Philly Front Office

2019 QB Series Part I: The Chain of Offense

Editors Note: This is the first of a three part QB series leading up to the NFL draft on Thursday night. Be sure to catch parts two and three on Wednesday and Thursday.

A bad QB can tank your offense. A bad coach can short-circuit it. Nobody will dispute those things, and we have all spent time yelling at our TVs because the QB made the wrong play or the coach made the wrong call.
But what about the other 10 guys?

The 2017 Rams are a perfect example. There has been a frenzy to promote or hire anybody who has worked with or is even remotely similar to Sean McVay, because his offense looks great and because he turned Jared Goff from dud to stud overnight. At least, that’s how the narrative goes. But that narrative obscures the truth.

2016 Rams
Greg Robinson, Rodger Saffold, Tim Barnes, Cody Wichmann, Rob Havenstein, Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Lance Kendricks

2017 Rams
Rob Havenstein, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Jamon Brown, Andrew Whitworth, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee

Let’s start with the obvious: even if Sean McVay was a merely average coach, that would still constitute a massive upgrade over the truly dreadful and anachronistic Jeff Fisher. Jared Goff was likely to improve, whether due to an age 23 leap, a sophomore leap, or whatever other factors you believe help a QB to improve as they progress through the league. It is absolutely true that McVay is a good coach and that Goff improved.

But the Rams replaced three bad linemen with three good ones, including paying over $10M a year for RT Whitworth. They traded a 2nd round pick and a decent CB for Sammy Watkins. They paid $7M a year ($15M guaranteed) to Robert Woods. They spent a high 3rd rounder on Kupp. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams OL adjusted sack rate went from 8.1% to 5.6% from 2016 to 2017. Viewing it from hits per pass attempt, it went from 17.7% from 14.3%. Why is that such a big deal? Well, let Bill Barnwell explain:

In 2018, Goff has posted an 83.8 Total QBR when he’s unpressured, the fifth-best mark in the league. When he is pressured, though, Goff’s QBR falls all the way down to 11.3, which is just between Marcus Mariota and Josh Rosen for 25th in the league. That 72.5-point slide is the biggest drop-off for any quarterback in the NFL.

Basically, Goff is a great QB with time and a terrible QB without it. Jared Goff’s performance is directly tied to his offensive line. He’s not alone – every QB is worse under pressure.

Yet despite the thousands of articles written about McVay and Goff this season and postseason, just a very very very tiny fraction identified the improved offensive line as a major factor in their offense working. But the Patriots identified this obvious issue – they completely shut down Goff and the Rams by simply generating pressure. And on the other side of the field, how has Tom Brady been so good for so long? Look no further than Patriots offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia.

And of course having weapons to throw to matters too. It could be a slot guy like Cooper Kupp, or a deep threat like Alshon Jeffery, but even the incredible Aaron Rodgers looks mortal when he’s throwing to Davante Adams and a bunch of shrug-faces. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re throwing to guys who can’t get open or catch, you will not be effective. Some teams even use RBs to fill the need very successfully, but you need at least two or three guys who can win matchups and make catches.

Speaking of RBs, running the ball is not important to have a good offense. Since this is a QB series, I’m not going to do a super deep dive, so here’s a decent introduction and if you’re curious, I highly encourage you to do your own research. Rushing success is largely a function of the offensive line and has such little impact on winning that it cannot be considered a critical part of the chain of offense.

So, with that all out of the way, we can now answer the question: What does an unbroken offensive chain ultimately look like?

The offensive coach installs a System that his talent can execute. The Quarterback executes the system as intended. The Offensive Line gives the Quarterback enough time to execute. The Receivers are a necessary part of any passing play, where they can significantly increase or decrease the margin of error elsewhere in the play.

For purposes of this series, the important thing is how this chain helps us define quarterbacks in general. When diving into QB analysis, the search is for strengths and weaknesses. But strengths and weaknesses need context. A QB may be a champion juggler, but that isn’t a particularly useful strength for an NFL QB, right?

Generally speaking, once the base factors of accuracy, preciseness, arm strength, mechanics, and read(s) are met, an elite QB can overcome lacking a specific two of the three (system, offensive line, and receivers) other links in the chain.

That is, a QB who will never overcome a bad OL but can still overcome a bad system and bad receivers at the same time is still elite.

  • An elite QB is a QB who can overcome missing two of the three.
  • A great QB is a QB who can overcome missing one of the three.
  • A good QB is a QB who can overcome a specific one of those three if it is missing.
  • An average QB is a QB who cannot overcome missing any of those factors.
  • A below average is a QB who do not have the base factors necessary for success.

What this means though, is that an average QB with all three factors will play better than a great QB missing two of the three, or even an elite QB if they’re missing the chain they need. As Eagles’ fans know, Nick Foles, in the right system, with the right receivers, with time to throw, looks a lot like an elite QB. Nick Foles, in the wrong system, or with the wrong receivers, or with not enough time to throw, looks not good at all.

Nick Foles: SB MVP in the right chain

This means that proper evaluation requires putting every QB in the proper context. What is the system he is running? Does he have time to throw? Are his receivers doing their job? How will they fare if the answers to these questions are different at the next level? What can they overcome? What do they need? The biggest flaw in QB projection is not contextualizing what is actually happening.

Every QB must answer the base questions about accuracy, preciseness, arm strength, mechanics, and read(s). Some QBs will pass those tests better than others. After answering those questions, the upside comes from whether the QBs can overcome weak links in the chain.

As I progress through this year’s series, I will focus heavily on these factors. They are particularly important this year as we are faced with prospects who are wildly different and who will be evaluated very differently based on how you weigh these factors.

Adam Schorr

Adam Schorr (@BusterDucks) likes advanced stats, perhaps too much. We must go deeper!