Sports

What’s More Important in NFL Quarterback Development: Nature or Nurture?

About a decade into Matt Hasselbeck’s NFL career, he was a veteran quarterback on a team that had just used a high draft pick on a young passer. Hasselbeck was the starter, but the rookie was clearly the quarterback of the team’s future. And early in the season, Hasselbeck remembers the rookie wanting to throw after practice.

“I don’t know what people’s image of a locker room is,” Hasselbeck said earlier this month, “but there’s not footballs lying around.”

The rookie went to the equipment room, which was locked. So he sought out a trainer to ask for a couple of footballs to use. The trainer unlocked the door but asked the QB to make sure the balls were returned to the cage after the session. On that team, that was the normal process if a quarterback wanted to put in extra work after practice.

Years later, Hasselbeck went to Indianapolis, and during weightlifting one day, second-year QB Andrew Luck yelled across the room to ask TY Hilton and Reggie Wayne if they wanted to throw after practice. They said yes, and by the time practice ended, a small army had descended upon the field. Three equipment guys were out there with footballs, shagging stray passes. Athletic trainers brought water and headsets. Video producers filmed the session. And before long, running backs, tight ends, and offensive and defensive linemen had joined in too. Suddenly, almost the entire team was putting in extra work. That was the norm in Indianapolis.

“I’m in the 15th year of my career, and I show up there and I’m like ‘Whoa, this is a machine,’” Hasselbeck says. “It felt like Peyton Manning was still in the building.”

Hasselbeck, now an analyst for ESPN, sees those examples as good illustrations of the different ways quarterbacks are developed in the NFL. He likens the process to cars driving on the highway. After a quarterback gets drafted, the team is responsible for putting him into a lane. Some teams offer a slow lane with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Others work faster, like a middle or left lane. And the best of the best, like what Hasselbeck saw in Indianapolis, build their quarterbacks an HOV lane.

Historically, about half of the quarterbacks picked in the first round of the NFL draft fail. Analysts and teams often explain this away by saying the position is hard to predict. But that ignores something hiding in plain sight: the fact that the best quarterback prospects usually land with the worst teams. NFL franchises often expect these passers to come in and navigate through the traffic to bring the team to the playoffs and beyond. But is nature or nurture more important for a quarterback’s long-term success?

This past April, five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the NFL draft, including three in the first three picks. The top prospect was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who went no. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Next came BYU’s Zach Wilson, who was taken by the Jets at no. 2. Trey Lance, a relatively anonymous quarterback from North Dakota State, went no. 3 to the 49ers. Ohio State’s Justin Fields fell to the Chicago Bears at no. 11. And Alabama’s Mac Jones went to the New England Patriots at no. 15.

In a vacuum, Lawrence is a better prospect than Lance. But the situations these two now find themselves in will undoubtedly impact how they develop. Lawrence is on a Jaguars team that went 1-15 last year and has a head coach in Urban Meyer who’s entering his first-ever NFL season. Lance, meanwhile, is with the 49ers, who were leading in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl just two seasons ago and employ offensive guru Kyle Shanahan as head coach. The question this draft class could help answer is: How much is a quarterback’s future determined by the team that drafts them?

To answer this, we can look to recent history. We collected a sample of all first- and second-round quarterbacks drafted between 2011 and 2018. We started in 2011 because that’s when the modern age of the league began and ended in 2018 because it’s too early to judge the more recent quarterbacks. We also included passers drafted later than the second round who started at least 16 games, which is somewhat self-selecting, but allows us to broaden our pool.

Then we looked at whether those passers had success with their first teams. It’s not easy to define quarterback success: There are a thousand variables involved, and no two circumstances are the same. So in order to be objective, we said a quarterback was successful if they got a contract extension after their rookie deal. Quarterbacks are so valuable in the NFL that almost every passer who’s good enough to start gets extended beyond his first contract. So while this isn’t a perfect definition, it at least shows whom teams were willing to invest in.

A couple more notes:

  • We excluded guys from the sample who might have gotten an extension but got hurt, like Robert Griffin III, Teddy Bridgewater, and Marcus Mariota.
  • We also excluded guys who didn’t play much for their first team but signed deals with their second (Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, and Tyrod Taylor).
  • Kirk Cousins was excluded because the Washington franchise tagged him two years in a row, which was not an extension but also not not an extension. Leave it to Washington to get a pass/fail exercise and choose neither.
  • We also removed Christian Hackenberg, one of the only quarterbacks ever drafted in the second round to never play a down in the NFL. Bless his heart.

