Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

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