Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson: The Battleground for the NFL’s Quarterback Wars

by Rivers McCown

The 2017 NCAA season was a disappointment for two quarterbacks that were highly thought of in 2016. Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s quarterback, saw his passing numbers stagnate while the Cardinals defense dragged the team down to an 8-5 record. The Cardinals allowed 30 or more points six times last season, going 1-5 in those games. Allen saw a massive statistical decline at Wyoming, going from 28 touchdowns to 16, and watching his yards per attempt drop from 8.6 to 6.7.

But one of these quarterbacks is the drum beat of MockDraftLand, a seasonal construct that takes over NFL news for three months, and the other is surrounded by accusations that he may need to move to wide receiver despite his statistical success. It’s worth taking a moment to wonder how we got to this point, and what it means.

Allen is, in many ways, the prototype scouting quarterback. Here’s why I think the prototype is failing us:

 

  • NFL Evaluators still make a big deal about Allen’s size, when we’ve proven that height doesn’t mean much at this level: Drew Brees is likely going to have the NFL’s passing record by the time he’s done playing, and he slipped to the second round because of his height. Russell Wilson isn’t six feet tall and is the most successful quarterback in his age bracket. Deshaun Watson, the NFL’s latest sensation prior to his ACL tear, was dogged for his lack of ideal build and his hand size.

    To a point, height does matter. It’s obviously better for a quarterback to have more visibility over an offensive line. It got ingrained as a scouting virtue for a reason. But when we’re looking at the recent history of quarterbacks, most of the ones drafted and hyped purely on their bodies have been busts. Brock Osweiler received the lowest QBase score in the history of Football Outsiders’ projection stat and continues to draw start after start despite this. Mike Glennon got a starting role because he was a giraffe and predictably flopped. Christian Hackenberg was a second-round pick purely for looking the part. There’s probably still a reason for scouts to hunt for the ideal size, but the degree of emphasis they put on it leads them to miss the forest for the trees.

    The ironic thing about making a big deal about Allen’s height is that he was discriminated against as a high school quarterback because of his size. A growth spurt at community college pushed him to 6-foot-5, from his old 6-foot-2, 190-pound high school frame. Now all of the sudden he gains three inches and NFL scouts drool. What’s the sense in that?
  • NFL Evaluators make a big deal about Allen’s arm strength, when we’ve proven that at the NFL level it’s a luxury item in a quarterback’s tool set: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the NFL in deep passing in 2016, under Kyle Shanahan, where he won the MVP. Ryan averaged 10.3 yards per pass out of play-action, ranking second in the NFL. Ryan’s lone NFL tool that keeps him from being Aaron Rodgers-great is that he doesn’t have a hose. These two facts may sound weird together, but they’re true. There are a lot of ways to attempt a deep pass in the NFL. Play-action matters, half-field reads matter. Many NFL defenses spend a lot of time in quarters coverage now, leaving the seams and posts as a major way to generate deep yardage. If the NFL were being played in a vacuum where single-high safeties made back-shoulder throws 35 yards down the field the only way to generate deep passes, I’d understand the emphasis on arm talent.

    Instead, we spend our days being bombarded by quotes about Allen’s arm talent. Mike Mayock says he’s the “biggest-arm quarterback” since JaMarcus Russell. Quarterback coach George Whitfield talks about how “there hasn’t been a talent like this come out of college football since Cam Newton.” There’s a ton of emphasis on this arm talent and not enough of it on what that will do for Allen at the NFL level.

    Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl and has spent every season since (outside of his year with Gary Kubiak) as a doddering sub-replacement level sieve. His arm can still make all the throws, and nobody in these credible NFL circles has talked about how he needs to be pushed out of Baltimore. But it doesn’t really matter how many throws you can make in theory if you can’t score points, right? The emphasis on arm talent treats these things as if they are one in the same.
  • NFL Evaluators scout the highlight clips and don’t put as much emphasis on down-to-down consistency: One buzzword that I think is a betrayal of NFL scouting is when they say that a quarterback “has toughness” or “resilience” to hang in through the bad times. Sometimes it is company to an injury. It showed resilience to bounce back from a torn ACL. But other times it hangs there as if to say “give him enough snaps and he’ll wow you.”

    And Allen is capable of making you say wow. When you look at his highlight clip, he delivers gobsmackingly great throws. I think that’s awesome, fun to watch, and don’t want to demean the fact that Allen can make these plays in any way. It’s a definite part of the ideal quarterback skill set to create in situations like that. At the same time, I’m reminded of a quote from NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, discussing a passer coming out of college for the 2012 draft. The quote was “if you looked at only this quarterback’s 10 best throws, he’d be the top prospect in the class.”

    The prospect was Ryan Lindley.

    NFL scouts see the raw talent and think that they can taper down on the easy mistakes, that every kid at a college program just needs NFL coaching to get better. NFL teams also handcuff themselves to Blake Bortles even when he readily admits to CBS that he is not a “natural thrower of the football.” There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in the quarterback selection process. My belief is that NFL teams over-evaluate those best 10 throws and hope they can fix the 40 bad ones. After all, the kid has resilience.

 

On the other side of things is Jackson. His consensus in mocklandia is all over the board in the first round. Most of what is said about the Heisman winner in a negative point of view, and the reason that he’s looked at as far behind the other three first-round quarterbacks, can be summed up in ESPN’s terms through Bill Polian. “Short and a little bit slight. Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. The accuracy isn’t there. … I think wide receiver. Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers. That’s [Antonio Brown], and who else? Name me another one, Julio [Jones is] not even like that.”

