Quarterbacks coming out of the spread Offense are all Hype

Published on April 23, 2009 by     

graham-harrell-throwing-the-ballIt is a battle of this and that, of before and after.

But with a pile of passing yards and a bucket of collegiate touchdowns in tow, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel believes the wide-open, receivers-all-over-the-field offense now dominating leagues like the Big 12 would work just fine in the NFL. “I’ve been telling some coaches I think that’s the way the game’s going,” Daniel said. ” … And that I’m already there.”

Trouble is not many folks calling the shots in the NFL are ready to agree because “there” is deep in the backfield, lined up in the shotgun, several yards behind the center, taking the snap and slinging the ball around. Not once in a while. Not in just certain situations. No, all the time, every time and Daniel has done it in the same type of offense since he was in eighth grade.

And now he has plenty of company as college football is littered with various forms of the spread offense with quarterbacks, lined up deep in the backfield, ringing up the stats, teams gathering up the wins and fans filling the seats.

Then they finish college, try to move on to professional football and …

“They find a little trouble in our league,” said Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn, a former quarterback. “They find, I think, they’ve got a portion of their game down and they’re pretty good at it, very talented at it. They know how to get the ball out quick, they know how to avoid, they learn how to make decisions with the ball, pulling it back, and make lots of plays.

“But they also find the whole game is not played that way at this level. It’s just not, maybe once a year and there’s the rub.”

So much so that as more high schools send more spread quarterbacks on to college — Texas coach Mack Brown said earlier this month on national signing day that one of his prized recruits, quarterback Garrett Gilbert, never took a direct snap from center in three seasons of high school football — the NFL finds itself having to re-train many of its newest passers.

Which is adding even more time, and in some ways more uncertainty, to an already steep learning curve for a young professional quarterback.

“The biggest challenge for guys who have spent pretty much their whole college careers — and even nowadays, their whole high school careers — lined up in the shotgun and now they’ve got to learn to get up underneath center, they’ve got to learn to take a snap, learn to take a full drop,” said Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, a former NFL quarterbacks coach. “I think that’s, fundamentally, one of those simple skills that just got skipped over to go play college football.

“And then they find it’s tough to take that full drop behind center, a five- or seven-step drop, because at that level, in the NFL, the ball has to be released immediately without taking a gather or a hitch step. Guys just aren’t able to get the ball out when it has to be released.”

It’s that timing, timing with receivers, timing in offenses built around getting the ball to a certain spot in a given amount of time that is the biggest issue.

NFL quarterbacks are asked to do that in a traditional behind-center posture where they take the snap, drop back three, five or seven steps, survey the defense and deliver the ball. In the shotgun, quarterbacks stand deep in the backfield, often taking the snap and simply throwing from that spot. And it’s the pocket passers, like Georgia’s Matthew Stafford and USC’s Mark Sanchez who are at the top of most teams quarterback ratings in this year’s draft.

“And the difference is the other guys, the guys who played in the spread, just played the game different back there with so much space, they play deeper in the pocket,” said Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, a long-time NFL quarterback. “Quarterbacks in this league don’t play that deep (in the backfield) so it’s an adjustment and one that can take some time. They have to see it more quickly and they have to do while having the footwork to get back from center, set up and throw.”

“If he’s never played under center and never taken snaps, that’s different … it’s a different skill to do all the things you do from the gun from under center,” said Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who coached the Patriots quarterbacks and was the team’s offensive coordinator before taking the Broncos job. “Your footwork in the running game is awkward, your takeaway from center, your drops are shorter than you’re used to. Now the line is right in your face, or that’s your perception because you’ve played back for so long, now your reads are cloudier. Instead of looking downfield, you’re looking at the guys right in front of you.”

Teams can play the spread or at least a slightly tempered version of the true no-back offense, as McDaniels showed as Patriots offensive coordinator in New England’s record-setting season in 2007, but the almost-constant worry throughout a quarterback-starved league is the ability to protect the passer in a formation where the offensive linemen are almost always outnumbered in the rush.

In ’07 when the Patriots set a single-season record for points as both quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss each set single-season touchdown records as well, New England was able to protect Brady throughout a 16-0 regular season and two playoff wins.

But in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants battered Brady on the way to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the league’s championship game.

“Guys who come in and only have been in the gun and have only the wide receivers out, they haven’t had much concern about protection,” Zorn said. ” … And now (in the NFL) all of these things come into play. If that quarterback hasn’t seen those adjustments to what defenses do in a game, that’s a long learning process.”

“What happens is a guy who’s only been in the gun has the first obstacle before he’s done anything else,” McDaniels said. “So now he has to learn how to work in the offense before he learns to play in that offense. If he’s never been under center before there may be a moment of ‘I don’t know what the hell to do.”’

There is also the matter of scoring in the NFL when the offense runs out of real estate it needs to get its receivers free. The Broncos, sporting plenty of open formations this past season with former quarterback Jay Cutler working out of the shotgun because they eventually watched their proud run game whither with seven running backs on injured reserve, were second in the league in yards gained per game, but 16th in points scored and 24th in time of possession.

“So, I think it is difficult,” said Texans general manager Rick Smith. “Because, as a quarterback, coming out of that kind of offense, you now have two learning curves. The first being taking the snap and getting back into the pocket and the second being reading defenses while you’re doing that in an offense that isn’t going to play the way you’re used to playing very often.”

So players like Daniel, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell and Sam Houston State’s Rhett Bomar spent much of their pre-draft weeks trying to show the league’s scouts and personnel executives they can make the jump the NFL by quickly making the short move back from center.

But the general feeling around the league is those same quarterbacks, and many others like them, have struggled in places like the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, looking uncertain in their footwork in those all-star games in the more traditional three-, five- and seven-step drops and therefore, looking uncertain when they threw the ball.

“I was in the gun about 90 percent of the time when I was at Purdue,” said former Bears and current Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. “And I went into a power running game, two-back, seven-step drop system in Chicago when I got to the NFL and it took a while to get accustomed to that. It’s not an excuse, but you’re going from what was your comfort zone to something else while trying to do the right thing with the ball. There’s an adjustment there and probably bigger than you think as a player.”

It’s also why, or at least part of the reason why, quarterbacks like Texas A&M’s Stephen McGee, Alabama’s John Parker Wilson and West Virginia’s Pat White, who played in offenses that required them to throw far less than the fling-it-around guys, are getting long looks this year and are expected to be selected ahead of many quarterbacks who finished their collegiate careers with far gaudier passing numbers.

White, for example, threw for 5,717 yards in his career with the Mountaineers, or just 12 more yards than Harrell threw for in 2007 alone. Yet Harrell finds himself with much more to prove than White, who himself is even trying to shed the rather weighty burden of a quarterback who ran the ball plenty and who’s just 6-feet tall.

“Coming to Texas Tech, I knew that was something I was going to deal with,” said Harrell, who threw for at least 4,700 yards and 41 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. ” It’s something you expect.”

“But you want to see how a guy gets back there and how he makes the throws he needs to make,” Kubiak said. “If he’s got a good enough arm and is a good enough athlete to make the changes he has to with his feet, then he’s got a chance. It may take more time and a lot of work, and maybe he doesn’t play as quickly as people expect, but that’s why they call us coach, to figure out a way to get them to do it. If he has the tools, if he can do it, we have to figure out a way to get it done.”

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