Q & A
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Q: Is it easier for a team to teach its terminology to a rookie quarterback or a veteran coming over from another system?
A: That depends entirely on the intellect of the quarterback. Boomer Esiason could convert any terminology into something he already knew. He could look at a playbook, see a play called “Purple Eagle,” and realize it was identical to a play he knew as “Blue Diamond.” A lot of guys can’t do that.
That’s why the No. 1 trait I look for in a quarterback is intelligence. No player is going to beat a defense with just a country-strong arm and great feet. After that, I look for accuracy. A quarterback first has to know where to go with the ball, and then he has to be accurate getting it there. That was what separated Joe Montana from all the rest. Next comes a quick release. If a quarterback can read the coverage but has a mechanical flaw in his release, guys will have time to jump routes and get back into coverage. Then comes height. That’s what saved the 6’6” Joe Flacco early in his career; there were plenty of times that being able to see over the mess in front of him allowed him to make a play. If I were building the perfect modern quarterback, I’d take the brain of Drew Brees, the accuracy of Tom Brady, and the release and height of Peyton Manning.
Q: What can a coach do to make the transition from college to the NFL easier for young quarterbacks?
A: Certain routes can help a young quarterback by reducing the field he has to pay attention to. Teams can line up three receivers in a bunch on one side of the field—say, to the right side where a right-handed quarterback would open up most comfortably. They can line up a back and the tight end on the left side, giving the quarterback enough protection for his blind side. The three receivers then run quick crossing routes, and all the young quarterback has to do is stare at them and see who comes open first.
Under extreme circumstances, coaches will shrink the playbook at the beginning of a young quarterback’s career. That’s what Ron Rivera did when Cam Newton came to Carolina. Because of the ongoing lockout, Rivera, a new coach, didn’t have the chance to work with Newton, a rookie quarterback, until training camp. Wisely, Rivera took a page—literally—from the Auburn playbook that Cam ran in college. He spoon-fed Newton during that first training camp, giving him plays Rivera knew he could run, and built the team’s offense around those concepts.
Q: All things being equal, what type of defense would a quarterback prefer to face?
A: A “read” quarterback wants to see the blitz. Dan Marino used to beg defenses to blitz him. He saw it coming, he knew where the defense was a man short, and he made them pay.
Younger quarterbacks don’t want to see the blitz. They might not recognize it or might get confused by a protection change. Trent Dilfer told me that when he was younger, he couldn’t figure out the blitz and he got whacked all the time. When he got older, he knew where his hot receiver was, so he was fine when he recognized the blitz.
Q: During the Broncos’ postseason run to Super Bowl XLVIII, everyone made such a big deal out of Peyton Manning yelling “Omaha” at the line of scrimmage. What was that all about?
A: The way Manning used it, “Omaha” was a code word that couldn’t be broken.
The meaning of “Omaha” changed every week. One week, it might mean, “Go with the play I called in the huddle.” Another week, it could mean, “Snap the ball off the next sound.”
Teams are always trying to crack the other quarterback’s code. If they hear a guy yell “Red” 21 times and every subsequent play is a run to the right, they’re on to something. Manning would yell “Omaha” 18 times, and nine times it would be a pass and nine times it would be a run. He’s crack proof.
To decipher what Manning really was signaling, you have to examine all the factors. Where is he when he yells it? How much time is there between his call and the snap? He used the word so much, and yet the key was to ignore “Omaha” and focus on what else he may have been doing at the time.
Even if you crack the code, it won’t help you next week, when “Omaha” will mean something different. Manning knows that all those big microphones on the sidelines pick up everything, and that other teams are going to watch the TV broadcast and build a scouting report on what happened every time he yelled it. Of course, Manning is smart enough not to allow that scouting report to have any relevance from week to week.
Q: Other than quarterback, which position is the hardest for a player joining a new team to learn?
A: The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, so he often faces the biggest learning curve. He has to know the fronts, the stunts, and all the blitz calls. He must be in command of the language that the head coach, the defensive coordinator, and his teammates are thinking in and using. If a team brings in a middle backer from a different system, it has to be prepared for him to struggle until he gets the terminology down.
For example, one team may refer to a particular personnel group as 11 (one tight end and one running back). Another team may call it Orange (taking the “o” from “one,” as in a single tight end). A third team may call it Ace (again, pointing out there is one tight end in the game). One team may call three-receiver sets “trips,” while another calls them “treys.” These may seem like small details, but it requires a complete replacement of the language a player had been familiar with.
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