 

  • NFL Evaluators are nervous about quarterbacks that make hay in the running game: It even makes some sense that this would be the case, given how college football running attacks have fewer NFL-caliber athletes to worry about. Then, you add in the history of college running attacks around option plays, especially in the 80s and 90s, and realize that many of them didn’t go anywhere. Match this with an obviously talented physical specimen and, of course, a certain subset of people with worldviews farmed in that period are going to want to move them to a different position.

    But here’s a funny thing about the NFL: traditional running games in general don’t do much work anymore. Sure, you’ve got the odd case of the 2016 49ers giving it up to backs every week. You’ve got the game last year where the Bills were completely run over on the ground by the Saints. But think about the recent history of running backs making a lot of noise as they hit the scene. Todd Gurley electrified everybody for five weeks. So did Leonard Fournette. NFL game plans adjusted easily to them once they saw what both backs could do. But the most consistent driver of NFL rushing offense lately? A quarterback who can add rushing value. The Seahawks and Bills have consistently been among the best running teams over the past five years with Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. Cam Newton is stuck in a dinosaur offense but still offers exceptional diversity in the red zone. Dak Prescott has helped keep the Dallas run game afloat even without Ezekiel Elliott.

    It’s not a surprise that this change has happened and NFL talking heads are the last to know. After all, they’re just shouting their worldview at the screen, and if their worldview could change, they’d still be employed by a team. Jackson’s versatility as a runner should be adding to our evaluation of him, not subtracting from it.
  • NFL Evaluators still remember Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III, and are great at typecasting: Vick was 6-foot-0, 215 pounds, and NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him not only the No. 1 overall pick, but also a No. 1 overall pick that the Falcons traded up for. The Chargers received a third, a future second, and Tim Dwight for moving down just four spots.

    Vick’s career in Atlanta led off with promise as he outdueled Brett Favre in the playoffs, but ultimately was never a statistical success. Of course, that’s not necessarily all on Vick. The mid-2000s Falcons were coached by nepotism favorite Jim Mora Jr. The offense was coordinated by Greg Knapp, and didn’t use Vick’s run game abilities as much as it could have. Instead, they ran T.J. Duckett into the line a lot. And they still made the playoffs in three of the four seasons where Vick was a full-time starter, despite the Atlanta defense getting worse in every year of Vick’s career. In a different world, one where he was managed by a better offensive design and didn’t murder dogs, Vick could have been so much more. But instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that … he was too short.

    Robert Griffin III went 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him the No. 2 overall pick only because he was behind another generational prospect in Andrew Luck. To trade up to get him, Washington gave the Rams two future first-round picks and a boatload of other picks.

    Griffin’s rookie year was electric. He led Washington to the playoffs, and the Skins finished sixth in offensive DVOA. Griffin finished fifth among all quarterbacks in rushing DYAR, and would have been even higher had he not fumbled seven times. Griffin’s knee gave way on poorly maintained FedEx Field turf in his first playoff game against the Seahawks, and he was never the same player. Washington had an offensive formula that was working, but moved to try to make Griffin play Mike Shanahan’s preferred style of offense and the quarterback struggled. Not only was Griffin mismanaged, but we’ll never know what he would have been without the injury. Instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that Griffin was too small.

    Cam Newton succeeded, but he was 6-foot-6, of course he’d succeed! His body can take NFL punishment. No, I’ve never heard of Russell Wilson. Why do you ask?

    The idea is that every NFL player should be able to thrive in any system, but I’d argue that both Vick and Griffin showed plenty of flashes of success, if not outright success. The cocoon closed ranks and pretended that they were the problems, not the way they were coached or the outside factors. So, in retrospect, they must have been bad picks.
  • NFL Evaluators Think Stats Are For Losers: There’s not much to be said about that, I’m sure. Have scouts and stats ever been pitted against each other in an article or a book, anything like that?

    That war was settled a long time ago. The answer was not scouts or stats. The answer was “yes.”  But what this more broadly points to is the idea of the “system” quarterback. Chip Kelly did a lot wrong as an NFL head coach, but one thing he did right was prove that his system could score points and work. The Eagles were an offensive juggernaut with Nick Foles. Many systems may work in the NFL, it turns out.

    Now, it may be the case that Lamar Jackson isn’t an ideal fit for Norv Turner’s 1990s Cowboys offense, which of course is the measuring stick all offenses are put up against. But Bobby Petrino seemed to have no problems using him to score a boatload of points, and he coached in the NFL. I would argue that head coaches and front offices that embrace the idea that all offensive players are only system fits or worthless are not long for the NFL. A lot has changed in a short time.

    Except in the media discourse, where a disproportionate amount of our attention is rationed out to provocateurs acting as analysts. Huh, do you think maybe all of this talk about Lamar Jackson as a wide receiver feeds people because all news in our society must make people angry or it doesn’t matter? Perhaps that’s why we can just ignore Josh Allen’s stats when people talk about them?

 

 

I think it’s pretty clear which side I am on in this debate from how this article is written. But let me say: I don’t think Josh Allen is a guaranteed bust, and I’m open to hearing about other things he does well. I don’t think Lamar Jackson is a guaranteed franchise quarterback, and I’m open to hearing about other things that might hold him back.

It’s just that, in my rational mind, there’s no way that these two quarterbacks are comparable prospects as far as risk goes. One quarterback has college success, is built to give his NFL team an edge in the running game, and throws down the field an awful lot for a player with no deep ball. The other quarterback couldn’t dent the scoresheet in the middle of nowhere and has several traits in common with, in my eyes, some of the biggest busts of recent NFL history.

These two players will define a lot about the elevated discourse of quarterback play over the next five years. I’m fascinated by how it will turn out. Just don’t tell me what Bill Polian has to say about it in three years.

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