In a way I don’t want to write this week’s column because if there is one position in the NFL that gets too much praise and blame it is the quarterback, not to mention all that gets written about them, but given the importance of the position you can understand why this is the case. I want to take a look at a specific aspect of the position, namely quarterback development, and use this to cast my eye over some of the more talked about players in the league.
The genesis of this column start with something I mentioned on the podcast last week when I was talking about what Greg Cosell mentioned about quarterbacks, specifically that he had been told that the greatest aid to a quarterback’s development was experience, and that the trick was to amass enough reps that the game slowed down for a player whilst they still had the physical tools to take advantage of it.
With the Bengals heading into their bye week with a 6-0 record for the first time since the 1988 season when they went to the Super Bowl, and only the third time in their history, much attention has been on their quarterback Andy Dalton. Even though he has lead the Bengals to the playoffs in each of if his four previous seasons, the fifth year quarterback has never won a playoff game and has earned himself a reputation for failing in high pressure games, particularly when they are nationally televised. A current theme for the Bengals’ season has been to ask what has changed for Dalton this year.
It is typical of how our society operates these days that we start searching for a quick fix reason for why a player has improved, but I think that what has happened in Cincinnati is a combination of natural player progression and the team surrounding Dalton. The obvious place to start is that the Bengals are much healthier this season on offence, tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones didn’t play last year, whilst AJ Green was fighting injuries and was not himself. This year they are all healthy and the depth and balance has really helped the Bengals succeed. Another part of their success is that Hue Jackson is now in his second year as coordinator, enabling him to run through the full gamut of his play book. We have seen unbalanced lines and successful passes to backup linemen as well as the usual trick plays that Mohamed Sanu can offer with his history as a college quarterback.
So is the success Dalton is having this season simply a product of his environment? I would argue that there is evidence this isn’t the case, although these factors are definitely playing a role. You always have to be cautious with training camp stories, but one them familiar to anybody who frequents the Bengals.com site will be that Dalton has been working with the Dr Tom House in the offseason to work on his throwing mechanics. This in of itself is not a new thing as this is not the first season working with this training group who also look after Tom Brady among other elite throwing talents. However, this year he is also having them check in with him during the season, and already Geoff Hobson the editor of Bengals.com is writing here about how Dalton is retaining the new mechanics better according to one of the coaches from that team. Now I will remain properly sceptical about this, but it would make sense as he has now been to two offseason camps, and it is so hard to improve anything during the season that you would expect player progress to be incremental with occasional jumps as things click, and this is what seems to be the case with Dalton.
And this is not all, I recently heard Dave Lapham, ex Bengals linemen and radio commentator, talking on the Gridiron podcast about the fact that on a Tuesday, which is a player day off for the Bengals, Dalton is in the building working with the coaches on the game plan for the following week.
I don’t think that any single one of these factors is the one that we should point to and go that’s the reason for this year’s success, like so much in life it is more complex than that. It is also worth noting that not all players can be expected to improve at the same rate, but there definitely seems to be less patience in the modern game, and with a task as complex as playing quarterback in the NFL, which is so reliant on others doing their jobs around you, seems short sighted. However, it takes a special kind of owner to have the kind of patience with such a long term strategy if they don’t have an established coach or structure.
If you look around the league, everybody got their quarterbacks in different ways. The Patriots famously picked Tom Brady in the sixth round of the draft, where as the Packers equally famously picked Aaron Rodgers as he slipped down the first round of the draft despite already having an elite level quarterback already on the roster. Both have also led their teams to unbeaten records through six weeks, as has Cam Newton who was the first player taken in the 2011 draft, the same draft where the Bengals picked Andy Dalton in the second round. The Panthers have not surrounded Newton with the same kind of talent, but they have moulded their offence around their quarterback to take advantage of his ability to run the ball as well as throw. This seems to be working very well for the Panthers this season, and has done in the past, but it always worries me when a team exposes a player to the kind of hits you get when the quarterback becomes a defined runner, and at some point they have to transition that QB into playing a more traditional pocket passer role or their career will get cut short.
