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Quarterbacks of the Future
The inside story on C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young and Anthony Richardson one month into their NFL careers. Life is good in Houston. Meanwhile in Carolina? Life is... complicated.
HOUSTON — Clenched fists move forcefully and deliberately through the air to illustrate what makes this Houston Texans offense such a headache to defend. Robert Woods is more qualified to dissect the X’s and O’s than any player in this locker room. This is Year 10 for the veteran wide receiver and he has lived through both simplified (Hello, Greg Roman) and high-tech (Hey, Sean McVay!) passing attacks.
Life as a Texan is pretty damn sweet.
Bobby Slowik’s playbook is full of cheat codes. This 36-year-old offensive coordinator, the latest branch from the Kyle Shanahan Tree, has No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud producing at an Andrew Luck clip. He knows a defense’s “rules,” Woods explains, and diabolically seeks to challenge those “rules.” Say a defender is covering a hook zone, Woods begins with one fist: “Is it going to be a deep hook or a short hook?” Slowik will test you. He’ll force that defender to second-guess his depth, to take every square foot of this field into consideration.
Houston stresses defenses laterally and vertically with a whole slew of route concepts. Eleven defensive players are essentially treated like rubber bands bound to snap.
“We’re challenging every single spot on the field,” Woods says.
That was not the case when he first entered the NFL. A slant. A go. A post. With the Buffalo Bills ’13 to ‘16, Woods ran the “old-school” route tree we all did back in high school.
Any coordinator still operating this way is immediately telling on himself.
The special units work receivers in conjunction with each other.
“It’s not just like, ‘OK, this is an iso route. It is, ‘Alright, me and this receiver are going to combo and make this guy play honest and then if that doesn’t work, now this backside concept is coming in,” Woods says. “Work together. That’s the biggest thing. We’re all out there trying to execute the same goal vs. ‘Alright, this is the play, and it’s you and only you with no other answer.’ With this offense, there’s always an answer to how they want to play us. If they’re overplaying him, throw this. There’s always something to open.”
This scheme only flourishes if the quarterback can make split-second decisions and deliver an accurate ball. Think, Tua. Think, Purdy. Think… Stroud. The 6-foot-3, 213-pounder who looks like he’s been throwing a football since exiting his mother’s womb has been the perfect triggerman. Hope is now in high supply for these 2-3 Texans. Even in last week’s 21-19 loss to Atlanta, Stroud authored an 11-play, 75-yard drive late to take a one-point lead. His 18-yard TD strike was the sort of play rookies do not make, a play that suggests Stroud will shatter the perception of Ohio State Quarterbacks.
Earlier, vet safety Jessie Bates nearly picked Stroud off with what the QB called “some weird 360-turn” and Stroud had a good feeling Bates would try to end the game on his terms. Further, film study showed him that the Falcons deployed a “match-y” Cover 4 look in the secondary on a key third down. When Stroud ran his idea by Slowik earlier in the game, the OC said to go for it whenever the opportunity presented itself.
In the huddle, before this third and 9, Stroud instructed Schultz to fake the post — get Bates to bite — and take his route vertical. It worked.
Said the QB: “The saying, ‘Whatever is done in the dark, comes to light,’ is true.”
Compare this to life in Carolina, where No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young is winless. Instead of mesmerizing defenses like he did each Saturday in the SEC, Young too often disappears in a cloud of bodies. There are many reasons for this: His lack of size, the lack of a true WR1, a leaky interior line, and the most damning of all? This Panthers offense, under Frank Reich, most certainly is not the Utopia that Robert Woods describes. Not anything close to what we’re seeing Slowik unleash.
One source indicated to Go Long this week that some within the Panthers organization approached Reich and the coaches about needing to innovate offensively to fully maximize Young’s skillset. (More on this later.)
Then, there’s the No. 4 overall pick. The human dynamite that is Indianapolis Colts quarterback, Anthony Richardson. This new staff has unequivocally done everything it can to let its special talent shine. That’s how a 23-0 deficit against the Los Angeles Rams is erased. We haven’t seen horsepower quite like this at the quarterback before. After that OT loss, a thriller, Go Long spoke to Colts QBs coach Cam Turner.
He’s understandably ecstatic. Up close, Turner saw how Richardson’s Marvel-like acts directly injected belief in everyone.
