What makes for a great quarterback? Is it his breathtaking ability as a dual threat, like Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick? Or is it the more conventional ability to seize control of an offense and pick apart a defense with surgical precision, a la Peyton Manning? Or maybe it's neither of those things; maybe it's the way he plays in dire situations when the game is on the line.
There are a lot of things a quarterback can be... but there will never be a quarterback who will be all of those things. So I gathered up all the traits that a signal caller can possess and charged the other writers (and myself) with picking their top four. Here's what we decided to pick from:
Student of the Game
Some of these are a little ambiguous, so I'll break them down a little more. Elusiveness differs from athleticism because it only covers a quarterback's abilities to escape a sack when he seemingly had nowhere to go. If Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are athletic, then Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are elusive. Football IQ is all about seeing a defensive front and figuring out more or less what they're going to do on the play. It's more of generalities; are they blitzing or dropping into zone? Peyton Manning epitomizes this more than anyone with the way he audibles at the line of scrimmage. Improvisation is simply a quarterback's ability to be unconventional, like toss a shovel pass, throw with the opposite arm, or pump fake while he's on the run. This deviates from the gunslinger because it doesn't necessarily mean he's going to chuck it into triple coverage. Pocket awareness is knowing whether to climb the pocket or escape it, while pocket presence is standing tall to deliver the throw even if he's about to get crushed by a defender. Pre-snap reads is similar to football IQ, but it's more of a play-to-play thing rather than something he gets through film study; it's seeing an unblocked defender and knowing he's either going to have to audible blocking assignments or get the ball out very quickly. Progressions is not being afraid to dump it off to his safety valve and avoiding the tendency to lock on to the hot receiver. Vision is keeping track of all the pass defenders so he doesn't throw it right to a linebacker or to that safety who's baiting the quarterback out in the deep zone.
Okay, got all that? Here's the writers' top four traits, and by all means join the discussion in the comments section. This is what keeps us going in early July.
While others may struggle limiting this list down to only 4 qualities, I'll be the first to say I had a difficult time picking that many. Don't get me wrong: a lot of these qualities are important to being a successful QB. To me, though, there's a few select qualities that matter so much more than the others.
Pre-snap phase. The pre-snap phase is THE most important quality in a QB. I've been a big believer of this ever since I read this Greg Cosell article on Michael Vick in March 2012. Check it out, it's a great read. Cosell is highly qualified to offer an opinion since he watches more NFL game tape than almost anyone. In the article, Cosell discusses how a great QB is not one who relies on improvisation. It's too random. It's not reliable. The best quarterbacks in the league: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers are all masters of the pre-snap phase. They impose their will on the defense. More often than not they understand exactly what's going on before the snap and exploit the weaknesses they see. Mastering the pre-snap phase of the game is a high quality process. Improvisation has its own value, but remember, you can get good results off a bad process, and that will ultimately lead to failure.
Accuracy. Once the pre-snap phase is mastered, the next step is execution. The ball has to be placed exactly where the WR can get it. Accuracy, as opposed to arm strength, is another consistent factor, and one that Chip Kelly even noted has importance (the exact term he used was repetitive-accuracy). The deep ball isn't always going to be there. There's always going to be a way to fit the ball into a tight space.
Progressions. Getting the ball out fast is essential. It eliminates the possibility of sacks/pressure and it doesn't give the defense time to react. Less hits and less sacks means a greater chance of staying healthy.
Health. I'm drawing a blank as to who said it, but whoever it was said availability is the best ability a QB can have. QB is the most important position in the game. It's very critical that he's out there each week to give his team the best chance to win. A QB needs to be smart about the hits they take. Getting the ball out quick gives less for the defense to hit him.
Clutch play. This is what separates the best from the rest in the NFL. As much as we talk about physical traits, if a guy has actually made an NFL roster than he's at least adequate physically. His arm is at least good enough, he's at least tall enough and at least athletic enough. Plus, if he's in the NFL he's got the talent to hit an open WR. We've seen many times that even very average to crappy QBs can still have good games if they've got open WRs and no pressure. Look at Kevin Kolb. He's put up fantastic numbers in games where he was protected. However, we've seen that when he's pressured, he breaks down.
