THIBODAUX, La. — The evolution of the quarterback is on full display for anyone willing to endure the thick heat of Louisiana over a long weekend in mid-July. Slog through the muddy fields on the Nicholls State campus an hour outside of New Orleans, and you’ll find more than 1,000 high school-aged boys taking part in the Manning Passing Academy. Many of college football’s top QBs serve as counselors, and there’s a Manning everywhere you turn, whether it’s father Archie, who became a legend at Ole Miss in the late 1960s, or sons Peyton and Eli, who won a combined four Super Bowls.
The arm angles of the quarterbacks here are all over the place — over-the-top, three-quarters, sidearm.
Their footwork is equally varied — one foot, two feet, sometimes no feet at all.
There’s seemingly no limit to the creativity. It can feel at times as if the fundamentals of throwing a football for the past 100 years have been tossed out the window via a Tim Tebow-style jump pass.
In much the same way Stephen Curry changed the geometry of the modern NBA, normalizing shooting from well past the 3-point line, Patrick Mahomes is credited with influencing the next generation of quarterbacks to operate outside the pocket and find different ways to throw the football. There’s even a catch-all term for those mechanically compromised passes: off-platform.
“It’s very much an imitation business,” Peyton Manning told ESPN at the camp. “So when young players see Mahomes making sidearm throws and underhand throws, they’re probably going back and doing that in their high schools.”
Peyton was a prototypical pocket passer, his mechanics exactly what someone might expect to find in decades old training manuals: eyes ahead; right elbow up; left foot firmly planted in the dirt; their shoulders, hips and feet pointed toward the target.
But things are changing.
“Younger players are getting better and better,” said Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, a first-time counselor at the camp. “It’s just fun to see the next generation come through and bring their own spice and juice. You see how quarterbacking has evolved from Archie to Peyton to Tom Brady.”
Clifford smiled. At 23 years old, he remembers the transition that took place around the time Aaron Rodgers took the NFL by storm a decade ago. While he and his friends idolized Peyton and Brady for the tacticians they were, it was Rodgers who they often imitated in the backyard — how he would escape pressure and throw darts off his back foot and across his body, as if the rules of quarterbacking no longer applied.
When Clifford returned to school, he inevitably toned down his Rodgers impersonation for coaches who weren’t comfortable with that sort of free-wheeling.
Now, coaches have loosened up. Kids are fearless and admire Mahomes, how there’s seemingly nothing he can’t or won’t do, even if it’s a no-look pass. In Super Bowl LV, Mahomes was tripped and attempted a diving sidearm throw — while completely horizontal in the air — that wound up hitting his target in the face before falling incomplete. A clip of that would-be touchdown has been viewed more than 490,000 times on YouTube.
“I feel like there was a certain way they wanted people to play quarterback,” said fellow camp counselor Michael Penix Jr., a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award last year at Indiana. “But it’s more free now, because there’s so much talent out there. … Kids at middle school are trying to make those [off-platform] throws. And they’re getting good at it.”
Clifford never regularly worked on off-platform throws until he got to Penn State in 2017, and up until recently, the term barely existed in the greater football lexicon.
“There is a cool factor, throwing off-platform, throwing sidearm, all that stuff,” Clifford said. “I tell the kids out here, ‘It’s how you get it done. We need to complete the 20-yard dig route. You can foot pop, you can sidearm, you can do it however.
“In the end, if you get it there consistently, all power to you.”
Be warned, though: Coaches aren’t exactly in love with the technique. Throwing off-platform isn’t easy, and therefore, isn’t for everyone.
Arguably the most viral moment of this past NFL draft cycle came during a pro day workout at BYU when Zach Wilson, the eventual No. 2 pick, rolled to his left, shuffled his feet, twisted and, in one motion, flicked the ball 50 yards to a receiver downfield.
Then Justin Fields made a similar pass at his pro day. Then Kellen Mond and Mac Jones.
“It’s just a flex like, ‘I don’t have to have my feet set,'” said Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout who is in his third year as executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Through the years, Nagy said there have been a few quarterbacks who would attempt off-platform passes on a regular basis: Fran Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre.
Now there’s Rodgers and Mahomes … and Joe Burrow and Russell Wilson and Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and, look, there’s not enough time in the day. A lot of them grew up in spread offenses, throwing the ball 50 times a game, whether it was inside the pocket, outside or on the run.
It makes sense so many of them could sacrifice traditional mechanics and succeed in the NFL. They’re the best of the best in terms of arm strength and athleticism. But in college?
“Not everyone has the arm, right?” Nagy said.
Nagy sees it when evaluating pro prospects. They either don’t have the arm or the athleticism to merit throwing off-platform regularly. There’s also a component of poise and field vision he said people too often take for granted. They try it because it looks cool and wind up looking foolish.
It’s similar to what happened after Odell Beckham Jr.’s viral catch six years ago, Nagy said, when suddenly every young receiver in America was attempting one-handed catches, when most of the time, two hands was preferable.
Nagy wouldn’t single out any current college quarterbacks, but several industry experts pointed to Auburn‘s Bo Nix as an example of someone who takes off-platform throws to an unproductive level. Nix is a former four-star athlete and the son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix. Everyone agrees that Bo is talented and athletic, and he has a good arm …
But he often falls into the trap of improper footwork and mechanics. He unnecessarily throws off his back foot and makes daring throws across his body when it’s better to just hit the check-down or run out of bounds.
Experts pointed to a lack of protection and coaching as possible reasons for Bo’s struggles. Either way, they see a clear regression in his game. Last year, he threw seven interceptions over his final eight games and completed just 59.9% of his passes — well below the SEC average of 66.5%. However, experts said there’s optimism that new Auburn coach Brian Harsin and his staff will turn Bo around.
Nix isn’t the only young quarterback to fall into this trap. Jeff Christensen, Mahomes’ offseason quarterback coach, joked that he should send roses to everyone chasing highlight-reel passes, because it means more business for him when they realize their mechanics are broken. His company, Throw It Deep, works with about 16 pro and 50 college QBs, not to mention everyone at the youth level.
“Here’s the bottom line: when I watch a quarterback, does he have time to get his hips, knees and feet in the right position quickly and throw the ball fundamentally sound?” he said. “Or does he just not move his feet, knees and hips, drop his arm down with no one around him in the pocket and decide to flip it out to the side? Those guys I don’t want on my team.”
“Because that cool flip is the third down-and-4 play where you flip it up just behind somebody, it gets tipped up in the air and picked off and we lose the ballgame,” he said.
Most big plays in the passing game still happen within the pocket, Christensen said. Players might need to shuffle their feet to avoid the rush and buy an extra second, but they’re still throwing from a solid base.
“That’s the throw of the Pro Day season right now.”
Zach Wilson showing off 🤫
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/Xz2cWdlJV1
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 26, 2021
Passes like the one Wilson trotted out during his pro day represent less than 5% of the total throws a quarterback will make in their lifetime, yet they end up influencing the other 95% of throws. Training off-platform requires a serious conversation, Christensen said. It’s a “tricky landscape” that can lead to pre-meditating passes that should only happen naturally — namely when a 300-pound lineman is chasing you and there’s an open receiver downfield.
“A lot of careers are being thrown away right now on guys that had a chance and now have no chance because [of] those throws that they force,” he said.
Christensen doesn’t want to sound like an alarmist. Playing quarterback should be fun, he said. It’s why his company has given in to doing crossbar challenges — the kids love them, though it has no tangible use in a game.
What worries him is the long-term impact of focusing so much on off-platform throws. He said he has noticed a lot of arm injuries and fatigue in young quarterbacks, which he attributes to a lack of fundamentals.
Dr. Lyle Cain works at the renowned Andrews Sports Medicine Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. He said that while there haven’t been enough studies to accurately gauge the prevalence of throwing-related injuries in football, it stands to reason that repeatedly practicing improper mechanics could lead to stress injuries in the shoulder and elbow — just as in baseball and tennis — especially with training becoming a year-round process for the sport.
“There are certainly kids at a younger age throwing a whole lot more footballs than they did 10-15 years ago,” he said. “So if they do have a mechanical flaw or something they do that puts more stress on the shoulder or elbow, they’re putting a lot more throws from a pure overuse standpoint and are likely to have more trouble.”
It’s a fallacy, Cain said, that more training is always better. And training improperly is asking for trouble.
“You can’t make yourself into a Patrick Mahomes,” he said. “You either have that talent or that background or your body is made that way, or you don’t.”
Peyton Manning wore a tan bucket cap, a gray T-shirt and gray gym shorts as he worked with a dozen boys on a drill focused on getting the ball out quickly. Because he didn’t want to sacrifice fundamentals for speed, he stopped and exaggerated his throwing motion, slapping his left hamstring to emphasize the need for a good base. Then he pointed from his shoulder to his hips to his feet, telling campers how they need to be in the proper alignment.
“We can be fast and we can be accurate,” he said before the boys moved on to the next station and a new group cycled in.
It went on like that, the camp moving with military like precision, showing the next generation the right way to play the position. Peyton, a former five-time MVP who still holds the record for passing yards in a single season, kept it light with the kids, joking and giving them “attaboys” constantly.
They don’t look like him much anymore — tall and decidedly unathletic — and he’s OK with that.
“There’s a place for everybody and there are different ways to play the position,” he said. “That’s what I like about it because tall, short, slow, fast, you can still figure out a way to move the chains.”
Eli never ran for more than 80 yards in a single season in his entire career, but he threw for 57,023 yards and went to the Pro Bowl four times. He said that to be accurate in today’s game, quarterbacks need to be creative. The pocket isn’t always going to be clean, and they’ll have to manage that.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who worked with both Peyton and Eli, estimates that the speed of the pass-rush in college football has increased two-fold during his career. So working off-platform is a necessity, he said. Teams need a quarterback who can scramble and throw on the run now, or the job of scoring points becomes very difficult.
“You have to work on the throws from different angles and find ways to get more completions,” Eli said. “It used to be where it was more a downfield attack, and now it’s shorter and you take your shots when necessary.
“There’s still a fundamental part to it. You have to have that. But you need to be an athlete and make throws in different situations.”
Presented with all this information, Archie smiled. He often gets mistaken for an old-school pocket passer because of his age and the way his two boys played the position, but he was actually a sprint-out quarterback at Ole Miss when he won SEC Player of the Year in 1969 and was later selected with the No. 2 pick by the New Orleans Saints.
He might not have been Mahomes or Rodgers, but Archie could throw on the run with the best of ’em. He was under center an awful lot, but his feet were hardly ever set when he’d hit Floyd Franks or Jim Poole in the chest with a fastball.
Football works in cycles, he explained, so who knows, “maybe the wishbone will come back.”
Archie laughed to himself. He said fans enjoy this style of play, and he does, too. He admires today’s quarterbacks.
Then he got a glint in his eye and grinned. That old sprint-out offense was fun, but imagine Archie working in the shotgun and running the spread and mixing in a little run-pass option.
“It would have been fun playing that style,” he said.