“It’s contagious,” Turner says, “and he obviously can be that spark for us. One little play here leads to two, to three to four and that’s how you get a comeback. It leads to the defense making a big stop or the special teams getting a return. Momentum is real.”
Clearly, Richardson is the rare talent capable of single-handedly hijacking momentum.
Adds Turner: “You put doubt in the other team like, ‘Oh gosh. Here we go.’ We like that. We’ll go make another play and there's more doubt.”
One problem. This effect is only possible if the quarterback can stay on the field. Forty-eight hours later, Richardson injures his shoulder. He’s on IR. There’s no timetable for his return.
Welcome to the center of the NFL’s earth.
These are the draft choices that set the course for the league itself.
When the Panthers, Texans and Colts chose their fighters on April 27, 2023, jobs were immediately put on the line. Hopes and dreams of entire fan bases were instantly hinged on Young, Stroud, Richardson. History tells us someone will flop. Since 2009, there have been 28 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 and a conservative estimate would declare 14 busts. A whopping 50 percent. Richardson is the transformer with no ancestor. Young may look like a teenager from Section 350 who snuck onto the field — he’s tiny, he’s getting batted around — but clearly the top pick possesses a football brain beyond his years. Stroud has been the most productive of them all. A QB built for the finest offense in the sport.
Unlike the ’21 class, there are tangible signs of hope in all three quarterbacks.
What happens next is most important.
The NFL’s rich in tectonic counterfactuals. If Patrick Mahomes goes to Chicago or Buffalo, does he ever become Patrick Mahomes? The genius of Andy Reid catapulted the Texas Tech quarterback to superstardom. If Josh Allen goes to Cleveland, does that factory of sadness ruin him? He needed Brian Daboll, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Palmer. Here in Houston, a franchise stuck on pause for two years has officially come to life, and the No. 1 reason is Stroud. Anybody dismissing him as the product of scheme needs their head examined.
Woods smiles wide. As if with Stroud, in Houston, the 31-year-old has discovered the fountain of youth. There are only two wide receivers who’ve been in the NFL longer than Woods. One if you discount Randall Cobb, a Rodgers Tax at this point.
This joy is a far cry from the Woods I first met in Buffalo. The one who tore one side of his groin in training camp, gritted through the pain, was often forced to “drag” his leg in agony and eventually shredded the other side of his groin. He rarely saw the ball in a prehistoric offense, once referring to himself as a “blocking receiver.”
Now? Woods wants to play as long as he possibly can. In Houston. He knows Stroud is legit.
“It takes a talented quarterback to be able to make this offense run,” Woods says. “I played with Jared Goff. I played with Matthew Stafford and it’s having good eyes, having good feet and being able to pull the trigger — seeing things before it happens. Seeing the defense move. CJ’s up there with the best of them. He hasn’t thrown an interception, obviously. But really just going through his progressions, he’s able to have good eyes and move the defense. These are things that young quarterbacks aren’t doing. He’s throwing no-look passes. He’s moving guys with his eyes.”
The Panthers have an undeniably talented quarterback. Anybody giving up on Young also needs their head examined.
The Colts’ bold swing could pay off in a championship one day. Hell, it might change football. Richardson is a unicorn.
Turning in that draft card, however, is only the beginning.
Everything that happens next is most crucial.
Inside this week’s feature story:
A sitdown interview with Texans OC Bobby Slowik. Why did the Texans believe in Stroud? What did he see beyond that S2 score?
Angst in Carolina. Young is handling more mentally at the line of scrimmage than Stroud and Richardson, but that’s not necessarily a good thing right now.
How will the Colts maximize Richardson? While still keeping him healthy?
A ton of sharp insight from former Bears director of personnel Josh Lucas, a man who made two major QB decision himself, on all three QBs.
Go Long is a reader-supported publication. To receive all stories, all podcasts, we’d love it if you became a subscriber.
‘A special kid’
There’s envy around the NFL. Justifiable envy. When the Miami Dolphins score 70 points in a game, when the 262nd pick in a draft (Brock Purdy) becomes an MVP candidate, when a first-time playcaller (Slowik) gives one of the game’s best defensive minds (Mike Tomlin) a thorough noogie, other teams with other coaches wonder why their offense is reduced to mush.
They want nice things, too.
