We've been talking about quarterbacks around here a lot lately, for obvious reasons, and there have been some good general, philosophical discussions going on as to what it takes to be a top-level, consistently elite quarterback in this league. Ultimately that's what Seahawks fans want from either Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson and of course there have been some passionate opinions on which option is better for 2012. Prior to Friday's game with the Chiefs, Mr. Kasparek and Mr. Beekers both presented excellent articles on Russell Wilson's impending start; Josh with his great look at history of so-called 'scrambling quarterbacks' for the Seahawks and the problems with those types of players, and Thomas with his in-depth and excellent look at the specific and tangible skills that Wilson needed to show on Friday to win the starting job - each breaking down their take on what factors will come into play and what Wilson would need to do to have sustained success in this league.
The basic premise of both articles - though each author hit on different points from differing angles and evidence - was that Russell Wilson's absolute best chance to have sustained, consistent success in the NFL is to develop as a pocket passer first and foremost. Period. His ability to extend broken plays and grab first downs when protections break down or receivers are blanketed are a definite asset and no one here is denying that. But, his ability to improvise and run around when things go haywire are not going to make him a good NFL quarterback; at the end of the day, his passing will. So, that's what we're going to be concentrate on the most.
I think Josh's take has come from years of watching NFL football and his admiration for the Bill Walsh school of thought more than anything, but this closely parallels the Greg Cosell school of thought on the quarterback position, something that I think Thomas and I both subscribe to heavily. Cosell has broken down what he looks for closely in his evaluation of quarterback position in the NFL over the past few months in a series of blog posts. He breaks down the attributes that allow for a quarterback to make game-changing throws and big plays for his team, and one example he wrote on was Alex Smith's great play in the Divisional Round of the 2011 Playoffs that saw the San Francisco 49ers beat the Saints. He described the final drive down the field that culminated in a Smith-to-Vernon Davis 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 Kyle 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, and instead of just rattling off cliches like "he's clutch" or "he just make plays," Cosell 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. Cosell:
"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 Big Ben'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."
Another prime example was offered by Cosell when he gave a succinct description of the attributes that were necessary for Eli Manning to make his amazing throw to Mario Manningham late in the fourth quarter of the Big Show that helped propel the G-Men to their Super Bowl win. He described, 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."
So - when you hear Thomas, or Joshua, or me hammer on the idea that Wilson must learn to be a pocket passer first and foremost and think of his scrambling ability as an ancillary benefit with his athleticism, this is the school of thought that we're drawing from. I don't think any of us thought it was impossible for Russell to develop these things and we have described that carefully, and after seeing Wilson in action against Kansas City on Friday, things are looking even brighter for the 5'10-and-a-half rookie.
Even Cosell thinks so. Greg was on with Rob Rang and Doug Farrar on KJR's Chalk Talk program on Saturday and Cosell made it a point to watch all the coaches tape from Wilson's first three Seahawks appearances. When asked by Farrar to describe his reaction to watching the tape, Cosell responded.
"You'd be a fool, and I watched the tape, to not say that Russell Wilson was very, very impressive. There are always specific things that I look for, and there were a couple of plays that really stood out to me. He had a completion to [Anthony] McCoy, it was a great throw in the 2-minute [offense to end the first half], and it came against man-free for 22 yards. I thought that was a terrific throw; he actually looked left because he had the X-iso on his left, and he didn't have it, and he came right back to McCoy in the middle of the field. It was a very tight throw, and that's an NFL throw."
In case you're racking your memory to recall at that throw - here's how it looked:
Below - you can see him look at Braylon Edwards at the X, in a one-on-one situation. Doesn't like what he sees, moves his progression to Y tight end Anthony McCoy, up the seam. He pulls the trigger almost immediately.
Cosell goes on:
"Overall, what really stands out to me about Wilson, which is essential if he's to be an NFL starter, he's very decisive with his reads and throws, so he does not hold the ball very long. The concern, when you're 5'10 and a half, is that the pass rush gets too close to you and then you can't see. He's been extremely decisive in the preseason, and that's all you can judge by. I don't think anyone can sit here and say 'this guy's going to be a great NFL quarterback.' No one knows that. I've watched the three games - that's what shows up on film."
