The Johnny Manziel Conversation: Exploring the Idea of the Mobile Quarterback

Johnny Manziel has probably been hyped and discussed more than any prospect in the NFL draft this year. Whether it be because of his celebrity antics or his unorthodox yet highly successful college career, it seemed like no one could stop talking about Johnny Manziel in the months leading up to the draft. To the amazement of some, Manziel began being hyped as a first round pick and perhaps even a No 1 overall pick. Many even declared him the best quarterback of this year’s class. Would he or would he not succeed in the NFL? Would his “style” of play work? And who would take him? These were the questions that were tossed back and forth for months on NFL Network and ESPN.

Well after months of speculation, Manziel was indeed drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns. While it’s nice to have all the pointless speculation of where he will go and who should draft him out of the way, Manziel still presents an interesting conversation that I think it is worthwhile to explore, and that is the prospect of success in the NFL for so called “running quarterbacks” such as Manziel.

Manziel does not fit the typical picture of what a successful NFL Quarterback looks like. Conventional Wisdom says that an NFL Quarterback is tall, well built, has a strong arm, and sits in the pocket reading coverage, going through progressions if necessary, to find the open receiver, before delivering the ball with accuracy, timing, and rhythm.

Johnny Manziel is not tall or big. He barely measured six feet at the combine, and he weighs 210 pounds. He is a huge threat to make plays running the ball with his legs, almost moreso than he is throwing the ball. Generally, what is thought of first when someone mentions Manziel is his running ability. He will often leave the pocket, bypassing open receivers, primary reads, or checkdowns to either run around in the backfield before throwing or to run for positive yardage. He generally hasn’t been a guy to sit back in the pocket like a Tom Brady and dissect the defense with precision. He plays more of an improvisational game. It certainly worked in college with A&M’s spread offense, as Manziel’s accolades are well documented.

The bigger question is how this type of Quarterback fits into today’s NFL. There has been a growing belief cultivated by the talking heads that the NFL game is changing, that it’s becoming more like the college game, that the so called mobile quarterbacks are “revolutionizing” the position and that traditional “pocket passers” are becoming a thing of the past.

I believe that like most narratives cultivated by the mainstream media, this is an incredibly simplified and misguided notion. I don’t watch a ton of college football, but I’ve seen my fair share, and all one has to do is sit down and watch a college game featuring spread and option based offenses to see that it is still not remotely close to what happens in the NFL. Are there any NFL offenses that feature the quarterback running options or running the ball on almost every play like Ohio State does with Braxton Miller? Teams use the option, but nowhere is it a base offense, is it the offense in its entirety. Are there any NFL offenses that get in the shotgun and pass it on every single down? That work exclusively out of the spread? That run bubble screens on every other play? That run hurry up for an entire game? It may seem like this is the case with some offenses, but watch closely. Teams certainly may employ these elements in their offense. But nowhere will you see a non pro style college offense identical to an NFL offense. The NFL game certainly isn’t what it was in the 1900s. There is definitely more use of the shotgun and more quicker throws. But even so, to act as if the NFL is more than remotely similar to college is ridiculous. The complexity, speed, and athleticism of NFL defenses will ensure that this is never the case, or at least that it isn’t anytime soon. Even a west coast offense like that of the Packers, a spread offense like the Patriots used to run, or a primarily shotgun offense like that of Denver/Peyton-Led Indy (all of which employ no huddle elements) is incredibly different and more complex than the hurry up/spread offenses in college.

What do people even mean when they try to draw a distinction between “mobile quarterbacks” and “pocket quarterbacks”, when they say that mobile quarterbacks have changed the way the game is played? Obviously some quarterbacks are faster than others; no one is denying that. Speed is an attribute, as is size and arm strength. And obviously some quarterbacks run more than others; no one is denying this either. And it’s clear that quarterbacks who can run add an extra dimension to the offense that defenses must account for. But so what? What’s the point? How does this in any way suggest that that the quarterback position has changed, that pocket quarterbacks can no longer be successful, that quarterbacks need to be able to run, or even that “mobile quarterbacks” present an entirely new way to play the position and as such deserve a label? When people make this distinction between “mobile quarterbacks” and “pocket quarterbacks” are they suggesting that quarterbacks who can run don’t need pocket skills? Do they not need to be able to read coverage, move in the pocket, or throw with accuracy, timing, and rhythm just because they can run? Can they just run around for a while and hope a receiver pops open, or just take off when they’re unsure? To me, this notion is just stupid. The NFL isn’t a madden game. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films would say “Quarterbacking is a highly disciplined craft”. Regardless of how fast they run, quarterbacks need to be able to have pocket skills. Is it just a coincidence that Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, three of the most highly skilled pocket passers in the league are considered by most to be three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, despite being three of the slowest? Aaron Rodgers, another quarterback considered to be one of the best, if not the best quarterback in the league, can run, but he is almost always a passer first.