It’s not like the Texans are bursting with firepower. Injuries ravaged their offensive line. Four of the five expected Week 1 starters went down. And yet, Stroud’s numbers through five games are on par with the best NFL debut seasons we’ve ever seen. His 186 passes without an interception are the most any quarterback’s thrown without a pick to start a career. He’s also the fourth player — period — to begin a season with at least 1,400 yards and no picks. To understand why, start with the source of all that envy: the OC. From 2017- ’22, Slowik climbed the ranks under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Like Mike McDaniel before him, he’s now running his own offensive show.
When 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans was named the head man in Houston, he wisely took Slowik with him.
Growing pains are expected for every rookie quarterback. Teams pick in the top 5 for a reason — they stunk. Yet aside from a talent famine, QBs must adjust to the supersonic speed of the NFL. Which can feel like tip-toeing into a different dimension. Pockets cave. Windows close. Every conceivable margin for error dwindles. Making matters worse? The more you play, the more film defensive coordinators have to find the lesions in your game, the bad habits 21-year-old QBs may not even know they possess. That is, until that coordinator then pours acid into that lesion on Sunday. The best today all stammered through Year 1. Josh Allen was ferel. Jalen Hurts, limited. Jared Goff, a piñata.
That’s what makes Stroud’s instant success so mind-blowing. Everything’s remarkably rhythmic.
Slowik will mutate this offense like McDaniel in Miami. But he knows the 49ers, Dolphins and his Texans are all rooted in the same “philosophy” and “fundamentals.” And that’s tying the footwork of the quarterback directly to the routes. Granted, he wasn’t even born when Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense changed the sport. Granted, pre-snap activity has completely changed — motion and funky formations reign in Shanahan’s offense to confuse defenders — but Slowik has studied Walsh’s offense, and he sees a return to the principles that made this Montana-led offense revolutionary.
“Knowing exactly where you’re going to be,” Slowik says. “Throwing to a spot because we trust you’re going to be there.”
Slowik installed so much in training camp that, on the fly, he’s able to refer back to endless plays and make subtle tweaks that could potentially bust a game open. Such as altering a route on the backside of a play based on that week’s defense. Maybe that week’s opposing safety is prone to get heavy-footed. Stroud hasn’t missed a beat because Stroud, the OC says, puts in an extreme amount of film study.
“We could not do all we want,” Slowik says, “unless he walks out and has a great command of every play and what’s going on and where things are going to be. I mean he lets balls go when they need to be thrown. A lot of times it's happening when someone's sticking their foot in the ground to indicate where they’re breaking.
“That’s more than coaching. That’s a massive credit to him.”
Slowik got to know Stroud through the typical pre-draft process. The key was developing a “vision” for what this Buckeye QB did well and how his offense, as designed, could “empower” him. As a staff, the Texans grew to realize Stroud’s skillset matched up. Slowik knew the Texans could be successful — “really successful,” he emphasizes. It wasn’t rocket science. Stroud was clearly accurate and comfortable in the pocket. Rare in college football today. Slowik got a kick out of those who viewed Stroud’s pocket experience as a negative.
This offense is timing-based. Every step matters. Stroud, in theory, would be ideal.
Slowik wasn’t sure if Stroud would look this sharp when the pocket inevitably gets messy, if he’d keep his eyes downfield and still hit his targets on time. Those fears, he says, were squashed early. And for everyone else obsessing over this incoming QB class, the great unknown was if the latest quarterback to come out of Columbus, Ohio could process a pro defense read one… to two… to three. That’s been a problem for everyone.
While every coordinator want his quarterback to hit the first read because that means you called the right play against the right look, Slowik estimates this is the case less than half of the time. One of Stroud’s strengths, he says, is knowing when a hole will open and when a hole is closed — he moves off of those closed holes. Quickly. As evident by the zero picks.
“Everyone uses the word ‘processing,’” says Slowik, whose father was the Packers defensive coordinator in 2004, “but there’s so much that goes into it. Sometimes, it’s vision. Sometimes, it’s knowledge. Sometimes, it’s film study. Sometimes, it’s knowing what it is you’re progressing back to or where you’re progressing back to: ‘Are my eyes getting back to the hash or are they getting back to the numbers?’ There’s just so many things and I think a lot of times people use processing as a knock and even you can take two different quarterbacks and say they both struggle processing and it’s for two very different reasons.
