Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, the appeal of acquiring a quarterback you know …
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After watching the game of QB musical chairs that played out over the past few days, I’m convinced general managers, scouts and coaches in the NFL are valuing familiarity over talent when selecting their QB1s and QB2s heading into the 2020 season.
Maybe it’s because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which could prevent NFL teams from getting together prior to training camp, or it’s because of just a handful of coaches looking for “joysticks” to guide their offense, but there’s no denying the role that trust, chemistry and previous interpersonal relationships seem to have played in the quarterback decisions this offseason.
Don’t believe me? Just look hard at the connections between Philip Rivers (who is headed to the Colts), Nick Foles (who was traded to the Bears), Teddy Bridgewater (who is signing with the Panthers) and Case Keenum (who is signing with the Browns) and the coaches on their new squads. Each of those established signal-callers had a previous relationship with their new head coach or offensive coordinator, meaning they’ll bring extensive knowledge of the scheme, which should help them hit the ground running when teams reconvene in the near future.
“You know what you’re getting,” said a former NFL head coach/offensive coordinator. “They come in and play right now, and they’re able to play fast because they know the system. … Some teams are in ‘win now’ mode and don’t want to wait around for a guy to learn the system. Some coaches don’t like change and only want to run their system and not adjust.
“With the uncertainly surrounding the offseason programs, you’re seeing coaches get guys that will help them get the team up to speed right away.”
Coaches frequently discuss the importance of trust and communication between coaches and players, particularly quarterbacks and offensive play-callers. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see so many coaches reconnecting with their former proteges. Even in normal circumstances, the complexities of an NFL playbook and the brevity of the offseason program make it advantageous to have a quarterback who is experienced in the scheme and can advance quickly through the installation process. That’s important because it gives the play-caller an opportunity to get to Week 1 of the regular season with most of the playbook at his disposal. Moreover, it puts the offense in a position to be in attack mode with a signal-caller who understands the scheme, verbiage and adjustments needed to handle any and all situations.
“With a number of new head coaches and offensive coordinators taking over, it makes sense for teams to add a familiar face to the quarterback room,” said the former NFL head coach/offensive coordinator. “It takes time for everyone to feel comfortable in a new system and playing together. You’re trying cut down the learning curve with an experienced quarterback stepping into the huddle.”
Looking at the transactions at quarterback during the early part of the legal tampering period and free agency, it was apparent the Colts, Bears, Panthers and Browns acquired quarterbacks with the capacity to kickstart their offenses due to their familiarity with the coaches and scheme.
In Indianapolis, Rivers’ previous relationship with head coach Frank Reich makes the marriage with the coaches a potential match made in heaven. During the two years when Reich was Rivers’ offensive coordinator with the Chargers (2014-15), No. 17 posted back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons and finished with a 60:31 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Rivers demonstrated a level of consistency that would certainly be appealing to a coach trying to turn around a Colts offense that only scored 22.6 points per game in 2019 (16th in the NFL). From a comfort standpoint, it’s notable that Reich was also Rivers’ position coach in 2013, and Indianapolis offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was on the Chargers‘ staff from 2013 to ’17, serving as Rivers’ position coach in ’14 and ’15.
Chicago coach Matt Nagy is hoping Foles can use his experience and wisdom to help the Bears‘ offense find its rhythm this season. Despite coming in as the QB2 behind former first-round pick Mitch Trubisky, the former Super Bowl MVP could spark the offense, either by pushing the incumbent to play better or by taking the No. 1 job and directing the offense in a more efficient manner.
In two games with the Chiefs (one as the starter) in 2016, when Nagy was installed as Kansas City’s quarterback coach, Foles completed 65.5 percent of his passes (36 of 55) for 410 yards and three touchdowns, committing zero turnovers and guiding the team to a pair of wins. For a Bears team coming off a disappointing season in which the offense faltered but the defense played well enough to compete at a playoff level, the quarterback simply needs to get the offense to the end zone. Considering the Bears averaged just 17.5 points per game (29th) and rarely threatened opponents with the passing game, the addition of a familiar face could help the team close the gap on their NFC North rivals. It’s also worth pointing out that Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was Foles’ position coach in Philly in 2013, when Foles had the longest sustained stretch of regular-season success in his career (8-2 record, 27:2 TD-to-INT ratio). And, of course, Foles has worked extensively with Chicago’s QB coach, John DeFilippo, who was Foles’ QB coach when he won a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2017 and served as his offensive coordinator in Jacksonville last season.
