Spagnuolo and "Genius" QB Development

Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo recently called Andy Reid's development of Donovan McNabb "genius." I know some guys were wondering just exactly what happened to make Spags think it was so great, especially since Spags has his own shiny new QB in first overall pick Sam Bradford.

From the sound of the interview Spagnuolo has an open mind about how a QB can be brought up to speed, and he specifically made a point to say he needed to see Bradford work with the veterans before he'll "know what we have." Still, it might be worthwhile to take a look at what Andy Reid did with Donovan McNabb so we have some sense of what Spags might be considering with Bradford.

Time Machine back to 1999: Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles make Donovan McNabb the 2nd overall pick in a draft that seems exceedingly rich in Quarterbacks. The first three picks in a row are all Quarterbacks, contributing to a total of 5 of the first 12 selections. The Eagles are picking 2nd because they won just three games the year before.

Philly has also just added a 7-year veteran Quarterback in Doug Pederson. Pederson hasn't played much (and not at all for the Eagles) but he's been in the league with the Packers and Dolphins and knows how the game works. His job with the Eagles is to be the "temporary starter."

Usually, a rookie QB being groomed for the lead role will serve as sort of an assistant to the head coach and coordinators on game day. In the days before speakers in the helmets, it was common for the head coach to tell the clipboard QB what the play was, and he in turn would relay it to the playing QB, thus getting familiar with the terminology of their system.

  • In game 1, Reid elects to start Pederson. Not surprising, since rookies usually don't start the very first game of their pro career. What is surprising however, is what Reid does next.
  • In game 2, Pederson starts but McNabb comes in to play during the second half.
  • In games 3 and 4, more of the same: Pederson starts but McNabb comes in to play at some point during the game. And it's not just garbage time either, these are meaningful game minutes. Pederson only attempts 3 more passes than McNabb during these games.
  • By game 10, (and after) McNabb was starting -- the first Eagles rookie QB to start a game in more than 25 years. He starts basically the last half of the season, except for one game he missed due to injury.
  • In game 14, Pederson and McNabb split minutes for the last time. After that it was all McNabb, all the time. He ends up with just 11 passes less than Pederson on the year.

So instead of the typical QB on the sideline with a clipboard, waiting for his chance like a good soldier and trying to soak up all the knowledge he can, McNabb is eased into the pro game one quarter, and one game, at a time.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising for QB development to happen like that, but think of how infrequently we see this kind of time split over a whole season.

There are some legitimate pitfalls associated with having 2 different guys playing Quarterback at different points in a game. Its harder to pull off than you might think. The linemen want to get used to one guy's voice and inflection for the snap count. The team also wants to know who really is leading them, too (don't underestimate how important this is to some players, its real). The coach really needs to have clear communication, make sure everyone is on the same page about expectations, and make sure they have a dutiful, veteran QB who will cooperate with the plan. Signing a guy who is good enough to play in the game but will still fill that role of temporary starter is sometimes hard to do.

Time Machine forward to today, Spags gives an interview where he acknowledges the early success of QB's Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. He talked about how they were able to bring their teams to the playoffs in their first year, and he says he understands there are legitimate ways to bring a QB up besides the way he witnessed Andy Reid do it with McNabb.

But before you think Spags is venturing too far from the coaching tree, has also just added a 7-year journeyman Quarterback that hasn't played much (and not at all for the Rams) but he's been in the league with the Eagles and Dolphins. Sound familiar? Its easy to see how closely this situation resembles Reid's Eagles.

When Spags says he needs to see Bradford work in camp with the veterans (and more importantly, against the veterans) , he means he doesn't know if he can even set a goal for Bradford to play in the 4th game or 14th game. He can't tell you exactly what the plan is until he knows what he has to work with.

And it may not be entirely up to Bradford when that happens, especially if the Rams need to start their second round rookie at Right Tackle. Some people think the Detroit Lions had Matthew Stafford in the game before they could protect him, leading to him getting injured and having season ending surgery last year. How many years can Detroit afford for that to happen? The Rams Tackles will have to prove they can protect the Quarterback first, or it would be foolish to put him in there and turn him into David Carr. If they go with Saffold, they probably won't be ready by game 2 like Philly was with McNabb, but who says they have to go with Saffold? They could put someone a little more experienced at RT if they think Bradford is ready to get some minutes.

No matter what they do with the line, and no matter what Bradford looks like when he finally gets his first practices with the veterans, this much seems certain: we're likely to see Sam Bradford throwing passes in a game sooner rather than later.