The idea of the “mobile quarterback” has definitely been fueled by the success of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, both who have been deep into the postseason for both years of their careers. Both quarterbacks have made outstanding plays with their legs and kept their relative teams in games doing so. Both quarterbacks have also had plays where they missed open receivers or created turnovers or negative plays for the offense because of their hastiness to run and/or lack of pocket skills/experience reading defenses. Often, the talent that these two quarterbacks are surrounded by has masked their struggles and lack of pocket skills. But no one wants to admit that. And most importantly, both quarterbacks have, albeit inconsistently, displayed crucial pocket skills to help their teams win games. (If you’re more interested in the specific skills required to play quarterback in the NFL, look into the work of NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, one of my favorite people to follow and a man I believe to be one of, if not the, smartest minds in football). Truthfully, I could write a whole article on Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson and the reasons they have been successful, but I’m not going to focus on them here.

I think the best evidence that the position is not changing is the career of Michael Vick. Michael Vick is a great madden player, but has he really even lived close to his No 1 overall draft status or even to all the hype that he gets? In an 11 year career, he has one season where he’s played all sixteen games, two seasons where he’s passed for more than 3000 yards (his highest yardage total is 3303), and one season where he’s completed more than 60 percent of his passes. He hasn’t made a lot of noise in the playoffs nor has he brought many of his teams that much success. After what some considered to be an MVP worthy 2010 season, he got a nice fat paycheck from the Eagles. The Eagles were 8-8 in 2011, 4-12 in 2012, and he lost his job to Nick Foles last year. Even though everyone was saying that Chip Kelly’s offense required a mobile quarterback, the guy with the pocket skills ended up doing a better job running it. Yet, people still remain baffled by Vick’s running ability, and for that reason he is still in the league.

Besides, it’s not like quarterbacks who have legs coming into the league is suddenly a new thing. There are plenty of old guys who ran the ball a lot, Randall Cunningham, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, and Donovan McNabb to name a few. The media just likes to dramatize and sensationalize things.

And yet, regardless of where it came from, the idea of the mobile quarterback had to hold some validity for the Cleveland Browns, because they chose to draft Manziel in the first round. So now comes the million dollar question: Can Manziel succeed in the NFL? No one knows–no one ever knows when it comes to prospects, especially quarterbacks–but we can speculate. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the idea that you could take an option/spread offense from college and duplicate it in the NFL and have it succeed is, in my opinion, quite dumb. Even Chip Kelly didn’t replicate his Oregon offense entirely. As Cosell has explained, Kelly uses NFL passing concepts in his offense; he is just more creative than most teams when it comes to formations and motions. Kelly also utilizes a base running game with McCoy. I could go more into why college offenses, like the one Manziel ran at A&M, wouldn’t work in the NFL, but I won’t, A, because I’ve already touched on it briefly, but B, because based on what I’ve read, the Browns aren’t planning on running a college offense.

