Bowen: NFL offseason rules are brutal for QB development

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In the second of a three-part series on why the NFL offseason is broken, let’s examine how the current rules limit the pro learning curve for quarterbacks as they make the transition to the pro game.

With only six total hours allowed at the facility on OTA days — which includes lifting, meetings and practice — time constraints are a legitimate concern. It’s not enough, and the coaches I’ve talked to agree. They want more time with every rookie. And quarterbacks are no exception.

NFL offseason is a disaster for rookies, players on roster bubble

For the most part, the NFL has changed for the better. But the offseason rules in the CBA dramatically affect how young players — no matter where they were drafted — can develop.

Think of a pilot who wants more time in the simulator. Maybe another hour. Or two. Put in some extra work, right? Sure. But that doesn’t happen in the NFL. When the clock runs out, that’s it. Pack it in and come back tomorrow — regardless of what was left unfinished.

For a young quarterback, that’s trouble. Technique, mechanics, release point. The progressions. The reads. The pre-snap checklist. The transition to the five and seven-step passing game.

Hey, those are just the basics, a cover charge that gets you into the door.

The slow learning curve

Think back to the first four weeks of the 2015 NFL season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Jameis Winston threw seven interceptions and logged a Total QBR of just 35.6. Veteran cornerbacks baited the No. 1 overall pick into poor decisions, and defensive coordinators introduced Winston to the complex world of NFL coverages and pressure.

Winston should’ve been expected to make mistakes and struggle — initially. The defensive coaches I talked to during the first month of the 2015 regular season saw it, too. They wanted more disguise and late safety rotation versus Winston. Multiple looks. Pressure. Both zone and man schemes.

“Force him into mistakes,” an NFL defensive coach told me at the time. “If you can hold up versus the run, I would play 2-man coverage-wise. And I would have my linebackers add to the back right now to make it look like pressure.”

To a veteran quarterback, that’s just another day at the stadium. Safety movement, man-under and linebackers adding to the coverage are expected on Sundays. But to a rookie who is just trying to manage the speed of the pro game, the transition can be extreme, regardless of the skill set they bring into the NFL.

As I wrote about in my previous story on rookie development and offseason restrictions, these rules under the current collective bargaining agreement limit immediate growth in first-year players. But the quarterback position might take the biggest hit. Yes, offseason workouts are never going to resemble a training camp session, but the core fundamentals, mechanics and technique we always focus on at the quarterback position are key to success. And, in my opinion, those are developed through reps, corrections and competition through one-on-one time with your coach.

But even the little things, such as talking with your coach during the early months of the offseason, are now forbidden. You want to call your position coach in the winter or early spring and talk some ball? Nope. Can’t do it. That’s against the rules. What about questions on offseason film study? The same. Take it somewhere else.

That’s a killer for quarterbacks — and it doesn’t just impact young guys. Think of a veteran quarterback going through a coaching change or a third-year guy who signs with a new club in free agency. There is an entire playbook to learn. New terminology, too. Be nice to get a jump on that stuff, right? Or to get a feel about what the new coach expects when you arrive for offseason workouts.

Unfortunately, the new laws of the CBA says this is a problem…one that I’m still trying to figure out.

And given the limited amount of time the young quarterbacks actually spend on the field — and in the film room — with their coaches during the spring months due to the restrictions of the CBA, how much development can we truly expect? And are we looking for immediate results that aren’t realistic?

“The key is getting them enough snaps in OTAs, minicamp and training camp,” an NFL executive said. “Also, can’t be scared to play a young player and work through their mistakes. By Game 8 he is no longer a rookie.”

By the second half of the season, Winston’s numbers indeed started to improve. And although his QBR only climbed to 58.6 by the end of the year, Winston posted a QBR of 60.0 or higher in seven games while finishing with 22 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.

Plus, you could see it on his tape. Winston began to manipulate the safety in the middle of the field, and he made some throws into windows the size of a coffee can. He showed flashes of the player we all expected to see coming out of Florida State.

That’s development. That’s growth on the field. But with that comes the hiccups early in the season, the losses and the realization that the majority of young quarterbacks — even some top picks — aren’t ready for pro ball right from the jump.

Offseason development

What are quarterbacks seeing in practice?

When I was with the Redskins, we drafted Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round, and he saw a lot from our defense during OTAs and minicamp — that included two-a-day sessions — as a rookie. That was Gregg Williams’ system. Attack. And then attack some more. Bring heat and challenge receivers. Wild personnel packages in the secondary, and guys moving all over the place before the snap.

