What Does it Take to Play QB in the NFL

November 06, 2008 | Brian Billick

As I prepare to do the Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders game this weekend I have had a chance to look extensively at JaMarcus Russell. This also was a week where we got a chance to get our first real look at Brady Quinn, who made his first start for the Cleveland Browns against the Denver Broncos last night.

Coming out of LSU, Russell was as highly-rated as I have ever seen on our draft board. That same year Brady Quinn came out of Notre Dame and was the 2nd quarterback taken in the draft. Both franchises find themselves still trying to establish the quarterback position for their respective teams. At the same time, we see Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore leading their teams as true rookies. We also have seen second-year quarterback Trent Edwards in Buffalo leading his team to a 5-3 start.

A few years back, I co-wrote a book with the legendary Bill Walsh called the “Winning Edge.” It was basically Bill’s legacy piece for the NFL. The book covered every aspect of the NFL and obviously he commented on the qualities he thought were essential to playing quarterback in this league.

I thought it would be interesting to revisit this critique.

I will leave it to you — the fan — to judge how your quarterback fares with these qualities.


From Bill Walsh:

I will begin with the quality of functional intelligence. That is the ability to organize and isolate different categories of tasks that you have to be able to perform. This is not strictly IQ that is constantly being measured and quantified. More, it is the ability to break things down in a more simplistic manner and not overcomplicate the response. This ability is the key to quickly processing information while under sever stress.

Next might be an instinctive intuition as to the mechanic of playing quarterback. I say instinctive only in the sense that the athlete may not know he posses these attributes, and simply has to be exposed to them to know that they exist. If, however, after a period of time it does not begin to manifest itself, you cannot develop or manufacture it. If it is not there you are wasting your time. Likewise, if a player shows a continual unraveling or anxiousness that removes his spontaneity and causes repeated mistake it is near impossible to change this.

A natural willingness to improve and learn from those he is working with is vital to a quarterback’s progression. There must be certain compatibility in the learning process with his teammates and coaches. Joe Montana had an uncanny ability to internalize information and grasp it very quickly. Steve Young, because of his strong intellect and study habits, would internalize the material as well but only after constant probing and questioning on his part.

Constant repetition is obviously a key factor. The ability to take the mechanics of the position and constantly work them within the proper confines of his abilities. Efficiency in a quarterback’s footwork is an excellent example of this. Working with the quarterback’s feet is probably the biggest thing a coach can do to impact his physical abilities as a quarterback.

This is an area many coaches are coming to recognize as being a major part of the quarterbacks ability to function particularly in less than ideal circumstance.

Coaches are finding that there are any number of people may have the pureness of mechanics to sit, unencumbered, in the pocket and efficiently set your feet, transfer weight from the back to front foot and efficiency follow through with the arm and shoulder. The problem is that few throws are made in this rarefied atmosphere outside of warm-up and 7 on 7. In the real game the quarterback must have the physical skills and mechanics to deliver the ball effectively while moving in the pocket, throwing off his back foot or scrambling for his life. An excellent example of this is Warren Moon who has an incredible ability to accurately, quickly and with tremendous strength delivers the ball no matter what position his feet are in.

Some people might find it interesting that I just now bring up the throw action of the quarterback. Notice I did not say arm strength. There are certain assumptions you make about the arm strength of any quarterback, particularly if he has had success in any degree. It is well documented that arm strength along is not a major determinate for a quarterback. The ability to put whatever touch on the ball is necessary in a smooth and efficient manner is much more important than pure power. Unfortunately this is an area you can least effect. I get a kick out of coaches who recommend a player saying, “well he doesn’t have a really great arm, and throws the ball sidearm, but you can correct that.” Well, no I cannot. There are certain mechanics that you can emphasis, like keeping the delivery above your shoulder and not letting the ball drop below your waste. But for the most part an individual has a certain ability to throw the ball or he doesn’t. What a coach can do is identify the basic mechanic of the quarterbacks throwing action, and if it is successful, now keep him true to those mechanics. If a quarterback has a 3/4 delivery and is successful with it, it is your job to identify those times he drops or raises the ball taking himself out of his normal throwing action.

Now this is not to say that you cannot develop the basic skills of a quarterback and help him progress in his ability to play the position. The constant repetition of working to maintain his throwing action, keeping his feet in good working mechanics, and helping him to make good decision all will be vital in his development. What I am simply saying is if he can’t throw, he can’t throw.

Dealing with quarterbacks emotions are a key aspect in his development. The best approach here is to education him to the process of dealing with the stress and pressures the position brings. You must find the threshold of any given quarterback as to how he will handle the emotions of the position. Like with regards to his basic instincts, he will either begin to show signs of being able to control and deal with his emotions within the framework of the game or you may be wasting your time.

The quarterback’s leadership abilities must come through his performance. We have all seen the player who has a casual, easy way about him that makes people naturally draw to him. Often this player will exhibit skills that naturally draw his teammates to him, but if he cannot deliver the goods, so to speak, his teammates and coaches will eventually gravitate elsewhere.