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January 24, 2022

John McMullen: ‘Reading’ the NFL’s problem at quarterback

Opinion Eagles
Sirianni-Hurts_111421_usat Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni watches Jalen Hurts throw prior to the game against the Denver Broncos.

There it was, placed right in front of your face as an Eagles fan.

One of the most well-respected defensive coaching staffs in the NFL telling you exactly what it thought of Jalen Hurts during Tampa Bay’s drubbing of the Eagles over Wile E. Coyote’s coined “Super” Wild Card Weekend.

“This guy can’t read,” Bucs cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross told his students. “Keep him moving around now. He can’t read. He’s gonna give us a couple.”

Hurts did indeed give the Bucs a couple of interceptions in the 31-15 setback, the first postseason start for the 23-year-old second-year quarterback.

Hurts’ inability to “read defenses” is an NFL problem, however, not just a Philadelphia issue.

The league has always profited from the free-feeder system that is college football. What the college game has never been, however, is an independent developmental arm to the NFL unless you want to adopt similar strategies to what’s going on at that level.

In other words, it’s not Nick Saban’s job to make sure DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson are ready to go for the Eagles, it’s his job to win national championships for Alabama.

With talented players like Smith and Dickerson sometimes those divergent goals are both served but when it comes to NFL’s current crop of quarterbacks, the days of handling things at the line of scrimmage are on the verge of extinction, and the savvy signal-callers who can decipher things pre-snap are the endangered species.

As veteran league reporter and Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge recently told me: “Why would [Tom] Brady retire when he’s got all the answers to the test?”

Not only does the 44-year-old Brady have all the answers, so many of his younger peers at the position can’t even identify the questions to figure out those answers because they are never really pushed to do exactly that.

Watch a college game now and you’ll likely see the same thing: a QB looking over the defense before stepping back, not to evaluate the information that the defense might be giving him but to allow his micromanaging coaches on the sideline and upstairs a chance to decipher what is going on before instructing the QB what they want to be done.

In the pro game that gets tougher because the defensive schemes are more complicated and communication cuts off at 15 seconds with Sean McVay purportedly being the first coach to walk up to that deadline prompting some to joke former Rams quarterback Jared Goff served as his exoskeleton.

Hall of Famer Troy Aikman recently explained some of these issues while discussing Dallas’ disappointing 23-17 wild-card loss to San Francisco.

"There was a lot of single coverage on CeeDee Lamb," the two-time Super Bowl winner explained last week when discussing the Niners’ upset.

Aikman noted there is too much ego when it comes to “scheme” in the NFL.

“I hate going back to (when I was playing) because nobody cares, but what I see around the league. It's not just Dallas, I've seen it with a lot of teams — a lot of these offenses want to scheme things,” he noted. “The coordinators, it's all about scheme, rather than, 'This corner is playing soft. He's scared to death.' Just run the route tree. Run a comeback. Run a dig route. Run a curl. Run anything.

“You're going to complete the pass whenever you want."

It seems like common sense. If the opposition doesn’t have the talent to stop your top playmakers, why help that opponent by ignoring one of your best players?

"(Michael Irvin) would've had 10 catches at halftime if they played us the way they played CeeDee Lamb in that game,” Aikman surmised. “ … The game is not that difficult. If I've got a great player at wide receiver and a corner is playing him in single coverage, throw him the ball. He's going to win most of the time."

While Aikman was discussing Dak Prescott’s inability, whether personal or by decree, to recognize what the defense was giving him with single coverage on Lamb you could have just inserted Hurts and Smith, and voila, you have the exact same lesson. What’s worse for the Cowboys is Prescott just finished Year 6.

Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loaded the box against Hurts and the Eagles, used spies and slot blitzes to force the young QB to his left where Hurts is most uncomfortable, and dared him to take his shots throwing the football.

Hurts’ supporters will rightfully point to the room to develop but Prescott may foreshadow the future.

Moving forward the CBA limits the ability of the Eagles’ coaches to spend the kind of time with an emerging QB like previous generations could, a landscape which has forced a reimagining of offensive football from trying to find the next Brady or Peyton Manning to accentuating the natural skill set of the latest college star.

Sirianni, Shane Steichen, and Brian Johnson simply don’t have enough time to teach Hurts how to be a conductor at the LOS and that explains the in-season shift to a run-first mentality.

Players are left to their own devices to learn what they want to learn for large portions of the offseason and while no one is going to doubt Hurts’ work ethic, it’s fair to question where his efforts during the downtime will be targeted in the right place and if the Eagles even send Hurts to his personal quarterback coach, Quincy Avery, with the right directions.

Saturday’s 13-10 loss by top-seeded Green Bay, also at the hands of the 49ers, underscored the coaching issue.

Matt LaFleur is lauded for winning more games than anyone else during his first three seasons (39) but too many conflate situation with accomplishment, not realizing the most pedestrian coaches would be looked at in a similar fashion with Aaron Rodgers in a bad division piling up regular-season wins. The only thing Kyle Shanahan, ironically a LaFleur mentor, had with his struggling QB Jimmy Garoppolo from a passing perspective in nasty elements was George Kittle consistently winning from the slot and the coach went to it multiple days at the biggest moments.

Three consecutive 13-win seasons in Green Bay have all ended in playoff disappointment despite favorable draws because a better adjective to describe LaFleur might be “lead coach” not head coach – obsessed with his offensive scheme and little else. The special teams issues are well documented with the Packers and cost them the game but few will even bring up leaning into Packers DC Joe Barry is those key spots to let him know what's coming from a coach he should know because that's not LaFleur's purview.

When it comes to young QBs, though, this is the chicken and the egg casualty dilemma.

Every offensive coach in the NFL should crave a QB who can run things from the line of scrimmage but those egoless mentors are in shorter supply than the signal-callers they are searching for.

Perhaps the only answer for the one- or two-read QBs of the world is the extinction of the old guard and an even playing field where the coach using him as a joystick, with talent serving as the "equipment" advantage, deciding the game.

Retirement rumors are again swirling around Brady. At this rate, though, Father Time’s toughest opponent might really be able to play to 50 because he’s one of the precious few who’s still got the cheat codes.


John McMullen is a contributor to PhillyVoice.com, and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com. Follow John on Twitter.

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