During the season, in my role as executive producer of the “NFL Matchup” show, I do not have the luxury of studying one quarterback for three or four consecutive days. But this time of year is different.
I am currently working on a project at NFL Films that has allowed me to evaluate each NFL starter with a sharper, more refined lens. At times, you get a different feel after watching the same player in seven or eight straight games.
With training camps about a month away, I thought it’d be instructive to look back at the rookie seasons of Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, and to use that analysis to project how 2012 will unfold.
There’s a more clearly defined arc that is part of the evaluation process with rookies. It begins with my careful study of their college tape, continues with their weekly performance during the NFL season, and then comes full circle with re-evaluation in the spring and summer. I have been fortunate this year to fully complete the cycle for the young quarterbacks at the helm of the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings.
I went back and re-read all my film-study notes on Dalton and Ponder from their final college season at TCU and Florida State, respectively. In the final analysis, and of course much went into that, I felt Ponder was the stronger overall prospect entering the draft. I had some concerns about Dalton’s arm-strength limitations. Ponder didn’t have a gun, but his arm was stronger than Dalton’s; more importantly, his college tape showed more throws that demanded velocity. While both displayed elements of anticipation and pocket toughness — two essential attributes in the NFL — I evaluated Ponder as a better arm talent, capable of driving the ball down the field at the intermediate and deeper levels.
At the time, I saw Dalton as the kind of quarterback who would have to be manipulated and managed by the schematics of the passing game, and by extension, the play calling. His NFL coach, if Dalton was to be efficient and consistent, had to understand his physical attributes and structure the offense — specifically the passing game — accordingly. It’s the Bill Walsh paradigm: The passing game concepts — i.e. route combinations and reading progressions — have to maximize a quarterback’s strengths and minimize (or even eliminate) his limitations.
That’s exactly what happened in Cincinnati with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. And surprise, surprise — there’s a pedigree that goes all the way back to Walsh. Gruden is the brother of Jon Gruden. Jon received his NFL indoctrination with the San Francisco 49ers in 1990, working for Mike Holmgren. Holmgren, as many remember, worked for Walsh from 1986-88 as the 49ers’ quarterback coach. This line is clear and distinct, and Jay applied many of the Walsh principles last season. He understood Dalton’s skill set and how to best apply it in the NFL.
As I watched Dalton throughout his rookie season, I believed my evaluation was confirmed. He clearly played well; that’s inarguable. He was poised and composed in the pocket, threw with timing and anticipation and was consistently accurate. His quick, compact delivery, in tandem with his natural anticipation, compensated for his arm-strength limitations. It was evident breaking down the tape that Gruden did an outstanding job maximizing Dalton’s efficiency. The route combinations and reading progressions were more elementary than advanced. That played to Dalton’s strength as a timing and rhythm passer with touch and accuracy.
Yet, there were instances in which his inability to drive the ball with velocity was a negative factor. As is always the case, those situations tend to arise more frequently, and are magnified, in the more important late season and playoff games, against better defenses. When the 2011 season ended, I viewed Dalton as a good young quarterback with defined strengths and some limitations.
When I returned to Dalton last month and drilled down deeper, I was more impressed. Here’s why: Quarterbacks who are not strong, power throwers must have two attributes in order to compensate: anticipation and accuracy. And they must possess those traits to a highly refined degree to be top-level NFL signal callers. Dalton routinely displayed outstanding anticipation. There were many intermediate throws in which he pulled the trigger well before the receiver began his break. What must supplement that kind of anticipation is precise ball location. Dalton had it. Time and again, he hit the strike point, putting the ball right on his receivers’ hands.
I will never minimize the value of arm strength. In fact, there have been quarterbacks whose arms have gotten stronger as their NFL careers have progressed (Tom Brady and Drew Brees, to name a couple). Perhaps that will happen with Dalton. But for right now, his ability to offset a lesser arm with highly developed execution of other necessary attributes sets him apart, especially early in his career.
Unlike Dalton, who was installed as the Bengals’ starter in training camp, Ponder began 2011 as a backup — to Donovan McNabb. That’s important to remember. He did not get first-team reps all through camp and the first six weeks of the season. He wasn’t named the starter until mid-October, before the Week 7 home game against the Green Bay Packers. No offseason due to the lockout, limited reps … and then your first start comes against the defending Super Bowl champions, who were undefeated at the time.
It was an impressive beginning. Ponder threw with velocity, especially when his feet were set. He showcased excellent ability to throw on the run, with designed movement a featured part of the offense. He also displayed the kind of confidence you love to see in a young passer, attacking Charles Woodson in man coverage a number of times. He won some, he lost some. He was firm in the pocket, willing to deliver in the face of pressure.
As the season progressed, Ponder exhibited other attributes that bode well for 2012 and beyond. In particular, pocket movement. There were a number of throws in which Ponder showed the essential ability to move within the pocket to avoid the pass rush, maintain downfield focus and then deliver with accuracy. He also provided the added dimension of getting outside the pocket in response to pressure and using his speed to generate explosive gains.
Ponder must improve as a progression reader. Last season, he had a tendency to pre-determine throws — a common problem for young, inexperienced quarterbacks. There are four general steps in the process of learning how to play NFL quarterback at a high level:
1. Grasping all the subtleties of your own offense.
2. Comprehending the nuances and complexities of opposing defenses.
3. Reading coverage properly after the ball is snapped.
4. Controlling the game before the ball is snapped through recognition and understanding of pressure schemes and coverages.
As a rookie, Ponder struggled just to accomplish the first step. He took the snap and threw the ball to his primary read, regardless of how the defense played. It’s a process, and it takes time. When I re-visited Ponder last month, I found myself more intrigued by his pure throwing ability. That arm strength is a real positive, just like I figured it would be when Ponder was coming out of Florida State.
Ponder, however, is not as advanced as Dalton when it comes to anticipation and accuracy.
These are two second-year quarterbacks with much to build on from Year 1. At this point, almost everyone will say Dalton is the better player. Will that be true in two years? I don’t think that answer is as certain.
For more thoughts by Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter.