How Height Unfairly Sets Up NFL Quarterback Prospects for Success/Failure
Three quarterbacks who officially measured 5’11” or shorter have thrown at least 100 passes in the NFL since 1990: Doug Flutie, Seneca Wallace and Russell Wilson.
Flutie, Wallace and Wilson are considered exceptions. They are part of an exclusive club who defied the laws of the league. The laws that say short quarterbacks can’t work in the NFL because the historical evidence is overwhelmingly against them. Only 25 quarterbacks who measured 6’0″ or less have thrown a pass in the NFL since 1990, whereas 218 quarterbacks who measured 6’1″ or greater have. That seems cut and dry. The tall quarterbacks are the guys who make it to the NFL and stay there so you must need to be tall to play at that level.
If only it were that simple.
The problem with that line of thinking is that the league has forever been following the belief that short quarterbacks couldn’t work in the NFL. Short quarterbacks don’t get drafted in the first or second round, they fall to the mid or latter rounds because they are short. This means that no short quarterback who enters the league is ever presumed to be good like their taller counterparts, instead they are forced into a position where they need to prove themselves just to earn a roster spot. At the quarterback position, this is vitally important.
Quarterbacks take time and commitment to develop. Any quarterback who establishes himself as a good player in the NFL is an exception because so few actually become good players. Those that do are allowed to because their coaching staffs embrace them, they show patience while they struggle through the early years and design schemes that work to their strengths to minimize the impact of their weaknesses. If you’re not a first or second round pick, you don’t get those luxuries. Your first big mistake or bad training camp will often be your last.
The historical data suggests that you shouldn’t draft short quarterbacks but that data is clearly warped by a system that sets short quarterbacks up to fail before they have even stepped on a practice field. Before they have even stepped in the airport of the city that hosts the franchise that employs them.
In the past, it was easier to accept this line of simple logic. In the past, NFL offenses weren’t innovative. They were rigid, run-first units that didn’t emphasize creativity or diversity. The passing game and the quarterback position were often considered complementary to the run.
Now that the league has evolved to the point that offenses are more spread out than ever before, there is no reason to be married to such archaic approaches. We should be embracing the skill set of the quarterback, not his physical measurements. There is nothing about being tall that makes you a better quarterback, it just sets you up to play in a certain way.
Shorter quarterbacks have obstacles to overcome if they are statuesque pocket passers who are forced to play within the structure of an offense that requires they throw over the middle of the field. You wouldn’t force an immobile quarterback to run, so why force a short quarterback to attack the middle of the field?
The Seattle Seahawks understood this with Russell Wilson. Wilson is a talented quarterback, but the prevailing sentiment that he is some special exception to all rules is misguided. Wilson isn’t magical, we shouldn’t treat his success with astonishment and awe. Wilson is simply a quarterback with a specific skill set that the Seahawks have embraced, a skill set he plays consistently to that is of the caliber that is required for NFL passers.
A skill set that is embraced by a coaching staff and married to consistency is what makes a quality NFL quarterback. Height, weight and thick knees aren’t requirements.
The Seahawks don’t force Wilson to throw over the middle of the field. Many of their route combinations allow him to focus outside the hash marks so he can more easily find passing lanes to throw through.
In the above chart, Wilson’s 2013 season is tracked. It’s clear that Wilson wasn’t asked to throw over the middle of the field as much as he was outside. A huge percentage of his throws are directed outside by design, Wilson can still attack those areas of the field with intelligence and precision and the offense can still be both efficient and explosive without forcing throws over the middle of the field.
This chart comes from the season just gone by. As you can see, Wilson attacked the middle of the field more in 2015 but the identity of the offense remained outside. This doesn’t limit the Seahawks passing game or offense as a whole, it just asks its quarterback to be smart with how he breaks down coverages, something every offense does.
