Former head coach Brian Billick and co-author James Dale attempt to bring clarity to the biggest challenge in NFL team-building – drafting a winning QB.
Quarterback is the most important position in football, arguably the most important in any sport. Yet, despite the stat-tracking, tape-watching and measurable-collecting, it remains incredibly hard to know if you’re drafting a good one. Any quarterback picked, even one drafted first overall, has roughly a 50-50 shot of turning out to be a perennial All-Pro or a guy who, at best, is a solid backup. In The Q Factor, Brian Billick and James Dale argue that getting even a few percent better could give teams the edge they need in the hyper-competitive NFL.
In an attempt to develop a process for spotting a future great, the authors take the 2018 Draft class as a test group. Five QBs were taken in the 2018 first round: Baker Mayfield by the Browns, Sam Darnold (pictured above) by the Jets, Josh Allen by the Bills, Josh Rosen by the Cardinals, and Lamar Jackson by the Ravens. Billick and Dale break down the pre-draft assessments of all five and then look at how they fared over their first two NFL seasons to see whether their performance could have been predicted
One key thing that emerges, unsurprisingly, is that predicting success in the NFL is incredibly hard. There are so many variables and many of them are subjective. A good QB must be a leader who makes good decisions and has the physical talent to succeed at the highest level. But different types of leader can be successful in the NFL and different kinds of physical talent can make a winning quarterback. What you need to know is whether they will be successful in your system.
Billick argues that everything comes back to what shows up on tape, augmented by smart use of statistics, interviewing and even intelligence tests; Billick is dismissive of the NFL-favoured Wonderlic test and argues that an emerging test, Athletic Intelligence Quotient, is more useful.
Perhaps the most significant insight is that teams should “look for a marriage”. The right head coach is absolutely vital. As incredible as Patrick Mahomes has been with the Chiefs, The Q Factor argues, his pairing with Andy Reid is crucial. “Put Mahomes into a Green Bay offense and I venture to say it wouldn’t be nearly as game-changing,” the authors write.
This gets to the heart of a change in football that has been underway since the days of domineering coaches like Vince Lombardi. The QB is now a more expensive and more valuable asset to an NFL team than the head coach, even if his career might be shorter. The logical next step in Billick and Dale’s argument is that coaches had better be prepared to adapt to suit the needs of their young QB or else the organisation might be better sticking with the QB and ditching the coach.
Brian Billick coached for 30 years at college and NFL teams, finishing his career with an eight-year spell as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, a team that he took to their first Super Bowl win. He has written several books, including More Than A Game, with Michael MacCambridge, Developing an Offensive Gameplan and, with Bill Walsh, one of the all-time great football books, Finding the Winning Edge (though he describes his role on that as more of an editor to Walsh).
James Dale is a prolific author whose work spans a range of subjects. He has worked with baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr on Ripken’s book of life lessons, Just Show Up, with whistle-blowing sports agent Josh Luchs on Illegal Procedure, and with Maryland Representative, the late Elijah Cummings, on We’re Better Than This.
“As Bill Walsh taught me, judge accuracy less by down-the-field throws and more by where the QB places the ball for short and intermediate targets, the throws that allow a receiver to gain yards after the catch without having to break stride to catch the ball. Many of Mayfield’s easy flare routes and slant routes were placed all over the field, sending a warning to me that he may struggle to attain this same level of accuracy in the NFL.”
“It’s much harder for you to do the detective work than to look at a test score, but it may tell you more. You have to know if he’s smart enough to lead. You’re not looking for all the facts he can regurgitate. He’ll learn the facts of plays, formations, packages, schemes on your team, from your coaches. Not the date the Magna Carta was signed (with all due respect to the year 1215 and the beginnings of constitutional democracy). You’re looking to see if he can process and think with the information on the chalkboard, in his playbook, on the practice field, and on the football field. Is there a way to measure that ability? It looks like maybe yes.”
“Statistically, over a thirty-plus year study of results, of what the authors call the ‘explained variance’ in wins and losses, owners get credit for 11 percent of success, GMs about double that, coaches almost 30 percent, and quarterbacks 37 percent. The quarterback is three times as important to winning as the owner… if you don’t count the fact that the owner signs the QB’s paycheck. Together, the GM and coach add up to over half of the successes. But quarterbacks and coaches together get credit for almost two-thirds of the success.”
“One of the best pivots we’ve seen in football in recent years was John Harbaugh, moving from the very conventional, and largely successful, pocket-passer offense with Joe Flacco to the wide-open—very, very wide open- you-don’t-know-what-to-expect offense of young Lamar Jackson. And I emphasize young because John, in his mid-fifties, has been remarkable about bonding with a raw but immensely talented kid. John has done most of the adapting. And that’s why they’re winning. It’s not the quarterback. It’s not the coach. It’s the match. It’s the marriage. And like a marriage, sure, one person earns more money. One person manages the family. But they are not the same person. So they better be a good match.”
“Eventually, to succeed, a quarterback has to mature (ideally this comes well before he’s retired and looking after his grandchildren). Mayfield explained his behavior this way: ‘People get maturity confused with me being 100 percent comfortable in my own skin… That’s absolutely how I am. I’ve always been that way.’ (Hmm, ‘I’ve always been an asshole’ doesn’t seem like a good defense to me.)”
The Q Factor is a fascinating read that merges near-realtime NFL analysis with team-building strategy and thoughtful consideration of just what makes an athlete skilful. The chance to get a detailed look at the 2018 QB class through the eyes of someone with Billick’s experience is worth the price of the book by itself. The growing army of Twitter analysts and draft scouts will find lots of useful observations to apply the next time they dive into the All-22 tape.
This is a book that is very aware of the changing nature of the NFL and embraces it happily, which is refreshing when so many football lifers tend towards a conservative view of the sport. The authors bring in Harvard studies and cutting edge analytics to supplement old fashioned experience and expertise – and it’s a convincing mix. It’s very readable and Billick’s voice, particularly his blunt humour, comes over well on the page.
The examination of how QBs are evaluated and how that might be made more successful is also interesting and nuanced. In some ways it suffers because of that complexity. In a world of Gladwell-style, simplistic takes that find one overlooked stat or counterintuitive fact that explains everything, Billick and Dale resist offering anything so easy. It really is possible only to move the needle slightly when it comes to drafting QBs, but as the authors say, that might be all it takes.
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