Manning and Brady, you probably have 10 that don't make it."

Each NFL scouting staff assigns a grade to every draft-eligible prospect, regardless of position. Though teams often base their pick on an area of need, players with the highest score generally are the first to come off the board.

The exception is quarterback. Jake Locker and Christian Ponder were well down any list arranged in order by grade, yet they were selected eighth (Tennessee) and 12th (Minnesota), respectively. And with the opening overall pick, Carolina invited criticism by choosing Cam Newton, whose consensus grade did not approach the most highly evaluated non-quarterback prospects.

Ultimately, quarterbacks are weighted differently because they can energize a flagging fan base, as the Panthers are experiencing, and sound a fresh start for a struggling franchise. They also serve as a team's de facto leader.

"This is a quarterbacks league," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "Look at the order of the draft. The ones who have [good quarterbacks] are picking low, and the ones who don't are picking high."

Four of the draft's initial dozen selections were quarterbacks, with only Blaine Gabbart (Jacksonville) at No 10 not heavily second-guessed by most analysts as a reach.

Newton became the third quarterback in a row leading off the draft, a pattern that can be traced to the previous one in 2008. Matt Ryan (third, Falcons) and Joe Flacco (18th, Baltimore Ravens) stomped on another outdated NFL adage: You cannot win with a rookie QB. Personnel chiefs assess prospects nowadays based on stepping in immediately, with no apprenticeship served.

Matthew Stafford, the No 1 overall in 2009, has weathered two injury-bitten seasons to take Detroit to the doorstep of the play-offs. Mark Sanchez, drafted four slots later, became an immediate starter with the New York Jets and has delivered them to the AFC Championship game twice. Bradford kicked off the 2010 draft and started from the outset for St Louis. He revived the downtrodden Rams, who exceeded expectations by going 7-9.

The other quarterback from that first round, however, is becoming the subject of a cautionary tale about falling head-over-heels over an unproven commodity in this pass-crazy era.

Tim Tebow belongs on the Mount Rushmore of college players. His character and desire are unsurpassed. He can whip nearly all position mates - and many other players - in feats of strength.

Josh McDaniel, the new-wave Denver coach aware of the outsized importance of a quarterback, drafted Tebow at 25th in round one while the rest of the league, which widely viewed him as a third-rounder, scratched its head in wonderment.

McDaniels did not survive the season. The Broncos were 3-9 when he was fired.

Tebow, who started three games and substituted in six others, is buried as a third-stringer under new coach John Fox and has generated little trade interest.

And wide receiver, the other position with heightened emphasis because of the pass explosion, is often considered chancy in the first round. Data indicates a lower success rate than for any other position.

Yet, reflecting the ever-expanding emphasis on passing, two receivers were among the first six called. Cincinnati, ignoring its unimpressive draft history of starting off with receivers, chose AJ Green at No 4.

Two spots later, Atlanta traded up 21 places, sacrificing five other picks in the process, to tap Julio Jones. The Falcons explained the steep price by pointing to a woeful statistic from the prior season: Only 32 passes produced gains of at least 20 yards, none longer than 46.

Still, it is mostly about the thrower, not the catcher, so much so that ESPN is trumpeting its new Total Quarterback Rating. The sports network intends its easily understood figure to replace the arcane, confusing passer rating system of nearly four decades.

Eager to tap into the obsession for comparing quarterbacks, ESPN entrusted its Stats and Information Group to devise the formula, which produces ratings on a scale of 1 to 100. A score in the 70s is regarded as Pro Bowl-worthy.

No amount of numbers-driven analysis can intensify the spotlight shining on the position. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the level of optimism held by followers toward teams and their appraisal (or health) of the quarterback.

There is gloom in Seattle (Tavaris Jackson) and doom in San Francisco (Alex Smith).

There are mixed emotions in Minnesota (veteran Donovan McNabb or the rookie, Ponder) and Washington (John Beck or Rex Grossman).

There is a bright future in Tampa Bay (Josh Freeman) and a grim present in Cincinnati (rookie Andy Dalton), where veteran Carson Palmer walked out after his trade request was not granted.

There are sleepless nights in Indianapolis, with Manning's uncertainty.

And there are sleep-like-a-baby nights in locales such as New England (Brady) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers).

So if your team crashes and burns this season, be patient.

Another draft arrives next April, and the sure-fire first pick is Andrew Luck of Stanford University.

A quarterback.

 

sports@thenational.ae