Previously, Pro Football Weekly examined three quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr and Cam Newton, who are looking to rebound a bit under new play callers. Next we're looking at three more quarterbacks, but at different stages of their respective careers.
The Chicago Bears are looking to speed along the development of Mitchell Trubisky in his second-season, after he made a number of starts as a rookie, while the Kansas City Chiefs are finally turning over the reins to Patrick Mahomes. In the Big Apple, David Gettleman opted to build around his veteran quarterback, Eli Manning, but how will the New York Giants look with a number of different offensive philosophies coming together? Here are some things fans of those teams can look for in the upcoming season.
Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich
Before the 2017 season, the Chicago Bears made a number of moves to address their QB position. The team signed Mike Glennon to a free-agent deal, and then in the draft, the Bears traded up one spot to select Mitchell Trubisky second overall out of the University of North Carolina. This gave them both a bridge quarterback for the present and a potential quarterback of the future.
However, things in football — and in life — rarely work out as planned. The Glennon Bridge was a bit... shorter than anticipated, and Trubisky was pressed into action sooner than some may have desired. While the rookie showed flashes of his talent that made him worthy of the second overall selection, there were also some of the struggles you often seen from inexperienced passers.
One aspect of Trubisky’s performance that could use improvement was in the area of play and processing speed. With many younger quarterbacks, we see instances where they are slow to read, diagnose and then get the ball out of their hands, and that is often expected given the difference in talent and defensive designs they see when making the leap from playing on Saturdays to playing on Sundays. Here is just one example of this from Trubisky’s Week 10 outing against the Green Bay Packers:
The Bears run a play-action, boot concept with Trubisky faking a handoff to the right side and then rolling to his left, where he has a deep comeback route along the sideline and receiver Josh Bellamy in the flat. Bellamy is wide open here, and despite looking right at him, Trubisky is slow to make his decision, never even pulls the trigger, and he gets sacked. For Trubisky to take the developmental leap that Bears fans are hoping for in Year Two, he will need to get faster with his reads and in getting the ball out of his hands. This play is emblematic of Trubisky’s rookie season.
Enter new Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich. The Bears, in an apparent attempt to mirror the Los Angeles Rams’ model from a season ago, added two young offensive minds as a head coach and offensive coordinator to try and speed up Trubisky in the micro (his processing speed) and in the macro (his overall development).
In Nagy, the Bears are getting an offensive mind rooted in West Coast concepts, coming from the Andy Reid coaching tree. For the duration of his NFL coaching career, Nagy has served under Reid, first as a coaching intern and then he worked his way up the ranks, including stints as the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback coach and most recently, their offensive coordinator.
Last season, when the Chiefs offense started to struggle a bit, Reid turned over the call sheet to Nagy before their Week 13 tilt against the New York Jets — and the results were immediate. Their opening drive that game was an offensive marvel, as they worked right down the field for a touchdown. Along the way we saw simple hitch/curl concepts, a play-action route that brought TE Travis Kelce down the line of scrimmage and into the flat where he was wide open, a RPO (run-pass option) design that gave Tyreek Hill a big cushion on a quick out pattern, and finally the touchdown to Kelce, which came on a three-level flood concept to the left side of the field, with the tight end running the intermediate out pattern. If the Bears could just bottle that opening drive and inject it into their offense, they would be on their way.
But the hiring of Helfrich might be the ultimate piece to this puzzle. His last coaching job was as the head coach at the University of Oregon, where he was able to work with Marcus Mariota and guide an offense to impressive heights. While Mariota was tagged with the “spread QB” label during his draft cycle, in reality Helfrich installed some passer-friendly concepts that we see in the NFL today, and that we talked about in the previous installment of this series when discussing what to expect from Mariota under Matt LaFleur: Miirrored passing concepts. Here’s an example of Mariota running a mirrored passing concept under Helfrich at Oregon:
Installing similar combinations is one way to help speed up Trubisky in the pocket.
