Analysis Notebook: Week 5
Like Ali needed Frazier, Bird needed Magic, and Rocky needed a whole host of contrived nemeses through six movies and counting, great NFL quarterbacks need a foil, a career rival to bring the best out of them. Tom Brady has had Peyton Manning to be compared to and measure himself against for his entire career. The two bring out the best in each other.
It was supposed to be Andrew Luck vs. RGIII for the next decade plus. The two prospects were sitting atop the 2011 NFL Draft and were to be forever linked in their NFL careers. Injury, or a series of injuries, have robbed us of that particular rivalry and it is Russell Wilson, selected 74 places below Luck who looks set to fill that role.
Wilson and Luck look primed to become the next great quarterbacks in the NFL and given the success both men have brought to their teams already, they have generated the inevitable comparisons that Luck and RGIII were supposed to.
I could draw up an exhaustive list of plays breaking down each player in excruciating detail, but then this edition of the Analysis Notebook would span thousands of words and become more of a dissertation or college thesis. Instead, let’s look a little at each player and highlight both their strengths and weaknesses using specific case study plays.
Luck began this race with a head start. He was the number one overall pick in the draft, he was the new face of the franchise before his plane had even touched down, he was the best quarterback prospect to come out since Peyton Manning, the man who he would be replacing. Wilson of course was far less heralded. He was pretty good, for a short guy. A third round pick everybody liked on the quiet, but not enough to man up and take higher in the draft.
Whether people like to admit it or not, where a guy is drafted has a huge influence on his reputation, at least on a superficial level. People will be more willing to give a guy credit for what he does well, pointing to the talent and obvious potential, and excuse what he does badly, explaining it away as young growing pains. The same traits in a less heralded prospect will be seen as lucky or freak plays and evidence of his inherent flaws.
Luck has had people proclaiming him to be one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL since before he was even in the NFL. When you’ve got people proclaiming him a nailed on star before he’s even taken a snap, given all we know about quarterback busts, you know there’s a serious amount of blinkered thinking to get past.
He put up impressive numbers from the outset, and the team has won since his arrival, so it was always easy for the narrative to continue to run – Luck was a top quarterback already and a surefire stud – but the truth is that his performance had never quite matched that hype until this season.
Despite throwing for 4,374 yards as a rookie Luck was PFF’s 16th ranked QB and a year later he was 12th. PFF isn’t concerned with statistics when measuring performance, and the grading represents a play-by-play evaluation of his throws and performance with the football in those seasons. If he made a great throw that was dropped by his receivers, he got credit for it. If he made a terrible throw that ended up bouncing off a defender’s hands but caught by one of his receivers, he was downgraded heavily. If you look at the grading Luck was good, and improving each year, but lagging behind the hype a little.
This year though he has caught up to it. He currently sits 3rd in the QB rankings, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. He has eliminated much of the negative from his game and only added to the positives.
You don’t have to look far to find an example of Luck’s biggest strength as a quarterback – his ability to thread the needle with the football. He has a legit NFL arm, and trusts it enough to put the ball in the air and drop it into tight windows without getting his receivers killed by a dangerous pass. Take this play against the Ravens on Sunday:
Luck wants to his TE Dwayne Allen on a post pattern on this play, and you can see from the drops about to be taken by the various Baltimore defenders that it’s going to be a pretty tight window when he attempts it. He needs to clear underneath defenders with the football and drop it in front of the deep safety all without exposing it to anybody either side and not leading Allen into trouble. It’s a tough pass, but it has the potential to pay off with a big gain late in the game.
Luck fired a perfect pass into what we can see was a tight and closing window. The ball had perfect placement and good velocity on it, hitting Allen in stride and allowing him to run past one defender before eventually being stopped by the last line of defense before a score. This was a huge play that almost paid off with a score – it’s the play you want to see your quarterback make when the game situation is critical.
While he has always displayed the kind of big-game skills we have just seen above, and he seems to come alive when the game is on the line – the critical, clutch situations – Luck’s biggest weakness has always been the simple plays he leaves out on the field. He has cut down on these in a major way this season which goes a long way to explaining why his grade is so much better. In 2013 12% of his attempts were wide of the mark of his intended receiver. This year that figure is just 7%, but there are still examples to draw on.
Take this play against Jacksonville. Luck’s routine miss – under no pressure – directly cost his team four points.
The Indianapolis play design perfectly created an easy pass opportunity for a touchdown, placing the Jaguars defense in a no-win situation against a pair of routes coming at them. Luck had to deliver a simple quick pass and T.Y. Hilton had an easy score. Instead though the ball was low, and almost uncatchable. Hilton needed to dive at the floor to bring it in, killing any chance of a score as the defenders had the time to close on him and stop him short. The Colts ended up having to settle for a field goal on the drive.
You could easily find a play like this for every quarterback. None of them are perfect and all miss passes from time to time – even routine ones – but I’m highlighting this one of Luck’s for a reason, it is something he has struggled with relative to other quarterbacks, and is a large part of the reason his PFF grade has never quite matched the hype.
