Learning to be a credible analyst is a process, one that is filled with a lot of twists and turns and some moments where you take a step back and realize just how little you know.
I was a junior in college when I first really started zeroing in on the quarterback niche, and decision-making is one of those words that gets thrown around that several fans and journalists alike use often, but not always properly.
That year, the main prospect I was pushing was Anthony Gordon and I interviewed Mike Leach, formerly his head coach at Washington State, for the story. At some point in the conversation, we had got onto the topic of evaluating prospects and recruiting.
“When it comes to the stars and some of the evaluations coming out, you get that those are almost exclusively made by non-coaches,” he said. “It’s funny, because some of these guys will ask journalists who they should recruit and who they should draft and if they’re gonna do that, I don’t know why they don’t ask them what they should run on third down.”
It was at that moment that it clicked for me how different things can be viewed by journalists and coaches and why there’s frustration from the latter group when it comes to some of these evaluations—throwing around certain phrases like “decision-making,” which is included in almost every quarterback article or evaluation in existence.
So, what really goes into evaluating a quarterback’s decision-making ability? Outside of egregious errors where a passer is throwing to a double-covered receiver because he makes an erratic decision, evaluating this category comes down to one thing and one thing only: knowing the scheme. Unless we know what the play itself looks like and the principles of that offense, you can’t truly tell from the outside looking in what is a good decision and what is a bad decision.
Multiple factors play into that and it’s different based on the offensive approach used by a team. They’re all different—some extremely different from others—and there’s a different formula to evaluating the decisions within them.
Once again that comes down to knowledge of scheme and some of the nitty-gritty specifics we may not totally know unless we’re the coach in certain situations. To a fan sitting on the couch looking at a television screen, it may have seemed perfectly reasonable for a quarterback to throw it in a place that he chose not to put the ball, but there’s a lot more that goes into that than meets the eye.
“You look at the different passing attacks in college football right now—you have the Air Raid system which is a lot of progression read type of stuff, but then you look at, for instance, Ole Miss and Arkansas and schools that are running the (Art) Briles type of system where it’s a lot individual choice routes or they’re isolating individual defenders,” Burrell High School head coach Shawn Liotta said. “That was kind of the knock of the quarterbacks that came out of the Briles system, that they weren’t full-field progression read type of quarterbacks. I think it’s something you definitely have to be aware of—what is the system? There’s quarterbacks out of the West Coast style offense in places like Stanford, pro-style, different systems.”
There’s plenty of evaluating and judgments that can be made from looking at film without doing a deep dive into a scheme that you can use the same process on, but it is strictly reserved to tangibles.
“Now certainly, the evaluation of a quarterback’s arm and the ability and physical ability, those are tangibles and it doesn’t matter what kind of system they’re in,” Liotta said. “I think you could see some of that on display. In terms of decision-making, you don’t know. You don’t know what he’s being taught to read—that comes into play.”