And that's what clutch play means to me. It's not about making a great play in the 4th quarter, it's about how a guy responds when things aren't perfect. Can he make plays when WRs aren't that open and the protection isn't that good.
Leadership. There's arguably no position in team sports that puts more pressure on a single guy in determining the outcome of a game than quarterback. Maybe goalie in hockey, but even a goalie doesn't handle the ball/puck nearly as much as the QB. Literally every offensive play starts with him and a guy can't be successful with that level of responsibility if he doesn't have the respect and trust of his teammates.
Elusiveness. I don't necessarily buy that going forward in this league all QBs have to be super athletes like Michael Vick or RG3. But I do think that the era of statues is over. Defenses have just become too good and too laser focused on getting after the QB for him to just be able to stand there even if he makes quick reads. Going forward, QBs will have to Eli Manning at a minimum. Manning is not fast or a runner by any means, but he's got pocket mobility and he knows how to do the little things to elude pressure. Guys like Tony Romo and even Ben Roethlisberger are another type. Not runners or great athletes, but elusive and able to buy themselves time.
Health. Losing your QB to injury isn't a setback, it's a death sentence. Once in a generation you might see your starter get hurt and find out that Tom Brady was his backup. 99% of the time though, the backup is a significant step down from the starter. Even as Michael Vick regressed in 2011, the Eagles would still probably could have been a playoff team if he played all 16 games.
QB is really the one position almost no teams can afford an injury at, therefore health has got to be a vital part of what makes for a great QB.
I am a bit of a purist when it comes to quarterbacks. I prefer intelligent guys that, for the most part, are pocket passers. While mobility is ideal, I prefer awareness over athleticism. To me, it's important for the quarterback to be able to process all aspects of a current play. I think my four qualities are ideal when developing a young prospect or infusing a veteran as your offensive signal-caller.
Accuracy. An accurate quarterback, for the most part, is a successful one. If you have a player that completes 65 to 70% of his passes, you are getting a lot out of your offense. You have to take advantage of every play you have, because in football, almost all plays impact the game. A quarterback's accuracy is important when considering any important play. While there are exceptions to the rule like Christian Ponder, at the amount offenses throw nowadays, connecting on 20 of 30 passes will put you in position to win.
Football IQ. The number one thing I associate with quarterbacks is intelligence. Understanding both sides of the ball is a plus for a quarterback because it helps them diagnose a coverage and effectively help the signal-caller dictate whether he is calling the right play. The game has so many variables that having a better grasp of the process is ideal.
Vision. Like a point guard in basketball, it is important that the distributor of the football sees the entire field. If a man is covered, it's the quarterback's job to find another option. Vision is important because it allows the quarterback to avoid easy turnovers and make the right decision with the ball. Ideally, all quarterbacks should have solid field vision, because in the NFL, coverage is much tighter than in college.
Pocket Awareness. Last year, the Eagles suffered from a poor offensive line, which in turn, exposed both Michael Vick's and Nick Foles' issues with pocket awareness. A quarterback needs to know what's happening around him and have the ability to get rid of the ball when his "spidey senses" go off. Sack fumbles were a constant last season for the Eagles, which highlights the need to be aware of your surroundings as a quarterback. The quarterback needs to know when to tuck the ball if a lineman is charging free or be able to hit a running back with a dump off pass to avoid a loss of yards. Being able to feel the pressure and have the ability to avoid it can add years to a quarterback's career as well as limit turnovers.
Note: Health seems more like an *obvious* trait, particularly for a QB, since really it's a necessity to sustained success and applies to all players... in every sport. Right?
Accuracy. If a QB cannot accurately locate throws and give his receivers the best possible chance to catch the football (especially in tight coverage), he'll have real trouble making it in the league long no matter what other attributes he possesses. There are very few exceptions to this rule. Even the ones who can get by without being accurate throwers are eventually exposed, particularly in the biggest games, and that lack of accuracy ends up being their biggest downfall. It's the difference between hitting or missing on a huge play, it's the difference between converting on 3rd down to keep the drive going or being forced into a 4th down decision.
Clutch/Cool Under Pressure. I want my QB to be unfazed by extreme pressure. In fact, I want him to thrive in those circumstances. Under 2 minutes left in the game, 80 yards to go, and needing a touchdown to win... it doesn't matter if he's had a terrible game up to that point, if the QB can forget about everything else and deliver/get the job done in that kind of situation, he's a special, RARE breed and the one I want leading my franchise.
Football IQ. I'm combining football IQ with pre-snap phase/recognition, going through progressions and being able to improvise, as I believe they're all interconnected. A QB who can read the defense pre- and post-snap, is patient and disciplined enough to understand that taking what the defense gives him is ok, will succeed more often than the QB who's easily confused by defensive disguises and/or wants to be a hero and forces throws. You don't always have to get 30+ yards at once. Moving the ball down the field in 5-15 yard chunks can be just as effective. Your receivers might be able to use their YAC skills to get those 30+ yards, even if the ball doesn't travel that far through the air. I also believe improvisation is aligned with football IQ. A QB who can make things happen on the fly when all else breaks down and the defense gets out of position can turn a (huge) loss into a (huge) gain. It's the most unpredictable, and therefore dangerous, skill. Edit: I also want to add that decision-making is, in my opinion, part and parcel of "Football IQ." It's really an all-encompassing category for the mental aspect of the game, what goes on for a QB "above the neck."
Pocket Awareness. Being able to read/sense the pocket and maneuver/slide around with bodies flying all over the place is key. A QB doesn't have to be super athletic, just savvy and nimble enough to get to that sliver of open space so he can get the throw off. A little step can make all the difference in the world -- between getting sacked or having the ball deflected, and making the big throw that results in a 1st down or touchdown.
First, I'd like to say that this was really, really hard. It was much more difficult than I thought it was going to be. Eventually I had to concede that just because some traits didn't make my list didn't imply that they weren't important. So, here goes:
Mechanics. Everything starts with the fundamentals. Think about everything Tim Tebow brought to the table in 2011: leadership, an inspiring attitude, and a will to win. But why has he failed? Because his mechanics are terrible. He's simply not an NFL quarterback. When Michael Vick had his resurgence in 2010, everyone was raving about how he had improved his footwork. A quarterback is nothing without mechanics, and that's why it's number one on my list.
Pocket Awareness. This was in direct competition with several other traits; namely mobility and pocket presence. I eventually decided against mobility because some mobile quarterbacks take off when they don't need to and expose themselves to unnecessary hits. It beat out pocket presence for a similar reason - standing tall to deliver a throw in the face of a crushing hit may be awesome and a display of toughness, but it can also get you injured. Ultimately, that 'sixth sense' of knowing where to be to deliver the throw has the best of both worlds. You're not a statue back there, but you're not being risky either. I'm hoping that this is enough to cover health as well.
Vision. This could have been lumped into a category with student of the game, football IQ, pre-snap reads, and progressions. As much as I wanted to go with student of the game, I gave the nod to vision for its during-play value. Having great vision leads to smarter decisions because the quarterback is able to see everything in the secondary after the snap but before he throws the ball. In a nutshell, I'm going with natural abilities over learned abilities. I'm not saying that film junkies can't be great starting quarterbacks - they can and have - but when push comes to shove the natural signal caller is always going to be the better player.
Clutch Play. There are many quarterbacks that made this decision very easy for me, on both sides of the coin. Joe Montana (aka Joe Cool). Tony Romo. Ben Roethlisberger. Donovan McNabb. Jon Elway. The list goes on. Being a great natural quarterback will let you waltz into the postseason, but it's the performance under pressure that brings home the Lombardi Trophy. Can your quarterback give you a drive exactly when you need him to? If you want to win the Super Bowl, he better.
While I'm sure that list is controversial, in my defense I had it narrowed down to nine traits (or half the list) when I realized that I had my perfect quarterback. Finding the top four was another challenge entirely.
Let's make July interesting. What about you? Which four of those traits would you pick above the others for your perfect signal caller?