Plenty of attention is being focused on rookie QB’s around the league right now. Everyone wants to know when is the right time for them to be a starter with their prospective teams? The talking heads on television as well as fans are all weighing in and discussing when is the best time? I was asked that exact question by Freddie Coleman on ESPN radio last night. This was part of my answer.
I have listened to many valid reasons as well as crazy reasons of why a player projects to a certain level. Having experience being that final decision maker for an NFL team in my career, my criteria has always been simple, starting and ending with the same question and only one answer.
The dynamic for acquiring a QB begins with an evaluation of his skill set and overall ability. The time for breaking down what he is or isn’t has past. A player’s ceiling or potential can always be debated until we see it at the NFL level, but for my money, after considering all of the data gathered over the last four months (in OTA’s and training camp), and with a team virtually set at every other position to open the season in two weeks, the answer to who the starting QB will be, is simple in my mind. The most significant box that must be checked by both the GM and the head coach is...can our starting quarterback be trusted?
Here is what I mean. In case you haven’t noticed, NFL defenses, and the people that run them (coordinators), are really good. In order to give your team a chance to succeed as an offense, you have to employ a QB that can understand a) what that defense is doing and b) what his team’s system needs to do to exploit it.
The trust factor is why coaches choose players at all positions, especially on offense. Players have to be trusted to know exactly what they are doing and to make the mental adjustments necessary, in most cases, after the ball is snapped each play. Seldom does a play or situation go exactly like it was drawn up on the black board. In the NFL, you cannot wait for a break in the action to make adjustments. It is mostly done on the fly. Coaches know their team has a chance if the answer is yes to the trust question. The mental game matters!
Having watched many players evolve and develop their craft over the years, the one thing I have learned is that players struggle to grow and improve if they don’t know what they are doing. It’s usually very obvious with quarterbacks.
Jacksonville’s QB, Trevor Lawrence, the first pick in the draft, is not going to get better until he has a grasp of the Jaguars system and includes having the cheat code/ answer key, depending on defensive reactions. He must use this knowledge, above and beyond his athleticism and rocket arm. The same can be said for Zach Wilson of the New York Jets or Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears.
At times, fans will see flashes of what got these players drafted so highly. However, the minute you roll them out there (even in preseason), they are all THINKING (you can see the wheels turning) rather than just reacting or just relying on their superior athletic ability. Its why all of these rookie QB’s need reps, and need them at game speed. The more they get- the more comfortable they feel.
The race from a player to develop from playing QB at a ‘paint by numbers’ level, to becoming a true instinctive artist comes with an understanding of all the moving parts. The final piece for that quarterback, is learning how to recognize and manipulate the defensive parts.
So much of what these top-rated QB’s experienced in college was simplified for them by their head coach or play caller — call the play, execute it and then go call another play in the huddle. Their offense in college, in most cases, had way better players than the opposing defense and the talent discrepancy between college teams was so great that, as long as they didn’t overthink things, they had a huge advantage and could be successful and win.
I actually think this is why we are probably seeing former BYU QB Zach Wilson look the most comfortable early on. Right now, he might be the most trusted of all the young rookies at this point. Before the last NFL Draft, I told a number of people that Wilson was the readiest to apply his trade at the NFL level. I have seen nothing but more evidence of that in preseason so far.
Most thought that BYU, not being in a Power Five conference nor playing a who’s who of football schedule, was a negative against Wilson. I never bought into that line of thinking. The offense Wilson ran at BYU had to be innovative, and pliable versus equal talent or better on the defensive side. The Cougars were not better than 90% of their opponents by just showing up. In my opinion, he had to perform his craft at a higher level because of it. For my money, Wilson already looks the most comfortable after these preseason games. He is already making reads and choices at a higher level than the other drafted rookies and he seems to have the best grasp for the concepts that the Jets are using offensively.
I firmly believe that Wilson has now established a higher level of trust with the Jets coaches.
The Denver Broncos have chosen the well-traveled Teddy Bridgewater as their starting QB for two reasons. A. They trust him. B. The coaches have lost the trust in Drew Lock based on his performance in 2020. It is simple in my opinion. The offensive coaching staff for the Bronco can’t get the nightmares from Lock’s poor decision making in the heat of the battle last year out of their mind. I think their final decision on naming a starter was just as much about not trusting Lock as it was about trusting Bridgewater. In the case of the Broncos, these two QB’s skill set and which had the higher ceiling didn’t matter.
I see a similar situation unfolding in Chicago where the fans are screaming for the Bears to go “all in” on Justin Fields and begin the season with him as their starter. In last week’s preseason game, every time I see the replay of the unblocked blitzer coming off the edge not to the QB’s back, but to his open side, I think to myself — this is why the Bears don’t trust him yet.
Before he can be trusted, Fields has to recognize what is happening in front of him and he has to feel this and quickly get the ball out. Right now, Fields can’t see enough of these things at a fast-enough pace in order to get the experience he needs to “fail forward fast”. Watching that moment with Fields let me know that he still has quite a way to go to earn the trust factor from the Bears coaching staff. I have zero doubt that he is their best QB and he will eventually be the starter at some point this year. However, the learning curve that most fans want to ignore is REAL.
What complicates this particular situation and makes me question if the starting QB decision is being made without agenda is that Head Coach Matt Nagy is coaching for his job this year. The Bears offensive line is a work in progress and right now Nagy feels ANDY DALTON is better equipped to deal with the pressures of being a starting QB. I do not think he wants to go thru the normal ups and downs of playing a rookie that might result in early season failures while he learns the job. Once Fields catches up, it’s a no brainer and he will not have a choice. He will take over the starting job.
In New England, the reason we are even talking about Mac Jones as a possible starting QB is not because of his skill set, its because he has already earned a large portion of the coaching staffs’ trust. The Patriots coaches know he can see and process the concepts within their system better and he raises their passing game to an NFL level, which it was nowhere near last year. Of course, it helps Jones that the talent level around him has been upgraded greatly as well, since 2020.
Coaches make decisions on TRUST at other positions as well. It drives scouts crazy when coaches want to keep a veteran player who has limited upside and skills over the potential of an untested player. The best GM’s in the game find the happy medium to make both talent evaluators and a coaching staff happy when putting together a team’s roster. However, make no mistake about it, when it comes to the most important offensive position on the field, coaches will start their season with the QB they TRUST fully.