Can this QB be saved?

Let me tell you about a Quarterback prospect, and I'm not going to use my words to do it.  Instead, I'm going to use the words of draft junkies around the web.  Some get paid by major wire services, some are literally guys who sit in their basement and just write what comes to mind.  But all are fairly well respected, and do their research.

The first thing I'm going to tell you about is the offense he runs.  Most hyped up college QBs nowadays seem to come from the spread.  Not this guy--he's in a west coast offense in a pro-style set.  He also isn't surrounded by a ton of talent--there's some but nothing like what you're going to find on an SEC team.  The vast, vast majority of this guy's snaps were taken under center, not from the shotgun. 

Because of that experience, it's widely thought that he will "be able to start mastering the finer points of the NFL from the first day instead of needing to work on fundamentals."  Indeed, he's "established himself as the best pocket passer in this draft." 

"He is a classic drop-back quarterback with above-average accuracy, good mechanics and a very quick release."  "He has been known as a 'once in a generation' talent, and the 'LeBron James of football,' as early as his freshmen year in high school. As a junior, he improved in every statistical category, proving almost unstoppable, regularly carving up opposing defenses."

About that accuracy, he "has the incredible ability to complete just about every pass of 15 yards or less. Puts very good touch and zips on his short and intermediate throws. When his deep pass is on, he leads the receiver well. Needs to improve his trajectory on deep throws. His throws tend to come in low on deeper passes. Can throw on the move well and his passes don't lose a lot of velocity. Completed 68 percent of his passes as a junior."

"He possesses an adequate-but-not-elite arm with a quick delivery, but lacks velocity on his deep throws, which tends to make them float at times. He has good accuracy on his short-to-intermediate throws, and can squeeze the ball between defenders from that range."  "He owns two of the longest streaks in school history -- 132 pass attempts without an interception in 2008 and another long stretch of 160 tosses without having a pass picked in 2009."

He's described as a "Fiery, emotional leader ... willing to demand the best from his teammates. Intelligent player able to handle any offense. Tough runner who played through broken toe on his plant (right) foot in 2009. Maturity has been a question mark in the past, and he can get salty with coaches and teammates during a game, but no major concerns have arisen."

And about his decision making, everyone's in agreement.  Check this quote out--"Virtually playing mistake free football, [he has] enjoyed a tremendous junior season, throwing for 3,772 yards and 28 touchdowns while only getting picked off 4 times." 

Wow, right? 

Here's a quick look at his stats, mixed in with the last college year stats for a few other well known QBs:

  Passing Yards YPA TDs INTs TD/INT Comp. Percentage
Peyton Manning 3,287 8.7 20 12 1.7 64%
Drew Brees 3,393 7.2 24 12 2 60.5%
David Carr 4,299 9.0 42 7 6 64.7%
Carson Palmer 3,942 8.1 33 10 3.3 63.2%
Philip Rivers 3,353 8.0 20 10 2 63%
Ben Roethlisberger 3,238 7.6 22 11 2 63%
Alex Smith 2,952 9.3 32 4 8 67.5%
Aaron Rodgers 2,566 8.1 24 8 3 66.1%
Matt Ryan 2,939 6.9 15 10 1.5 62%
Our Prospect 3,722 8.8 28 4 7 68%
Andrew Luck 3,051 8.7 28 7 4 70.2%

By the way, David Carr is on that list for a reason.  So is Alex Smith.  And of course, you all know that the prospect we're talking about is no longer a 2009 draft candidate, but is now 2010's favorite whipping boy, Jimmy Clausen.

The question is, how on earth can all these youtube junkies, football scholars, and talent scouts have been so wrong about this kid?  Were they?  And a companion question is, were they wrong about David Carr and Alex Smith as well?

The reason you want to know about those guys is to show that this isn't an isolated case.  Gaudy stats in college don't always transfer to the pro game.  And that's not always because of the player, or it's not always their fault.

Take David Carr as an exhibit one.  The narrative on him is that in Houston he took so many sacks that he got a severe case of happy feet, and bad coaching pretty much ruined his career.  Granted, he may have been a bust from day one, but after the beating he took in Houston we'll never know.

