Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Redefining Arm Strength

I have a female friend, 19 years old and a petite 110 pounds, whom I've seen throw a regulation football 30 yards' distance several times in a row and hit the same general area with good consistency.

According to some people's definition of a "deep ball", that makes my friend a pro quarterback prospect. Never mind that her delivery looks more like a pitcher's combined with the heel grab of a figure skater, and never mind the fact that her throws hang in the air long enough for most turtles to get under it from several feet away. For some, the distance a QB can throw is the only measure of arm strength - and the only point. If he can throw long, the thinking goes, then he can succeed in the NFL.

The major hole in this theory is that most defenses are thinking the same thing. And they've invented the safety position to compensate.

Those thrilling deep passes that you see on highlight reels to a receiver who's beaten coverage? They're the exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of most NFL passes are thrown to a receiver who still has a defender somewhere beyond him. That happens because defenses, knowing they're pointless if receivers can just run right past them, are built around the agenda of ensuring receivers don't beat them deep. Safeties stay high and cornerbacks jam at the LOS to slow down the receivers' releases. It's among the very basic objectives of a defense. Otherwise, any 19-year-old girl with a modicum of accuracy and a good offensive line could be an NFL quarterback.

Yes, this is a disgusting oversimplification. But I hope it still gives an accurate framework for this discussion.

So now you've got a multi-layered defense that keeps a safety over the top to jump or otherwise defend long throws. Too long and you throw it over your receiver and right to that safety; too short and you don't reach your receiver. Or, more likely, you hit a linebacker squatting in your passing lane. It's no longer just about side-to-side accuracy now - it's about vertical accuracy.

But it gets worse - those defenders aren't static. Have you ever played ultimate frisbee and tried to cover a guy, but stayed several feet away and glanced casually elsewhere so it didn't look like you were trying to cover him? You're trying to lure the thrower into not noticing you and passing to your man, hoping you can get a good enough jump on the frisbee to intercept it. (Welcome to zone coverage, by the way.)

But in order to get that interception, you have to close on your man during a narrow window between the release of the frisbee and its arrival at the target. If the frisbee beats you to your man, you lose. As a defender, you're literally racing the frisbee. So if the thrower is worth his salt, he's going to try and make a nice, fast, zippy throw so that you can't get there in time.

Therein lies the full definition and purpose of "arm strength" on a quarterback. It's got nothing to do with distance. It's about the velocity of the ball to its target, whether that target be fifty yards away or ten. Anybody with a few weeks of workout and protein diet can throw a football fifty yards, but most people have to loft it over a power line to do it. Not everybody can throw a football fifty yards, get it there in no more than two seconds flat, air it no more than twelve feet off the ground, and fit it through a tire swing. That takes a tremendous arm, and a tremendous talent.

That's why we have such phrases as "throwing into tight windows" and "threading the needle". That's the game. QB's get criticized for throwing into double coverage if the result is anything but a completion, but if a completion happens, everyone just nods and hustles on to the next play. Coverages are designed to force receivers into tight spaces, and simple geometry gives them the edge; even the best route-runner will eventually have to "make catches in traffic". An offense that relies on beating coverages deep is basically hinging their offense on the other team screwing up; that's not a winning strategy. Those opportunities don't happen often enough to sustain an offense. The job of the quarterback is to defeat even tight defenses by zipping the ball into small spaces before defenders can reach it - fitting passes in between roving linebackers and safeties. And in order to do that, your passes had better be lightning quick.

The job of a quarterback isn't to throw long passes over and over. That's why highlight reels are so deceptive; they don't show the meat and potatoes of offensive play, the methodical West Coast-style short and intermediate passes that have permeated every playbook in the league and which require powerful throws in their own right. Few playbooks are heavily designed around the deep pass. Deep routes take longer to develop, requiring more offensive line skill and more extra protection from John Carlson.

Virtually every time you see a receiver beat coverage, the QB isn't expecting it. It's a gift from the defense breaking down, and he takes it - sometimes after two or three other reads. Mike Williams' long touchdown against New Orleans was originally supposed to be an underneath pass to Justin Forsett, but he was covered and Hasselbeck improvised (that is, he muttered "screw it" and threw up a prayer to Williams).

That pass, by the way, was perfect for a rainbow - magnificently placed to maximize Williams' access and minimize that of the defenders. If Hass were still making such pinpoint passes on a regular basis, I might not be writing this series. But he isn't. Which requires us to judge Hasselbeck's arm based on the merit of the height and speed it produces, not its distance.

And that's where I feel that Matt Hasselbeck, deprived of the system that made him great, becomes a distinct liability to any other NFL offense.

More to come.


  1. The number one fact thrown out there when you dispute Matt's arm strength is "but he threw a pass 50 yards!". I agree with you, Brandon, an 18 yard out delivered with alacrity does more for an offense than the rare 50 yard rainbow. Accuracy matters little if the pace of the throw is slow. Which is what at least partially accounts for Hasselbeck's fairly low career rating of 64.7 on 3rd and 8-10 yards, which has slid to a rating of 48.2 over the last three years.
    Make what you will of the QB rating system, measured against his own career stats, Matt has suffered a serious decline in numbers in situations that make the most of arm strength.

  2. Thanks for that info, Scott. You really should lurk less and write some more articles, so I don't become a one-man show here. :)

  3. Playing quarterback without any zip in your arm is like playing soccer with a tiny goal or bowling from twice as far away. Matt has to be too perfect and a lot of windows that may exist for other quarterbacks do not for him.

  4. Therein lies the Mallet appeal!!! Rob Stanton had a compilation video the other day about Mallet's long ball, and on one pass, he chucked the rock about 43 yards with minimal arc on it. Most QBs cant throw that fast with such accuracy over 20 yards, let alone half the field. This is precisely why mallet can bring all that is good to the hawks. By comparison, Hass looks likes hes tossing beeny-babies. Such a rare blend of pinpoint accuracy and change-my-pants speed is deadly both in the vertical threat and the slot. To the powers at be, please make it happen.

  5. Mallett does need to show that he can handle the short-range touch and decision-making, because he'll still have to throw those. His deep balls won't get him by any more than Hasselbeck's did.

  6. I think the deep ball ability would help him get by more easily than Hass. I mean if you're a DB playing against Hasselbeck you have a ton more wiggle room to jump underneath routes because A) there is more time to recover if Matt throws deep, and B) there is more time for a zone safety to react. The fact that defenses know getting beat deep is much worse than getting beat underneath and knowing how quickly Mallett can put a ball on a receiver even 30-40 yards down the field will force them to respect the deep routes, which in turn will leave more space underneath.

    Mallett did improve his mid-range accuracy last season though, don't you think? That improvement leads me to believe that he can continue getting better and that he's able to work on weak points in his game.

  7. I agree to an extent, Brodie - Mallett's arm would scare defenses away from the LOS, but only if Seattle's receivers are capable of getting down there. Our only true deep threat right now is coming off a broken leg and has never shown the ability to overcome jams at the line that negate his speed.

  8. "Anybody with a few weeks of workout and protein diet can throw a football fifty yards"

    That's just ridiculous.