This week, I will consider two quarterbacks in the AFC East: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez. Their respective teams, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, are receiving much preseason publicity, for reasons that have little to do with either player. In Buffalo’s case, the renewed optimism stems primarily from the retooled defense, which is now anchored by free-agent signee Mario Williams. The hordes have swarmed to Jets training camp in Cortland, N.Y., meanwhile, for daily Tim Tebow updates. Only Tebow could turn Sanchez, the starting quarterback of a team just one season removed from consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship Game, to a bit player.
Let’s start with Fitzpatrick. He played in an offense that predominantly featured the shotgun in 2011, with three — and, at times, four — wide receivers; empty sets were also a significant feature of the Bills’ offense. In fact, just two NFL quarterbacks threw more passes from the shotgun: the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady. Bills coach Chan Gailey, the architect of the offense, perfectly understood Fitzpatrick’s attributes. Fitzpatrick, who has limited arm strength, is most efficient as a distributor, operating an up-tempo passing game in which the ball comes out quickly in short-to-intermediate areas. The basketball analogy is that of a point guard who must get the ball to the team’s playmakers and let them do their thing.
Every time I evaluated film of a Bills game, I found myself noting Fitzpatrick’s decisive reads and throws. He knew where to go with the ball, and he rarely hesitated when pulling the trigger. He clearly understood Gailey’s concepts, and was comfortable and composed in the pocket. It proved to be a nice marriage of quarterback and coach. Gailey’s offense gives defenses a lot to prepare for and defend. It features multiple shifts and motions that change receiver distribution and location, i.e., how many receivers are aligned to each side, and who those receivers are. Favorable matchups were often created, and Fitzpatrick knew where to throw before the snap. In addition, the use of spread formations (two-by-two or three-by-two sets) widened the field horizontally. That expanded the voids against zone coverage and increased space against man coverage.
Fitzpatrick has, from time to time, played at a high level over the last two years. But here’s the dose of reality that explains why Fitzpatrick has failed to develop consistency: He seems to struggle with his mechanics, especially his footwork and balance. That has produced accuracy issues; open throws are missed due to poor ball location. There was no better example of this last season – and keep in mind, this is just one of many — than a fourth-quarter interception thrown inside the 5-yard line during a Week 6 loss to the New York Giants. Bills receiver Steve Johnson had easily beaten cornerback Corey Webster off the line of scrimmage on a fade route. Fitzpatrick, however, did not plant his back foot. He never set; he threw the ball off-balance, falling away, and it was badly underthrown. What should have been an easy touchdown became an interception. One could argue that the throw cost the Bills a victory.
Many factors contribute to consistent quarterback play from one week to the next. Mechanics and proper fundamentals are not talked about enough. In 2011, Fitzpatrick’s footwork, balance and throwing motion were all erratic. His arm slot often dropped, lowering his release point. Such a flaw can be corrected with practice and repetition, but the question remains: Can he apply what he learns on the practice field during games, with dramatically increased speed and bodies flying around him? There’s much to like about Fitzpatrick, but he also has much work to do.
Sanchez is entering his fourth year as the Jets’ starter. During his first two seasons, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game. The teams he won with were built around a solid running game and an aggressive defense. In 2009, his rookie season, the Jets ran the ball more times for more yards than any team in the NFL. They were second in number of rushes and fourth in yards in 2010. Those numbers dropped precipitously last season, when New York’s running game was a week-to-week question mark that featured little consistency.
I have written extensively about the connection between physical attributes and traits and the quality of quarterback play over time. One can measure and quantify the characteristics needed to play the position at a high level. They are there on film. Different quarterbacks possess different traits in varying and relative degrees. Good coaches recognize that, and structure their offenses to maximize the particular strengths — and minimize the particular limitations — of their quarterbacks. Gailey does this with Fitzpatrick in Buffalo.
Here’s the short version of my analysis of Sanchez: Because of limited arm strength and inconsistent progression reading and decision-making, he’s at his best working with a strong running game that provides a play-action element. Play-action almost always gives a quarterback a defined “either-or” read, with a check-down available if needed. This allows Sanchez to get the ball out quickly, within the structure and timing of the pass game. Through three years, this is what the film shows Sanchez to be. He’s a function of the team around him. He needs a consistent running game and solid offensive line to have a chance to be a quality starter.
In the NFL, how a quarterback performs in third-down situations is one of the best barometers of his play. That’s when he sees the large majority of blitz schemes and hybrid coverage concepts. Quarterbacks must be mentally sharp before the snap and physically decisive after it. Third down is the quickest down in the NFL; execution must be immediate and resolute. Sanchez has really struggled in these situations. He’s completed just 50 percent of his passes on third down, converting a first down just 35 percent of the time. The numbers reflect what he is as a quarterback at this point in his career. He needs to improve his coverage recognition and his intermediate and deeper accuracy; these skills are crucial on third down.
Sanchez is most effective throwing between the numbers, in the middle of the field. He lacks the arm strength to drive the ball outside with the necessary velocity, but he’s made some outstanding seam throws. That’s his best attribute as a passer as he enters his fourth season. Sanchez’s development in 2012 will be a function of whether new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano’s run-first offense can succeed as hoped. If the Jets can control games on the ground, thus dictating fronts and coverages, then Sanchez will have his best opportunity to be efficient and consistent.
Of course, Sanchez also has to contend with the Tebow factor. The more snaps Tebow plays at quarterback, the less likely it is that Sanchez will mature. Will the Jets institute what is essentially a platoon system? Having Tebow play four or five snaps per game is one thing; the Jets did that with Brad Smith in Sanchez’s first two seasons. However, if Tebow plays 15-20 snaps, that’s another story that will present Sanchez with an entirely different set of issues. One thing is certain: The fewer snaps Sanchez plays, the worse he will perform. That’s a given.
Sanchez and Fitzpatrick are both defined by the offensive approaches of their respective teams. Much will happen before we kick off the season in September, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that Fitzpatrick will be the better quarterback in 2012.