For several years people questioned the picking of Andy Dalton over Colin Kaepernick, who was the very next pick after Dalton in that 2011 draft, but whilst Kaepernick had early success and has played in a Super Bowl, if you compare the way their careers are currently progressing then the Bengals pick no longer needs defending. There are a lot of other problems in San Francisco, but Kaepernick does not seem to have progressed in terms of reading defences, going through his progressions or his accuracy, and this looks like it may well limit the length of his career in the NFL, particularly if the team don’t commit to shaping their offence around his running skill set like they have done in Carolina.
Finally, at the other end of the scale, Peyton Manning is our final undefeated quarterback, but whilst in previous years this would have likely been down to him, it has been anything but that this year. The window of physical ability seems to be slamming shut for Manning, and even though he was able to hit Emmanuel Sanders for a beautiful long touchdown, he is throwing too many bad balls. Not only that, but as a player stops being able to rely on their body, they start to make mental mistakes as they try to compensate, and it would appear that we are likely heading into the very final stretch of Manning’s career. Whilst it is unlikely that anything will change until this team starts losing games, the success the Broncos have had is likely not sustainable, and then it will be time for them to address the cyclical question that faces all NFL franchises, what do we do about the quarterback? There is no one way to deal with this issue, but how they are developed seems to be something that is too often overlooked in the media, even if not by the teams themselves.
That said, given our picks last week, maybe I should be keeping quiet about judging NFL teams and media, but let’s see if I can get myself back into an overall winning record this week.
Gee: Week 6 5-9 Overall 45-46
Dan: Week 6 6-8 Overall 43-48
Seahawks @ 49ers (+5.5)
The 49ers are coming off a win, and a pair of improving performances from Colin Kaepernick, but whilst the Seahawks are having some problems adjusting to their new defensive coordinator, I think they will have more than enough to cope with the 49ers limited offence. This is one of those lines that worry you, but I’ll put my faith in the talent of Seattle and hope that they continue to work Jimmy Graham into their offensive plans.
Gee’s Pick: Seahawks
Dan’s Pick: Seahawks
Bills @ Jaguars (+4.5)
This is a real tough one for me to call as neither team is truly at home. The Bills are dealing with injuries to Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins, who look not to be available for this game. The problem is that the Jaguars have not managed to put enough good play together consistently to win. The Bills managed to put up twenty-one points against the Bengals last week with EJ Manuel at quarterback, and Watkins missing for a chunk of time, so although the points make me hesitant, I will back the Bills in London
Gee’s Pick: Bills
Dan’s Pick: Bills
Falcons @ Titans (+4.5)
The Falcons showed their weaknesses last week in New Orleans, but the coaching staff will have learnt a lot about their team and there were certainly plenty of coachable moments. I think things get back on track against the Titans who didn’t put much of a fight last week against a resurgent Dolphins team. The other thing that worries me about the Titans is their coaching, and I thought Ross Tucker made a very interesting point about the sacks given up by the Titans in his discussion with Greg Cosell this week. According to Ross, once a player has been beaten twice for sacks, the rest are on the coaching staff as they either need to help that player with the scheme or get someone else in there. I think the Falcons will get back to winning ways in this one.
Gee’s Pick: Falcons
Dan’s Pick: Falcons
Browns @ Rams (-5.5)
The Browns have finished their last three games within three points of their opponents, so my reflex pick would be the Browns in this one. However, the Browns have faced two bad defences in those games, and the Broncos were singularly ill equipped to take advantage of the Browns thirty-first ranked rush defence by DVOA. However, this week they are on the road against a Rams team whose defence is playing excellently, and who may not have a good ranking of their rush offence, but they have Todd Gurley who racked up one hundred and fifty-nine yards against the Packers before their bye week. I think this is a game the Browns fail to keep close.