That leaves us with 33 quarterbacks—15 of whom got contract extensions or will soon (we’re including Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, who are in negotiations with their teams), and 18 of whom did not.

Next we looked at those quarterbacks’ situations and how they factored into the equation. We separated teams into “good” and “bad” categories: “good” meaning the team either had a playoff appearance within the previous two seasons or a winning record over those seasons combined, and “bad” meaning they didn’t.

Our analysis found that “good” teams hit on quarterbacks almost two out of three times (64 percent), while “bad” teams hit on quarterbacks just one out of three times (32 percent). That’s a pretty big disparity, and it gets even more stratified when you look deeper into the numbers.

Three of the quarterbacks who were taken by “good” teams—Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, and Brock Osweiler—were all drafted by John Elway. Elway has a famously spotty track record with drafting quarterbacks, so if we take his misses out of the equation, the numbers get even more lopsided. Excluding Denver, “good” teams have hit on quarterbacks more than four out of every five times (82 percent), while “bad” teams are still at the 32 percent mark.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said when presented with those numbers. Koetter worked with no. 1 pick Jameis Winston from 2015 to 2018, first as offensive coordinator during Winston’s rookie season and then as head coach. Koetter says ultimately a quarterback’s talent is more important for their success than coaching. “But the other value people tend to forget with young quarterbacks who are drafted high is usually the higher they were drafted, the worse team they’re going to. So not only their talent, but the talent on their team makes a big difference.”

Former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson agrees. Pederson, a former NFL quarterback himself, coached the Eagles from 2016 to 2020 and oversaw the development of Carson Wentz, the no. 2 pick in 2016. Pederson says the most underrated aspect of a quarterback’s development is having a solid offensive line—ideally one where the starting five has been together for at least two or three years.

“Our championship in ’17-18—take away [left tackle] Jason Peters because he got hurt towards the middle of that season—but we had five guys that were stable guys and had been starting there in Philadelphia for a couple of years,” Pederson says. “That, to me, can also help a young quarterback thrive early in his career. You take teams that are 2-14, 3-13, 4-11 … they’re always drafting a quarterback and thinking that the quarterback is the answer. Well, I do think the quarterback is the answer. But what pieces do you have around that quarterback to help him and help the team be successful?”

You don’t need statistics to see this. Just look at the best quarterback draft picks from the last 10 years and the teams they landed on.

  • 2018: Josh Allen went to the Bills, who had made the playoffs the previous season.
  • 2018: Lamar Jackson went to a Ravens team that had just gone 9-7.
  • 2017: Patrick Mahomes went to a Chiefs team that had won 12 games with Alex Smith.
  • 2017: Deshaun Watson went to the Texans, who had won their division two years in a row.
  • 2016: Dak Prescott took over a Cowboys team with perhaps the league’s best roster (and definitely the league’s best offensive line).
  • 2012: Russell Wilson joined the Seahawks, who had one of the greatest defenses of all time.
  • 2012: Andrew Luck landed on a Colts team that was awful in 2011 but made the playoffs with Manning in 2010.

The last quarterback who was the primary force in turning around a bad situation early in their career was Cam Newton, who did so with the Panthers in 2011. Aside from him, just about every quarterback who’s been widely considered a “good” pick from the last 10 years went to a team that was building on some kind of preexisting success.

Going even further back, there have been more than 50 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 in the last 30 years. Only three have led their first teams to a Super Bowl win: Patrick Mahomes, and Peyton and Eli Manning. In fairness, six other quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 have played in a Super Bowl and lost the game (Jared Goff, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, and Drew Bledsoe). So if Tom Brady doesn’t beat Goff, McNabb, and Ryan in the Super Bowl, or Carson Wentz suits up for the Eagles instead of Nick Foles, these numbers would look different.

But for a league that takes pride in parity, it must be disheartening that over the last three decades, the only quarterbacks who were taken in the top 10 and then won a Super Bowl are a generational talent who went to a 12-win team, and Archie Manning’s sons. Even more disheartening is the fact that one of those sons did it by brazenly fighting the draft system. Eli was taken by the Chargers in 2004 but forced his way to the Giants out of fear of being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The modern NFL dogma says that bad teams can draft good quarterbacks and contend. But all this data suggests that while young quarterbacks can accelerate the progress of teams that are already trending in the right direction, they struggle to turn around teams that are stuck. By giving the top quarterback prospects to the worst teams, is the NFL draft setting up quarterback prospects for failure?