“He has shown the ability to just move through progressions at the right time.”
Of course, in his 39th annual draft series, Go Long’s Bob McGinn reported Stroud’s low S2 score. A number that worried scouts across the NFL. One longtime personnel exec I spoke to for this story said the company, S2 Cognition, sells itself to teams as a Bust Finder. While a high score does not necessarily guarantee success — several scoring in the 90s still struggle — a low score, they say, indicates that quarterback will not be able to react to NFL defenses.
“Those guys that scored poorly on that test that make a living in the pocket — none of ‘em have performed,” one NFL exec says. “So that’s what S2 tells you. Like: ‘We will tell you who the busts are. We can’t guarantee you success if they score high on this test, but we can predict the busts.’ That's their selling point.”
There’s a chance Stroud didn’t know how to take the S2, and his 18% was a fluky outlier. Two teams requested a second test from Stroud, one source indicated, but that score was never revealed.
Bring up the S2 to Slowik and I might as well be speaking Chinese. He says the 49ers never utilized S2 Cognition. Neither did Houston. Traditionally, one team per division is a customer and additional teams can pay to use the service. Slowik admits there was probably validity to the scores thrown around but that he chose to trust the tape and trust the conversations he had with Stroud.
“We felt really good about what he could do as far as football goes.”
He pauses, adds “I’m glad,” and laughs.
“No offense to S2.”
That chuckle speaks to the unique nature of this offense. The 49ers, Dolphins and Texans aren’t flocking with the sheep. They’re setting new trends. They’re viewing offense through a different scope, one that stresses those defensive “rules” Woods described. To Slowik, college football itself has changed so much the last five years that he’d rather seek specific traits in a QB than anything. Efficiency is always paramount. The more this scheme spreads — and evolves — the more norms around the position will change. Tagovailoa didn’t score particularly well on his cognition tests. Under Brian Flores, his career was on the brink. His confidence? A wreck. But in came McDaniel. In came a new offense. And, now, Tagovailoa is one of the league’s deadliest passers who’ll be inking a contract extension north of $50 million per year at this rate.
Watch any Miami game. McDaniel is inventing plays. Watch the 49ers. Purdy treats NFL coverages like an arcade game.
Defenses may find a way to confuse these quarterbacks, but we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.
The more likely outcome is that Stroud, too, stays on an upward trajectory.
Josh Lucas, the Chicago Bears’ director of personnel ‘15 to ’22, has been studying all three of these quarterbacks closely. He first describes Stroud as the best pure thrower of the football. “It’s beautiful to watch him flick it out there,” Lucas says. Decisiveness popped, too. Maybe there aren’t traditional progressions, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Slowik wants the ball out quickly and Stroud is executing.
“You have to give him credit,” Lucas says. “He is playing within the system and he is finding open receivers and he’s getting the ball out really quick. That requires a high level of pre-snap and immediate post-snap process to understand where to go with the ball. So is he sitting, hanging in the pocket going from frontside one, two to the backside three read consistently? No, he’s not doing that, but he doesn’t have to. I haven’t seen a rookie play this well vs. zone coverage. He just knows where to go with the ball. So to me the processing is really good for him. Immediate processing. And that’s kind telling an opposite tale of what his S2 score said.”
Every time Lucas watches tape of a Shanahan offense, he cannot believe how comically off-balance the defense gets. Both Jacksonville and Pittsburgh had no clue what was coming through 37-17 and 30-6 Texan wins. Toss right. Stretch left. Screen. Deep shot. Whenever a linebacker or a safety seemed to expect one thing, Slowik clubbed ‘em over the head with something completely different. Where the Texans run into danger is if they get behind and everybody in the stadium knows the pass is coming. Baltimore feasted with a lead, hitting Stroud 10 times with five sacks in the opener. Not surprisingly, this was the problem for Tagovailoa vs. Buffalo, too.
“I love the way he’s playing fast,” Lucas says. “He’s getting it out. He’s the prettiest thrower of the three, and it’s not even close. Arm talent, accuracy, release, quickness. He’s the best of the three and the other two are in another ballpark. But Stroud is also in an unbelievable situation right now with the way they’re playing him and the scheme that he’s playing in. It’s really fun to watch.”
