What Makes a Quarterback Successful
The first was the deep passing style used by Daryle Lamonica, a.k.a. The Mad Bomber, with the Raiders when I started covering them in 1967. Lamonica had a very strong arm and he was, somewhat unbelievably, more accurate on a 40-yard pass than a 10-yarder. He fit perfectly into the style that Al Davis had brought with him from the San Diego Chargers, then coached by Sid Gillman. Originally, Gillman had used that with the Los Angeles Rams in the ‘50s, and it was spectacular with Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield throwing to an excellent receivers corps led by Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch.I
Davis believed that, if you reached the other team’s 40, you went for the end zone immediately. He reasoned that it was easier hitting on a 40-yard pass (if you had a Lamonica throwing it) than hitting on a shorter one inside the 20, when defenders had much less area to cover.
That style also worked well in the AFL of that day because teams generally played man-to-man coverage but the defensive backs weren’t very good. (The Raiders were an exception in 1967-68 because they had Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan, before McCloughan tore up his knee in 1968.)
Needless to say, it was very exciting football, especially enjoyable for me because the Raiders seldom lost – only four regular season losses in my first three years on the beat.
Because of that experience, I believed in the long passing game until I met Bill Walsh, when he was named Stanford football coach in 1977. Talking to Walsh over lunch that day, I realized he was far ahead of the curve. After his two successful years at Stanford, I pushed him for the 49ers coaching job. You know the rest of that story.
Walsh believed in short passes which gave receivers a chance to run for additional yardage. One extreme example: John Taylor caught two short passes from Joe Montana and turned them into 90- and 92-yard touchdowns in a game against the Rams. That system was perfect for Montana because he could not throw long – he may never have thrown a 50-yard pass in his career – but he was very accurate on shorter throws. Gillman and Davis had not worried much about interceptions, feeling that an interception on a long pass was almost like a punt – but Walsh hated to see his quarterbacks throw interceptions. And, in his system, they seldom did.
Walsh also benefited from rules changes in the NFL. Earlier, a receiver running across the field would get leveled by a middle linebacker – Davis always had receivers running sideline routes or very deep ones, never across the field in linebacker territory. But in the ‘70s, to promote more offense, NFL rules makers greatly limited linebackers from knocking down potential receivers.
Montana learned Walsh’s system quickly and became the starter late in his second season. Steve Young struggled to learn it, mostly because he’d picked up bad habits with his first two teams, the L.A. Express of the USFL and the Tampa Bay Bucs, but when he learned the system, he set Super Bowl records in the last 49ers Super Bowl championship.
With that background, I was surprised to hear beat writers complaining in 2006 that Alex Smith wasn’t throwing many deep balls in practice. Of course, none of them were old enough to have covered Montana or they’d have known that isn’t the most important part of a quarterback’s game now.
The chipping at Smith continues, even though he has the Chiefs in position to make the playoffs, despite many key defensive injuries. The game he played against the Raiders on Sunday was typical Smith, no interceptions, taking what the defense gave him, throwing short, accurate passes that went for long gains, a 70-yard touchdown among them. Walsh would have been proud.
Of course, many of the same writers who have criticized Smith loved Colin Kaepernick when he burst on the scene with spectacular plays, some with his arm, some with his feet.
But the longer he plays, the more holes show up in Kaepernick’s game. Defensive coaches have found ways to counter him and he has become more and more frustrated. He’s not a quarterback. If he is willing to switch to running back, he could have a good NFL career. If he doesn’t switch, he’ll be out of the league by 2016.
By which time, Smith will be starting his 11th season and doing fine, except in the eyes of sportswriters who don’t really understand the game.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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