Quarterback mechanics are one of the most highly debated aspects among NFL scouts and experts because they come in many different forms, few of which seem to be ideal. Whether it’s an old school sidearm style that Rich Gannon had, Tom Brady’s over-the-top delivery or Philip Rivers’ shot-put pass, the passers have shown that they can get to the ball out to their intended target with success. Neither of these are incorrect, but if they were deemed as such, could they be altered?
Some believe the mechanics of a quarterback can be altered, while others don’t. Because of this, I asked former NFL personnel man turned writer for RealGM.com Jeff Risdon if mechanics can indeed be altered:
"I believe mechanics above the waist can be fixed but it takes time and dedication," Risdon stated. "I think it's a delicate balancing act to try and do anything major (like Tim Tebow) but changing release points, follow through, back shoulder rotation, even how the football is held are all tweaks that can absolutely be done."
He furthered comment: “You don't want to change an unconventional throwing motion that clearly works, like Philip Rivers or Kerry Collins, but cleaning up the little intricacies can still be very effective. It's remarkable how something as simple as holding the ball further back on the laces can impact accuracy. Footwork and waist/hips are more important but the kind of stuff that George Whitfield did with Cam Newton, altering his elbow angle and teaching him a consistent follow through and shoulder rotation can make a big difference."
I also contacted NFL Films football guru Greg Cosell about the possibility of altering the mechanics of a quarterback and he immediately said “yes”.
Cosell expanded on his answer by stating that “anything that is mechanical can be altered, anything that is a function of a movement can be altered. There are four parts to throwing the football: legs, hips, shoulders and arm, which comes along for the ride when the others are done right.”
Although there are many that don’t share Risdon and Cosell’s sentiments, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy does. McCarthy has run a "quarterback school" since 1993 that charts "quarterbacks in five footwork drills that rate agility and movement," and focuses on "hand-eye coordination, finger dexterity, mechanics," according to Greg Bishop of The New York Times.
McCarthy’s quarterback school paid off in a big way for signal caller Aaron Rodgers, who came into the league with quirky mechanics taught by the University of California’s infamous (in NFL circles) head coach Jeff Tedford and has since become arguably the league’s best quarterback.
Rodgers held the ball next to his ear when he was in a pre-pass triangle set at California. The mechanics appeared efficient at the time because he was able to get the ball out quickly in the Golden Bears short passing game, but he struggled throwing deep.
His throwing motion led to him throwing outside of his frame, which is not ideal and "stresses the shoulder" as quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. says, and his footwork also suffered as he was not able to get proper timing nor transfer weight with any consistency. Rodgers explained this in an interview with ESPN last year:
"When I first got into the league, I held the ball really high. That was the standard in college, and it messed up my timing a bit -- the draw, bringing it back, then the release... You’re taught to get back as deep as you can, but you can never throw the ball out on time when you do that."
Mechanical Changes Click For Rodgers
Under the tutelage of head coach McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, Rodgers pre-pass triangle set came down to between his numbers, consequently his motion became quicker, his power increased (also because of his cleaner footwork) and his timing improved. Now, Rodgers puts up video game numbers as he knifes through the heart of defenses with otherworldly throws.
"In Aaron Rodgers' particular situation, he had a very high ball carriage which I felt there was a stiffness to the way he carried the ball," McCarthy told our Adam Caplan during the 2010 NFL Scouting combine, "it wasn't as natural because he is a very good athlete and it's something you didn't see in my opinion in his earlier days, how good of an athlete he was and I think it's something we've adjusted and he's very natural with it. Every quarterback that I've ever coached, you're always looking to improve their mechanics."
Furthermore, as Risdon noted, mechanics may be able to be fixed or altered but it takes “time,” which is exactly what Rodgers had as he honed his skills for three seasons while legend Brett Favre played.
In contrast, my colleague Lance Zierlein noted in a recent conversation that former Houston Texans quarterback David Carr didn’t have the same success when offensive coordinator Chris Palmer attempted to alter his release point. Carr played during this time, which was his only choice for the expansion Houston Texans, and his career ultimately ended in disaster as he ended up being a bust after taking a significant amount of beating behind a porous offensive line and never improving his mechanics.
Rodgers and Carr’s situations were entirely different, but they also help paint the picture of the possibility of altering mechanics. Mechanics can be altered by raising the elbow above the shoulder, making sure there is full extension and follow through after the release and then correcting footwork by stepping through the throw, bending at the knee of the lead foot and rotating the hips, so power is generated from the lower body opposed to the upper body as seen with Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
There are many avenues which coaches can take to improve a quarterback’s mechanics, which takes time and repetitions, but the biggest issue that they run into is one they can’t control: their quarterback’s reaction when the bullets are flying.
In most cases, quarterbacks will revert to their natural form when they are in pressure-filled situations, which is why the debate over mechanics will forever live despite the success of the Packers’ Rodgers. For every Aaron Rodgers, there is a Tim Tebow: a passer whose mechanics were altered temporarily opposed to permanently, resulting in a reversion to their natural and improper form once defenders invaded the quarterbacks comfort area.