What did skeptics miss? Woods has an idea. All of us obsess over a quarterback’s arm and, true, Stroud’s silky-smooth delivery is worth the ink. He points to the feet, the fact that Stroud’s drops are in-sync with their routes. This demands reps… upon reps… upon reps. To the point now, Stroud’s evolving. He’s starting to manipulate DBs with his eyes on Sundays. “I’m telling you,” Woods adds. “He’s moving guys.” We should probably expect those no-look passes from practice to translate over to the games soon.
When the ball’s released, it’s impossible to tell that the Houston Texans — a team that won all of 11 games the last three years — is breaking in a rookie quarterback. The ball doesn’t rock-skip to a receiver’s ankles. Or sail into the fourth row. Slowik jokes that he grills Stroud for hitting a receiver in the “chin” instead of the “eye.”
Says Slowik: “He’s a special kid.”
Houston does not have a problem.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte…
Let Bryce cook
Good vibrations are not reverberating through the Carolina Panthers franchise. Frank Reich revealed at a press conference this week that frustration is mounting at the very top of the organization.
Owner David Tepper sounds fed up with his team’s 0-5 start.
Reich and Tepper chat multiple times per week and their meetings, bluntly, are not enjoyable.
“There’s different philosophies in ownership,” Reich said. “Some owners kind of stay away and don’t engage a whole lot. Other owners do. And his philosophy is he’s going to engage. And listen, it’s only been a short experience. But it’s been a really good experience. It hasn’t been fun. It’s not fun. Those meetings aren’t — I wouldn’t characterize them as fun meetings. But those meetings make me better and I trust they make us better.”
Such interactions are more common than fans think. Billionaire owners are engaged to varying degrees.
Some, like Jerry Jones, are extremely hands-on and prevent the richest sports team in the world from reaching a conference championship for 27 years. Some, like Terry Pegula, have a feeling Patrick Mahomes is going to be a star the October before Mahomes is even taken — let his GM and head coach know he’s infatuated — yet ultimately decide not to intervene. Others, like Michael Bidwill, are accused of giving burner phones to their suspended general manager.
One Panthers source I trust said he sincerely appreciates Tepper’s involvement and believes there’s a “bad perception” about him. Any owner who makes a $2.275 billion investment like this would love to know what the bleep is going on. While one NFL exec told Go Long that Tepper was spooked by Stroud’s S2 score, this Panthers source defiantly states the S2 was not going to deter the team from drafting Stroud. The Panthers liked all three quarterbacks, but were “convicted” on Young. Viewed him as “the total package” in that he could anticipate, process, improvise.
The Panthers mortgaged a ton for the rights to Young: Their No. 9 overall pick, No. 61 overall pick, a 2024 first-rounder, a 2025 second-rounder and wide receiver D.J. Moore. Only time will tell if they sacrificed this motherlode for the right quarterback. After giving up Moore, now they’ve got to find another Moore-level talent at receiver.
Numbers can be deceiving. After an illustrious 23-4 college career, throwing 80 touchdowns and only 12 picks, Young still hasn’t won a game. He’s averaging 187.5 passing yards per game with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Internally, the Panthers still feel uber-optimistic about their selection. A ton of pre-snap responsibilities have been put on Young’s plate. He’s setting all protections, making all checks. He sets the hots. He’s given two calls within one play. He’s smart enough to handle all of this — and scored a 98% on his S2 — but there’s concern in the building that asking Young to handle so much mentally is proving counterproductive.
Stroud and Richardson don’t need to serve as coaches on the field. Not yet. As a result, both have played freely.
They’re making plays. Gaining confidence.
A magician at Alabama, Young’s been more of a robot in the pros.
That’s why some in the organization felt compelled to speak up. They want Reich to let Young rip it. Further, the coach’s playcalling — in stark contrast to Slowik — has been… basic. Falcons safety Jessie Bates picked off Young twice in Week 1, telling us it was the simple result of studying Reich’s 2022 Colts film and 2023 preseason film. When the same routes out of the same formations lined up, Bates knew he could jump it. The same Jessie Bates, of course, that Stroud tricked that critical drive in Atlanta.
Last week, down big in Detroit, Young came alive. Carolina was forced to play with more tempo and Young started to find himself. For the QB’s confidence alone, the Panthers should speed up its offense.
Lucas believes all three teams — Carolina, Houston, Indy — should be excited.