And Alex Smith is still an work in progress.  He had a rookie year that was worse than Jimmy's (84/165 for 875 yards, 1 TD, 11 INTs, 40.8 rating).  He started to bounce back as a sophomore, then seemed to regress in his third year before he got hurt, and has since come back to be a mediocre, but serviceable quarterback.

But the guy's played for five Offensive Coordinators in five years, and that's got to be hard on anyone.  He's also played for a team that's had a joke of a coaching staff.  Despite that, he's starting to post semi-respectable numbers.  But they're still disappointing, because semi-respectable doesn't really rate the top overall pick in the draft.  At least Clausen has mid-second round pressure on him.

Both Carr and Smith offer a lot to discuss when you start looking at the quality of their supporting cast and how it can influence a career.  If you went back in time and took Aaron Rodgers number one and dropped Smith down to Green Bay, which one would be the star now?  Good question, huh?

So anyway, about Jimmy.  Let's run down his faults, shall we?

  • He seems tentative and impatient, to the point where early in the season he was having problems with the center/QB exchange. 
  • He has poor pocket presence. He holds the ball too long when he's in the pocket, or he escapes the pocket too quickly when there is really no need to do so.
  • He makes bad decisions with the ball.
  • He lacks great arm strength so he really struggles to throw the ball on the run.
  • He checks down far too quickly, and throws it away too much.
  • His release point is too low, and he isn't accurate.  He throws way too many interceptions.
  • Smitty hates him. 

How can that guy be the same one about which all those great things were said?  How could everyone not just be wrong, but be so obviously and thoroughly wrong?

To be fair, one guy did say that Clausen "Will dance in the pocket and rush his throws when consistently pressured; makes too many mistakes due to losing his mechanics in these situations."  But the same guy also said that "Clausen has the tools to be an elite quarterback and should be a top 10-15 pick. Due to his three years of experience in Notre Dame's pro-style offense he may be the most NFL-ready quarterback in this year's draft class."

One possible answer is that they're all just not very smart, and Clausen really is awful.  If that's the case, it's time for the Panthers to admit their mistake and just kick him to the curb.  And if that's your thinking, you might as well stop reading now and proceed to the comments, where you can make the same criticisms over and over, but maybe with a little different emphasis on each comment.  After this past season, I know a lot of people have had a lot of practice doing that, and they've gotten pretty good at it.

Then there are those who wonder if Clausen can be saved.  No one can deny that he was a disappointment, but why?  Let's look at the criticisms and the scouting reports and see if we can make sense of them.

He seems tentative and impatient, to the point where early in the season he was having problems with the center/QB exchange.
This is true, anyone watching him can see it.  But to be fair to him, that could be a rookie thing.  He made a lot of comments about the speed of the game, and how he was adjusting to it.  In any honest discussion, it's probably fair to chalk that up to rookie jitters.  It's not like he was doing it in December, after all.

Rookie Jitters can normally be helped by the steadying presence of a veteran QB on the roster, and in this case someone like Jake McCown would have been useful.  But the Panthers wanted to carry three quarterbacks, thought Moore was a legitimate starter, and didn't want to risk Pike to the practice squad.

Later in the season Clausen certainly appeared to be more comfortable under center, but the tentative tag was still appropriate at times after the ball was snapped.  There's our second major criticism, right there.

He has poor pocket presence. He holds the ball too long when he's in the pocket, or he escapes the pocket too quickly when there is really no need to do so.
He seemed to make strides in this area as the season progressed, but sometimes he played in a way that brought this criticism right back to the forefront of people's minds.  This was particularly evident late in the year against Pittsburgh.  And boy, did he check down a lot against Pittsburgh. Granted, their defense does that to a lot of quarterbacks, but we really only care about Jimmy Clausen.

Against most teams that blitz a lot (and that became everyone the Panthers played by mid-season), he showed a real tendency to step out of the pocket rather than step up into it.  So much for his ballyhoo'd decision making, huh?

Sometimes he looked like he was holding on to the ball too long, and sometimes he looked like he didn't have enough time to hold on to the ball at all.