Bridgewater rejoins Joe Brady in Carolina after a brief stint together in New Orleans (Brady was an offensive assistant with the Saints in 2018, Bridgewater’s first season with that team, before joining LSU’s staff in 2019). The move gives Brady a quarterback with knowledge of his scheme (modified version of the Saints‘ system, with a sprinkle of the RPO passing game from his time at Penn State under offensive coordinator Joe Morehead) and the advancements made by his mentor (Sean Payton). Bridgewater spent two seasons in the Saints‘ scheme, including five games as a starter, which gives Brady enough tape to see how he can modify the playbook around his new QB1’s talents.
In addition, the collaborative effort between QB1 and play-caller could help the rest of the Panthers‘ offense grasp the system quickly. I spoke to a few Saints coaches about Bridgewater, they told me that he was a “film junkie” who would work with the young players after practice with the video crew taping the sessions. According to one Saints assistant, Bridgewater would conduct his own seven-on-seven periods after practice and use those sessions to teach younger players the system.
“He would work with the young guys after practice and get them up to speed with the routes,” said the Saints assistant. “He would have those sessions recorded and he would review them with the crew to make sure that everyone understood what was going on.”
That’s the kind of leadership that the Panthers‘ desire as Matt Rhule creates his own culture in the locker room. Bridgewater’s knowledge, teaching ability and guidance will be critical for a team loaded with young playmakers on the perimeter, particularly at a time when teams could have minimal workdays in the summer. With OTAs (organized team activities) and mini-camps potentially being threatened by widespread measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, teams could be forced to install the entire offense during training camp, and that will require an accelerated learning curve to be prepared for the regular season.
In Cleveland’s case, Keenum isn’t expected to compete for the QB1 job with Baker Mayfield, but the veteran could tutor the young quarterback on the intricacies of the offense. He worked hand in hand with new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski during his magical season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, when Stefanski was the Vikings‘ QB coach (he served in that role again in 2018 before being promoted to offensive coordinator), and their collective experience has certainly established a trustworthy relationship between play-caller and quarterback. (Keenum also spent part of 2019 in Washington playing under current Browns O-line coach Bill Callahan, who served as interim head coach there last season.) While working with Stefanski, Keenum recorded eight games with a 100-plus passer rating on the strength of a 67.6-percent completion rate and a 22:7 touchdown to interception ratio.
Those numbers are significant, because they show the locker room that the team has a capable QB2, and they put enough pressure on Mayfield, who took a step back in 2019 after a strong rookie campaign in 2018, to perform as the starter. Yes, Mayfield is a former No. 1 overall pick, but he was selected by a previous regime; any slip-up could prompt Stefanski to hand the ball to “his guy.” Given how competition can fuel players, the presence of Keenum as a mentor and challenger could help bring out the best in the Browns‘ quarterback room.
BRADY-LED BUCS: Is Tampa Bay really a Super Bowl contender?
I’m not trying to be a party pooper or throw out clickbait as a perceived hater, but I can’t join the masses in suddenly feting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as bona fide Super Bowl LV contenders now that Tom Brady’s aboard the pirate ship.
Look, I have the utmost respect for the six-time Super Bowl champion and three-time NFL MVP. His unparalleled on-field accomplishments have indeed made him the G.O.A.T. That said, I think it’s laughable that many are touting Tampa Bay as a legitimate title threat because the Bucs just scooped up a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback fresh off one of the worst seasons of his career. Despite all the excuses regarding Brady’s lack of weapons and suspect offensive line in New England last season, his decline in play can’t be ignored when studying the tape or digging into his numbers.
