I've been putting off writing the spring football quarterbacks piece for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that it's just taken a lot of research, film study, interviews, etc...to get all of the info that I've been looking for. But about a week ago, I added Bruce Feldman's "The QB" to that pile after a Barnes & Noble stop.
Feldman is probably the sport's top long-form chronicler -- his classic "Meat Market," on the world of big-time recruiting, for which he was embedded with current LSU coaches Ed Orgeron and Frank Wilson during their stint at Ole Miss, remains one of the definitive accounts of the yearly ‘crootin' ritual that the college football world follows.
The QB is just under 300 pages, and reads fairly quickly -- took me about 5 days, fitting it around work, day-to-day blogging and my lil one. Most of the work comes via the principle parties in the Elite 11 camp, with whom Feldman was with through the 2013/14 recruiting cycle. The main stars of the book, naturally, are ESPN's Trent Dilfer and George Whitfield, along with appearances from other coaches involved and a host of other quarterback specialists, or coaches tangentially related to that burgeoning injury, such as Tom House. LSU's Cam Cameron has a cameo appearance, as well as then-recruit Brandon Harris.
If you're like me, you've probably rolled your eyes at Dilfer on TV more than once, but his passion for teaching the quarterback position really comes through in Feldman's book. He's more than aware of his mediocre career as an NFL quarterback, and he's incredibly open about all of the things he did wrong, what he did right, and the coaching he received at multiple levels, both good and bad. And most of it makes sense. His focus on the physics of the position, the biomechanics of dropping back, setting up and throwing a football, all seem self-evident. For example, Dilfer notes that great quarterbacks have a tendency to drop back with their throwing elbow pointed straight down, an arm position that is more relaxed on the muscles from the shoulder on down, and allows for a looser grip on the ball compared to keeping your elbow pointed farther away from the body. Another interesting piece of conventional wisdom has always been that quarterbacks play from their feet on up, but Dilfer suggests that keeping balanced hips, and rotating the body through them, is far more important -- because nearly half of a quarterbacks throws will not be from the traditional foot position, or platform. Dilfer has Elite 11 prospects practice throwing with their knees on the ground in a straight-up posture at about 20 yards. If they're using their hips properly, they should be able to maintain a steady balance through the throw. If not, they'll be wobbling back and forth and falling down.
He does get a bit hokey from time to time in discussing the intangibles, focusing on so-called "Dude Qualities," that seem to mean different things for different people at different times, which is to say really difficult to quantify. Although eyeing which quarterbacks naturally take charge in camp settings, which ones raise their game surrounded by the big names at camps like Elite 11 and The Opening, as well as which ones seem satisfied simply by earning their "Golden Ticket," certainly appears to have merit. One of the ways Dilfer has changed the Elite 11 camp since taking over around the 2000-double-digits, is less of a focus on Jimmy Five-Star and more on the players he himself has eye-balled, resulting in selections that don't always jive with the typical rankings. In noting why Harris didn't make it out of the Ohio regional to the Elite 11 finals in Oregon, the book noted:
"The big concern with him is about his mental makeup," said one of the coaches. "When we saw him in Dallas, he kept telling people how he'd never really been coached before. Like, he was using the same excuse, the same crutch on people. He sounded rehearsed. You wonder if he's the guy who makes excuses when the chips are all on the table and things aren't going right. You wonder how he'd carry a locker room. Will kids see right through him?"
The book also parrots the ridiculousness of the "spread versus pro-style" argument, but does note that some of the limited playbooks that some hurry up/no-huddle teams run tend to create robots that seem to lack the critical thinking and problem-solving skills you want out of a QB. The ability to take a pass concept in one incarnation, versus one defense, and apply it to different formations, personnel groupings and defensive looks.
Ultimately, that ability to process information quickly and use one's feet to buy time and create more platforms to throw the football, are the two qualities that Dilfer and just about all of the other experts in the book value most at the position.
Whitfield is frequently highlighted, particularly his relationship with one of his more high-profile clients, Johnny Manziel. We tend to associate Whitfield with JFF so much that it's easy to forget that his client list also includes Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Connor Cook and a host of other college and pro quarterbacks. And that while his brooms and tennis rackets or drop-back drills in Pacific Ocean surf seem kind of silly, Dilfer and a lot of other coaches, including LSU's Cameron, like that he's one of the few "personal" coaches getting quarterbacks to work in chaotic circumstance. Dilfer mentions it in the book, as did Cameron at the LSU coaches clinic -- too much seven-on-seven has a lot of quarterbacks getting too used to open space and big, clear throwing lanes. Those don't exist in actual game situations with offensive linemen and live pass-rushes.
Opinions on Whitfield vary in these parts, especially given that he notably worked with both of LSU's quarterbacks and we all saw the results. Whitifield notes that he's a big fan of Harris' talent in the book as well. But for all of the metaphors that can seem goofy on College Gameday, Feldman's book shows the method to Whitfield's madness. What's more, compared to some of the other shady characters involved with personal quarterback coaching, his heart seems in the right place.
The man I was most interested to read about was Tom House, and the chapter on his work does not disappoint. A former middling pro baseball pitcher, House is less a quarterback coach, than an expert in rotational biomechanics. Pitchers, golfers, tennis pros, if it involves rotating at a joint, House knows how to make a person do it better. It was actually Cameron who kind of helped pull House into the quarterbacking game with Drew Brees in San Diego, and he's since continued to work with Dilfer, and even tried his hand with Tim Tebow. The chapter on House has a number of incredible stories, such as discovering unknown food allergies with Brees during the rehab of the shoulder injury that helped bring him to New Orleans. Or how "fixing" how a quarterback's mechanics work often times isn't about changing the what, so much as the when -- helping a slow-striding quarterback to begin the stride of his throw sooner. House cites Tom Brady as an example there. The chapter is titled "The Mad Scientist," and House certainly brings a different approach. Curious to see if his profile continues to increase in stature in the coming years.
But perhaps my biggest takeaway from the book echoes something Spencer Hall noted in his review. The dream of birthing, building or finding the next big thing under center lives in a lot of hearts. Players, parents and coaches at almost any level. And there are a remarkable number of people, without much in the way of qualifications, willing to take advantage of that, particularly in places like Orange County, Calif., where people occasionally have more pride, ambition and money than sense. Honestly makes me wonder if I'm in the wrong line of work. Guys like Steve Clarkson, who coached all three Clausen brothers and "taught" Stephen Colbert how to throw on his former Comedy Central show seems particularly eager to work with almost anybody, even below middle-school, and willing to take credit for even more, some players with whom he has little more contact with than a handshake.
Overall, it's a quick and easy read, with an entertaining cast of characters, and what's more, it does a good job of bridging the gap between the casual football fan and the more eager and in-depth reader. Something Feldman has a great knack for. It's definitely worth a pickup and your time.