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May 8, 2013

NFL experts foolish to doubt Manziel

On Monday, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks wrote an article on Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel titled "Johnny Manziel Doesn't Look Like An Elite NFL Quarterback Prospect". For the most part (and in spite of the title), the article was surprisingly complimentary of Manziel's overall game. However, Brooks set the tone for the article in his second sentence by saying "In fact, I believe the Heisman Trophy winner currently projects more like a marginal pro, based on his unimpressive physical dimensions and unrefined game as a pocket passer."

For Brooks, his two main objections appear to be his fears concerning his size and "arm talent". That's because the NFL mentality is that a quarterback has got to be able to stand in the pocket, be tall enough to see over the rush, and deliver the ball on out routes 15 yards near the sidelines (which often involve much longer throws) or go routes some 30 to 40 yards down the field. It ties back in to NFL's obsession with being able to implement the concepts of former Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman. Gillman's offense was the first "modern" NFL offense and he incorporated a power running game along with a downfield passing game. The NFL has changed things up since then and even incorporated elements of the spread and Run N Shoot attacks but the emphasis remains on stretching the field and making precise throws on time from the pocket. Brooks even discusses how NFL teams adapted to the running styles of mobile quarterbacks such as Michael Vick, Robert Griffin, and Cam Newton by taking away their ability to be improvisational and keeping them in the pocket.

Here's the problem with both of those objections: 1) neither is substantiated if you actually watch Manziel and 2) just how much does it really mean to be able to stretch the field horizontally and vertically like the NFL wants to do?

First, discussing "arm talent" is a misnomer with both Manziel as well as other quarterbacks. It's not about arm strength as much as how much velocity you generate throwing the football and Manziel generates a substantial amount via his mechanics. Manziel worked with California quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. last season and unlike a lot of students took everything Whitfield had to teach him about the importance of mechanics and footwork to heart. Manziel's footwork in the pocket is now among the best in college footwork. He bounces lightly on his feet and keeps them under his shoulders so that when it comes time to deliver the ball, they are set and directly underneath him. He's learned to aim his off shoulder at the target and follow through so that the throwing shoulder is pointed at the target. Because of his superior core strength (which enables him to really whip his torso on his throws), footwork, and mechanics, he's able to generate much more power than you would expect from a guy his size and he can make all of the throws that he needs to.

In terms of being able to throw from the pocket, by the end of last season Manziel was a very patient player. He realized that he was going to get superior protection from his offensive line and so he was content to let things develop around him and use his superior vision to examine all of his options. In fact, Manziel often would let the coverage run with his receivers and then take off into the vacated spaces for big gains.

However, for all of the talk about Manziel's ability to make plays on the run, he made more than you would expect from the pocket because he gained increasing confidence to operate from there as the season went on. His pass to Mike Evans from the goal line versus Ole Miss that saved A&M's season, his game winning pass versus the Rebels to Ryan Swope, the corner route for a touchdown to Malcolme Kennedy, his slant to Swope for a touchdown versus Oklahoma, and a fade to Uzoma Nwachukwu for six against the Sooners…all were plays made from the pocket. They were not as memorable as his pass to Swope versus Alabama where he rolls left and throws back to the right but they were just as important.

While it's important for a quarterback to be able to see down the field, it's a myth that most of them have to be able to see over the line. Most of the time, throws between the tackles come courtesy of lanes opened by the protection (as was the case on the slant to Swope that broke open the Cotton Bowl) just as running backs need similar lanes in order to navigate traffic when rushing with the football. In addition, the elite quarterbacks in the NFL have superior vision and can see things develop beyond the periphery of their view. Manziel has similar vision which is why he can avoid bad plays and make big ones.

We've dealt with the first objection so far. Dealing with the second involves a discussion of the NFL's core principles on offense and the downfield passing game. The league wants quarterbacks that can stand tall, stay in the pocket, and trust their protection and receivers to make throws on time down the field in order to keep defenses from putting too many people on the line of scrimmage and stopping the running game. Their offenses are built around this principle dating from the days of Sid Gillman and continuing via offensive gurus such as Ernie Zampisi and Don Coryell. They find it hard to adapt to quarterbacks who improvise and disrupt the timing that coaches have worked so hard to implement on the practice field.

However, at the end of the day, the best quarterbacks in the NFL are those that are accurate and don't turn the ball over. They come in all sizes and manner of abilities and range from someone like Tom Brady (6 foot 4, 225 pounds) to Russell Wilson (5 foot 11, 206 pounds). Brady is a pocket passer who moves to extend plays only when he needs to; Wilson gained nearly 500 yards rushing last season. Yet all of them consistently maintain 63% of better completion percentages and 2.5:1.0 touchdown to interception ratios because they have good mechanics because they are well coordinated and don't make mistakes regardless of what type of offense they run. Manziel himself had a 68% completion percentage last year in his inauguration to the college game with a 3.0:1.0 touchdown to interception ratio. In his last six games to close out A&M's season, Manziel had a 15:3 touchdown to interception ratio.

In other words, arm strength and size mean little compared to coordination and vision and Manziel himself not only has superior vision in comparison to most players but is one of the most coordinated athletes you will ever see.

In addition, the NFL is going more and more to the gun and implementing more and more spread concepts as we speak. They're learning that you don't have to do things the hard way by standing in the pocket and trying to make plays down the field. This trend really got a boost last year when Seattle head coach Pete Carroll (who ran a pro style offense in college) adapted his system and plays to the talents of Wilson who came in as a rookie and ranked in the top in the NFL in passing efficiency. Washington head coach Mike Shanahan built everything around Robert Griffin after the franchise had traded away multiple draft picks to acquire him and made the playoffs. In the process, the Redskins used a lot of inside zone and play action passing much like Griffin did at Baylor which not only translated to Griffin completing 66% of his passes with a 20:5 touchdown to interception ratio but resulted in rookie runner Alfred Morris rushing for 1,613 yards.

When the NFL finally gets around to taking a long look at Manziel, there will be teams that shy away from him because of his size, preconceived notions about his arm, and his ability to fit into what they want to accomplish. On the other hand, there will be teams that understand what's really important about the quarterback position and will embrace those attributes that he brings to the table. It's a league that has a hard time doing that as evidenced by the fact that for every prototype quarterback like Troy Aikman or Peyton Manning (the first players picked in the draft when they came out), there's a Johnny Unitas (picked in the ninth round of the 1956 draft by Pittsburgh and actually cut by the Steelers before he went on to greatness with Baltimore) or a Tom Brady (a sixth round pick of the Patriots who only got a shot at being a starter due to an injury to Drew Bledsoe). In fact, for a league that has so much time and money to invest in evaluating the position, there's ample evidence to suggest that they continue to get it wrong more often than they get it right. It's time to for them to really examine how they evaluate the position and a prospect like Manziel who doesn't measure up to their standards even though he is extremely productive at a high level in college.

The bottom line is this for a NFL general manager or head coach: If you can't evaluate Manziel correctly, you're not going to take him, the team that takes him is going to beat you, and you are eventually going to get fired.

Can you really afford to take that chance?

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