After a sizzling three-game start to 2019 (SEE: 67.9 percent completion rate, 303.7 passing yards per game, 8.6 yards per attempt and a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio), Brady ranked near the bottom of the league in Weeks 4 through 17 in completion percentage (59.4, ranking 28th), yards per attempt (6.2, tied for 30th) and passer rating (82.0, 27th). The 14-time Pro Bowler struggled against pressure, as evidenced by his 37.4 percent completion rate on those throws — the third-lowest mark in the NFL in 2019 among quarterbacks with at least 30 pass attempts under duress, per Next Gen Stats. Considering he posted a 52.1 percent completion rate against pressure from 2016 through ’18, that’s a highly concerning downturn. In addition, Brady has limitations when it comes to utilizing the entire field, particularly on throws to the outside. According to Next Gen Stats, he finished with the lowest passer rating (67.4) among 32 qualified quarterbacks on throws to wide targets, along with a 53 percent completion rate and a 5:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio on such throws.
If Brady’s most recent numbers are woeful, and they came in the scheme he’s run for two decades, why should I expect him to flourish when he gets with the Buccaneers and has to adapt to Bruce Arians’ attack while acclimating to a new supporting cast?
Studying Arians’ offense from past seasons, it’s easy to notice his love of the deep ball. He wants to push the ball downfield every chance he gets, and his previous quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston) were more than willing to let it fly. The heavy utilization of five- and seven-step drops places an extraordinary burden on the offensive line while also testing the patience and courage of the quarterback. Vertical routes take time to develop, and the QB has to believe his protection can hold up against ultra-athletic edge rushers and disruptive interior defenders. Last season, Brady seemingly lost his nerve in the pocket under duress. His reluctance to hang tough until the last possible moment resulted in an NFL-high 41 throwaways, per Sports Info Solutions. And given that each of the aforementioned passers (Roethlisberger, Luck, Palmer and Winston) suffered through 40-plus-sack seasons while working under Arians, Brady could take a pounding in this new scheme.
While Arians previously told NFL Network’s Michael Silver that he’d be willing to “adapt” his offense to Brady’s strengths, it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. History suggests BA wants the deep ball featured prominently in the offense. If Arians is insistent on continuing to push the ball down the field, he might elect to feature more play-action passes in the game plan. Last season, Brady had 160 dropback attempts on play-action — compared to Winston’s 123 — and he completed 61.5 percent of these throws with a healthy average of 8.2 yards per attempt. With the Buccaneers capable of utilizing maximum protection from “12” personnel packages (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) with their best perimeter players on the field (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate), the team could build a fortress in front of Brady that enables him to find his big-bodied playmakers down the field on an assortment of vertical routes.
Speaking of personnel, there’s no denying that Tampa Bay’s receiving corps is a significant upgrade over the crew Brady played with last season in New England. He has a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Evans and Godwin) with the size, strength and speed to dominate opponents in one-on-one matchups. Howard and Brate are a solid 1-2 punch at tight end with the capacity to win on an assortment of seam routes, short crossers and digs over the middle of the field. Considering Brady’s propensity for throwing the ball inside the numbers, the Bucs’ tight end combo could be the biggest beneficiary of TB12’s arrival.
Opponents facing the Buccaneers can also expect to see an uptick in empty formations with Brady at the helm. The no-back sets enable Brady to quickly identify coverage and any possible blitzes while forcing opponents into uncomfortable matchups on the perimeter. Studying Tampa Bay’s roster, Evans could really benefit from an increase in no-back formations by moving around within the formation. If No. 13 is capable of playing outside and in the slot within those formations, Evans could avoid some of the double-teams and bracket coverages opponents have deployed to neutralize his impact on the passing game.
Brady frequently targets running backs on swings, screens and checkdowns, taking advantage of sagging defenses intent on taking away deeper throws. The Buccaneers could seek an upgrade at running back, someone with established pass-catching chops. Dare Ogunbowale (35 catches for 286 yards) and Ronald Jones (31 catches for 309 yards) each flashed potential in the passing game last season, but Tampa Bay could use a real threat out of the backfield to maximize Brady’s impact.
From an O-line standpoint, the Buccaneers could use a tackle to complement Donovan Smith on the edges. With the No. 14 overall pick in the draft, they could still land a Tier 1 pass protector to make Brady feel more comfortable in the pocket. Meanwhile, the interior trio of LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen and RG Alex Cappa is rock solid. Marpet and Jensen, in particular, are studs at their respective positions — their ability to stonewall interior blockers will be critical in allowing the statuesque Brady to excel from the pocket.
