This is the time of year when pundits of both the professional and armchair varieties debate what qualities define a successful NFL quarterback. The formula is not as exact as it once appeared, yet there remains some rigidity to the position.
College offenses are different. Flip through cable on a fall Saturday, and experience a diverse menagerie of formations and systems. The vast spectrum to largely similar sets with tweaked details, more prevalent on Sundays. Tailoring an offense to a talented quarterback isn’t necessarily new to the NFL, but the lengths coordinators go now to placate a quarterbacks’ skill set far exceed most anything seen previously.
Credit the success college coaches have had building around quarterbacks to the League’s new-found flexibility — but not build around in a sense of using as a cornerstone for a blueprint, but rather letting the quarterback dictate the blueprint.
Rather than a player fitting a system, systems often conform to players.
Michigan’s success under new head coach Brady Hoke’s staff was a shining example. Offensive coordinator Al Borges came to Ann Arbor with a proven track record of maximizing quarterbacks’ potential, and in Denard Robinson he had a one-time Heisman frontrunner. The only issue: Robinson excelled in Rich Rodriguez’s spread option, carrying the ball 256 times for over 1700 yards.
Conversely, Borges cultivated such playcallers as Jason Campbell, Cade McNown, and Kyle Boller: all first round draft picks, all more traditional, drop-back passers. More recently, Borges helped San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley garner attention from pro scouts — attention since squandered under Andy Ludwig, a point we shall delve into further a little later.
Robinson is an entirely different athlete from those listed above. Borges made efforts to introduce his system at UM with Robinson taking snaps from under center, with questionable results.
In fact, Robinson would have shaky moments as the more traditional quarterback throughout the season. Yet, rather than continuing placing his hand on the proverbial hot stove, Borges opted not to get burned. He conformed his system to fit what Robinson does, and as a result the Wolverines scored better than 33 points per game en route to 11 wins.
The point per game average was only a slight increase from the season before, and Robinson carried over 200 times again. The autonomy Robinson had was a deviation from Borges’ typical gameplan, yet was in more of a balanced flow than the season prior.
The counter to the success of a Michigan is Florida’s struggles, most notably in 2010. Tim Tebow was a supremely gifted athlete whose abilities perfectly complemented Urban Meyer’s vision and the talent around him, and vice versa. Tebow is also a prime example of the professional rank’s new attitude toward traditional qualities.
Tebow differed from Meyer’s previous quarterback-turned-first rounder Alex Smith immensely, yet Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen molded the offense to click for both. Steve Addazio piggybacked off that success in 2009, Tebow’s season senior, but the Gators were unable to restructure with John Brantley at quarterback.
Brantley was recruited as a more traditional style player, and Addazio worked around that. The departure from past seasons’ success was evident, as UF struggled. The Gators managed nearly 30 points per game, but that’s an inflated number buoyed against sub-par competition.
Addazio was a regular target for criticism. Yet, he came to Temple as its head coach, went with a more rushing-oriented offense, and the Owls had an astounding season. Interesting to ponder had he not tried to fit a square peg of Brantley into the round hole of UF’s offense how things might have gone.
Charlie Weis followed Addazio this season and had even less success. Brantley was injured much of the season, forcing true freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel in ahead of their time. Brissett and Driskel are two very different players from Brantley, much like Brantley differed from Tebow.
A team can function with two different style quarterbacks, and offenses tailored to their individual strengths. It worked right there in Gainesville in 2006, with Chris Leak employing a different style from Tebow. Oklahoma is using an approach similar with Landry Jones and Blake Bell. However, it can’t be a 50-50 proposition.
Borges’ replacement at San Diego State, the aforementioned Ludwig, had previous stops at Cal and Utah. Neither was particularly noteworthy for outstanding offensive production. Lindley had played with a sort of reckless abandon in 2010 that worked in no small part because of his cannon arm. SDSU’s offense was less predicated on that, and looked more like what Cal was trying to do while compensating for its lack of a standout passer.
True, SDSU did lose key receivers from the 2010 campaign. However, the entire look of the Aztecs’ offenses differed greatly. Running back Ronnie Hillman was used far more frequently; Lindley was as well, interestingly enough. He passed 447 times, compared to 421 in 2010. However, his yards per completion dropped by two, and he threw for nearly 700 fewer altogether as Ludwig relegated more frequently to bubble screen duty.
UU did finsh 13-0 and won the Sugar Bowl in the 2008 season with Ludwig managing the offense. Interestingly, it was when he entrusted more of the responsibility to his quarterback that the Ute offense excelled. Ludwig allowed Brian Johnson to call plays at the line, rather than follow strict play calls from the booth and sidelines. BJ orchestrated an attack that shocked Alabama, and kept the Crimson Tide off balance.
Johnson is now UU’s offensive coordinator, the youngest in the FBS. Johnson’s quick ascension speaks to an underlining theme of this entire discussion. Quarterbacks have long been recognized as extensions of the coaching staff on the field. This is hardly a new concept, as I believe British archaeologists unearthed hieroglyphics of Ra mastering Osiris’s playbook and leading the Egyptians to a crushing defeat of the Mesapotamians in the Babylon Bowl.
To what extent, though, can define a team’s success. Without underselling David Shaw’s outstanding debut season as Stanford’s head coach, he certainly had a much smoother transition with Andrew Luck behind center. Luck is both the prototype of what previously (and still to a large extent does) quantify a great pro quarterback, as well as the consummate game manager. The two features aren’t one in the same, though.
There was no prototype for Cam Newton when he stormed onto the scene in 2010. He is the true moldbreaker at the NFL level as he was in college, able to carry over Gus Malzahn’s vision and tweak it with an on-field insight few share. That didn’t work out too badly for the Tigers, did it?
Of course, the examples of rigid philosophy winning out remain more prevalent. Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams had a gameplan, did not deviate from it, and executed it to precision. There was no tinkering beyond adding new caveats to stay ahead of defensive coordinators.
Now, a player of Tommie Frazier’s caliber had plenty to do with the Cornhuskers’ offense clicking with such precision in the mid-1990s. Likewise, Alabama has won a pair of championships with Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron remaining within the confines of the system. Osborne and Saban recruited players who fit their needs, rather than tailoring the needs to the player.
The question heading into the coming years is which is the better mindset?