All quarterbacks - even the transcendent, once-in-a-generation types - have inherent imperfections to their game that must be managed and accounted for. Matt Ryan needs functional space in the pocket to feel comfortable and to step-and-stride into his throws. Josh Freeman is at his best when he can improvise - using his size and strength to extend the play and hit receivers for big play s while improvising. Now, Ryan and Freeman clearly aren’t Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, but there are some inherent stylistic similarities in how they play. Earlier this year, Matt Waldman (who owns and runs the excellent Rookie Scouting Portfolio) wrote one of my favorite NFL Draft evaluations ever, titled The Difficulty of Comparisons. Waldman describes his thought process behind the nature of comparisons. Using musicians as an example, he states that it’s more about style and similarity in skillsets rather than a direct measure of the player’s effectiveness or production:
“Comparisons to me are stylistic in nature. Music is a great example. Its clear that Prince has influences from James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. However, if I simply say Prince sounds like James Brown on a song, its human nature to want to compare the skill level. A common reaction from someone hearing that comparison is ‘Prince isn’t nearly as good as the Godfather of Soul’ or ‘James Brown is good, but Prince is a genius!’
What also makes this problematic is that Prince has several other influences beyond Brown and Hendrix. It’s rarely going to be an exact comparison (at least I hope not – otherwise I wouldn’t be interested in listening to a musician that sounds like a carbon copy – I’d just prefer to listen to the original).
Reading what I explained above, the (Russell) Wilson and (Drew) Brees comparisons are more about style than skill. However, I will add that Wilson’s skill potential is good enough to make him a good pro and therefore he isn’t as far from Brees as many want to believe. Certainly if you’re viewing a subject through an atomic microscope rather than a magnifying glass, the perspective can be worlds different, but from the perspective of NFL starting quarterback or NFL reserve, it’s close.
Brees and Wilson are both strong improvisors, mobile, throw receivers open, demonstrate underrated athleticism, and great leadership. Both benefit when the offense moves them around to keep passing lanes wide. This doesn’t have mean the team has to roll away from the pocket. As my “Studying The Asterisk” piece illustrates, the Saints use half-rolls and play fakes to create passing lanes while keeping Brees in the pocket and not limiting his ability to access the entire field.
The problem with comparing Wilson to Brees is that it is a label that sets up the Seahawks rookie for failure. Fans will want to see the same productivity despite the fact that Brees is in a pass-first, spread offense with control to call plays and help build the game plan. An offense that also has a Pro Bowl-caliber slot receiver, All-Pro hybrid tight end, and Pro Bowl caliber scat back. If Wilson wins the starting job, he’ll be manning a Seattle unit that doesn’t spread the field as much, is run-first in nature, and lacks the same caliber of skill talent."
A perfect summation of why we collectively tend to struggle with player comparisons. An individual’s statistical production is highly variable and related to a number of factors outside the players’ realm of control. We’re getting better at coming up with stats and metrics to try and isolate an individual player’s contribution to his own production, but it’s still an incredibly inexact science. This is especially true with quarterbacks – they have some control over their production output in isolation, but the wild divergence in schemes, surrounding talent, and quality opposition clouds the picture. So while we can do our best to try and “isolate the player,” a need still exists to apply context, gain an understanding of what (specifically) makes that player successful, and try to figure out how translatable those skills are (or, on the flipside, figure out what his flaws are, whether they’re fixable, and whether the talent and skill can overcome the flaws).
Mike Glennon was the Philip Rivers to Russell Wilson’s Drew Brees in college. Wilson was entrenched as a successful starter at North Carolina State. Glennon was a highly sought after high school recruit who had patiently waited on the bench for two years behind Wilson. When Wilson announced that he was going to attend spring training with the Colorado Rockies, State head coach Tom O’Brien used it as a catalyst to nudge Wilson out of the program and install Glennon as the starter. There’s been little-to-no difference between the two in terms of statistics, and Glennon owns the better “W/L record” (whatever that means for quarterbacks) as an NC State starter. I don’t think O’Brien necessarily regrets shoving Wilson out the door for Glennon, much like I don’t believe the Chargers necessarily regret letting Brees walk to install Rivers. Most (myself included) would probably disagree with them, but the difference between Wilson/Brees and Glennon/Rivers isn’t as much an argument about effectiveness as it is about style. When I watch Glennon move around, I can’t help but be reminded of Rivers in some ways. They’re both big, immobile pocket QBs who move around deliberately without necessarily being clumsy. A sense of purpose emanates from their movement, even if it’s not particularly graceful or aesthetically pleasing. Further, they’re both comfortable moving around and getting throws off in compressed spaces. He doesn’t need to have his feet set under him to make accurate throws, and he’s actually quite good at finding just enough space to get the ball to his outlet receiver when under pressure – a necessary skill for big, pocket quarterbacks.