Gee’s Pick: Rams
Dan’s Pick: Browns
Vikings @ Lions (+2.5)
The Lions managed to get their first win last week, but there is still a lot of dysfunction and whilst the Vikings are not firing on all cylinders in terms of their offence, I have faith in Zimmer’s defence. I think they have more than enough to go into Detroit and get the win.
Gee’s Pick: Vikings
Dan’s Pick: Vikings
Saints @ Colts (-4.5)
This is a really hard game for me to pick as I was really impressed with the Saints offence last week, but I still felt their defence took advantage of situational factors and played poorly against the run. The Colts however do not have a good rush offence, are struggling with Andrew Luck’s play this season, and are not great on defence. I’m picking this based on Drew Brees starting to look like Drew Brees again, but I’m not convinced about it.
Gee’s Pick: Saints
Dan’s Pick: Saints
Steelers @ Chiefs (+1.5)
The Chiefs season seems to be falling apart, whilst the Steelers have remained competitive despite the fluctuations at quarterback. It is never easy to play in Arrowhead Stadium, but I think the Chiefs will be coming to England off the back of a loss.
Gee’s Pick: Steelers
Dan’s Pick: Steelers
Texans @ Dolphins (-4.5)
The question about the Dolphins is whether the reaction Dan Campbell got is sustainable, but they certainly played more like the team we were expecting them to be in the preseason. The Texans benefitted from being more settled at quarterback last week, but their defence still ranks in the twenties by DVOA. I’m going to follow Dan in his blind faith in the Dolphins for this week.
Gee’s Pick: Dolphins
Dan’s Pick: Dolphins
Jets @ Patriots (-9.5)
The Patriots are playing really well despite some problems with their offensive line, but the Jets defence is too good for them to run away with this game and so whilst I’m not sure that the Jets will win, I’m sure the game will be closer than ten points.
Gee’s Pick: Jets
Dan’s Pick: Jets
Buccaneers @ Washington (-3.5)
I am really not sure about this game. The Washington defence has not been good over the last few weeks, whilst Kirk Cousins has been throwing too many interceptions. Meanwhile the Buccaneers have flashed on defence, and been inconsistent on offence as they have been going through the growing pains of a rookie quarterback. I’m basing this pick on the thirteen places between them in DVOA rankings and that the game is in Washington, but I don’t like it.
Gee’s Pick: Washington
Dan’s Pick: Buccaneers
Raiders @ Chargers (-4.5)
The Raiders have improved this season, but whilst the offence will likely move the ball on the Chargers and their twenty-sixth ranked defence, Philip Rivers only just lost their shoot out to the Packers, and I think that the loss of Justin Tuck will hurt the Raiders defence a lot.
Gee’s Pick: Chargers
Dan’s Pick: Chargers
Cowboys @ Giants (-4.5)
The Giants ran into an Eagles team who are struggling, but not on defence and that enabled them to win ugly against the Giants. The Cowboys though are a different proposition and I’m not convinced that the switch to Matt Cassel is going to jump start the Cowboys offence.
Gee’s Pick: Giants
Dan’s Pick: Giants
Eagles @ Panthers (-2.5)
The Eagles got their win last week with defence, and they have been running the ball better, but this week they face the fifth ranked defence by DVOA in the league. The battle between the Eagles offence, and the limited but effective offence of the Panthers should be fascinating, but in the end I’m backing the unbeaten team at home.
Gee’s Pick: Panthers
Dan’s Pick: Panthers
Ravens @ Cardinals (-7.5)
The Cardinals may have struggled on the road, but they are welcoming a Ravens team who have a pass defence that will be ripe for the Cardinals to take advantage of. As long as Carson Palmer protects the ball a bit better this week then the Cardinals should have no problems in beating a Ravens team who are likely to struggle to move the ball on them as well. It feels very strange to make this pick, but the Ravens just aren’t a good team this year.
Gee’s Pick: Cardinals
Dan’s Pick: Cardinals