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Lessons From Super Bowl XLVI: Greg Cosell On Quarterbacks

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Greg Cosell's analysis of the playoffs has made the otherwise boring NFL Films Blog an everyday-must-read for me and he capped it off today with a succinct description of the attributes that were necessary for Eli Manning to make his amazing throw to Mario Manningham on Sunday, late in the fourth quarter, that helped propel the G-Men to their Super Bowl win.

The attributes he talked about allow for a quarterback to make game-changing throws and big plays for his team have been mentioned on his blog before, and Cosell brought them up in reference to Alex Smith when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Saints. He described the final drive down the field that culminated in a Smith to Vernon David touchdown pass.

Cosell said:

3 throws in the final 3½ minutes. All 3 came from the pocket. Each demanded quick decision making, timing, anticipation and accuracy, attributes necessary for high level quarterback play in game-deciding situations. For the first time in his career the burden of playoff victory was placed on Alex Smith, and he was outstanding.

Cosell wrote again in reference to Smith the next week, and talked about what Smith was unable to replicate in the subsequent game in which the Niners lost to the Giants. Cosell describes several plays in which Smith failed to pull the trigger, then finished with this:

These are just a few examples of Smith's tentative and uncertain pocket play last Sunday. The bottom line was this: Smith was reluctant to let it loose on routes and throws that were not only well designed, but were open. They were primary reads. No progressions were involved.

One of the attributes that separates high level quarterback play in big games and critical moments is the willingness to make stick throws into smaller windows. Smith did that with confidence against the Saints. In the NFC Championship game, he was hesitant and cautious on throws that were clearly defined. Simply put, Smith left a lot of plays on the field against the Giants. While Williams publicly shouldered the burden of defeat, it was his quarterback who failed to deliver on the promise he had shown a week earlier.

Cosell talks about the most important attributes that make a quarterback elite. The attributes that make a quarterback "clutch" or possess the ability to "just make plays." Things I've failed to adequately describe or understand. The nice part about reading Cosell is that he describes how these vague and semantically sensitive concepts are measurable and identifiable, and can be seen on film. Many have tried to describe what makes a quarterback great and there are a million definitions out there, but for whatever reason Cosell seems to have crystallized it as well as I've ever seen in his latest article. Maybe I just have a short memory or maybe I just need to get out more, but this summed it up for me and it's what I will continue to come back to when writing about football, I'm sure.


The most overlooked characteristic when discussing quarterbacks is accuracy. The better term is ball location. Think back to Ben Roethlisberger's throw against the Cardinals to win Super Bowl 43. The ball was placed in the only spot that could have produced a completion. It cleared the outstretched hand of Arizona's Ralph Brown by no more than 3 inches.

It was not Big Ben "making a play," as many like to declare when discussing Roethlisberger's abilities. Rather, it was the product of a particular and identifiable trait - accuracy - that can be quantified and analyzed.

He continues, citing Aaron Rodgers throw to Greg Jennings in last year's Super Bowl, against Roethlisberger's Steelers, on a crucial third and 10 in the fourth quarter:

We know the throw was astonishingly accurate. The more important attribute that Rodgers demonstrated was the willingness to make a stick throw into a tight window. That's a measurable attribute. And you cannot play quarterback at a high level, i.e., a Super Bowl winning level, without it.

Finally, he talks about the above mentioned pass from Manning to Manningham, describing in detail what was obvious to everyone but not easily explained - it was an extremely difficult throw to make into the teeth of the defense, required lightning quick recognition and decision making, and pinpoint accuracy.

Not many quarterbacks would have taken that rail shot. That one throw, the defining play in Super Bowl 46, highlighted a number of critical attributes essential to play the quarterback position at a championship level: quick progression reading, decision making, the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows, and accuracy.

All these traits are visible and discernible on film. They are some of the subtleties of quarterback play, the nuances demanded at the NFL level. It's a highly disciplined craft. Critical moments in big games are not defined by random and arbitrary play. It's tangible and quantifiable skills that most often produce the memorable plays.