This 'decisiveness' is something that we talk about a lot when just describing quarterbacks in general terms, but that above play was a nice example, as cited by Cosell. Still, Cosell goes back to the scrambling issue - something he broke down in detail recently when talking about Michael Vick. In that blog post, Cosell wrote, "When Vick entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, he was immediately celebrated as an athletic innovator who was going to revolutionize the game, surpass accepted and time-worn philosophies, and compel a re-thinking of the perceived limits of the NFL quarterback position."
He goes on, "It never quite happened in Atlanta, and it hasn't really worked out that way in Philadelphia. There always will be breathtaking moments. Vick is a transcendent athlete, capable of extraordinary throws and runs at any given moment. Yet he always leaves you wanting more." Cosell explains, "The reason, in simplest terms: Vick is not, to this day, an accomplished passer. He remains a week-to-week player with little stability or continuity to his game. He's always dangerous, at times dazzling, but seldom consistent."
Keep in mind Cosell lives in Philly and probably watches more Eagles' tape than anything else.
This is exactly what Josh, Thomas, and I fear, in case it wasn't already clear. Cosell addresses this with Rob and Doug, noting "I still think, at times, he walks a fine line, between his running instincts and a structured pass game. Now, he's a very good runner, so there are plays in which he may gain more yards running than throwing, but I think history proves that you can't live like that in the NFL."
"I mean, his 27-yard run should have been a routine completion to Golden Tate on an out-route, but he ran for 27 yards and if he had thrown it, it probably would have been 14 yards, so people are going to say 'oh look, he gained 27 yards.' And, that's terrific, but that won't consistently happen."
"But, I tend to agree with you, Rob [to Rang], I don't think he looks to run, really. You know, that 31-yard run that came on third and seven came versus dime man-free, and I'm sure he saw the whole field open up. Look, I've seen Aaron Rodgers do that a number of times, there certainly are times when a defense plays man, that a quarterback with good wheels can run for a first down and stress a defense, so that is a factor, no question. Certainly, a Matt Flynn isn't going to make that particular play."
"But, what's impressed me most is the way he's thrown the ball." said Cosell. "Even the completion to [Braylon] Edwards, the 31-yarder, he moved and re-set, and then delivered the ball very, very accurately to Edwards."
Wilson sits in the pocket, feels pressure off of the right side so strafes outside. He then re-sets, as Cosell points out, and lets it rip 30+ yards downfield.
On the money.
Doug Farrar brings up the point that Pete Carroll had talked about this after the first two games and paraphrased what what Carroll wanted to see him do: 'he's running around a lot, I want to see him stand in there and drive the ball.'
Cosell responds. "I thought this was his best game in that regard, and I started out by talking about how he still walks a fine line between running instincts and the structured pass game, and I'm glad to hear Pete Carroll say that because I like to think that every once in a while I know what I'm looking at, and that's what I thought too."
"I think the thing to me that's been most, most impressive about Russell Wilson," says Cosell, "and it's what would make him a good player if he's to become a starter and a good player, is the way he throws it from the pocket. Because, that's what the position is."
"No one is a great NFL quarterback because of the way they run around. Now, does running help you at times, sure, we've talked about that 31-yard run, those are great plays, no question. Those are those 'spectacular' plays that you see on SportsCenter a thousand times, so people see those plays and they get excited. You know, it's the Michael Vick syndrome. But, the reason that Michael Vick has never developed into that really top-tier quarterback is that he's never been able to throw consistently from the pocket. I would argue that Russell Wilson, in his rookie season, right now, is so far ahead of where Michael Vick was his rookie season coming out of Virginia Tech, throwing the ball from the pocket."
Now, Cosell goes on to talk about Wilson a little more, and goes in-depth on the play of Matt Flynn, who Cosell believes also has thrown the ball very, very well. So, it's definitely worth your while to listen in to the rest of the interview, found here. I've said it once, I'll say it again: Farrar and Rang's Chalk Talk program is the best thing that's on the radio right now -- this was their last show for the season, but make sure you head in and listen to prior episodes (and hour one from Saturday, with Hugh Millen and Curtis Crabtree), because they drop knowledge and have some great guests.