In today’s world, the timeline between expectation and realization keeps getting shorter.
Want a new coffee maker? It’s at your doorstep overnight.
Late for work and need that coffee immediately? Tap your cell phone and a cup is waiting at the coffee shop.
Similarly, in sports there’s not a lot of fan patience in waiting for potential to be fulfilled — especially when expectations are raised.
That’s exactly what happens whenever an NFL team drafts a quarterback in the first round.
Fans are usually willing to give a rookie quarterback a honeymoon first campaign. However, in the second year, today’s fans want to see the promise of a young quarterback translate into touchdowns and victories.
In a previous era, the gestation period for quarterbacks was considered to be much longer. Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Joe Montana, Dan Fouts and Roger Staubach didn’t become full-time starters until their third season or later. Steve Young — even after a year in the United States Football League and two seasons as the starter in Tampa Bay — was still mostly an understudy to Montana in San Francisco for four more years.
Five quarterbacks were taken in the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round, the most since 1999, including the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson. All five started at some point in the season for various reasons and with varying results.
Those five rookie signal-callers got an extraordinary amount of playing time. They accounted for an average of 11.4 starts, from Cleveland’s brash and prolific Baker Mayfield, who threw for more than 3,700 yards and 24 touchdowns, to Arizona’s disappointing pick, Josh Rosen, who was traded to Miami where he hopes for a fresh start.
However, whether the rookie quarterbacks’ results were good, bad or in between, in each case, the arc of their careers and the direction of the teams they play for will be shaped by the improvements they make from Year One to Year Two. In the 21st century NFL, that leap is often the most telling about a quarterback and the most influential in shaping a franchise’s future.
Year Two Successes
In recent seasons, the dramatic progress of a handful of young quarterbacks in their second seasons substantially impacted their respective teams.
In 2017, both Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff had breakout seasons as sophomore pros. Wentz was having an MVP-caliber season until he got hurt, but the Eagles’ momentum carried them to a Super Bowl title. Goff developed into a Pro Bowl quarterback after looking like a first-round bust the year before.
In 2018, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes made a second-year leap for the ages with more than 5,300 passing yards and 50 touchdown passes, earning MVP honors.
“Just about every first-rounder over the last few years has wound up starting [in his rookie year] at one point or another,” former Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. “Then the growth to the second season you expect to be dramatic — and it should be. Now the young quarterback knows the system. He has played in NFL games. Now you can accelerate it, in terms of whatever it is you’re doing. Likely, he is the starter and now you can wrap the offense around him rather than him playing in a system that was wrapped around someone else.”
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said that one reason why quarterbacks may be making bigger jumps from Year One to Year Two is the emphasis on grooming quarterbacks at earlier stages.
“Colleges and high schools throw the ball around so much more than they used to. [Young quarterbacks] probably have a better foundation under them already,” Harbaugh said. “Then, it’s just a matter of getting used to the speed of the game and getting accustomed to the guys around them and the defenses they’re playing as opposed to developing from the ground up and understanding the passing game.”
Chris Trapasso, who specializes in covering the NFL Draft for CBS Sports, did an analysis of quarterback performances comparing Year One and Year Two statistics for quarterbacks drafted between 2008 and 2017. The parameters were that the player must have attempted at least 200 passes as a rookie and 100-plus passes in Year Two.
Thirty quarterbacks met the criteria. Of that group, 18 had the same offensive coordinator throughout the course of the two seasons and 12 had a change in coordinators.
As a group, the quarterbacks posted improvements in all six categories measured: completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and total quarterback rating.
Trapasso pointed out the experiential contrast between the year when a quarterback is drafted and the offseason before Year Two.
“After their college season is over, it really is a fire drill where they are preparing for the NFL [Scouting] Combine. They’re getting ready for all those drills where they have to run and jump and when they get there, they’re throwing to unfamiliar receivers,” Trapasso said. “Then, once they get drafted, some of them may be getting ready to start right away but most of them figure that they’re going to be holding a clipboard for a year, which is where Lamar Jackson was — thinking that he would be behind Joe Flacco for a year.”
As things turned out, Jackson started the final seven games of the 2018 regular season when the veteran Flacco suffered a hip injury in Week 9, and the rookie demonstrated extraordinary mobility, gaining 695 rushing yards on 147 carries to go along with 1,201 passing yards. Taking the NFL by surprise, he helped the Ravens to a 6-1 finish before they lost a wild-card playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Jackson was named the Ravens’ starter and Flacco was traded to Denver.
For most quarterbacks, the offseason after their rookie year is decidedly different.
“His coaches have gotten to see their quarterback against actual NFL competition rather than as a projection as a college player,” Trapasso said. “You get to see him in NFL circumstances, how he works in the shotgun, can he pick up second and third receivers, how does he throw on the run.”
Trapasso found that quarterbacks who had the same offensive coordinator throughout their first two seasons enjoyed greater improvement in certain statistical areas that are a bit different than the passers who had a new coordinator.
The same-coordinator quarterbacks improved in areas that demonstrate passing efficiency, such as completion percentage and interception percentage. The passers with new coordinators improved in more volatile offensive statistical categories, such as touchdown percentage and yards per attempt.
New Offensive Coordinator
Jackson, 22, has a new offensive coordinator in Greg Roman, who replaced Marty Mornhinweg in January.
“Fortunately for the Ravens, Greg Roman has worked with quarterbacks like this,” said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who played for four teams and took Oakland to a Super Bowl. He now works as an analyst for CBS.
As the offensive coordinator with the 49ers and Bills, Roman coached Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. Both quarterbacks possessed above-average mobility, and both flourished with Roman.
Roman is credited with judiciously pairing a mobile quarterback’s speed with a strong supporting running game and mixing in a throwing scheme that avoids turnovers.
“On the coaching side you have to think players, not plays,” Gannon said. “What does your quarterback do well? What are his areas of weakness? Your young quarterback may have quickness and speed, but that type of quarterback, regardless of his athleticism, will have to get better working in the pocket. If you have a quarterback whose first tendency is take off with the ball, the league eventually will catch up to him. The defense will figure out how exactly to set the edges and where to close the running lanes.”
If Jackson’s improvement hews to the averages demonstrated by the players in the Trapasso study, Ravens fans will probably be happy with the results.
A statistical projection for Jackson’s second season has him completing 59.5 percent of his passes and being intercepted at a low 1.2 percent rate while upping his touchdown percentage to 4 percent and yards per pass attempt to 7.8. Those passing numbers, combined with Jackson’s exceptional rushing ability, would give the Ravens a versatile offensive force behind center.
During the offseason, Jackson worked with quarterbacks coach Joshua Harris. Jackson’s areas of concentration were improving his throwing accuracy and protecting the football; he had 12 fumbles in the regular season and three more in the playoff game. Roman has emphasized avoiding turnovers in his offenses that lean on the run game.
While the Ravens’ defense is without its star power of years past, it still was No. 2 in points allowed in the NFL in 2018, so Baltimore figures to be in its share of relatively lower-scoring, close games.
“Baltimore doesn’t have a defense with Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle anymore, so they will have to throw the ball some — say, 225-250 yards a game and run the ball for 75-90 yards,” Trapasso said. “But we’ve seen Greg Roman do that with Kaepernick and help take the 49ers to the Super Bowl.”
For Jackson, as with any quarterback, the challenge is seeing what’s happening around him with greater clarity. Players refer to it as having the game “slow down.”
In training camp, Jackson conceded that last year, the pace of the game was occasionally dizzying, even in practice.
“Even with our defense, last year our defense was flying around,” Jackson said. “My head was spinning. I didn’t know where the guys were coming from, blitzes. The coaches were like, ‘Man, you have to learn how to flip the jets,’ and stuff like that. But this year, I’ve just been sitting back, been a lot [more] comfortable, dialed in.”
Adjusting To The NFL
Often, the most challenging things a young quarterback has to master occur before the ball is even snapped.
“Perhaps the most difficult thing for a rookie quarterback is managing the huddle because in college, they don’t have to do that,” said quarterbacks coach Paul Troth. Troth is a Virginia-based coach for Elite 11, a national competition and camp for the top high school-aged quarterbacks in the country. Former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer is the head coach of the group and its alumni includes Goff and Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
“In college, the plays are all set and they’re being called [from the sideline] so the play call in the huddle is just a few words,” Troth continued. “In the NFL, there’s more verbiage in the huddle. Then there’s the concept of situational football that the quarterback has to have awareness for — not just down-and-distance but also where you are on the field, the clock, your timeouts. That’s all going to influence what happens in the huddle, and that awareness is what separates Year One and Year Two quarterbacks.”
Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann made a similar point about college quarterbacks and the transition to the NFL.
“In college, the quarterback’s job is to function, not to think,” Theismann said. “It’s not that they’re not capable of thinking, they’re just not asked to do it so they’re more like robots.”
Making the transition even more difficult is that the young quarterbacks are having to process information that’s coming at them from their own coaching staffs in the heat of battle.
“Something else they have to adjust to in the NFL are the communications devices in the helmets that shut off at the 15-second mark,” said Theismann, a longtime broadcast analyst. “Now you have the coach in your ear telling the young quarterback, ‘OK, it’s third down. If you see the safety getting near the line of scrimmage, you may want to take a shot.’ So now the quarterback has that additional information to process.”
The Future Is Now
A reality of life in the NFL is the role economic urgency plays in forcing rookie quarterbacks to get ready for Year Two. First-round picks receive four-year deals with a fifth-year team option.
“In the old days, if you drafted a quarterback, even if it was in the first round, you may have had a guy in front of him and if it took two or three years to develop the drafted player, that was kind of standard operating procedure,” Billick said.
“Now because of the amount of money [the team pays] and because of the length of rookie contracts … the expectations are much higher because you basically have only a four- or five-year window and the last thing you want to do is expend the resources to draft a top-round quarterback and not know until Year Four whether this guy can play or not.”
If a quarterback is to survive and thrive in the NFL, Theismann said, all the film study and all the repetitions of working on the mechanics of the position, including footwork and delivery, have to start coming together.
“In Year One, as you look at the defense, what you are seeing are guys lined up against you but you haven’t yet begun to study those players,” the Redskins great said. “By the time you are in Year Two, now you see that same lineman and if his rear is up, you’re thinking he’s coming on the pass rush but if it’s down, he’s settling in [to defend] the run. By Year Three, you’re putting it all together — your situation on the field, the play called and what’s the defense doing that affects the play you called.”
Gannon described the growing awareness as something that goes from being a deliberate thought process to instinctive.
“It’s like someone just learning to drive. You have a 16-year old driver and they’re only concentrating on what’s directly in front of them,” Gannon said. “After they’ve been driving for a while, they take in more of what’s around them — pedestrians on the sidewalk, what’s behind them in the rearview mirror, they’re seeing two cars ahead of them.
“And that’s what happens with quarterbacks as they gain experience and mature. They begin to consider the tendencies of the cornerback they’re going against, even the tendencies of the defensive coordinator,” Gannon continued. “All of a sudden, the combination of the practice repetitions and the study proves its value and when that happens, we see a quarterback take off.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 257: September 2019