In Young, he sees a quarterback truly functioning within the structure of an offense. He sees more “advanced quarterback play” than the other two, in terms of cycling through progressions. With poise, with vision.
“Here’s what’s scary as hell,” Lucas says. “He is small.”
At the NFL Combine, Young measured 5 foot 10, 204 pounds, though scouts believe he beefed up for that weigh-in and is closer to 180. Russell Wilson was 5-10 ½, 204. Drew Brees, 6-0, 213.
Lucas was around the latter as an area scout with the Saints from ’04 to ’15 before taking the Bears job.
“What I loved about Bryce Young at Alabama was his ability to extend plays and play through contact,” says Lucas. “For a small guy, he played through contact well in college and then he extended plays with his quickness and speed. And what I’m seeing right now is a guy who’s not being able to do that because of his lack of size, his lack of play strength. He is getting swallowed up. His quickness and speed is good, but it’s not elite. So he’s getting run down and you’re seeing a guy’s physical skillset really, really negate his ability to consistently make these off-script plays. And I remember the first time watching Russell Wilson in Seattle. I remember a long time ago as a scouting assistant when we signed Drew Brees and watching his tape in San Diego — they didn’t feel small. They were short, but they didn't feel small on tape.
“Bryce Young feels really small on this NFL tape, and that’s my biggest concern going forward: Are those traits going to be too hard to overcome?”
If he was running the Panthers, Lucas knows he’d be writing fat checks for interior linemen.
Crucial for all quarterbacks, but especially short ones. Whereas taller quarterbacks can hang in the pocket because they’re able to look downfield, those at 5-10 require boulders in the middle of the line creating a sturdy pocket. Pro Bowlers Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks and others helped Brees throw for 80K yards over a 287-game career. We’ll see Evans in Canton. Lucas believes the Saints consistently had the best guard combinations in the last “20, 30, 40 years.”
“We were so stout and strong in the center of that line,” Lucas says. “We set that pocket firm. Drew could handle pressure from the tackles. We weren’t great at tackle because Drew could always feel it and step up. And as long as he had a chance to step up, he had a chance to be consistently productive throughout the course of a game. With Bryce, you’re seeing it already. He’s got to be able to step up in that pocket or he’s going to have an extremely hard time.”
Depth of pocket is also crucial because of his slight build. Physically larger quarterbacks like Allen, like Justin Herbert can hang in the pocket a tick longer with bodies draped all over them. “Bryce,” Lucas adds, “is never going to be able to do that. Like, never.” And whereas there’s five or six plays of Young escaping a muddy pocket in the NFL, he sees another 20 where Young is mowed down… because he lacks the elite size of Richardson or speed of Jackson.
The Panthers obviously took all of this into consideration. They insist he’s seeing the field perfectly fine but do know limiting interior pressure is the key. Guard Austin Corbett tore his ACL on Jan. 8, the Panthers’ 2022 season finale. He returned to practice last week. Brady Christensen suffered a season-ending bicep injury in Week 1. Corbett’s return should help, and the Panthers are high on fourth-round rookie Chandler Zavala.
All in all, I don’t sense panic. Not yet.
They hated dealing Moore to move up but deemed this the cost of doing business. Finding Young a legitimate No. 1 receiver is a priority.
But first? Expect to see a more creative offense, starting this Sunday against the Dolphins. The current scheme is a far cry from McDaniel track meets. Or McVay turning BYU’s Puka Nacua into a star. Or Purdy tearing up the Dallas Cowboys. Or even Stroud leading that late drive in Atlanta. Said one team source: “We just don’t always do a good job of scheming guys open and game-planning and finding the weak spots. We just run our offense, per se.”
Everyone in Carolina knows this much: Tepper’s temper will boil with each loss. Patience will run thin.
They placed their bet. Every single decision, here on out, should be made with Bryce Young at the forefront of mind.
‘I don't know if there is a ceiling’
On March 1, Cam Turner was hired as the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterbacks coach.
On March 4, Turner was administering quarterback drills at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
This provided him a front-row seat to the greatest mystery in the draft: Anthony Richardson.