The Browns new OC is Kyle Shanahan, and we all know that the Shanahans love to pair the zone running game with the play action boot pass. The Texans were outstanding with this: When Kyle Shanahan was their OC during the 08 and 09 seasons, Matt Schaub had two of his better career years. The Browns now have Ben Tate and Terrance West, and probably feel like they can run Shanahan’s system pretty effectively. So far the media reaction towards the pairing of Shanahan and Manziel has been pretty positive. Why not get the athletic quarterback on the edge running the boot? What a great idea! Manziel will thrive in this system! Then there’s the fact that Kyle Shanahan was the Redskins OC during RGIII’s rookie year. To help RGIII with the NFL transition, Shanahan mixed option principles, the zone running game with Alfred Morris, simple play action reads, quarterback draws, and quick hitches and screens. He ran double or triple options often out of the pistol formation, and defenses were lost. Outside of what the Broncos did the previous year with Tebow, Shanahan was using formations and principles not really seen before in the NFL. The 49ers and Seahawks eventually started using their own versions of the pistol and option (Carolina had already been doing so) with their respective mobile quarterbacks (Seattle didn’t use the pistol that much but they did run the option out of the shotgun often). Outside of the injuries–more on that later–the results were excellent for RGIII. He averaged 8.1 Y/A, completed 65.6% of his passes, threw 20 TD to just 5 INT, and finished the season with a 102.4 Passer Rating.

So if Shanahan has such a successful track record AND he crafted a system that suited RGIII’s skills so well, then why wouldn’t Manziel succeed with Shanahan at the controls? Well, a few reasons. First, I’m skeptical about saying that Manziel will succeed just because Shanahan is employing rollout principles in his offense. It’s always easy to say that mobile quarterbacks are best suited for a system that allows them to get on the move. I heard the same thing said about Jake Locker and Colt McCoy. But let’s remember that this is the NFL. And NFL defenses are smart, albeit often penalized. Rarely are there easy answers. The rollout scheme can be effective, but it has its limits as well. All it takes is one back side defender spying the quarterback and the play is dead. PA naked boots don’t usually work against good defenses. And what if the routes are covered? Once the quarterback finishes rolling out, he has nowhere to go. I don’t think the rollout scheme can make up the entirety of a passing game. What if the run game stops working? What if its 3rd and 9? This was Houston’s downfall in the last few years, among other things. Stop the boot, and they really didn’t have an effective drop back passing game.

Putting aside my concerns with Shanahan’s offensive philosophy, what makes you think that a mobile quarterback would thrive in this system? So Johnny Manziel can get to the edge quicker than most. So what? That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be more effective running the system. All it means is that … well, that he will get to the edge quicker than most. And I guess that if no one’s coming at him that he can run for positive yardage. I guess the thinking is maybe that Manziel throws better on the run, and this system will allow him to do that. I guess that makes sense. Yet, Matt Schaub definitely doesn’t have the most limber of legs, and he ran the rollout effectively for years. If we put Manziel in a rollout scheme, does that mean he doesn’t have to master the pocket skills required to play quarterback? Once again, I find most of the rhetoric spewed by the media about mobile quarterbacks and tailored offenses to be oversimplified at best and incoherent at worst. (Note: I recognize that there is almost definitely much more to Shanahan’s offense than just running rollouts. But since that is what is being discussed by the media and that will probably be a key element to his offense, I chose to focus on it.)

Another comparison I think it would be worthwhile to focus on to help figure out whether or not Manziel can succeed in the NFL is that of Manziel and RGIII. As I mentioned earlier, Shanahan was the mastermind behind the offense that helped RGIII transition to the NFL, put up some excellent numbers, and lead his team to the playoffs. Additionally, Shanahan stated recently that “Johnny and Robert are very similar”. If Shanahan made use of option principles to get the best out of his former running quarterback, couldn’t he do the same for Manziel? I’m skeptical. (If you haven’t already noticed.) First of all, RGIII’s excellent rookie season did have an encore called 2013.  When the option isn’t working for whatever reason–maybe defenses have wised up, maybe your defense isn’t keeping you in the game to the point where you can keep running the ball, maybe your run game isn’t working, etc–you need to be able to throw the ball in a more traditional, drop back way. RGIII was by no means horrible nor was he the entire problem for the Redskins, but he was not very good when it came to pocket skills, ie footwork, reading the defense and delivering the ball on time to the right receiver, etc. Shanahan continued to run the option/pistol offense and did so with less success than 2012, and in a way he became the scapegoat. Why not let RGIII run a more traditional offense, like the one Kirk Cousins ran when he played, they said? Thank god Shanahan is gone; now Jay Gruden can put RGIII in a more traditional offense and he can finally have a chance to succeed! See the contradiction here? This used to happen with Vick all the time. People cry for a tailored offense, one that is built around the mobile quarterback’s ability to run the ball. But when it doesn’t work, as they often don’t in the NFL, the coordinators are then blamed for the quarterback’s lack of success, even though the tailored offense is being employed purely because the quarterback isn’t skilled enough to run a dropback passing game effectively. This is one reason I struggle with people who think that mobile quarterbacks can make a living in the NFL solely off of their legs. Put them in a tailored offense? It won’t work. NFL defenses are too good and too smart. Put them in a traditional offense? It won’t work, because that isn’t playing to their strength. You got the quarterback, whether it be RGIII, Vick, or Manziel, because their primary skill is running the ball. They’re not going to succeed just running the ball, yet how can you expect them to succeed throwing it consistently when that isn’t their strength? It’s what I believe to be a serious problem with the whole idea of the new “breed” of quarterback, the mobile quarterback, and it’s a reason that I was skeptical when people discussed Manziel as such a good prospect, and am skill skeptical that he will succeed. Being able to throw from the pocket is the only way to have consistent, long term success in the NFL. Find me a mobile quarterback that has truly over a reasonable period of time carried his team to success with mostly or entirely his running ability in the same way that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have with their throwing ability, a quarterback that is not carried by other parts of his team such as the run game or defense, and you will have proved me wrong.

