Brian Billick is the Super Bowl-winning former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens who has spent more than a decade as a football analyst in the media. His books include Finding the Winning Edge, written with Bill Walsh, More Than A Game and Developing an Offensive Gameplan. His latest book is The Q Factor, about the challenges of evaluating NFL quarterbacks.
Why was now the right time to write The Q Factor?
There’s probably no position more important to the success of a sports franchise than the quarterback in the NFL. But when you’re drafting quarterbacks, it’s a 50/50 crapshoot. It should be better than that with the advancements we’ve made in technology and analytics. The 2018 draft had supposedly one of the best quarterback classes since the 1983 draft; there were supposed to be five guys going. So, we thought, let’s track it. Let’s begin with what was thought of them going into the draft, how did the draft pan out and then follow them for two years. You really need two years to determine whether a quarterback is a hit or a bust. It could show up earlier. Bill Walsh always felt that by the 25th or 26th game you know if you have a guy or you don’t. The 2018 draft class was just a backdrop to our analysis of the process and why it’s so flawed. How, as a league, do we take Mitchell Trubisky one and let Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes fall to 10 and 12? How do we take Josh Rosen at 10 and let Lamar Jackson fall to 32?
So that draft class was just a great opportunity to tell that story.
Yeah, and the diversity of it. It fits the ratio because we’re still not sure about Baker Mayfield, Sam Donald is 50/50, Josh Allen appears to be a hit, Josh Rosen is already off his second team, and Lamar Jackson, who we didn’t take till the 32nd pick, is the league MVP. And each brought in varied credentials and backgrounds that show why this is hard to nail down. You know, whether it’s Baker Mayfield who was a walk-on at Texas Tech and then a walk-on at Oklahoma, and comes out of nowhere, or a Sam Arnold that is highly recruited and goes to highly touted USC. Josh Allen, who had to go to Junior College, really only had one year at Wyoming. Josh Rosen, who went through a litany of coaches and coordinators in college. And then Lamar Jackson, who many people thought should play wide receiver. It brought into focus how we look at these different types of talent.
Full review: The Q Factor
As you touch on in the book, it’s such a complex question because there are all these intangibles, and the environment these guys find themselves in can have an enormous effect.
Correct. A major factor is where these kids go. How much does the quarterback make the system or the system make the quarterback? In my Q Factor podcast, when we’re talking about what makes a Hall of Fame quarterback, not one person brings up size, arm strength, speed… It comes back to those intangibles: character, commitment, the ability to focus, those personal attributes. The physical stuff you can quantify very easily – height, weight, speed, arm strength, yada, yada, yada. We have a million tests to do it. But the rest is a lot harder. That’s probably why we miss so much, since there is no one quantifiable set of circumstances to say, ‘this is what a pro quarterback looks like mentally, emotionally and intellectually’.
Tell me about one of those measurements that you talk about in the book – Athletic Intelligence, which I hadn’t come across before.
Bill Walsh talked about athletic arrogance, which is the confidence to be able to play the position. It has to border on arrogance, but it has to be balanced. Baker Mayfield is a perfect example, does he have that athletic arrogance or is he just a cocky little prick? There’s a difference. That Athletic Intelligence we talk about in the book with a couple of professors, is not the Wonderlic test, because there are any number of players that you wouldn’t look at as intellectual. They have an Athletic Intelligence. They process things, in real time on a football field, more readily than others with higher IQ. There’s an Athletic Intelligence that’s very tangible on the field that doesn’t show up in the classroom.
It’s difficult to boil such a complex argument down, but what would you want QB evaluators to take away from the book?
That’s a very legitimate question and I posed this to Jim [Dale], my co-author. He’s an accomplished writer, a big Ravens fan, and he had seen the trials and tribulations we went through in Baltimore. I asked what his ideas were going in, compared with what he sees now. What has our process led you to? I think Jim half thought maybe we could find a secret formula, but I think what he’s come away with is that it’s still a 50/50 proposition. But, as Bill Polian says, if you can just bat 525. If you could be marginally better in quantifying, that’s a huge step. Another thing we came away with is that the emotional and mental makeup of the player is the determining factor, far beyond the physical skills. How do we quantify the person’s emotional ability to do this job? And can we put that process in place?