These Buccaneers certainly give Brady a great opportunity to reverse the narrative suggesting that his game is on a steep decline, purportedly making him a liability at the game’s most important position. He has an all-star cast around him on the perimeter and a fearless play-caller crafting a scheme that apparently will be tailored to the QB’s strengths.
That said, personally, I don’t expect a change of scenery to result in a renaissance for an aging quarterback with a diminished game. While it’d be quite a thrill to watch Brady guide the Bucs on a magic carpet ride that results in the franchise’s second (and Brady’s seventh) Lombardi Trophy, I don’t believe a new supporting cast will help the 21st-year veteran feel the confetti falling on his shoulders ever again.
GURLEY’S REBIRTH? Don’t underestimate the back’s dynamic potential in Atlanta
Don’t let Todd Gurley‘s recent release from the Los Angeles Rams fool you into believing he’s a washed-up player incapable of making a resurgence as the Atlanta Falcons’ RB1. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year will not only enjoy a major bounceback season, but he will re-emerge as an MVP candidate while serving as the centerpiece of an offense that will light up scoreboards across the league.
I know those are lofty expectations for a running back coming off a disappointing season on a team that was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, but Gurley is joining the best offense that he’s ever played on. The 2020 Falcons have better personnel at the marquee skill positions, and their offensive line is a significant upgrade over the unit Gurley left in Los Angeles.
Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself.
Would you rather have Matt Ryan or Jared Goff? How about the combination of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst vs. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett/Tyler Higbee? What about an offensive line in Atlanta that features five former first-round picks? You want that, or L.A.’s patchwork group that struggled for most of 2019 following the departures of Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan?
Unless you’re a Rams homer, you’d pick the Falcons‘ nominees in each scenario. The Dirty Birds have premier players on the perimeter, including one of the best receivers in all of football, as well as a former MVP at quarterback. The mere presence of Jones and Ryan will create more opportunities for Gurley to get loose, and he’s proven that he’s a monster against light boxes in the recent vintage. According to Next Gen Stats, Gurley faced a light box (fewer than seven defenders) on 43.7 percent of the Rams‘ offensive snaps in 2017 and ’18, compiling a robust yards-per-carry average of 5.8 — most among running backs with a minimum of 100 rushing attempts in this span.
Looking at the Falcons‘ roster and their potential “11” personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), the offense should face plenty of light boxes. Opponents will be forced to largely concentrate on defending the Ryan-Jones connection, with Ridley serving as a high-end complement on the back side. Atlanta will be able to take advantage of those looks by getting the ball to Gurley on an assortment of runs and passes out of the backfield.
Before you @ me regarding Gurley’s diminishing production in 2019, I think it is fair to ask if No. 30’s talents were maximized by Sean McVay and Co. during his final season in L.A. In 2017 and ’18, Gurley averaged 22.7 touches, 88.1 rush yards and 135.3 scrimmage yards with 40 total touchdowns. In 2019, those numbers plummeted to 16.9 touches, 57.1 rush yards and 70.9 scrimmage yards with 14 total touchdowns. In addition, Gurley’s playtime percentages (75.8 to 74.6 to 71.5) and touch percentage (45.4 to 40.0 to 33.8) steadily decreased over the past three seasons.
Did Gurley’s health dictate the reduction, or did McVay forget about his top offensive weapon?
Remember, McVay pointed the finger at himself in early December. Asked about what caused an uptick in usage for the back, the coach deadpanned, “Me not being an idiot.”
“Gurley still has it,” I was told by an AFC running backs coach who studied the Pro Bowler after his release. “They didn’t use him enough, but his speed, burst and running skills are still there. … He just needs to be featured like he was in 2017 and 2018. If he gets the rock, he will put up big numbers.”
And as I mentioned before, the Rams‘ offensive line did not get the job done last season. At the end of the regular season, Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 31st. Tough to run through holes that don’t exist.
It’s easy to dismiss a running back when he has reached a certain point of his career, but I wouldn’t underestimate Gurley’s chances of re-emerging as one of the top playmakers in football, especially given his upgraded supporting cast in Atlanta.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.