Wilson is the Tom Brady to Luck’s Peyton Manning. Far less heralded, he was never supposed to be the Seattle starter from the outset. He was a third round pick and the team had just paid Matt Flynn a “generous” sum to be the new starting quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson has started the season before and was still there as competition. Wilson was at best the future, with time to sit and learn behind the two veterans. As it happened though as soon as he stepped off the plane he was just evidently better than the two guys ahead of him on the depth chart, and to Seattle’s credit they didn’t take long to recognize reality and insert him as the starter.
Since then Wilson has if anything outperformed Luck, though not necessarily when looking at conventional stats. With one more career start to date Luck has thrown for 2, 486 more yards than Wilson. Even when you add in Wilson’s rushing yardage the figure only rounds out to around 2,000, and actually adds to Luck’s touchdown margin. Over the same time span though Wilson has scored a +67.3 PFF grade to Luck’s +36.0. He has made huge plays at crucial times and operated within the offense rather than been the focal point of the offense.
Like Luck, Wilson has all the arm he could need. He is also athletic enough to make big plays with his legs. We saw on Monday Night against Washington that he is dangerous enough in that regard that the team can heavily tilt their game plan towards it if they spot a weakness in the defense. Washington was clearly not prepared to defend Wilson as a runner, and the Seahawks leaned on option keepers and bootlegs. Wilson responded with 122 rushing yards, 66 of which came from five designed carries (as opposed to scrambles).
It’s Wilson the passer that often gets underrated and overlooked though, so let’s highlight this play against the Broncos.
He has his receiver, Ricardo Lockette, isolated in man coverage at the bottom of the screen. The safety is on the far side of the field, and his pre-snap read tells him this is where to go with the football. As we can see at the moment Wilson throws the ball the coverage is actually very good. If he wants to complete this pass he has to do better than just hang it up there and hope his receiver makes a play. That kind of pass against this kind of coverage is likely to be picked off. Instead he hits his target with precision, and drops a pass perfectly into the hands of Lockette in the end zone for a score. This is a picture perfect pass over a significant distance. It’s a pass you want your quarterback to make and helps to explain how he can grade so highly despite putting up far fewer yards than a guy like Luck. He may not get through the same volume of yardage, but the quality of that yardage is often superior.
Again, the point is not to suggest that this one throw proves anything, but it acts as an example of what the grading shows – Wilson making impressive throws even though he might not accumulate the yardage of other passers.
Quarterbacks with rushing ability are supposed to be the silver bullet to NFL defenses. In theory they can be almost impossible to defend. You cover every potential receiver and then they take off from the pocket and pick up yardage you just weren’t prepared to defend. If you dedicate resources to keep them contained then you sacrifice coverage. The problem is that it’s a very fine line to tread between taking off and making plays when you need to, and spooking from a clean pocket too soon, becoming a run first guy and exposing yourself both to injury and a less efficient means of moving the football.
This play highlights the smart Wilson when it comes to running with the ball.
He sees very quickly that the pass play is un jeopardy but also that the middle of the field has opened up, so takes off. This is a play a lot of quarterbacks make, though you have to admire the lack of hesitation in his movement. What I love most about this run though is the way he attacks the unblocked defender in the open field. Most quarterbacks faced with this slide right there if they are smart or try to challenge him if they aren’t. Wilson though has rare athletic instincts with the ball in his hands and knows that he can just cut to space, maintaining speed and putting the defender in an impossible situation. He cuts past him, turns a modest gain into a first down and then crucially still ends the play with a slide to avoid taking any significant hits on the play. This is smart rushing at its best.
It can cause problems though, and we also saw Wilson leave the pocket too soon at times in this game. As it happens, he got away with it both times I saw it happen against Washington, even turning one of them into a huge pass play, but the threat is there. Any time you have a quarterback who knows he can make plays with his legs there is an inevitable temptation to abandon the pocket too soon, sacrificing any chance of standing in there and delivering the ball despite pressure.
So far Wilson has stayed on the right side of this line more often than not, but it can be a concern at times.
So where does all this leave us? Before this season I would have said that Russell Wilson was the clear leader in the rivalry. Sure, Luck has thrown for more yards, but Wilson was in my eyes actually performing better as a quarterback. He was making fewer mistakes, executing his offense more consistently all throughout the game, and of course he had earned his ring by leading the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Now the last part he did only as one part of the Seattle juggernaut, but still, we all know that rings matter a little, even to the most logical of us when it comes to these debates.
This season though the two have reversed fortunes. Luck has ironed out much of the poor play that often hurt his grade while Wilson has actually dialled back the impressive plays and become more of the game manager that people have often (incorrectly) accused him of being in the past. Right now Luck is significantly out grading Wilson right at the time people are finally starting to tell you how good the Seahawks passer is.
The bottom line right now is that I’m honestly not sure which guy I’d pick if I had the chance of starting my franchise from scratch, but that it looks like you’d be in great hands with either one, and that bodes very well for the next decade of NFL action.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam