Sunday, October 9, 2011

5 comments Johnette Howard May Have a Semi-Point, But This Isn't a Pervasive Issue

We all know how things work in the NFL, just like it works in real life. Nothing gets changed until someone important feels the pain of a problem. The NFL won't seriously alter the overtime rule during the regular season until a playoff spot is ultimately decided by the current regular season overtime rules. Protecting the quarterback became a bigger deal after the NFL realized quarterbacks are among the most popular players in the NFL and it may be in their best interests to prevent them from being hurt. It's the same way in sports journalism. Team X could go through three quarterbacks due to injury during the season, but few writers pay attention to what practice experience with the first-team offense the backup quarterback has. Once a guy like Peyton Manning gets hurt, well then the question starts to get asked why doesn't the backup quarterback get more reps with the first-team in practice?

Johnette Howard has asked that question today. She may have a semi-point about backup quarterbacks deserving more first-team snaps in practice, but the reason they don't also makes sense. Using Curtis Painter as the example doesn't help the argument either. This is how it works though. Peyton Manning gets hurt, so it causes sportswriters to focus on issues like how many snaps the backup quarterback gets in practice, which leads to a possible overreaction to a smaller problem. Howard takes an issue one team may be having and then turns it into a league-wide epidemic.

Other than recalling that he was the rookie who was abruptly thrown into a game on his own 10-yard line when the Indianapolis Colts were playing the fire-breathing Jets' defense two seasons ago, and basically told, "Don't blow our perfect 14-0 season, kid'' I don't know much about Curtis Painter.

Why was Painter thrown in the game? Did Peyton Manning suffer an injury that didn't allow him to continue? No, he did not. Painter was thrown into the game because the Colts wanted to rest Manning and prevent him from getting injured. Manning was pulled from the game. If they had truly wanted to keep their 14-0 record they would have kept their completely not-injured, Hall of Fame quarterback in the game. So Painter wasn't really told not to blow the 14-0 season, he was put in the game purely to prevent Manning from getting hurt and the Colts probably had an idea they weren't going 15-0.

To me, he just looks like Kurt Cobain in shoulder pads.

He has long hair. He's a non-conformist like Kurt Cobain!

But I do know the poor guy doesn't deserve what he seems to have become now that Colts star Peyton Manning is out indefinitely: the poster boy for all that's wrong with NFL backup quarterbacks.

Let's not ignore all evidence presented that Curtis Painter may be a terrible NFL quarterback regardless of how many snaps he gets in practice with the first-team. He has been in the Colts system, by the side of Peyton Manning, for two seasons and the Colts had to sign Kerry Collins a couple of weeks before the 2011 season to be their starter. After two seasons this shouldn't happen to a quality backup quarterback.

Johnette Howard is preparing to suggest that backup quarterbacks get more first-team snaps in practice using Curtis Painter as Example #1 for why this should happen. Painter has been in the Colts system for two years and has practiced with the Colts second team for at least one of these years. Sure, he hasn't taken too many practice snaps with the Colts first-team, but I question whether if he received more practice snaps with the first-team if this would have made him a better NFL quarterback.

And it's already been applied to Vince Young, Michael Vick's new backup in Philadelphia, who was so maligned early in the preseason for not instantly picking up the Eagles' playbook, coach Andy Reid finally defended him by saying, "It's like learning French in four days."

Vince Young didn't know the playbook well. That's the bottom line. 100 hours of practice with the first-team offense isn't going to help Vince Young learn the playbook better. Studying the playbook more would help Young more than throwing to the first-team instead of the second-team would. I can't think of a good reason why a quarterback who doesn't know the playbook should get more reps in practice with the first-team at the expense of the starting quarterback getting these snaps.

Actually, what NFL teams ask of their backup quarterbacks is even more ridiculous than that.

They have to learn the offense and on game day wear a headseat WHILE ALSO WEARING A BASEBALL CAP. It’s not the difficulty so much, but just getting used to having something on your head and over/in your ears at the same time.

In the NFL, a backup quarterback is routinely asked to master the offense and save games in emergencies despite getting no practice snaps -- or reps, in NFL-speak -- with the first-team offense at all week after week, month after month.

It is possible to master the offense without throwing to the first-team offense on a weekly basis. Would it help to work with the first-team offense more often? Probably. A team’s game plan can change on a weekly basis, so the starting quarterback often needs as many reps with the first-team as he can get. A backup quarterback can master the offense and come in and save the game while working with the second-team in practice or standing on the sidelines at practice. I am sure it is a handicap of sorts, but they are running the same offense as the first-team, just with less talented players on the second-team and no one is stopping the backup from staying after practice with individual players on the first-team to practice. So I don’t see this as some huge NFL emergency issue because Peyton Manning’s backups all seem to be average or below average. I know it is fine to overreact and blame the Colts quarterback problems on a lack of practice reps with the first-team offense.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is sheer lunacy, isn't it?

No, it is not really sheer lunacy. Given the short time teams have to prepare for opposing defenses and implement the game plan then it makes sense for the quarterback expected to take all of the snaps during a game to take all of the snaps during practice. Second-team offensive linemen, receivers, and running backs also don’t get to work with the first-team as much in practice. They tend to come into the game more often than backup quarterbacks do, so couldn’t a case be made they should practice more often with the first-team as well? This goes especially for first-team offensive linemen.

It makes sense for the first-team quarterback to get more reps in practice and if the concern is the backup quarterback doesn’t know the playbook then playing with the first-team offense will just highlight this problem rather than correct it.

Baseball teams don't tell their backup second basemen they can't take part in pregame infield practice, do they?

If you can’t recognize the difference in how often a backup quarterback plays and how often a backup second baseman plays then I really can’t help you.

NBA teams don't tell their No. 2 point guards to imagine what it would be like to run the offense while the starters run up and down the practice court nine or 10 months a year.

Again, basketball is different. The starting point guard doesn’t play every minute of the game, unlike the starting quarterback for an NFL team, who plays 99% of his team’s offensive snaps during a game. In the NBA, the backup point guard gets to play every single game. The backup quarterback doesn't play every game.

No NHL team would ever tell its backup goaltenders to go off to the side and just pantomime making saves.

Yet again, NHL backup goaltenders start games when the regular starter is resting. It’s completely different. No NFL team gives their starting quarterback a game off to rest.

So why do NFL teams -- who like to brag that football is the ultimate team game, a beautifully synchronized ballet of 11-on-11 that plays out each Sunday on the emerald chessboard down on the field, and blah blah blah -- do this to backup quarterbacks who are just one hit away from having to step in and play the sport's most important position?

Because the starter needs as much time to learn and implement the game plan for the upcoming game as possible. It isn’t expected for the starter to miss time during the game, so the amount of time used for practice is given to the starting quarterback with the first-team offense. Why would a team give 15% of the practice time with the starters to a player who isn’t expected to play in the upcoming game?

What makes how NFL teams prepare their backup QBs even worse is no one seems quite sure how it became standard procedure.

It doesn’t matter because it isn’t a terrible policy. Does the coach of an NFL team really want the backup quarterback to get some snaps in practice while the starter stands there and watches? Does this really make sense simply because Peyton Manning got hurt and his backups suck? That seems to be the entire reason for this column being written. Curtis Painter isn’t very good and this is being blamed on his lack of first-team reps.

"When I was with the Steelers, Bradshaw took every rep, too," Moore says. "That's why -- and I know this sounds funny -- to me, being a backup quarterback is one of the toughest jobs in pro football. You have to prepare yourself every single week just exactly like the starter.

This isn’t a discussion of whether being a backup quarterback is difficult or not. Everyone knows it is not an easy job, but it does make strategic sense to use practice time on the players actually anticipated to appear in the upcoming game. Sure, it would be great to get the backup quarterback reps in practice during the week, but it doesn’t make sense for this to happen on a weekly basis.

Rather than ask why more NFL backups don't play well, the better question is how do any NFL quarterbacks succeed at all when brought in as an emergency fill-in?

Because they know the offense and realize running the first-team offense may end up being easier than running the second-team offense given the potential talent disparity between the two? Backup quarterbacks coming in the game and struggling because they didn’t get to work with the first-team offense enough doesn’t seem to be a huge epidemic in the NFL. The biggest issue when a backup quarterback comes in is the difference in talent from the starter to the backup. I realize now that Manning is hurt and his backups stink we want to make this a huge issue, but I honestly don’t believe it is. If a guy doesn’t know the playbook, then it doesn’t matter what team he works with in practice.

If you really think about what they're up against, it doesn't seem entirely fair to write off backups as pretty faces with visors and clipboards, or mock them by saying you hold a damn fine extra point, sir.

I really don’t know specifically who mocks backup quarterbacks like this. My joke previously in this column about wearing a headset and a baseball cap aside, everyone knows a quality backup quarterback is very useful.

The real hothouse flowers are the pampered No. 1 quarterbacks who fret about not having an entire training camp to "perfect" their timing with their receivers,

Many backup quarterbacks do get time in training camp to work with the first-team receivers. They just don’t get the majority of the snaps if a team already knows who their starting quarterback is going to be. This exaggeration from Johnette Howard aside, it is important for quarterbacks and receivers to work on timing. There is a reason quarterbacks and receivers will stay after practice to work on route-running. This reason is when implementing a new game plan during the week it is better for the starting quarterback to get the reps during practice.

or talk about successfully handling the snap when their backup center is forced into a game as if they just defused a nuclear bomb with BBQ grill tongs.

Shockingly, a new center does snap the ball differently to the quarterback. Of course, I would agree there is no reason the starter wouldn’t have worked with the backup center some on snapping the football.

"It is kind of silly when you think about it," says Jim Sorgi, who used to be Manning's backup in Indy when Moore was still there and Manning's 227-game consecutive starts streak was intact.

Yes, let’s ask a career backup whether the starting quarterback should get all of the reps during the weekly practices. That’s an unbiased opinion right there. How about also asking Tom Brady or Matt Schaub if he would mind giving 15% of his weekly snaps to their backup quarterback and standing on the sidelines for a little bit? Maybe they would have insight into why it may not be as silly as Johnette Howard thinks for the starter to get all the first-team reps in practice.

Yes, backup quarterbacks do appear in games during the season, and yes, it makes sense to have the backup in good rhythm with the first-team offense. That’s what training camp is for and during the year, unless it is a bye week, the first-team offense needs time together to implement the game plan for the coming week. It may seem so simple, like they are just playing a big game of catch, but the same reason the backup needs snaps in practice, to help his rhythm with the first-team offense, is why the starting quarterback gets the majority of the snaps.

"Some years I'd get lucky because Peyton would lock up the division so early, I'd get to play a game or two at the end of the season, which was nice. But there were other years, like our Super Bowl season, when I'd go from last game of the preseason through the whole regular season and never take a snap until the last game of the regular season. Not one snap from late August to January. It's like taking a whole season off.

I do feel sympathy for Sorgi. I really do because it has to be tough to not get game snaps and then go out there and play well. Manning is the outlier among starting quarterbacks because he rarely gets injured and is a great quarterback so there isn’t a need to see Sorgi’s skill set with the first-team in practice.

"Then we were playing the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, and Peyton hit his hand on a helmet throwing the ball. As he came off to sideline he looked at me and said, 'Be ready.'"

"I take a lot of pride in preparing every week like I'm going to start, and you tell yourself you can do it … but it was the most nerve-wracking moment of my career," Sorgi admits with a laugh.

In fairness, wouldn’t playing in your first AFC Championship game be a nerve-wracking moment in Sorgi’s career anyway? It’s a pretty important game and I would imagine even if he had started the game then he would have been nervous. I would imagine he would be a little nervous about his work load up to that point. Should Peyton Manning have gotten fewer reps in practice with the first-team leading up to the AFC Championship game so Sorgi could have felt more prepared? I don’t know if many would agree this should have happened.

Weinke says. "Everybody watches the game on TV and to them it looks so easy: 'How did you not see this guy? How did you not see that guy?' But think about it: You're running out into the game [in an emergency] and you're not loose. You've been sitting around all day and now you're running with the bulls. You're running for your life, and you have to process all this information, you know you haven't had any physical reps with the first team, and it's like you're strapped into the worst car crash you've ever been in –

I don’t doubt this is how it feels. Regardless of how many practice reps with the first-team the backup quarterback has had during the week, this is all still true when entering the game. The backup quarterback will always not be loose, be coming into the game in an emergency, and have to process all this information quickly. The only difference is the backup quarterback hasn’t had any physical reps with the first-team. But as Weinke himself said, it is an emergency when the starting quarterback goes down, so possibly giving first-team reps to the backup quarterback in practice isn’t the best utilization of practice time.

I don’t know, maybe it is smart to give the backup reps with the first-team. I’d love to see a team do this and then report back on how it works. My initial guess would be the starting quarterback wouldn’t appreciate losing reps when he has to prepare for the game ahead.

Some NFL backups will never be terrific no matter how much practice they get.

(coughs) Curtis Painter.

Others are talented enough to win.

They should be talented enough to win when called upon and having not received a bunch of first-team reps in practice. This is all an overreaction to the Colts losing Peyton Manning for a majority of the season and none of the backup quarterbacks on the Colts roster being good enough to win games. The real issue is the quality of the backup quarterbacks for the Colts, not how many reps Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky got with the first-team when Manning was healthy.

Would it kill NFL teams to make their starting quarterbacks start sharing a few more reps?

Probably not. When a team performs poorly on offense it will immediately be blamed on the starting quarterback not having as many reps with the first-team offense as other NFL teams give their starting quarterback.

Or, failing that, at least tell the rest of us to get off Curtis Painter's back?

Because he can’t perform well? I could make a list of backup quarterbacks that have stepped up when the starter got injured and performed well, despite not having first-team reps in practice. I’ll let you as the reader make your own list of these backups who performed well from the teams you cheer for. Suffice to say, while it would be nice for a backup quarterback to get reps with the first-team offense, for many teams this rightfully isn’t their highest priority in practice during the week.


HH said...

It is possible to master the offense without throwing to the first-team offense on a weekly basis. Would it help to work with the first-team offense more often? Probably.


It's absolutely vital, for a QB to be successful, to practice with the players you also play with in games. [Of course a backup can enter a game and set the world on fire; it's just unlikely and more often than not a fluke.] The reason is that timing is everything in an NFL offense, especially in passing, and timing depends on a QB's subconscious processing of the play - basically, once you've seen or done something a certain number of times, it becomes second nature and you don't think about it, you react. For example, driving a car with a manual transmission: at first you think about every shift and can't even have the radio on so you're not distracted, but after a little while, you just sense when to shift and you can carry on a conversation like you're not doing anything. The same is basically true for NFL QBs. It's easy to say that a backup QB practicing with backup WRs running the same routes and backup linemen blocking should be ready to be inserted into the starting lineup with little dropoff. This is extremely unrealistic. Imagine on a single play, the number of things that the starter can do automatically because he's had 1000 reps, and the backup can't:

-the starting center snaps the ball to a slightly different spot than the backup, say an inch or two deeper; as a result, it takes you a half-second to set your hands properly
-the backup RB in practice taps your hand on play-action and you pull the ball back on that signal; the starter doesn't, and you pull the ball back a half-second too late
-the backup tight end blocks in, then releases, and you use that to time your progression from left to right; the starter blocks up and then releases, and it takes you a half-second to process it before you look for your receivers
-the backup receiver running the cross from left to right accelerates before getting to the safety; the starter accelerates after, and you don't throw to him even though he's open because you didn't expect him to start his break so late
-the backup receiver running the deep out on your right does a little stutter step in and then cuts out, and you know exactly when to throw 'cause you've seen the stutter a million times; the starter is more fluid and cuts straight out, surprising you and making it too late to throw
-your backup tight end in practice always runs his outlet route straight to the sideline; the starter gets outside the numbers and cuts upfield to give you space to run, if you still have the ball, and you throw it to the space he just abandoned to a waiting linebacker.

And so on, and so forth. For timing to work, you have to get the reps. There's just no way around it.

Bengoodfella said...

HH, well made point taken. My question at this point would be, do you think the first-team QB should share some snaps during the week with the backup QB?

I was wrong to suggest a backup QB could master the offense working with the second team, I guess he does need reps with the first team to master the offense. I do think he should be able to come in and run the offense effectively though.

I realize an offense takes timing to master, so maybe my point got a bit confused. When talking about the first-string quarterback I said,

"it is important for quarterbacks and receivers to work on timing. There is a reason quarterbacks and receivers will stay after practice to work on route-running."

So I was wrong to suggest a backup quarterback can master the offense or run it as effectively as the starter, but I think the timing required you described is the very reason a starter should get 100% of the snaps during the week.

HH said...


Also, seems to me that most teams make the proper trade-off here. You obviously invest less in a backup QB, since you have a fixed salary cap and a fixed amount of practice time. And yet, most teams seem able to get capable backups when it matters. Charlie Whitehurst was solid for the 49ers this past weekend, for example, and of course, Matts Cassel and Shacub stand as the permanent examples of well-prepared backups.

rich said...

The biggest issue for me is this:

For a lot of teams, it doesn't matter how many snaps their backup takes. If their starter gets hurt, they're done.

For example, why would you take reps away from Peyton Manning? Lets say you take reps away from him and give them to Painter. Sure, maybe they win a game or two more this year, but how many games over the past decade do the Colts lose if Manning gets less time to work with the offense?

If I'm the Colts, I do the same thing, because if Peyton gets hurt, you go from contender to shit, regardless of how many reps Painter gets.

Bengoodfella said...

HH, I think used bad wording with "master" the offense. That's not true. I do think while it is vital for the backup QB to have some reps, if he knows the offense he should come in the game and be competent enough to perform well. I got the issue confused talking about the backup being able to master the offense on the bench when the real question is whether a team would want to give their 2nd team QB enough snaps in practice during the week to get a better feel of the offense, while taking snaps away from the starter.

Rich, at the basis of this post was Howard saying Painter should have gotten more snaps in practice during the week and I am not sure a coach or starting quarterback would like that idea. Because timing is so essential it is important the starter get most or all of the snaps. Can you imagine the Colts telling Peyton Manning to sit out for a bit so Painter can take snaps with the first team?