Let’s continue the Manziel/RGIII discussion. Shanahan was very succesful running the option with RGIII, so why might he not do so with Manziel as well? Well, when it comes to the option offense, even if you have the run game and defense to be able to execute it, it still might not work. Yes, Tebow and RGIII have had some season-long success with it, and you’ll still see a great option play on the highlight reel occasionally, but defenses were far more effective defending the read option last year than they were in 2012. No one really talked about this because it doesn’t support the idea of the mobile quarterback transcending the game. But defenses are smart. They learn.

Then there’s the injury bug. Quarterbacks who run a lot and are not well built are prone to injury. Tebow and Cam can take the punishment, although we’ll see how long that lasts with Cam. Vick and RGIII could not. We’ve already talked about Vick. RGIII missed three games in 2012 and his bum leg cost the Redskins a shot at a playoff victory. He was clearly not the same player after he was injured. RGIII is 218 pounds. Manziel is 210 pounds. Russell Wilson has stayed healthy because he gets down and out of bounds. Vick did not do this, RGIII does not do this, and Manziel is not known for doing this. And unless I’m mistaken, Manziel has had his problems with injury. And NFL defenders are bigger, faster, and hit harder.

I’m not a draft expert, but I’m pretty sure RGIII was a better prospect than Manziel. He is taller, has a better arm (Manziel has a good arm, but it’s not as strong as people make it out to be), and it’s hard to imagine anyone considering Manziel over Andrew Luck, like some did with RGIII. So RGIII was a similar prospect to Manziel and perhaps a better one, yet where is he after two NFL seasons? A spectacular talent who is injury prone and still has to master playing from the pocket if he wants to succeed in the NFL. Of course, he has plenty of time to do this and he missed the last offseason with injury rehab, so no one is saying he can’t do this or even that his prospects are grim. But if he wants to succeed that’s what he’ll have to do. Success is not going to come from running a tailored offense or from revolutionizing the position. Let’s not forget that RGIII is also probably more disciplined than Manziel, and this gives him a better shot at success. 

So what is my point? I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll try to leave you with some closing thoughts. Hype is rampant in the NFL, and sometimes we have to ignore it. Playing quarterback successfully in the NFL is one of the hardest things to do, and despite quarterbacks that get hyped like Manziel every year, that enter the NFL with tons of promise, I could probably count the quarterbacks from recent drafts that have developed into sure thing long term starters with one hand. I’m not rooting against Johnny Manziel. I would love to see him succeed. That’s not the issue. It’s just that based on what I’ve heard, I’m not convinced. If Johnny Football took the NFL by storm, that would be awesome. But I’m going to keep my expectations low, and I would advise you to do the same.

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2 thoughts on “The Johnny Manziel Conversation: Exploring the Idea of the Mobile Quarterback

  1. Pingback: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson: Offseason Thoughts | CK's Football Blog

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