Cosell Talks: Matt Flynn and the Art of Quarterbacking

From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Green Bay Packers, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game

Rewind to New Year’s Day. On that cold and windy afternoon at Lambeau Field, Matt Flynn’s second NFL start produced 480 passing yards and six touchdowns, the final one with 1:10 left in the fourth quarter. It was the winning score in a 45-41 shootout with the Detroit Lions.

After the game, all we heard was how Flynn had just made himself a lot of money as a prospective free agent. He had started two games, one against New England in 2010, and this record-setting performance on the 2011 season’s final Sunday. We all knew the line of reasoning: the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, there’s a scarcity of quality starting quarterbacks, Flynn has been tutored by one of the league’s best quarterback coaches in Mike McCarthy, and he played well each time he got his opportunity.

Matt Flynn and Joe Philbin (AP)

Of course, now that former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin is the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, most assume it’s a fait accompli: Flynn will sign with Miami and run the offense in which he’s been schooled since he was Green Bay’s seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft.

Flynn and his current situation as an in-demand free agent at the game’s most important position reminds me of the late Bill Walsh, the transcendent Hall of Fame coach of the San Francisco 49ers. I was very fortunate, in my 33 years at NFL Films, to visit with Coach Walsh on a number of occasions. Listening to him talk about quarterbacks, and maximizing quarterback efficiency, was one of the absolute highlights of my career.

Coach Walsh always believed the play of the quarterback could be, and, in fact, had to be manipulated and managed by the passing game schematics and by extension the play-calling. You had to understand the quarterback’s physical attributes, and structure the offense, specifically the passing game, accordingly.

I remember him telling me that he threw the skinny post with Dan Fouts (Walsh was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 1976, for one season), but not with Joe Montana. He said Montana could not make that throw very well. The overriding point was this: the passing game concepts, i.e., route combinations and reading progressions, had to maximize the quarterback’s strengths and minimize, or even eliminate, his limitations. Walsh was the first coach to apply this conceptual construct, and he forever changed the way in which coaches design pass offense. More specifically, he fostered a new coach-quarterback paradigm. One could easily argue the Sean Payton-Drew Brees relationship is a direct descendent of the Walsh-Montana bond in the 1980s.

How does this relate to Matt Flynn in 2012? Flynn, at 6-foot-2, does not possess prototypical size. He has above-average arm strength, nothing more. There are power throws he will struggle to make, like deep digs at 18-22 yards, or deep comebacks. In fact, these are not throws you would ask Flynn to make. The bottom line: Flynn is not a top-level passer.

His attributes, based on film breakdown of his two NFL starts, derive from his talent as a timing and rhythm passer who’s decisive with his reads and throws, and has shown good accuracy in the short to intermediate areas. He’s primarily a plant-and-throw quarterback who makes good decisions, and delivers the ball on time. One thing I liked was his pocket movement. He showed the ability to slide and maintain his downfield focus. That’s a far more important trait than running out of the pocket.

Flynn, I believe, can be a successful NFL starter, but — and here’s where the Walsh archetype comes into play — he must be carefully manipulated by the schematics of the passing game, and helped by the play-calling. He’s not Aaron Rodgers simply because he put up better numbers in a late-season start. Rodgers is an exception, a supremely talented passer with rare traits. Few quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown with Rodgers’ combination of velocity and accuracy.

Flynn is a member of a much larger quarterback fraternity, players who need to be coached and managed to maximize the skills they possess. They must be defined and enhanced by the methodology and the concepts of the passing game. That’s the way it works in the NFL for 80-90 percent of its quarterbacks.

That’s why it would make good sense for Flynn to join his former offensive coordinator in Miami. Philbin understands from personal experience Flynn’s strengths and limitations. If he gets the chance, he will take a page from the Bill Walsh book, and cast Flynn in his rightful role: an efficient passer in a multi-dimensional passing game in which the scheme rules, not the quarterback.

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