The Problems with Passers

By Alen Dumonjic
January 10, 2013

Alen Dumonjic goes under the hood on QB effectiveness, from footwork to decision-making.

“He wants to be great,” said Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey a week ago when talking about quarterback Jay Cutler. If that is the case, then why isn’t Cutler great? His poor decision making and footwork have largely been responsible for the reason he isn’t great, and in that regard, he has no one to blame but himself.

The same can be said for Detroit Lions signal-caller Matthew Stafford, who saw his performance dip tremendously this season after lighting up the NFL with 41 touchdowns a season ago. This season he had a little more than half that number (21) and saw his interception count rise by one (17) from last year. Even when he was playing at a high level last season, his footwork tended to be abysmal and his release point varied far too much. Yet, he claims to be “very comfortable” with his mechanics. Jim Schwartz says Stafford cares an “awful lot” about winning. But neither seems to be worried about Stafford’s woeful mechanics.

And both teams believe that they are great quarterbacks to build around.

The above is exactly what is wrong with the blind belief in the forecasted development of young quarterbacks or in the case of Cutler, who is 29, you can’t assume that anyone is a franchise quarterback until they are proven to be one.

Many coaches, and the passers themselves, believe that all will work itself out as the player gains more experience. The poor decisions should go away as he sees the various coverages with every throw, the footwork should clean itself up with more reps in practices, and the accuracy will improve too. The truth is that not all of it does improve and in many cases, it doesn’t.

Poor decision making is the first of the issues that Cutler and Stafford have dealt with, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to improve in this area. The reason for this is not that they’re being confused by coverages, rather, they are forcing the ball into tight windows due to their overconfidence. They believe that they have the requisite arm strength to fit the ball in between multiple defenders and in most cases, that doesn’t work in the NFL. Many defensive backs have range to cover ground and play with solid technique that enables them to make a play on the ball.

Moreover, footwork is a major issue for young quarterbacks, such as Stafford, and the veteran Cutler. When a quarterback hits his plant step on a three- or five-step dropback, he’s expected to stick his foot in the ground, point his lead foot at his target, rotate his hips to transfer weight forward and follow through with his arm after delivering the pass.

In Cutler’s case, he has a strong tendency to throw off his back-foot regardless of the platform while Stafford often fails to rotate his hips, leading to a lack of extended lead leg and passes nose diving or sailing. Once a passer plays with poor footwork, accuracy becomes an issue; passes sail, nose dive or go behind the intended target.

Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh used to say that there are few people who can coach and evaluate quarterbacks, which certainly explains why so many are inept at selecting the right one. However, I strongly believe that there are improper tendencies in quarterbacks that can be identified at the early stages of their professional careers and suggest that the passer won’t live up to his billing in the long run. Some of them are listed below.

Being a stubborn student is one issue that stands out on the field when the passer constantly makes the same mistakes. If one is failing to rotate his hips or throwing off the back foot then he is unlikely to ever take the team to the promised land because he’ll be laden with mistakes.

Further, some footwork issues can also be described as chronic. If the passer flattens out his lead leg when throwing the football, thus having little to no flexibility at the knee, then he has issues with his accuracy (see former NFL QB Donovan McNabb). This can be worked around, at times, through astute offensive design (see Alex Smith in San Francisco) but usually shows up in the long run.

Continuing, accuracy is another issue that rarely improves, and if it does, it’s by very few percentage points. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said a good passing offense features a passer with a percentage of mid-to-high 60s – a difficult point to argue. Tennessee Titans QB Jake Locker has struggled in the pros with accuracy, often being scattershot with the football, and that has translated over from his days at the University of Washington. The aforementioned Stafford and Cutler were both under 60 percent this season and have had previous seasons of the same.

As one can see, these are all issues that are associated with Cutler and Stafford, whose teams believe the talent surrounding them is the issue. However, it’s possible that the issue may be the quarterbacks themselves.