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Building around a quarterback

You probably think it should be done. But how is it done?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Sando posed an interesting scenario, week before last, that asked you to pick five players to build an NFL franchise around. Then Cian Fahey reframed it as an even more interesting discussion: take a quarterback, and pick five players to build around him.

I’m going to set aside the 5-player aspect to expound on the logistical approaches to doing something like this. There are no wrong answers, necessarily, but there are answers and then there are answers integrated into a comprehensive solution to support a philosophical strategy for championship football.

Wait, that’s too broad and vague and extends beyond my knowledge. I’ll dial the Pete Carrollness of it back a bit and just stick with exploring viable frameworks that would make sense for a particular franchise QB in hand.

That also politely skips over the also moderately interesting discussion of whether to build a team around a QB, or to build to a philosophical model and find a QB to fit into it, and corresponding bookkeeping like do you put the offensive line in place first, etc.

I skip over that because of course you build a team around a QB. Don’t be silly. By build around of course we mean tailor the offense to the QBs’ strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

Strengths aren’t hard to tackle, here. Have gun will draft athletic freak to run past everyone and still go up and get the ball. That kind of thing. Let’s try to be more specific, though, and look at relative shortcomings as well.

Lazerability is requisite for franchise QBs so we won’t go into matters of whether a QB can make every throw. Franchises can all throw the deep out, the most difficult NFL throw. Straight-line speed is an obvious pairing for strong velocity. But still painting with a moderately broad brush, less-than-stellar deep accuracy and/or touch shapes how effective any vertical attack will be, and both are achieved in part by handling of requisite velocity.

Your QB may be able to sling it, and have family-sized-pizza- but not dime- deep accuracy. Don’t forsake the still-incredible and rare value of pizza- deep accuracy; the value of catch radius and body control just becomes heightened in your receivers.


Isn’t that always important? Yes, but not only is it more important for some QBs, pursuing it can actually be modestly detrimental to a team with a dime-accurate downfield passer.

In personnel economics, the most complete receiving prospect may be the top player on your board, but you could be doing a disservice to your team if you overlook an opportunity to pass over that prospect, capitalizing on his availability, to pursue a prospect with adequate catch radius and body control, but yet-more elite speed, COD, route running, consistency and hands. If your QB can hit a dime 40 yards away, get the speed and hands guy that knows routes & separation. He doesn’t have to make regular circus catches; execution of the playbook will get him open. Let him stretch the defense vertically and capitalize on your QBs’ lethal downfield accuracy.


No issue here with using Russell Wilson for the non-dime accurate deep passer, right? He’s had accuracy issues for most of the season, most notably overthrows, often covered up by great plays on the ball by Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. Whatever the cause of his accuracy issues early in the season, they’ve mostly been corrected by this point.

But a lengthy search for deep pizza accuracy by his youthful franchise peers turned up surprisingly fruitless; Wilson's been the most pizzay to this point. Lest any take umbrage, let’s take another gander at this blind, spot-on-a-dime sublime piece of sweet, sweet beauty with the deftest of touch.


Speaking of touch, your QB may be able to sling it hard, and only hard. Some effective QBs lack touch, if not chronically, perhaps for several seasons. Goaline fades, red zone seams and tackle-box screens (non-swing out RB screens and in-breaking WR & TE screens) constitute finely-tuned touch. Vertical shots call for velocity, accuracy, and the right amount of air.


This works when you have Calvin Johnson. Tons of space is open in front of his break, here, but this pass doesn't sink or lead, it goes straight at the safety. To probably more of an extent than other passer throwing characteristics, touch shapes the playbook, by way of exclusion of more touch-requisite plays. Good hands obviously mitigates a QB’s lack of touch, but so too do quick reflexes. At Tennessee, Tyler Bray’s lack of touch was exacerbated by Justin Hunter’s less-than-catlike reflexes. Sometimes the ball got there a beat too soon, while Hunter was still performing his break. Sometimes a post route underneath the safety came in as a frozen rope, and despite good body control, each of the Volunteer receivers often had problems adjusting for a throw made high partially by their instincts to settle vertically into the hole in the zone.

Kenneth drives the clevermobile around here, and already wrote a good "pair with" refreshments analogy article, so I can’t use that here. Damnit, Kenneth. If, by chance, one of these days while walking around the streets of LA, you should get Dan Rathered . . . well. Let’s just say everybody hurts, sometimes. (Edit: Woah. I wrote this lame R.E.M. pun last week, before you used the same phrase this week, and now I'm scared and pretty sure Michael Stipe is involved.)

Anticipation is an integral component to a passing game. Some effective QBs don’t have great anticipation, however. Greg Cosell uses the phrase "see it, throw it," which is a self-descriptive term, if not elegant, for QBs like Jay Cutler.


Poor anticipation heightens the value of early-breaking speed. Poor anticipation often comes with a tendency to look for routes breaking open laterally. Tougher receivers distinguish themselves over the middle of the field, but the heightened value of physicality doesn’t just manifest over the middle, but from the increased number of jump ball situations, throws led into traffic, and throws over the top where the receiver gained a step on his defender, demonstrating openness, only to have to fight for the ball as it arrives, as the cornerback had an extra beat to recover.