And finally, it’s so important that whoever you take has to fit the system. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are an interesting example. Both could end up in the Hall of Fame. Philip in San Diego and LA, and now in Indianapolis, has Hall of Fame numbers but hasn’t parlayed it into a Super Bowl. Eli Manning, who for 11 years was with Tom Coughlin and enjoyed stability, has two Super Bowl MVPs. Had you flipped those guys, would Eli have the fate that Philip Rivers has right now? And would Philip Rivers be sitting with Super Bowl MVPs? It’s a legitimate question. It’s not just quantifying abilities, it’s about whether you have the system and the style of play that fits the skills of this quarterback or are you trying to shove a square peg in a round hole?
That’s a really good point. One thing the book really emphasises is just how different the quarterback position is.
I’ve always said if you got a group together and asked them to name the top 10 quarterbacks of all time, you can come up with probably 12 to 15 different names. Then you ask what made each one great and there’s something different with every quarterback. It’s the pure mechanics of a Warren Moon. It’s the quick release of a Dan Marino. It’s the athleticism of Joe Montana in the pocket. It’s the intelligence of a Peyton Manning. It’s the athleticism of a Patrick Mahomes. I mean, I’ve always equated it to the way they put together music with these huge boards of all these varying levels for gain and pitch and this and that. They work at getting all these levels just right. And no two songs are alike. Well, you could do the same with quarterbacks. There’s no one set of levels that absolutely means this is going to be a good NFL quarterback. In picking a set of levels, you probably would have eliminated a Russell Wilson, or a Joe Montana, or certainly a Tom Brady.
You’ve written a few books over the last twenty-something years. What keeps you writing?
My love of the game. I grew up with it and I’ve been in the profession for 40 years. And the very thing this book outlines, is that with all the advancement and knowledge and experiences and history and stats that we have, the most important position is still one that has this almost mystical quality about it. So, the game itself is interesting. You’re talking about a large number of people that have to come together and be functional as a singular unit to have any kind of success. It’s a microcosm for society and I think it’s an interesting environment to observe, beyond just the X’s and O’s and who wins and who loses.
It’s been a bit over a decade since More Than A Game came out. When you published that, the NFL was on the brink of the 2011 CBA, the concussion crisis was still emerging, and obviously since then we’ve had the boom of the internet. What do you make of how things have changed from where you left off?
People have predicted the demise of the NFL for decades and they’ve all been proven wrong. The NFL has stepped up to every challenge you’ve just outlined and been able to come out of it. The game’s more popular than ever. The game itself has not changed that much, the pure X’s and O’s and the quality of competition. Certainly, the process of how we train these athletes has changed. Every team has virtual reality to try to enhance teaching, because anytime you put a player on the field you’re at risk. The way they’re looking at playbooks off laptops and Surfaces now, the way during the course of the game they can analyse what they’re doing, that has all changed. The explosion of stuff available to fans means the game is under more and more scrutiny. So, yeah, the advance in technology and the way this game has integrated itself into it has been fascinating.
“I said, ‘Bill, you’ve got to understand this isn’t going to sell a lot.'”
I wanted to ask you about Finding The Winning Edge, which you co-wrote with Bill Walsh…
More accurately edited with Bill Walsh. Bill approached me, this was years ago, and he wanted to put together his legacy piece. I had worked with Bill before on his administrative staff, and he wanted someone familiar with the subject matter. To be able to sit with Bill Walsh for weeks on end, talking football and what it is to build an organisation, the relationship between general manager and head coach, the evaluation process, the teaching process. It was one of the highlights of my professional career. We put together a pretty substantial book. I always laughed with Bill because I said ‘What do you want to do? We could do Bill Walsh’s 10 points to leadership, 250 pages, and sell a shitload of books, or we can do a major legacy piece on your views of the NFL.’ The legacy piece is what he wanted. And I said, ‘Bill, you’ve got to understand, this isn’t going to sell a lot.’ And Bill said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care.’ And I didn’t either, I just wanted to go through the process with Bill. Of course, when we got to the end Bill wanted to sell a lot of them! I’m very honoured that there’s rarely a time when I’m travelling that some teacher or professor doesn’t come up and tell me they use the book as the basis for their leadership class or sports management class. And I know Bill would be heartened to know that’s being done.
It’s still very sought after, though it’s never been reprinted. Why do you think it’s endured?
I think because Bill was so forward-thinking. I think many of the principles that Bill introduced into the league are now basic operating principles. It’s the way we practice, the way we evaluate. Virtually every coach I know, particularly those that want to become head coaches, you’ll find that book on their desk. It has stood the test of time as the basic principles of what you need in putting an organization together.
