Growing up in Ireland, I often had to endure the difficult task of describing American football to people who had never watched the sport. Now if you have done this in your time, you will understand the gravity of that task. If you haven’t, and you’ve grown up surrounded by football, the best comparison I can think of is go pick up a book of poetry and ask an English professor to explain each poem to you.
Anyone with a simple grasp of the English language can see the surface and understand the individual words of a poem. However that English professor will tell you about the deeper meanings of each poem, each metaphor, the tone, texture, context, clashing imagery etc etc.
That’s exactly like football.
Anyone with any sort of understanding of sports, whether it be European, Irish or anything else, can tell you that the quarterback throws the ball to the receiver, the running back runs with the ball and the defenders tackle them. Yet, when you try to explain the nuances of a 3-4 defense against a 4-3, a coverage read from the quarterback, the pass protectors use of his hands or the deft aspects of different routes, football can be as confusing as the iliad.
You see when I was approached by unknowing fans on a regular basis, I would compare football to chess and explain it with Xs and Os. While that simile is very simple, it tends to give the student some basic knowledge of the game. I can explain how each single move made by each side, black or white, is relevant, regardless of whether it’s which pawn moves forward at the start of the game or whether it’s a queen check mating a king.
The problem with that simile is that every single piece on every single chess board ever made is exactly the same. In fact there are at least two pairs of every piece taking part in every single game.
In the NFL it’s not like that.
In the NFL the human element comes into play. In the NFL there is only one Aaron Rodgers, one Tom Brady and one Drew Brees. There are 32 quarterbacks, but not every single quarterback is as strong as their opposite number. Every queen is the same as the other, whether it be black or white. Every quarterback is at the very least slightly different.
Understanding that clarification is vital right now for fans of the Seattle Seahawks.
As they have been doing seemingly since Pete Carroll took over, despite Matt Hasselbeck’s era overlapping into his, the Seahawks are still trying to determine who is the best quarterback on their roster. Entering this season, the Seahawks have the incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, free agent addition Matt Flynn and rookie Russell Wilson competing for the starting spot atop the depth chart.
Despite his national reputation, Tarvaris Jackson is not to be completely ruled out of the competition just yet. Jackson receives wide-spread criticism around the league for his poor quality of play in Minnesota, but he was never truly given the time to develop as other quarterbacks are. In spite of his struggles, Jackson did well in Seattle last year considering the circumstances.
Jackson finished last year with 14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 3,091 yards and a 79.2 quarterback rating. What are those stats? Cumulatively they are a benchable(yes I’m making up words!) offense. However, with context, they are respectable. Not impressive, but respectable enough to give him an opportunity to compete this season.
Jackson played last season with more things working against him than helping him.
Personally he had a torn pectoral muscle, which he played through for a large chunk of the season. He also played behind an ever-changing offensive line, an inconsistent running game and a receiving corps that was missing their most important piece for seven games. Add in that it was his first season with the team, living in the city and adapting to being a clear-cut starter, it was definitely a respectable season for Jackson in spite of his own limitations as a player.
Jackson did have one thing working in his favour, the system. Jackson may have only started 20 games in his five year career before arriving in Seattle, but he had spent the whole of his career in Darrell Bevell’s offensive system. Bevell was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota with the Vikings when the team drafted Jackson. When he left the Vikings to join Pete Carroll’s staff, the Seahawks signed Jackson as a free agent.
The Vikings spent a second round pick on Jackson because he had the ideal skill set for Bevell’s scheme. Bevell likes to establish the run and use play-action off that running game. In Jackson he had a quarterback with a big arm who was very mobile also. That meant Jackson could hit receivers deep on play-action while also being useful on bootlegs.
Even though Jackson never developed into that type of player in Minnesota, it must be noted he never really got the opportunities, he did prove himself capable last year working off of Marshawn Lynch’s hard running. Jackson’s comfort and development within the scheme is likely the reason he is still in the competition for the starting place in Seattle.
If the Seahawks decide that Matt Flynn is too good to be wasted on the bench, then they may look to change the offensive scheme around him. Flynn is not a similar style of quarterback to Jackson. If Jackson is the type of chess piece who can move very well and throw deep, Flynn is the poised pocket passer who prefers to pick defenses apart with his accuracy.
Flynn’s arm isn’t as strong as Jackson’s but his accuracy and control is greater than his new teammate’s. In Green Bay, Flynn excelled in Joe Philbin’s scheme that was designed to take advantage of his skills. Much like his former teammate, Flynn’s skill-set should somewhat transcend schemes. He wouldn’t be a perfect fit in Bevell’s current offense, but he would be able to have some success.
During the first preseason game of the year, against the Tennessee Titans, the Seahawks started Flynn and he played in their regular offense. That put the free-agent addition in many tight formations as they focused on running the football and completing easy throws. They didn’t dip too far into their receiving corps as Ben Obamanu and Golden Tate were often the only two receivers on the field.
Reading into anything at this stage of the season is ultimately pointless.
Much like the Denver Broncos did with Tim Tebow last year, the Seahawks could quickly change to a scheme more like the Packers’ system. The Seahawks have the personnel to make that transition. While Marshawn Lynch didn’t fit perfectly in a pass first offense in Buffalo, it was partially the reason why he was traded, he should still be a capable runner for the team. Outside of the Lynch, the Seahawks have enough depth and diversity at receiver for the offense to run more dynamic route combinations.
Doug Baldwin, Terrell Owens, Sidney Rice, Ben Obamanu and Golden Tate are all capable receivers who could flourish with Flynn under center.
The final competitor in the team’s quarterback competition doesn’t have any history in the NFL to judge. Russell Wilson was drafted by the team in the third round and has surprised people to this point with his performances. Wilson could conceivably win the starting job from Week 1.
In that scenario, the Seahawks would be very tempted to alter their scheme. Mimicking what the Saints have done in New Orleans with Drew Brees should be a consideration. Brees’ lack of height is overcome by his mobility and ability to create throwing lanes. It will put a lot of pressure on Wilson, but if he wins the starting job then he should be expected to perform.
Using his mobility and accuracy, putting Wilson in this scheme would also allow Lynch to avoid playing in the shotgun all day. The Saints don’t put their quarterback deep as often as the Packers do, they place an emphasis on running a balanced offense.
With the Seattle Seahawks having a strong defense that is expected to carry the team’s challenge for the NFC West crown, they may be inclined to approach their offense cautiously. Regardless of their outlook this year, the Seahawks need to sort out the quarterback position and put whoever wins the competition in the best position to succeed.
Marshawn Lynch may be the team’s most talented player, but building around the running back in today’s NFL is a losing strategy. The NFL is a quarterback league. The Seahawks need to not only identify their best quarterback, they need to identify his best traits and weaknesses while putting him in the best position to succeed.