“Everything I’ve ever thought and done, I would say no,” says longtime NFL executive Joe Banner. “But the [examples] are pretty compelling.”

The 2021 draft could offer an interesting—and illuminating—test to this theory. The top two picks in this year’s draft, Lawrence and Wilson, are each going to start in Week 1. Everyone interviewed for this story said that sitting a quarterback at the beginning of their career is a beneficial luxury and can be extremely helpful for that passer’s growth. Just look at the success of Mahomes (who sat for a year behind Smith), Aaron Rodgers (three years behind Brett Favre), Tom Brady (one year behind Drew Bledsoe), and Drew Brees (one year behind Doug Flutie).

“They didn’t start right off the bat,” Koetter says of these QBs. “They went to teams where the pressure wasn’t on them and they got to sit back and watch somebody else and learn about the NFL game, whereas a lot of the guys drafted in the top five are forced to come in and play right away.”

Hasselbeck got the chance to marinate in a loaded Packers quarterback room that featured Favre as the starting quarterback, Pederson as the backup, Hall of Famer Mike Holmgren as the head coach, and Andy Reid as the quarterbacks coach. “They believed it was important to invest in the room,” Hasselbeck says. He spent three years learning and absorbing before he started, but reckons he probably needed four.

“It takes young quarterbacks close to three years,” Pederson says. “Three years to truly understand the offense, understand defense.”

But nobody gets three years of patience anymore—least of all highly drafted quarterbacks.

Wilson will be leading the Jets out for Week 1, largely because there’s really no one else who can. The Jets have little-to-no experience within the quarterbacks room; backups Mike White and James Morgan have never thrown an NFL pass, while Josh Johnson is a career journeyman who was signed a week into training camp. The offensive coaching staff doesn’t have much experience either. Mike LaFleur is in his first year as an offensive coordinator, and Rob Calabrese is in his first year as a quarterbacks coach. Greg Knapp, a veteran quarterbacks coach who was hired this spring specifically to work with Wilson, tragically passed away in July.

Compounding the experience issue is the lack of talent around Wilson. New York’s already-barren defense has been depleted by injuries this summer and seems to be one of the weakest units in the entire league. Wilson will presumably be playing from behind a lot, and the Jets offensive line has struggled mightily to protect the QB in the preseason. That’s a lot of bad combinations for a team that has recently seen two top quarterback prospects come and go without much success.

“[Wilson’s] going to have to be Superman in a lot of ways that people will never see,” Hasselbeck says. “It’s not even about throwing a football. He can obviously do that as well as anybody in the world. But who’s sitting with him in the cold tub when he’s got two broken ribs, and he had a bad game, and they’re playing on a short week? Who’s coaching him through ‘How are we going to get you out there Thursday night? Or are we not?’

“I’m not saying he can’t be successful,” Hasselbeck says. “It just doesn’t feel like he’s in the same fertile soil.”

The other first-round quarterback locked in to start Week 1 is Lawrence. who has been primed as a no. 1 pick for years. His defining quality is the absence of weakness—and when you’re that talented, starting Week 1 comes with the territory.

But Jacksonville’s offense has had a tough preseason. Three starters on the offensive line are hurt, a fourth is on the COVID-19 list, and the team hasn’t been able to consistently protect Lawrence. Running back Travis Etienne Jr. is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury. The wide receivers are struggling to separate on their routes. And first-year head coach Urban Meyer—whose methods are already bugging some of his players—has responded to this sluggishness by insisting the team needs to establish the run.

“We kind of went into the game [like] ‘Let’s run the ball at them a little bit with play action and [get] Trevor comfortable a little bit,’” Meyer told reporters last week. “We are not balanced right now.”

This is what Banner, the former Eagles president, sees as a self-fulfilling prophecy that many coaches fall into. A young quarterback comes in, the coach doesn’t quite trust them, so the coach calls a bunch of runs on first down. The coach is afraid of calling a pass, getting an incompletion, and leaving the rookie quarterback to face a second-and-10. But that means the offense is being shaped by fear.

“If you’re saying, ‘I got to make sure he’s not in second-and-10,’ and that’s what’s driving your play call, you’re actually setting the quarterback up for failure,” Banner says.

