When Bill Walsh was coaching in the 1980s, he used to say that few can coach quarterbacks, and fewer can evaluate them. The wisdom from the old ball coach was true then and still holds true today, with many struggling to identify a proper quarterback.
This year, it’s perhaps even more difficult. With the draft class lacking a truly elite, standout prospect. Instead, it’s filled with players who may not be a fit for all systems, but are for a select few. In the end, that may be enough to determine who will or won’t succeed.
A quarterback that has many split is Southern California’s Matt Barkley. Once considered a top-tier and clear No. 1 prospect, he’s suddenly fallen in evaluator’s eyes and is debated not only as the second best quarterback, but in some cases, third best.
The biggest knock on Barkley has been his arm strength, which is clearly not to be mistaken for Aaron Rodgers’ arm or even Tom Brady’s arm at this point in his career. It’s synonymous with Matt Flynn’s, who throws a beautiful deep ball by putting air underneath it but struggles with velocity in the middle of the field. For some, that sets off a mental alarm. Flynn’s been a backup quarterback all his career and wasn’t exactly a highly-coveted passer coming out of LSU.
It’s true, he wasn’t.
But Barkley’s arm does compare to Flynn’s, even though the rest of his game perhaps doesn’t. Also like Flynn, Barkley needs more coaching coming out of school. His footwork tends to be scrambled under pressure, and he raises his arm up to pass the ball too quickly in those situations; both have led to sacks, fumbles, and a whole lot of inaccuracy. In addition, he doesn’t often reset his feet when forced to move and throw from a second platform, and he sometimes dwells on a read, which led to interceptions in 2012.
Faced with a ferocious Stanford defense, Barkley stood in the shotgun set as he prepared to catch the football. To his right, he had two receivers facing three defenders. Both receivers were going to be running vertical routes; one on the numbers, the other down the sideline — that is if he could beat the initial jam at the line.
When Barkley caught the snap, he scanned the field to his left before turning his eyes to the right. It was the short side of the field and the Cardinal’s defense still had three defenders in coverage. The linebacker was underneath the slot while the safety was over the top, and the perimeter cornerback was physical with the outside receiver.
In the pocket, Barkley stood with little-to-no pressure surrounding him. The USC offensive line kept the pocket clean against a delayed four-man rush, as their quarterback looked to make a snap decision of where he was throwing the ball. Despite having his slot receiver running free inside the numbers, Barkley chose to throw the ball outside.
Throwing the ball outside was not the ideal scenario for two reasons.
1. The receiver wasn’t open
2. It could have easily led to a turnover.
If Barkley throws the ball outside, the only logical ball placement would be out of bounds. Like Jim Harbaugh says to his quarterbacks, an incompletion is always better than an interception, even if it means the chains aren’t moved. In this case, Barkley threw the ball to his outside receiver, who struggled to get off the press coverage, and the ball was easily intercepted by the Stanford cornerback.
Barkley’s decisions are going to have to be better in the NFL, particularly because he doesn’t have a howitzer attached to his shoulder. He’s going to have to protect the ball and beat defenses before the snap. He’ll have to break down tendencies, read his keys, know where his receivers will be, and know where he’s going with the ball prior to throwing.
The best schematic fit for Barkley would be Bill Walsh’s old West Coast Offense, where he would throw short-to-intermediate passes off of play action. However, because the West Coast Offense has evolved tremendously since its inception, there’s no such pure philosophy.
The team that selects him will have to cater to his talent and his preferences much like the New England Patriots did when they chose Tom Brady to be their franchise quarterback and the Philadelphia Eagles have done over the years with the dual thinking of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg.
If he goes to the right system, Barkley could be a successful pro. Conversely, if he goes to a coach who doesn’t know how to coach and scheme quarterbacks, then he has little chance.