Smaller quarterbacks are typically more elusive. They are lighter so show off more agility in the pocket and elusiveness outside of the pocket. When you find a quarterback who combines this elusivenss with good eye-level, you have a passer who can extend plays and create yardage/first downs/touchdowns outside of structure. It’s actually easier for these types of quarterbacks to be effective starters in the NFL than it is statuesque, taller quarterbacks.
Bigger quarterbacks typically have to work to the design of the play. They won’t be able to create if they drop back in the pocket and can’t read throw their progression to find an open receiver. If Brock Osweiler gets to the top of his drop and has time but can’t find an open receiver, he is going to be sacked. If Tyrod Taylor gets to the top of his drop and has time but can’t find an open receiver, he can still scramble to extend the passing play or run for a first down.
Not to mention, that elusiveness can be used to diversify and complement the running game too, broadening the arsenal of the whole offense.
When a short quarterback does make it in the NFL, he is discussed with awe. It’s considered a phenomenal feat to overcome height and somehow, magically run an NFL offense. That’s the way we should treat every quarterback who makes it in the NFL. The problem is, we don’t treat bigger quarterbacks the same way we treat smaller quarterbacks.
If a small quarterback gets hurt and plays injured, he has durability concerns. If a big quarterback gets hurt and plays injured, he’s tough. Tall quarterbacks can miss reads and run into sacks over and over again, nobody will ever wonder if they understand how to run an offense or if they are capable of running an offense. When smaller quarterbacks make mistakes we immediately default to the idea that they can’t play at this level. When bigger quarterbacks make mistakes we do what we should do for all quarterbacks, understand that negative plays are inevitable and what matters is the ratio of good plays to bad plays rather than the fact the play itself exists.
How do we know about this discrepancy? You don’t need to look too far for evidence.
When compiling data for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue, I tracked sacks and the reasons for them. In the Unavoidable Sack section, I looked at how many sacks were caused by each quarterback and what the reason for those sacks were. Only one quarterback had no avoidable sacks throughout the whole season, 6’0″ Drew Brees. Both Tyrod Taylor and Wilson ranked in the top five for sacks that they could have avoided, but they tied with 6’4″ Josh McCown and were just two away from 6’3″ Derek Carr.
The lede has been buried here though.
Taylor, Wilson and McCown had 13 sacks last year that they could have avoided. Those are collateral damage from the plays they also created with their feet. Only one quarterback had more unavoidable sacks than those three, a 6’5″, 245 lb passer named Blake Bortles. Bortles not only had more unavoidable sacks than any other quarterback in the NFL, he had seven more than the second placed trio.
Of Bortles’ 20 sacks that were his fault, 11 came when he didn’t see an open receiver or receivers. McCown was second with 10.
Seeing the field isn’t about being tall, it’s about being smart, poised and disciplined. Brock Osweiler and Blake Bortles are more likely to miss open receivers than Russell Wilson because Wilson is a smarter player than both. Wilson is more poised and more disciplined. That’s what matters. That’s what should determine whether a quarterback should be embraced and set up for success or not.
Players like Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Tyrod Taylor aren’t exceptions because they are small. They are exceptions because they are supremely talented quarterbacks. They are exceptions in the same way that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers are.
All short quarterbacks shouldn’t be given chances to play in the NFL. Just like all tall quarterbacks shouldn’t be given a chance to play in the NFL. Short quarterbacks should be evaluated for their skill sets, as should tall quarterbacks. Chances are, if you are a shorter quarterback you will need some mobility to rely on while if you are a taller quarterback you will have to be more advanced mentally to make up for your limitations outside of structure.
On Thursday night, Carson Wentz will be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles will give Wentz all the support and time he needs to develop into a great quarterback because of his size. A few days later, Vernon Adams will either be taken as a late-round pick or sign somewhere as a UDFA. Adams will have to earn his roster spot and prove himself even though many acknowledge that he has the talent to be an NFL player.
If Wentz was Adams’ height, he would be set up to fail. If Adams was Wentz’s height, he’d be set up to succeed.