The primary route combination for Glennon to read it the Hitch-Dig/Inverted Levels combination to his right – a hi/low read on an underneath zone defender. However, he doesn’t get the coverage look he wants post-snap, and the entire right side of the pocket has collapsed, with three Clemson defenders beating their men up front. Instead of panicking, throwing the ball away, or dropping his eyes to look at the rush and improvise, Glennon calmly swings his lead foot to the left and begins sliding in the pocket towards the little open space he has (while reading the route combination to his left).
Not comfortable with anything he’s seeing downfield, Glennon hangs in the pocket until the last possible moment. As the defender makes contact and starts bringing him down, Glennon is able to get a short toss off to his running back. What would have been a sack or incompletion turned into a gain of almost 10 yards.
What makes this skill especially intriguing, however, isn’t the simple fact that Glennon is big and strong enough to make checkdowns to static targets while getting hit – he’s actually very comfortable and adept at hitting moving targets while under pressure. Here, Clemson brings pressure up the middle, blitzing both of their inside linebackers through the A gaps. The runningback is able to pick one of the linebackers up (cutting him right at Glennon’s feet) with the second one coming free as an unblocked rusher. Unable to step up and with pressure bearing down on him, Glennon is able to deliver a perfectly placed ball to a wide receiver running a Shallow Crossing route – right in the area that the blitzing linebackers vacated. The ball hits the receiver in-stride with no adjustment necessary, and he’s able to pick up an additional 20 yards after the catch.
There are a couple of concerns I have about Glennon’s use of this ability, however. The first is that, despite having a very good arm, the accuracy on these throws greatly diminishes when he tries to make them more than a few yards downfield. His arm works independently of his body, yes, but it appears his range may be somewhat limited. The second is that once he starts getting hit, he starts perceiving pressure that isn’t there. He’ll hurry through his reads, rush throws, and throw off his back foot for no reason.
In the redzone, Clemson once again sent a double-A gap blitz with their inside linebackers. Glennon’s pocket is much cleaner this time, though. There are no bodies near his feet, and he has plenty of functional space to plant and throw. Instead of waiting for his tight end to clear the jam, he rushes to get the pass off, throwing off of his back foot and sending the ball high and short for an interception.
When you combine his frame, his arm-strength, and the ability to get throws off in tight spaces, it’s easy to think that Glennon will be a fast riser as the NFL Draft approaches. Throwing from awkward release platforms is an important trait for high-level quarterback play in the NFL, and it’s a trait that almost all good pocket passers in the NFL have. Those with slow feet have to overcome in other ways, and being able to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately is often the only defense pocket passers have when their offensive line is overmatched. Glennon is still learning to harness this skill and learning his own range and limitations, though, and he needs to be careful about over-relying on it, like he tends to do now.
Remember, while I’ve noted some specific traits and characteristics in Glennon that remind me of Philip Rivers, I’m not saying that Glennon is a Rivers clone or will have Rivers’ career. It speaks more to the importance of style and fit. Rivers was a more advanced passer than Glennon coming out, but was afforded two years to sit behind Brees in the NFL. Norv Turner has rightfully come under fire as a head coach, but as an offensive designer and playcaller, there is probably no better fit for Rivers than anybody in the NFL (and Rivers is aware of this - there's a reason he campaigned so hard for Turner to come back for one last try). As the talent has deteriorated around Rivers, his performance has, too. He had fantastic outlet backs in Ladainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, a brick wall of an offensive line, a Hall of Fame caliber tight end, and big receivers who could go up and make contested catches down the field for him. Everything San Diego did was tailored to Rivers’ fit. Drafting a good quarterback (even though there’s still much debate as to exactly how good a prospect Glennon is) is only the first step of a very long process.