So what's the difference?  Well, NFL Linebackers tend to hit a lot harder than their collegiate counterparts, and it's possible he got a little spooked.  There's your David Carr syndrome right there.  Could that be it?

Maybe it's the way most of our passing plays seemed to take four or five seconds to develop.  By the way, I say seemed because I'm an untrained observer.  But a lot of plays just didn't look quick the way they did out in St. Louis. 

That's partly because we didn't run a West Coast offense, by design our plays looked downfield more often than not.  And we seemed to have a lot of third and longs this year.  That could be due to a poor running game, or a predictable offensive set, or maybe he's just not cut out for the NFL.

Another option could be that poor Jimmy was lost in thought out there, trying to remember exactly how he was told to do specific things, focusing on mechanics when his head should be in the game.

He makes bad decisions with the ball
Jake Delhomme had a terrible game to close the 2008 season.  Prior to that, he had played pretty good ball, and led the Panthers to 12 victories.  Then, the Panthers lost the playoff game, and they lost Mike McCoy to Denver and brought in Rip Scherer.  Scherer proceeded to take the one-time pro-bowl QB and rework his mechanics. 

Instead of the supportive, buddy-type coach that McCoy was (you know, the kind who can get you settled down and comfortable when the defense has you rattled?), Scherer decided to implement a more structured approach that had Delhomme throwing according to rules based on specific coverages.   No more getting a sense of the defense and going with what he felt would work, Delhomme now had to think about what the defense was doing, interpret the rules of the offense, and pass accordingly.

18 interceptions later, Jake was placed on the injured reserve list in a thinly disguised benching.  His game never really has recovered.

And last year, Jimmy Clausen was the beneficiary of the Scherer/Davidson approach to the passing game. 

Now, IF you buy into the possibility that coaching can make a tentative player confident, does it also stand to reason that the inverse is true?  If Matt Ryan had started for Carolina in 2010, would he have been the cool, confident rookie we all remember, or might he have looked more like Jimmy Clausen did? 

Is coaching worth considering when you talk about "a classic drop-back quarterback with above-average accuracy, good mechanics and a very quick release."?  That reviewer goes on to talk about how, "despite the offense's struggles, Clausen showed mental and physical toughness and the ability to command the huddle, to keep his team into games well into the fourth quarter."  Sound like a tentative player to you? 

This goes to show you just how wrong people can be.  Or how much influence the wrong kind of coaching can have on a pro prospect.  Pick your poison...

He lacks great arm strength so he really struggles to throw the ball on the run.
This is an interesting one, considering how everyone and his brother said that Clausen had a strong arm in college.  "Jimmy Clausen isn't Matt Stafford, but then again Peyton Manning doesn't have Stafford's arm either. Clausen has a very strong arm and at times he will just put the ball out on a frozen rope on the 18-yard comeback, out and post. He can fit the ball in tight windows and throws the ball with velocity without sacrificing touch."

That just has to be chalked up to fan misinterpretation, or accuracy issues.  I doubt anyone's getting an Elway Cross from his passing, but I don't think Clausen has a particular problem with arm strength.  He doesn't have Delhomme's deep ball, or Moore's, but he's still young and needs some time in an NFL strength program. 

And any good offensive coordinator would know his limits and wouldn't be calling deep passes if he didn't have an arm anyway, so there's really nothing to see there.

He checks down far too quickly, and throws it away too much. 
Yeah, I can see that.  So did the scouts.  Only they characterized it differently.  How does this sound?  "Works through his progressions better than just about any quarterback in college football. This is a display of his excellent football intelligence. When Clausen's first two reads are unavailable, he frequently found tight end Kyle Rudolph or checked off to a running back."

Clausen played with two rookies for most of the year.  If they were covered or not where he thought, then he did what he did in college--worked through progressions quickly, found the open man, and dumped the ball off.  This one has to be a matter of perspective.  Give him some more targets to throw to, and those check-downs become solid distribution.