However, let’s try and take things a step further. When envisioning what the Bears offense might look like in the year ahead, the final piece to this puzzle is Trubisky’s own background. When trying to help a quarterback speed up his process, one way to do that is to install concepts from his past. Familiarity breeds success. We can look at what Andy Reid did with Alex Smith, incorporating plays from his University of Utah playbook into the Kansas City offense. This is a copycat league remember…
While in college, Trubisky played for Larry Fedora, operating in what was described as a “spread pro-style offense.” But Fedora cut his coaching teeth under Mike Gundy in the Air-Raid offense, and when you study Trubisky’s college days, you certainly see Air-Raid elements at work. This play is an example of Trubisky showing some decent processing speed, on a red-zone touchdown against the University of Miami:
This play is a double post, or Dino concept. Trubisky first peeks backside (to the left), perhaps to influence the safeties, and then comes to the inside post route in the middle of the field for a touchdown.
Here’s the Dino concept in a Gundy/Fedora playbook from Oklahoma State’s 2005 season:
That’s the Dino concept as drawn up by Trubisky’s college coach. Will Nagy have something like that in the playbook for Trubisky? Well…
That’s from Week 4 last season, back when Reid was still calling the plays for the Chiefs, but Nagy was right at his side. Kansas City uses a Dino concept in the red zone, and Alex Smith finds Kelce for the touchdown.
Judging by their offseason moves, the Bears want to speed up Trubisky, both in the pocket and in terms of his overall development. They’ve added two young offensive minds in Nagy and Helfrich who will bring some passer-friendly designs and concepts to their playbook. If they want to take things even further, they can incorporate some of the designs Trubisky is intimately familiar with... and Nagy won’t have to look far to find them.
Eli Manning - Pat Shurmur/Mike Shula
Perhaps the most interesting philosophical new pairing of head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback resides in the NFC East with the New York Giants. Coming off a disappointing 2017 season, they turned the keys to the organization over to Pat Shurmur, most recently the offensive coordinator with the MInnesota Vikings. They brought in Mike Shula to serve as OC, after he was removed from those duties by his former team, the Carolina Panthers. As we will see, at first blush this might seem like a contrast, but when you dive in deeper there could be a deeper method to these pairings.
Looking at the offensive backgrounds of the HC, OC and QB, we see some differences. As previously discussed, Shurmur is most experienced running a West Coast system — and that is the major influence on his offensive ideas. Manning’s background is a bit more diverse. The past four seasons, Manning was operating in a West Coast offense under Ben McAdoo (serving first as offensive coordinator and then as head coach), but earlier in his career, Manning was running a more downfield, vertical-based passing attack under Tom Coughlin.
Enter Shula. As discussed in the previous installment of this series, the offense that Norv Turner inherits in Carolina — the offense that Shula left behind — is basically a downfield passing game inspired by the AIr Coryell system, and much closer in line to what Manning was running earlier in his career under Coughlin. That system was installed by Rob Chudzinski, inspired by Turner and then modified by Shula with some spread and RPO elements to cater to Cam Newton’s playing style.
Now, at face value, this might seem conflicting. A West Coast HC, a QB most recently playing in a West Coast system, and a Coryell-minded offensive coordinator who recently designed plays for one of the game’s most talented athletic quarterbacks. But when you remember that Manning’s best days came in a more vertical attack, the addition of Shula makes sense. As for the West Coast influence of Shurmur? Remember that last season the Vikings used play-action 28.7 percent of the time, and often, it was to give Case Keenum deep shots in the vertical passing game. Here, Keenum executes a play-action fake and has two routes to choose from, a deep crosser from left to right and a vertical route along the right sideline:
Now we can look at the other moves made by the Giants this offseason, and the picture becomes even clearer. They drafted Saquon Barkley with the second overall selection, foregoing adding a quarterback of the future from an intriguing class of signal-callers. They drafted guard Will Hernandez in the second round, looking to pair him with new LT Nate Solder to solidify the left side of the offensive line. Establish the run and start to work in downfield, vertical concepts off of play-action. Something Shurmur did last season with Keenum, something that meshes with Shula’s downfield, vertical background…
...and something Manning and his star receiver have some experience with as well.
Remember the one-handed catch that really put Odell Beckham Jr. on the map? It came on a play-action call with two routes, a deep crosser from left to right and a vertical route along the right sideline run by Odell:
That’s the same route concept Schurmur dialed up for Keenum in the earlier example.
The Giants turned a lot of heads with their acquisitions and decisions this offseason. At first blush, there might be some philosophical inconsistencies. But when you dig deeper into their movements, you see that there is a growing pattern here, and that the idea of a West Coast “power spread” that incorporates vertical concepts, off of play-action, might be their overall goal. If that pans out, the view of the Giants’ offseason might shift from calling them crazy...to calling them crazy like a fox.