The dual-threat from Florida started a grand total of 13 games, the same number as Mitchell Trubisky five years prior at North Carolina. He wasn’t nearly as productive, either. But his highlights were downright electric. Then, at the Combine, he put on a show. He staged the greatest quarterback workout ever: 4.41 in the 40, a 40 ½-inch vertical jump and a 10-9 broad jump. Freakish physical talent didn’t always translate at Florida, but scouts across the NFL were enamored. One saw “Michael Vick with a Brett Favre arm. … The highest ceiling I’ve ever seen in a quarterback.” Another said Richardson is “the biggest, strongest (quarterback) candidate in the history of the NFL.”
Turner absolutely recalls seeing a “wow factor” up close. This was a specimen of unparalleled proportions.
“He does a lot of things really well that not many people in this world can do,” Turner says, “with his size and speed and strength and all that. We saw it. His physical ability just screams, jumps off the tape to be honest with you.”
So, first, the good news. The great news. Those highlights draft nuts replayed nonstop on YouTube for months — the jump fake vs. Utah, the 81-yard TD run vs. LSU — were no fluke. Richardson is pulling off the same circus stunts in the pros. He can make grown men in the NFL look silly. He’s missing throws. Missing reads. But Lucas calls Richardson the “easiest guy to watch.” Even if he misses an open receiver on a slant, Richardson is strong enough and athletic enough to dance around and “make an even bigger play.”
Quarterbacks who live off-script may produce zero points for 2 ½ quarters but are liable to then explode for 23 and force overtime as he did against the Rams.
Adds Lucas: “His first touchdown pass? Unf--kingbelievable.”
Now, the bad news. Richardson has already departed three separate games prematurely. A shot to the knee in Week 1. A concussion in Week 3. An injured AC joint in Week 5. This most recent injury landed Richardson on IR. He’ll miss at least four games and Colts coach Shane Steichen wouldn’t rule out Richardson sitting out the entire season.
Steichen is fresh off of creating an offense around Hurts in Philadelphia. His own well-oiled machine.
Almost immediately, he proved the Colts could build something similar with Richardson.
The hard part? Striking a balance. Knowing when and how to pull the reins.
It’d be foolish to quarantine Richardson inside of a traditional pocket with traditional passing plays. The Colts didn’t purchase a Lamborghini to inch through the neighborhood at 25 miles an hour. As Brett Favre said on the podcast, the best offensive coaches know they cannot suppress a player’s intrinsic special gifts. Barry Sanders might stop on a dime… reverse course… and get tackled for an eight-yard loss. But he’s a threat to go the distance every play. Eliminating his impulse to do a 180 in the backfield would be moronic.
Nobody in Indianapolis has any plans on cookie-cutter-forcing Richardson to become a pocket passer.
“You do not want to take that away from him,” Turner says, “because that’s part of what makes him so special. His ability to create. Football at all levels — especially in this league — things break down. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be a perfect picture, one to two, like we draw it up. You’ve got to adjust, you’ve got to improvise.
“We don't want to screw that up. He definitely has a good thing going there.”
What encourages the Colts is that Richardson loves being coached. He genuinely wants to play within the offense and only press the eject button if a play breaks down. The reason Hurts blossomed into an MVP candidate wasn’t his gritty running between the tackles. By Year 3, with A.J. Brown, everything clicked for him as a passer. Richardson is willing to climb the same mountain. Nor were the Colts merely hypnotized by that LSU run. Turner watched all of Richardson’s college film and saw a quarterback capable of looking off defenders.
More than anything, Turner was excited to see Richardson complete his first NFL slide against the Rams. We can bank on more sliding whenever he returns. Lucas noticed that Richardson “falls hard.” Whereas a Lamar Jackson deftly avoids kill shots, Lucas sees a QB falling hard too often.
Turner wants Richardson to know when to sacrifice his body, saying there’s “a time and place” to go for it.
Unlike Stroud and Young, he’ll also need to attack his fundamentals in a major way next offseason. Lucas sees a rookie throwing all fastballs with minimal touch. He completed only 44 percent of his passes in the Rams game. We’ve seen QBs like Allen and Hurts drastically improve their accuracy through diligent offseason regiments. No longer does everyone assume a quarterback is either accurate or inaccurate for life. The skill can be improved — through hard work. Like pro basketball players developing a jump shot.
That’s why the Colts drafted Richardson with confidence. Turner has zero concerns down these lines. Next offseason may just as important as anything Richardson does on the field this rookie season.