Calling runs on first down ignores the fact that the best way to move the chains is by throwing. The average NFL carry last year went for 4.4 yards, tied for the highest mark in league history. But the average pass play last season gained 6.4 yards, or almost 50 percent more yardage per play. “If you’re afraid to give [a young quarterback] anything complicated to do, and he’s playing any kind of a decent defense, he can’t succeed,” Banner says. “That quarterback is dead meat.”

While Wilson and Lawrence will be starting in Week 1, Chicago’s Justin Fields and San Francisco’s Trey Lance will likely be sitting. The Bears are rolling with Andy Dalton as their Week 1 starter, and the 49ers are sticking with incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo.

Bears fans are desperate to see Fields play, as he’s the team’s long-term solution at quarterback, but head coach Matt Nagy has decided to keep him on the bench, at least for now. Pederson, who worked with Nagy under Andy Reid in Kansas City and visited the coach at Bears camp earlier this month, believes that is the right move.

“Fans see the young quarterback, the shiny new car, and they want to drive the shiny new car,” Pederson says. “Sometimes that car is not ready to play. It’s not ready to perform, especially if there’s a veteran guy there that can help the team along that first year.”

Pederson thinks Dalton is the perfect veteran to help Chicago bring Fields along slowly.

“I was fully prepared to let Carson [Wentz] sit the first year and just watch Sam Bradford go play and be the starter,” Pederson says about his time with the Eagles. “[Let Carson] learn how to be the face of the franchise, learn how to speak to the media, and the media obligations, and the fans. How do you handle adversity in the city of Philadelphia when it comes? When you talk about being a pro, that’s what being a pro is.”

The Eagles ended up trading Bradford to Minnesota when Teddy Bridgewater got hurt just before the 2016 season, thrusting Wentz into the job in Week 1. But Pederson thinks sitting can benefit Fields. “If Justin doesn’t have to play the first year, I think that would be unbelievable to his development and his growth in the future.”

The same logic applies to Lance, though Lance has an even stronger supporting cast than Fields. While Fields has a shaky offensive line and a massive question mark at left tackle now that rookie Teven Jenkins has undergone back surgery, Lance has All-Pro Trent Williams guarding his blind side. He also has a coach in Shanahan who’s gotten career-best performances from about a half-dozen different quarterbacks in just 12 years. Consider what Shanahan did for undrafted free agent Nick Mullens in 2018 and 2020, raising the passer from relative obscurity to no. 2 on the list of quarterbacks with the most passing yards in their first 16 starts:

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Nick Mullens
  3. Andrew Luck
  4. Kurt Warner
  5. Tony Romo

“When you talk about young quarterback success, I think that goes hand in hand with how good the coaches are … at scheming and formatting,” says former NFL quarterback Matt Schaub, who played for Shanahan in Houston and Atlanta. “Kyle is a master at game planning and exploiting defenses and getting guys open. The run looks like the play action, and it all marries together so a defense can’t get a read on your formations and what type of plays that you’re going to be running. … As long as you as a quarterback make good decisions, you’re generally going to find yourself having a lot of success.”

If any player has found the HOV lane, it’s Lance.

The other player who was rumored to be an option for that 49ers HOV lane was Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. But the 49ers ultimately chose Lance at no. 3, and Jones went no. 15 to the Patriots—not too shabby of a place to wind up.

Jones is now on a team with an obvious track record of success (and an even more obvious shadow looming over the quarterback position). And even without Brady, New England is a dream place for a passer. Jones thrived under Nick Saban at Alabama, and now he’s playing for perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history in Bill Belichick. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spent 11 seasons working with Brady. The offensive line is good, and the defense will be much better than last season. Yes, the wide receiver position is notoriously thin, but the team invested in tight ends this offseason and is more focused on controlling the middle of the field.

Whether Jones will start Week 1 over Cam Newton remains a question—Newton has reportedly had better command early on, while Jones is steadily growing accustomed to the more complicated parts of the offense. But that decision and the others surrounding this class of QBs show what a fascinating test case this group will present. Lawrence and Wilson will be playing immediately for teams that combined for three wins last year. Fields, Lance, and Jones may start their careers on the bench, but all three joined franchises that have made the playoffs within the last two seasons.

Hasselbeck lives in Boston now, and he says the car metaphor for young quarterbacks occurred to him because he sits in traffic all the time. Getting stuck is always frustrating. But it’s even worse when you see cars in other lanes going by.

“You don’t even know who you’re mad at,” Hasselbeck says. “But you need to be mad at somebody.”

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