Football's ultimate juxtaposition was on display at last week’s NFL combine -- quarterbacks use college to become NFL players, but college game plans don’t ask them to mirror what the NFL does.
Analysts such as NFL Network's Mike Mayock have said the emergence of college spread offenses has decreased the number of surefire quarterback prospects, highlighting the challenges Oregon’s Marcus Mariota presents scouts for the next two months.
“They didn’t make their line calls, didn’t check out of a lot of plays, didn’t work in the huddle, didn’t work under center,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who doesn’t see the trend changing any time soon. “This is a developmental league, but colleges don’t care about developing necessarily and the NFL isn’t going to change things necessarily for the sake of colleges.”
The Browns, in particular, have struggled with the unpredictability of spread quarterbacks, drafting two in the first round of the last three drafts with minimal results. Though every quarterback stands on his own merit -- football smarts, work ethic and natural ability can help overcome offensive scheme -- it’s understandable if the Browns want to play it safe with a pro-style guy in free agency.
To be sure, a look at the first five quarterbacks taken in each of the last five drafts shows quarterbacks from pro-style or spread sets have struggled. For every Geno Smith or Tim Tebow, there’s an EJ Manuel or Christian Ponder. Twelve of those 25 selected had at least some pro-style experience. They might run no-huddle but also exercise West Coast principles.
But since 2010, only the Browns and Broncos have taken two spread quarterbacks in the first two rounds of the draft -- Johnny Manziel and Brandon Weeden to the Browns, Tim Tebow and Brock Osweiler to the Broncos. Also, the Browns’ third-round pick in 2010, Colt McCoy, had experience in spread sets at Texas, though he also took snaps from under center and occasionally rolled out in play-action.
Beyond natural ability, part of Jameis Winston's appeal is his ability to simply field a snap from under center and diagnose defenses pre-snap.
The Browns’ struggles with spread quarterbacks could be more about poor drafting than scheme. Texans coach Bill O’Brien, for one, believes if the skill set and the makeup are there, the rest can be taught, even at the highest level.
But if the Browns package a proposal to Tennessee for Marcus Mariota, how he responds to a pro-style set is the biggest -- perhaps the only -- question with the Ducks quarterback. McShay said Mariota has “everything else” teams want. NFL teams still run the shotgun at least 60 percent of the time, but spread quarterbacks don't know how to handle the other 40 yet.
“You now have to win (from the pocket) if you want sustained success,” McShay said. “Look at Kaepernick, look at RG3 -- you can have a year, maybe a year-and-a-half, but sustained success, you need to win in the pocket.”
The Browns have found little of that because they’ve been burned in the draft. There’s little doubt the Browns will bring in at least one pro-style quarterback from free agency or the draft.