As spring turns to summer, and then training camps open later in July, two NFC quarterbacks will be under the microscope: the Philadelphia Eagles’ Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan.
Vick remains the most intriguing player in the NFL. It’s hard to believe he will be 32 years old in June. When Vick entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, he was immediately celebrated as an athletic innovator who was going to revolutionize the game, surpass accepted and time-worn philosophies, and compel a re-thinking of the perceived limits of the NFL quarterback position.
It never quite happened in Atlanta, and it hasn’t really worked out that way in Philadelphia. There always will be breathtaking moments. Vick is a transcendent athlete, capable of extraordinary throws and runs at any given moment. Yet he always leaves you wanting more. The reason, in simplest terms: Vick is not, to this day, an accomplished passer. He remains a week-to-week player with little stability or continuity to his game. He’s always dangerous, at times dazzling, but seldom consistent.
Defensive coordinators no doubt will speak to the difficulty of defending Vick because of his dynamic, game-changing running ability. Yet, if Vick presents such an enormous challenge to match up against, why has that not frequently and consistently resulted in reliable performances? The most telling reason is Vick’s strong tendency to play outside of structure, beyond the design of the offense. It is very frustrating seeing Vick leave the pocket when pressure is not a factor and the route combination has not fully developed. He leaves a lot of throws on the field. For the uninitiated, it appears the Eagles OL is not very good. Those who believe that don’t understand quarterback play in the NFL.
If you play the position properly, and much goes into doing that both before and after the snap, you will play within structure a very high percentage of the time. Improvisation and sandlot play may occasionally look spectacular, but they are random and arbitrary. By definition, they are both positive and negative. That’s not the recipe for consistent success in the NFL.
2012 is the crossroads year for Vick. It begins with his first full off-season as an undisputed starter since his final year in Atlanta in 2006. He must use the time to better understand the subtleties of quarterback play, the nuances demanded to perform well play after play, week after week. NFL quarterback is a highly disciplined craft. For those like Vick who are exceptional athletes, it requires more intellectual discipline to properly harness that athleticism than is necessary for those players predisposed to play in the pocket. Perhaps the most damning assessment of Vick is this: his frenetic, haphazard approach sabotages his ability to stay on the field.
Let’s turn our attention to Ryan. By the numbers, Ryan has been excellent, showing meaningful improvement each of his four seasons since Atlanta selected him with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, ostensibly to replace the departed Vick. Ryan has won 69% of his regular season starts. It’s very difficult to find fault with that level of success. Of course, the Falcon faithful point to his 0-3 playoff record as the more meaningful measuring stick of his performance.
Few would argue that Ryan is a quality NFL starter. In 2011, his overall game took another step forward, one example being the Falcons more expansive utilization of the up-tempo, no-huddle offense. That required Ryan to control the game at the line of scrimmage before the snap. The ability to do that is now necessary in order to reach elite status at the quarterback position in the NFL. Ryan, time and again, showed both his comfort level, and his total command of many pre-snap variables. There may have been no better example of his growth and maturity in this area than the victory over the Titans on the 11th Sunday of the season.
One trait Ryan has always possessed, going back to his days at Boston College, is the willingness to pull the trigger, to make tight throws into small openings. He’s an excellent anticipation passer, delivering the ball before the receiver comes out of his break. He threw a touchdown pass to Julio Jones against the New Orleans Saints late in the season that was truly special, made more so by the fact that it was on the fringe of the red zone, an area of the field where space is compressed and the windows are squeezed. The overall point is this: there’s no question Ryan has many of the attributes needed to play the position at a consistently high level in the NFL.
Yet, there’s one element of Ryan’s game in which he struggles, and he will need to improve in order to play with greater consistency in the more important games, against the better defenses. Ryan is primarily a pocket passer. Certainly he can roll out by design at times, but he’s at his best sitting in a comfortable cradle with his feet balanced, striding into his throws with functional space. That’s the ideal scenario: a secure pocket with room to deliver. Unfortunately, that does not happen as often as you might expect.
In the NFL, quarterbacks must be able to function effectively in a “muddied” pocket, with bodies around them, in what we call the “eye of the storm”. Quarterbacks who are predominantly pocket passers must also have the ancillary attribute of pocket movement. Think of a boxing ring, and its self contained area. Pocket movement is best portrayed as the ability to move within the tightly constricted confines of that compressed area to avoid pass rush pressure, and find, relatively speaking, the quietest area with which to deliver the football. Two corollaries to pocket movement: It is imperative to keep your focus downfield, and never look at the rush, and secondly, you must have the ability to maintain your fundamental throwing motion in the face of intense pressure. It is, without question, the most important type of mobility needed to succeed consistently in the NFL.
Ryan is not there yet. It’s the single most important trait that he must master to reach that next step in his development. Without it, he will remain inconsistent, and uncertain and tentative against defenses that can sustain pressure throughout the course of games. As is the case with Michael Vick, Ryan must continue to refine his game in order to make the most of the natural talents that have gotten him this far. For both players who still have much still to prove, 2012 will be another pivotal year in their NFL journey.
For more thoughts from Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter at @gregcosell.