Do you have any favourite football books?
One interesting one – and this is an old one – was a book called Why We Win [by Billy Packer, 1999]. It was interviews with a dozen or so different coaches, talking about the principles that are key to their success. What it showed me was there’s a lot of ways to do this. You had varying styles, from say a Bud Grant, with a very laid-back kind of mentality, to a Don Shula, who’s a micromanager and obsessed with every detail. It’s interesting to me to have two Hall of Fame coaches with two totally different approaches, and yet both were successful.
Did you read sports books when you’re a kid?
Oh yeah, any biographies that came out – Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer. I look at my football library of books all the way back to Bart Starr, Quarterbacking, Run to Daylight, with Jerry Kramer. I actually have a book written by Knute Rockne in the late ’30s. And it was fascinating because in the preamble he says that if you have to be good on one side of the ball, be good on offense because that way you’re never out of a game. Here we sit, how many years later and it’s equally true.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. Talking of books in general, if you had to pick five books to take to a desert island, what would you pick?
Oh my gosh. Now you’re killing me! My all-time favourite is James Michener. If I had to pick one author or one set of books, it would be James Michener. I lived on the Chesapeake so I particularly loved re-reading Chesapeake. The way he makes the evolution of an area, of a people, so very real. He’s probably my all-time favourite. It would be a bunch of James Michener books.
“Lamar Jackson is a unicorn. He’s a unique athlete.”
And I can’t let you go without asking a little bit about the Ravens. You were the head coach of the first game I ever saw in the US. So, part of the reason I’m a Ravens fan is down to you and that 2000 defense.
Wow. How great is that to hear. And it’s like asking me if I think my daughters are beautiful, but I will argue that was the best single-season defense in the history of the NFL.
I was in the US for Thanksgiving with my then girlfriend, now my wife, and they took me to a Ravens game. It was the Cleveland game in the 2000 season, and for someone who loves defense, that was mind-blowing.
Oh gosh, I tell that story all the time, about them marching down the field, going 86 yards to score, which stunned my team. We thought we were going to get a shutout because they were terrible. And they got 112 yards total on the day. After getting 86 on the first drive. That was the biggest ass-kicking I’ve ever been a part of.
I remember hearing that stat on the way out of the stadium and thinking it was incredible. I wanted to finish by asking a little about Lamar. Obviously, he’s a key figure in the book. Why do you think this narrative persists that people are eventually going to ‘figure out’ Lamar?
That’s like saying people are going to figure out Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. No, you don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t defense him and compete. He’s a unicorn. He’s a unique athlete. The biggest compliment I can give John Harbaugh and the Ravens is that they gave themselves over to his talent, where a lot of teams would not. But they’re all-in and they’re going to ride this wave for as long as they can. And they think they can for a while. You have to give them credit for embracing the moment, embracing the uniqueness of this athlete. I’m not sure a lot of other people would have.
And how much weight do you give to his playoff defeats? Do you think those matter?
No, I mean, how long did it take Peyton Manning to win a playoff game or a Super Bowl? And it’s not just Lamar, it’s the whole team. One of the hardest things to do is separate a quarterback from what’s going on around him. Not to say he wasn’t responsible to a degree, but Tennessee was, on that day, a superior team. They could play that game 10 times and I think Baltimore would win nine, but on that day, Tennessee had the right formula. I think Baltimore will eventually get it. They’re in tough competition with Kansas City, who did get it. But no, to say that, ‘Well, he’s really not that great because he hasn’t been able to do in the playoffs’? I think we need to have a larger data set.
Yeah, that makes sense. The last thing I wanted to ask you about is this weird year. Obviously, Covid-19 has changed affected everybody, but in the world of football it has meant no preseason. reduced preparation time, and so on. Do you think there are changes that have happened this year that are going to become permanent?
Yes, I do. When we get started I said, don’t think for a second now that if we get to the regular season without OTAs, without preseason games, and the quality of play is pretty good, that the players aren’t going to come back and say ‘well, wait a minute, this worked out pretty good, without monopolising our time in the offseason, without exposing us to injury in preseason games. Why are we going back to that?’ Now, there’s a financial aspect of it, in terms of the value of preseason games. But particularly if we’re going to elongate the season, I think the ramifications are going to be highly discussed. So, absolutely I think we’re going to see a residual effect of what we were forced to do given the disease. I think it’s going to have a long reaching effect.