Stuff got a little physical and the tempo increased. But in terms of developing a quarterback throughout an offseason program before limitations on contact and time on the field, Campbell got some really good work during OTAs. He saw wide receivers aligned versus press-coverage, blitz packages and 11-on-11 team drills where the speed got ramped up.

Even in shorts and helmets that was competitive football. And nothing was left open after practice. Get some more work on the field. Watch some more tape. And then do it again the next day. Clockwork.

Heading into the 2015 season, an NFL coach told me that Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota could have his learning curve accelerated because of Dick LeBeau’s defense.

Think of all the zone pressure, the disguise, the movement or the multiple fronts — in both base and sub-packages — that are a standard part of LeBeau’s units. Even with Mariota coming from a college spread system, the opportunity to work versus LeBeau’s complex system in Tennessee was seen as a positive in the eyes of opposing coaches.

Keeping with that view, could the same be said for Jared Goff, who was picked No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams? The Cal product and spread-system/air-raid QB got to see Williams’ defense up close throughout OTAs and minicamps in L.A. Hey, that’s a quick introduction to some crazy looks when the quarterback comes to the line of scrimmage.

But even with the practice reps for Goff, there is still going to be a transition period. And it could be bumpy — really bumpy if he starts the season atop the depth chart. No different than we saw with Mariota. Or with Winston. Up and down. Learn on the fly.

As one AFC coach told me about Goff possibly opening up as the starter for the Rams this year: “I wish we had them on the schedule.”

Is that a knock on Goff’s talent, his skill set? Nah, it’s not. I’ve talked to coaches and scouts who see Goff developing into a really good pro. Instead, it’s a knock on the process, the limited prep time.

On the field development

Play the kid? Or sit him?

With more pressure to push top picks on to the field, we all know the answer. Rookie quarterbacks, especially Day 1 picks, are going to play. The owners want that. The fan base, too. And the coaches, general managers and scouts agree. This is the best way to develop. A baptism by fire.

With a young safety or linebacker or running back, you can cover up growing pains. Yes, mistakes are going to happen. And those rookies are going to get beat — a lot. But when it happens under center, well, it can cost you games. Picks. Poor decisions. Check-down after check-down. Survival mode.

Even with the head-scratching throws we see from rookie quarterbacks early in the season, however, game reps are still the ultimate teaching tool. I believe that. Coaches, too. You want to adjust to the speed of the pro game? Then you have to see it. And the game tape? Man, you gotta have it. That’s how rookies learn: self-scout and make corrections. Get knocked down a bit. Get introduced to the league. And identify what you did wrong.

“When we take a player as an organization, the only way to get him ready is to rep and play him,” the NFL executive said.

The flip side of that argument? Sit the rookie. Make him wait. Hold a clipboard. Run some scout team. Use a journeyman as a bridge to the future. Build up that offensive line, too.

There is some merit to that plan. I’m not a big believer in anyone learning from the sideline, but I also understand the process. Coaches are limited in what they can accomplish on the field when practiced is squeezed into the clutter of a six-hour time block that includes players lifting, running to meetings, getting taped before practice and then heading out onto the field.

“You can’t teach,” the AFC coach told me on the time limitations on the practice field. Individual periods are shortened, and after practice it’s time to turn the lights off for the day.

No one wants the top pick to sit. And I’m sure there are decision-makers in who want Carson Wentz on the field this year, too. But when we really look at the landscape of the quarterback position in the NFL, the top quarterbacks, the most consistent and game-proven quarterbacks, are well into their 30s.

Russell Wilson was excellent this season. In this third year. Andrew Luck took a step back. In this third year. A rookie? You are asking a lot — especially when they roll into a training camp environment without the extra reps of two-a-days still trying to find their footing.

Coaches need to adapt

There has to be a solution here, right? With young quarterbacks being tossed onto the field — and many coming from college spread systems — I believe it’s on the league and the coaches to adapt a little bit more given the offseason questions.

That means terminology, scheme and comfort level.

run-pass options (RPOs) we see on Sundays now. It’s a new world in the pros.

But the league still needs more if they are going to usher these young quarterbacks onto the field and toss them to the wolves. And that’s coaching 101. Adjust to your personnel. Build a scheme that provides some sense of comfort and caters to the talent of the signal-callers.

A veteran NFL coach asked me once: “Name a spread quarterback that has produced consistently in the NFL?”

I didn’t have an answer, but I also think that’s a problem with the league. You want to develop the talent under the current limitations the coaches have to teach in the offseason? Then start maximizing the quarterbacks who are coming into the league. Use similar terminology, incorporate similar route concepts and mesh those pro and college systems together. Give these cats a chance.

Ready or not, young quarterbacks are going to play. And the CBA isn’t going to change anytime soon. NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.

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