New Grantland: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Sid Gillman, and the Mysterious Art of Quarterbacking

It’s now up over at Grantland:

No position is more scrutinized — How tall is he? How far can he throw? Who is he dating? — and nowhere in football is greatness valued or debated more, but exactly how young, promising quarterbacks become Tom Brady and Peyton Manning remains something of a mystery. The results are apparent, but most are unversed in the actual process. Manning, Brady, and Rodgers are great because they’ve taken the raw materials of the position — an understanding of defenses, of why receivers get open and how to find them — and transformed them into muscle memory they can use to fluidly perform, every time. Greatness isn’t something quarterbacks stumble upon. It’s something that becomes ingrained into their very constitution.


Now, let’s say the quarterback’s first read isn’t open. How does he know when to move to the next receiver? The idea of finding a secondary receiver leaves some quarterbacks looking like they just lost their wallet. For others, like Brady or Manning, it looks easy, and it’s because it’s not only their brains telling them when to look.

“His feet are telling him when to move to no. 2 and no. 3,” current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said to a room full of quarterback coaches back when he was coaching at the University of San Diego. “One-two-three-four-five-plant — throw it. If it’s not there, first hitch is to the [second read], and then the second hitch is to [third read].”


Read the whole thing.

  • Mr.Murder

    Seam read is a favorite simply because the safety leverage can never be right. If he stays deep then the safety can be less wrong, but then his help on any teammate’s route or in secondary run support is no longer in the game plan.

    Always use Montana/Walsh Art of Quarterbacking link to help kids get their feet into their mechanics. Learning to step with purpose on every throw is a huge part of learning to play with purpose. They begin to develop new understanding of what the call is trying to accomplish and how to harness creativity effectively in that design. Works for 6th graders, the best measure of teaching to the likes Walsh did is in making it easy to apply what you learned in action. Great item to use from the start so the player doesn’t have to unlearn wrong methods, and the flow of games is at their command as a result.

    Harbaugh’s tape is best at emphasis of extending the arm, getting all of a quarterback’s momentum forward.

    Progressions need to have an overall design hi to lo for initial stages, whatever the overall intent it should always lead the passer’s eyes from the first covered player to the second one, he should be able to find each of the targets in one scan of the field from that first point. Coach Gonzales continues to streamline that in his playcalls, welding verbiage and technique into the progression call. Curl to flat, the slant/bubble, dual slants, hi/lo crossers, seam read, each of those as throwing drills help bring play concepts into calls. Take settle/noose, start the line away from the pylons, run a shallow under that to the drill start point for the next throw, now take the settle drill and set it at angles to the depth of curl read and run a player under the flat. It is the same drill with a little bit more added to help everyone develop awareness of the call design. They help passers isolate the read defender and still see beyond that player to the ground of that area to throw at.

  • IrishBarrister

    There is another method of teaching quarterback decision making I’ve seen used called “defender distribution.” The quarterback will come to the line and, based on his pre-snap read, will choose which side to work. Rather than looking at the receivers or trying to diagnose the coverage, the quarterback just watches the defenders’ distribution, where each guy is going, on the field. The quarterback is specifically forbidden from trying to analyze or identify the coverage, or from staring down one defender. He just has to glaze over the field and see where the three, four, or five defenders are going. After that, its just instinct on where to throw the ball based on the receivers’ routes.

    I found it intriguing because it took the logical/analytical thought process out of quarterbacking. The passer just sees “Corner going backwards. OLB coming at me. ILB flowing outside,” and just throws to the quick slant without ever really processing that it was a Fire Zone. And the more “distributions” the quarterback sees, the more comfortable he becomes through pattern recognition (e.g., “Hey, I’ve seen this one before”). I found it a really interesting method of teaching young quarterbacks.

  • cwoz

    Really great article. As a still newbie to the deeper game of football, stuff like this really helps me understand what is going on. Loved the Walsh video, especially on the differences between 5 long vs 5 short steps and how that might indicate what route the qb will throw to.
    Irish- “Defender Distribution” sounds like a much more efficient and reliable way to read the d. Know of any good books/articles that explain it?

  • IrishBarrister

    Sorry, but I cannot think of one of the top of my head (Chris is more knowledgeable than I am, so he might have some suggestions). I believe it is an offshoot of the Top Gun Quarterback Academy (they read 1-3 defenders and give detailed explanations of where the QB should look for each read), so that might be a good place to start.

    As great QBs like Brady and Manning can’t tell you what the exact coverage of the defense was, but can tell you what every defender was doing on each play, it seemed like a very direct method of teaching QBs. It definitely takes the training wheels off for the budding QB, for good or for ill.

  • cwoz

    Ah great, I will look into Top Gun.
    Yea, I think reading the actual defender and what they are doing is a lot more effective than trying to name the coverage. Defensive, like offensive, schemes change so much it seems like you would waste a lot of time year over year just to learn new names as opposed to the mechanics behind it. This reminds me of how it took me about a month to figure out the safties don’t have specific places to line up at during the snap, they (and pretty much everyone else save the d line) can be wherever they want. For as much as the general public thinks football is a dumb, all brawns sports, there are a lot of confusing threads that go on.