His release point is too low, and he isn't accurate.  He throws way too many interceptions.
Clausen does tend to drop his release point when he's running, or when he isn't set well.  That's something that needs to be coached out of him.  Hopefully, the next staff will have the smarts to do it outside the regular season--let him keep his mind in the game when he's playing the game.

And as far as interceptions, he's not as bad as you might think.  Clausen's INT percentage in 2010 was 3.0.  For perspective, Tom Brady's was a freakishly low 0.8%.  Ok, joking aside, here are a few others to chew on.  Aaron Rodger's is 2.3, Drew Brees' is 3.3, and Jay Cutler's is 3.7. Something in the range of 3% is fairly normal for an NFL quarterback.

Clausen's problem wasn't the frequency of interceptions, it's how many of them were run back.  There's some more decision making for you, with a helping of rookie receivers...

And finally, Smitty hates him.
Well, not a lot to do about that, if it's even true, and it probably isn't.  I'm sure that a lot of people out there think that Smitty hates a lot of people.  He's got a temper that he wears on his sleeve, and that can prompt comments that sometimes are misinterpreted.

Maybe he's made one negative comment too many in the heat of a loss.  And there's also the fact that age certainly hates Smitty.  After a season where he had only 500 yards yet found himself among the league leaders for drops, should a few stray comments really be a surprise?  Meh...

Jimmy Clausen certainly didn't live up to his advance billing.  He rarely even showed signs that he might be able to someday.  Or he had the occasional flash of brilliance that makes you believe he's still the future of the franchise.  That all depends on who you talk to, of course.  It really seems like the jury's still out on this one.

In his press conference, new head coach Ron Rivera sounded like someone who hadn't yet made up his mind. As much as some people would have liked to hear him say that we're getting a new Quarterback, he made it clear that right now it's Clausen's job, although there will be competition.

Next season there will be more than a few changes in Panther-land.  For one, you can expect Clausen to have a veteran QB to work with in practice.  Guys like that are like another coach for a young QB, often one of the "counselor" variety.  He probably could have used one of those this past season, huh?

The Panthers will also have an offensive coordinator who understands the passing game.  This was a knock on Jeff Davidson, who's always been more about the run.  Tracing his history as an offensive coordinator is kind of sad.  In the passing game, his units have finished 23rd, 29th, 19th, 27th, and 32nd. 

Jerry Richardson has made it publicly known that the Panthers are going to have a more pass-friendly offense.  Rivera echoed that, saying he wanted an balanced and innovative offense.  Presumably, this means a more quarterback-friendly offensive coaching staff.

Carolina will also have some experience at Wide Receiver.  Smitty may be done as a legitimate number one threat, but David Gettis and Brandon LaFell got some valuable experience in 2010.  With an offense designed to get them open, and one in which the QB has a little more freedom in finding the open receiver, it's possible that some of the tentative looks will go away.

Clausen will go through Training Camp as the number one guy, and will get a lot of reps with the starters.  He'll have an entire coaching staff dedicated to his personal success, because they're in it for the long haul and understand that a winning Quarterback makes for a winning Franchise.

And lastly, Clausen himself will have a year under his belt.  His most obvious comparison, Alex Smith, had a nightmare of a rookie season--worse than Clausen's.  In his second year, he improved a lot.  He threw for 2,890 yards on a 58.1% completion percentage, and passed for 16 touchdowns.  Smith still threw 16 interceptions, but his 74.8 rating was far better than the 40.8 one he posted as a rookie.

So maybe there's a chance we'll see the Jimmy we all looked forward to in early 2010. He improved by leaps and bounds after a difficult first year at Notre Dame, and it's entirely possible that the environment will help him do it again in the NFL.

Or we could draft a quarterback.  If we go that route, what do you think of Jake Locker?  Check this out, from a draft site.

"Quarterbacks as athletic and strong-armed as Locker don't come around often. In his first year in head coach Steve Sarkisian's pro-style offense, Locker improved as a pocket passer. Add his incredible ability and speed and you have a front-line football player. He showed better pocket presence in 2009 but still needs to improve in that area. He can be very good in the play action game and can throw effortlessly on the move."

Wow, sounds like a guy we want on our roster.  Right?

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