For weeks, maybe months, everyone will have time to hyper-analyze that fine line. Gardner Minshew will play quarterback for the foreseeable future, and he’s fun. Right down to the ‘stache. But certainly not as fun as the kid from Florida.
Turner lets his imagination wander.
“He’s special,” the coach says. “He has to stay healthy and just keep evolving, keep improving week to week, day to day in practice. Which he’s done since he got here. He’s been a sponge, he’s been soaking up information, asking questions, but I don't know if there is a ceiling to be honest with you. He’s gotten better and that’s all we've been asking him to do — just learn every day and try to get a little bit better each day. … I can’t express how hard he’s worked.”
Lucas winced when he saw Richardson get smacked on the goal line.
Richardson will need to adjust his game… with an assist.
“It’s going to be on the coaches,” Lucas says, “to help save him from himself.”
There was a point in Buffalo, ’15 and ’16, that Robert Woods sincerely wondered if this was as good as it’d get.
“I was kind of like, ‘Damn, is this it? Is this how my career is going to be?’”
When he finally hit free agency for the first time, Woods wasn’t sure what the rest of the NFL would think of him. He never eclipsed 700 yards in a season. He had one touchdown his final Bills season. Lo and behold, a 30-year-old wiz kid was hired as the Los Angeles Rams’ new head coach. Woods has six contract offers, but nobody touched the Rams’ five-year, $34 million deal and the receiver knew Goff was taken No. 1 overall the year prior for a reason. His choice was easy.
This contract was ridiculed. Especially in Buffalo.
Once the receiver landed in his new city, one of the first things McVay told him was that he got Woods for a steal. “No one knows what they missed out on,” he told Woods. “I’m about to use you.” McVay saw on film that Woods was getting open in Buffalo — he just needed the ball. He was right. That contract proved to be a total bargain with Woods twice eclipsing 1,000 yards. And this is exactly the mentality that fuels a McVay-, Shanahan-, McDaniel-, and, now, Slowik-led offense. Coaches aren’t force-feeding personnel into an archaic route tree.
They maximize their players’ skills.
They identify strengths other coaches do not.
No wonder Woods is overcome with such blissful déjà vu.
Anyone who viewed Woods signing with Houston as an aging vet simply collecting a check was dead wrong. He faced Shanahan’s teams in the NFC West and knew Slowik would bring similar intellect to the Texans. He also knew this team owned the No. 2 overall pick and would land one of the top quarterback prospects.
Nobody expected those 2017 Rams to change offensive football, just as nobody expects anything out of these Texans.
When Woods looks around this locker room, there are several other hardened vets. This room is full of players who’ve won big games: defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Denzel Perryman, tight end Dalton Schultz, defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Shaquill Griffin and the player whose locker is next to Woods: former 49er safety Jimmie Ward. After clashing all those years in the same division, now they’re teammates. Woods cites Ward as the player raising the energy level at practice.
“We’re doing something special here,” Woods says. “You want to be a part of it.”
How special? That’s up to Stroud. Coaches and personnel execs devote their entire lives to drafting the right quarterback. One simple decision can either earn mass promotions and Super Bowl rings for all or a pink slip. Lucas was incredibly candid on his Bears’ decision to draft Trubisky over Mahomes in ’17 and Justin Fields in ’21.
If anyone knows the value of thinking outside the box, it’s Lucas. It’s my podcast co-host Jim Monos. Those who admit they didn’t see Mahomes coming.
Before Slowik dives back into gameplanning for the New Orleans Saints, I ask him about that 50 percent bust rate.
If so many people are pouring so many hours into drafting a quarterback, why do so many fail?
“Sometimes, you see someone who has all the talent and tools and you want to roll the dice. Or sometimes, it’s the opposite. You feel like you have someone who can do everything you want with intangibles, processing, operating in the pocket and maybe the talent’s just not quite enough as far as getting the ball where it needs to go. And then there’s a whole lot of stuff in the middle. It’s one of the hardest positions to evaluate. I wish I could give you an answer and I can’t. I really think it’s that hard and you just have to have a strong belief in what you’re bringing someone there to do.
“If it works out, it works out.”
Slowik insists he didn’t know the Panthers were taking Bryce Young until the second the pick was announced. He’s always skeptical of reports. As for his personal preference, that’s proprietary information.
“My evaluations will remain locked in my drawer.”
Fair enough. There’s no turning back now — for all three teams.