A team can utilize top shelf anticipation to its fullest extent with receivers with dynamic awareness and comprehension. It’s one thing to out-athlete the competition, and it’s another thing to out-work them, whether in the film room scouting tendencies or refining route running techniques. But awareness and game comprehension open things up in a different way.

Noticing a "free play" from a defender being offsides, or a potential zone cover defender blitzing allows the QB to chuck it up there to capitalize on the no-risk non-play, or beat the blitz by attacking the vacated field with a sight adjustment. A good seam receiver may know the coordinator, playbook and QB are attempting to force the single-high safety to choose against a pair of seam routes. A great seam receiver would know that, if Cover 2 were well disguised and/or executed, and both seams are covered, to briefly push the safety back harder to get some cushion to enact a comeback route.


Granted, whether or not a comeback or other option is included on the route is a matter for the playbook, both receiver & QB knowing ahead of time, so the ability to employ such a tactic isn’t a particularly exclusive skill. But awareness and comprehension are requisite to being responsive enough to dynamically adjust in a single second. It’s a skill that can be learned, but targeting this valuable skill, as the Patriots have done for years, has pronounced value when your QB can leverage superior anticipation.

Release is a thrower’s attribute often thought of from the windup forward, but it’s helpful to think of the entire process of getting the ball out, from the decision. Charlie Whitehurst had a compact windup and quick release as far as throwing motion goes, but aside from any coverage reading and decision-making issues, one thing that stood out to me was a noted delay between his deciding to throw -- as evidenced by footwork -- and his actual winding up and throwing. Aside from lessened arm strength, Peyton Manning does not now get the ball out as quickly as he did in Indianapolis, which makes his incredible start to the season that much more remarkable.

Release as a sub-component of getting the ball out doesn’t factor much in passing game personnel building, but QBs who can get the ball out quickly when it’s beneficial are better served by receivers that can get open quickly. This constitutes execution, COD & momentum management, and explosiveness off the line (extra-nice when they can beat press). Receivers, and particularly TEs, can possess these attributes without having notable acceleration or straight-line speed. Proven potency in a passing game and the ability to stretch the field vertically probably almost as much to determine how well receivers are able to get open quickly as their own physical capabilities, as evidenced in New England in years past.

Some passing games target explosive, late-breaking plays more, by design. Whatever the reason, when QBs show a tendency to hold on to the ball, like Russell Wilson, it’s strongly incumbent on the receivers to improvise within a framework of logistics: stick to the side he scrambles to; avoid timing-sensitive improvisations like running straight toward the sideline, but use angles, and fade around & away from defenders if possible; take lengthier paths to get open than shorter ones, which are conducive to too much shaking back & forth to evade the defender, making a more difficult target. For the most part there aren’t particular skills that inherently support improvisation; it’s a rather learned skill, but again, one in which awareness and comprehension show up.

Mobility and running threats correlate with holding onto the ball and improvisation in extended plays, as well. It’s not a passer attribute that factors strongly in building passing game personnel, but notable blocking capabilities, from TEs and WRs, pair with running QB talent nicely. It’s a pairing that may be more fruitful for the 49ers, with Colin Kaepernick’s speed, gait & length, which shape natural running paths for his beating back seven pursuit angles (think off-tackle scramble taken straight up the numbers of the field). The blocking abilities of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin are probably even more valuable for Kaepernick’s running style than for the other young, mobile, franchise QBs.


Mobility versus pocket passing affects offensive line needs more than other QB characteristics, of course. A tackle’s down-blocking ability is heightened when you have a mobile QB. And we’re well-familiar with the need for improved interior protection for shorter QBs like Brees and Wilson. The next most tangible QB characteristic that can affect how you build your line, follows from how your QB’s running ability shapes your running game. Running threat QBs open up a running game in general, it’s well-recognized. It’s always made the job of the defense more difficult.

Teams capitalize on that to different extents, but bigger & stronger mobile QBs that can slip past a would-be tackler in a phone booth benefit more from good down-blocking & lane-clearing interior linemen. Cam Newton & Tim Tebow possess the skills to make the QB Dive play viable in many situations, and teams built around them would serve their QBs well to invest in a good run-blocking Center.


Pocket passer teams would enjoy one just the same, but would figure to look for ones that redirect their man laterally well, whether in run blocking or pass protection. Robbie Tobeck was adept at getting defensive linemen to shift or shade to where he wanted them to attack, and Matt Hasselbeck was perhaps more of a beneficiary than Shaun Alexander.

So the best custom-tailored offense for Aaron Rodgers would not fit Andrew Luck quite as much. The best offense for Luck is not the best offense for Wilson, nor Wilson’s for Kaepernick, or Kaep’s for Newton. How strange is it to have practically forgotten RG3 in these matters so quickly? I sure hope that’s not premature, but man.

I didn’t go back and scout & research these guys’ specific traits of the above; I’ll leave that to you guys. Pick a QB and build an offense around him, freely choosing 5 pieces or whathaveyou. Still a great & interesting discussion.

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