It’s 3rd-and-15 and you’re down four on the road. There’s a 1:20 on the clock, a playoff berth on the line, and no timeouts in your holster.
Who would you like at quarterback?
This is a fun question, but it’s often wielded inappropriately. Pundits use it to force a decisive ranking between two quarterbacks, as if a quarterback ranking could be distilled exclusively from third-down performance (Jimmy Garoppolo would be the best quarterback in the league, were that the case). “But who would you want holding the ball in a gotta-have-it situation? Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott?”
Outside of talking-head arguments that view the world of football exclusively in absolutes, this question does tell us something about quarterbacks: who are the playmakers? It doesn’t tell us which quarterbacks may be better across the course of an entire game or season or career, but within the scope of just one play, it tells us which quarterbacks have the biggest potential for that ludicrous, jaw-dropping, explosive play.
Of course, there is a correlation between quarterbacks who are top-flight playmakers and quarterbacks who are overall great. Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, the consensus top-two quarterbacks in the NFL, would also be the consensus top-two answers here. After them, it can get finicky: passers like Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers might be high answers on the playmaking question, while well-programmed efficiency machines Tom Brady and Drew Brees would come in a bit lower. But over the course of the season, who’s going to be better: Brady, Brees, Lamar, or Rodgers? It’s harder to say.
This dichotomy is useful for understanding the play of 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year and pocket-sized lightning rod Kyler Murray, who went from Texas A&M castoff and future Oakland Athletic to first overall pick and fledgling NFL superstar over the course of two stellar years of quarterbacking. Murray was picked at the top of the draft for his radiating natural ability, undeniable on his film. Few quarterbacks in the NFL have the variety and speed of releases Murray does, and fewer still have the pocket escapability and throw-on-run prowess that Murray has. Murray pulls explosive plays out of nowhere, often from broken scramble drills or fearless deep ball challenges—his strength as a rookie on vertical throws is unmatched in recent seasons, save for perhaps Deshaun Watson’s few starts in 2017.
Murray is truly a playmaker at quarterback, even in these young days of his NFL career. On the list of playmakers you want holding the ball on 3rd-and-15, he’s somewhere in the top 10—behind Mahomes, Wilson, Rodgers, and Lamar; in the same tier as Wentz, Watson, Brady, and Brees. With another season under his belt, he’ll likely push into the top tier.
But he simply is not the same caliber of quarterback on 1st-and-10. That is to say, on such down and distances that strain a play-caller’s options and require heroic playmaking, Murray beats out players with inferior physical talent or instincts—but on predictable downs that do not drive quarterbacks to such straits, he’s still inconsistent.
Murray is too comfortable playing backyard football. It is not a rare or even inherently bad trait—it’s true of both Rodgers and Wentz—but it does limit his offense. Murray defines his reads pre-snap, often defaulting to guaranteed man coverage on isolated receivers or to the backside of formations, where he expects to have more space and thereby more time to process, aim, and fire. Murray will force-feed blanketed receivers when he still has time in the pocket to work backside, and in the event he does hold the throw, he’ll grow quickly skittish in the pocket, bailing from clean platforms to create scramble drills when none was necessary. Again, this is backyard football, and because Murray is better in that context than he is within the chalkboard rules of a play, he will eschew the solutions offered by play design for his own improvisation.
Again, this is not outright bad. Yards are yards, and if Murray can scamper for a six-yard gain on 1st-and-10, that’s still a gain over expectation, even if he’s leaving a good chance for more yards on the table by just working his progressions post-snap. It is far preferable to have Murray’s problem than, say, Jared Goff’s or Josh Allen’s. Goff also struggles interpreting coverages and moving through progressions post-snap, but is significantly less capable of a playmaker; Allen struggles just as Goff and Murray do, but even with his physical talent, has no instincts for playmaking or risk management, and lacks the natural deep accuracy that Murray possesses. And perhaps all are preferable to Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater, who do indeed process post-snap—they just do so with such conservatism, such fear, as to handicap their own offenses.
So it is preferable to these passers. But relative to the upper tier of quarterbacks into which Murray hopes to ascend, this struggle he has within structure is limiting. Murray is spectacular on late downs and distances, yes—but ideally, your quarterback never gets stuck in late down or distance situations at all. A player of Murray’s physical talent, with better discernment and discipline within structure, could potentially avoid negative plays like sacks and incompletions without sacrificing an aggressive depth of target or willingness to test coverage. But again, Murray introduces more backyard football than his system would in another passer’s hands, which introduces variance and invites negative plays.
The Air Raid system in the NFL is rather new and misunderstood, so an instinct to believe this collegiate, high-volume, pass-happy approach would inherently invite backyard football is understandable, but mistaken. In fact, it is the success of Air Raid offenses in schools such as Texas Tech and Washington State—without elite recruits and significant quarterback development—that serves as proof of concept: the system can work wonders without an elite playmaker at quarterback. Before Murray at Oklahoma came Baker Mayfield, a fierce competitor certainly, but without top-flight arm strength, deep-ball accuracy, or athleticism. After him came Jalen Hurts, a passer with dire accuracy and processing concerns in Alabama’s system. Both grew tremendously as passers in short time frames. At Washington State, Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew, and Anthony Gordon all became NFL-caliber passers on high-octane offenses—yet all had weaker arms and diminutive frames. At Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury didn’t get Patrick Mahomes-level outputs from Davis Webb and Nic Shimonek, but he still kept the Red Raiders atop the Big 12’s offensive charts. The system can be extremely prolific without a player of Murray’s physical tools at the helm.
To take the next step as an NFL passer, Murray must give a little to get a little. While he can get away with his conjuring act for many years in the NFL, he won’t be the next Russell Wilson until he’s also able to find the backside comeback after a few seconds of subtle pocket management. God forbid an injury accelerates the inevitable decline of Murray’s athletic ability still many years away, but if it were to happen, Murray would need to become a better pocket passer and progression quarterback in order to sustain his success. This is necessary growth, even if Murray could sneak in as a top-10 quarterback without it.
But many playmaking quarterbacks never stop scratching the itch, which limits them long-term. Rodgers’ falling out with former head coach Mike McCarthy was due in part to his unwillingness to play the system (any feelings about McCarthy’s West Coast approach set aside). Wentz’s constant pursuit of heroic plays leads to missed reads and extended plays, which was fruitless on a team with poor weapons and especially dangerous for a quarterback with an injury history. What we can get away with, we often do—just because they’re multimillion-dollar quarterbacks at the pinnacle of their field, doesn’t mean they stop being human.
- Dec 01, 2022
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