Patrick Mahomes II - Andy Reid/Eric Bieniemy
We close out this series with the discussion that Chiefs fans have truly been waiting for, ever since the organization traded up in the first round of the 2017 draft to select Mahomes, out of Texas Tech University. His athleticism and jaw-dropping arm talent made him an instant fan favorite in Kansas City, and although Smith held the rookie off for the starting job, the Chiefs did see a glimpse of the future in Week 17, when Mahomes made his first NFL start, a visit to the Denver Broncos. Mahomes engineered a last-minute field goal drive to help the Chiefs secure the win, but one of the more impressive throws he made in that game came earlier, on this second-quarter throw to Albert Wilson:
That...is a very small throwing window.
With Nagy moving on to Chicago, Mahomes will be working with Reid and Eric Bieniemy, who was promoted to the OC spot, after serving as the running backs’ coach. But this is not Bieniemy’s first stint as an offensive coordinator, as he served in that capacity previously with his alma mater, the University of Colorado.
Now let’s face it. The touch throws at the intermediate levels of the field are nice, but what got Chiefs fans so excited about the acquisition of Mahomes was his elite-level arm talent and his downfield aggression. One of the major knocks on Smith was that he was too conservative, especially when it came to the downfield passing game. Not so young Patrick…
The decision to add Mahomes to the Chiefs’ offense was foreshadowed, in a way, by the development of both Hill and Kelce as offensive weapons at all levels of the field, but most notably in the vertical passing game. Here’s one example, once again coming on a Dino concept with Kelce and Hill running the dual post routes, and Smith hitting his tight end in the middle of the field for a big first down:
Here are two more vertical concepts the Chiefs ran last season, both coming in their opening-night route of the New England Patriots. First, this double out-and-up combination that came out of a double-stacked formation. Smith hit Hill for a 75-yard touchdown pass, but Reid and the Chiefs' advance scouts must have seen something on film, because they caught the Patriots in a Tampa-2 coverage, with two safeties and a linebacker in the middle of the field perhaps to deal with Kelce on his post route:
When you look at a still from shortly after Smith executes his throw, you can see how the Chiefs really caught the Patriots here. Both vertical routes are open:
Finally we can bring this series full circle. Remember the play we talked about with Jared Goff and Sean McVay, that the rookie head coach copied from the Chiefs? Here’s that play, another vertical concept in action from Kansas City:
The beauty of this play is that the Chiefs use early motion from Hill, which forces an adjustment in the Patriots’ secondary. Duron Harmon begins the play as the free safety in the middle of the field, but he sees the motion and races down toward the edge to help against Hill. That forces Eric Rowe, a slot cornerback by trade, to rotate back to the middle of the field and fill that free safety slot. As the play unfolds, Rowe is on somewhat unfamiliar ground, and he responds by crashing down on a crossing route from Kelce, freeing the middle of the field for Kareem Hunt’s seam route.
Now remember, one of the knocks on Smith was that he was still too conservative in the vertical passing game. He made these throws early in the year, but when the season wore on and was on the line, he failed to pull the trigger:
Late in the 3rd quarter of the Chiefs’ wild-card game, they face a third-and-13 at the Tennessee Titans’ 31-yard line. Smith has a chance to step up in the pocket and hit the dig route over the middle, but he plays it safe and tucks this, settling for the field goal try. That attempt hit the upright, and the Titans were still alive.
Mahomes isn’t known for his conservative nature…
On this throw, Mahomes double-clutches to let the underneath linebacker clear, and then drills in a slant between two defenders. There is not a throwing window on the planet that scares Mahomes.
For the past few years, Chiefs fans believed that the offense was getting more vertical, but that quarterback play was perhaps holding them back. With Mahomes stepping into the huddle, Kansas City now has its chance to feature more of a vertical based, aggressive passing attack. That is a very good fit for Mahomes and his impressive arm strength.
These three quarterbacks are all at different points in their careers. Trubisky has nearly a full season under his belt. Mahomes made just one start for the Chiefs. Manning is on the back nine of his career. But there is reason for higher expectations for all three quarterbacks in the season to come. For Trubisky and Manning, there are some schematic changes that can bolster their performance, and for the Chiefs, they might finally have a quarterback to run their high-octane version of Andy Reid’s West Coast offense.