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Chain Moving Creativity

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

At Houston, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury was a chain moving wizard.

When one looks at the key offensive production stats—-QB completion %, QB combined TDs (passing and rushing), points per game, first downs, 3rd down conversion % and QBR—-the consistent production he got from Case Keenum (Houston 2011), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M 2012) and Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech 2015 & 2016) is astonishing.

2011 Keenum: 71.0%, 51 TDs, 49.3 ppg, 393 1st downs, 50.7 3rd down %, 174.0 QBR.

2012 Manziel: 68.0%, 47 TDs, 44.5 ppg, 357 1st downs, 54.8 3rd down %, 155.3 QBR.

2015 Mahomes: 63.5 %, 46 TDs, 45.1 ppg, 368 1st downs, 51.7 3rd down %, 147.2 QBR.

2016 Mahomes: 65.7 %, 53 TDs, 43.7 ppg,, 360 1st downs, 51.8 3rd down %, 157.0 QBR.

Look specifically at the 1st downs and 3rd down conversion %. Incredible consistency.

Talk about moving the chains.

And look how it translates to points per game and high QBR ratings.

When one studies Josh Rosen’s game tapes at UCLA, he makes an array of dazzling throws, but frustratingly far too often, he doesn’t extend drives. There are a number of occasions on 3rd downs where Rosen could have easily moved the chains with his feet or passed to the open receiver closest to the marker, wherein he elected to force a deeper pass or a dangerous one across the grain, like the pick six he threw in a tight loss versus Memphis.

Here are the production stats of his two best years at UCLA:

2015 Rosen: 60.0%, 25 TDs, 32.2 ppg., 301 1st downs, 45.1 3rd down %, 134.3 QBR.

2017 Rosen: 62.6 %, 28 TDs, 32.5 ppg., 325 1st downs, 41.2 3rd down %, 147.0 QBR.

Look again at the 1st downs and 3rd down conversion %, and these are two of the reasons why UCLA didn’t score enough points to win the vast majority of their games.

Some might argue that Rosen didn’t have the talent around him that Keenum, Manziel and Mahomes did—-but that’s a moot argument—-perhaps true of Manziel at Texas A&M, but not true per se of Keenum at Houston and Mahomes at Texas Tech.

Rosen’s struggles in sustaining drives were readily apparent in his first season with the Cardinals. Fans and pundits often blame those struggles on poor coaching and offensive play—-and to a fair degree that’s justifiable. But—-if you recall—-there were a number of 3rd down conversions that Rosen missed badly on—-and way too often he threw 3 yard passes on 3rd and 8s.

Conversely, Josh Rosen was very productive and efficient on game opening drives. In fact, Rosen led the offense to more first possession TDs this year than Carson Palmer did over the last two years combined. BA used to script the first 20 plays or so for Palmer. As did Byron Leftwich for Rosen.

What this suggests is that Rosen is very good at following the script. Plus, he showed promise late in games in the hurry-up.

It was all of the lost drives between early in the 1st quarter and late in the 4th where Rosen and the offense struggled the most. What this suggests is that he and Byron Leftwich had great difficulty adjusting to the defensive adjustments.

The Cardinals were by far the last in the NFL in 1st downs (239) and 3rd down completion percentage (29.1 %) in the NFL.

But seeing as missed conversions and failed drives were often the case at UCLA, it begs the questions as to whether Rosen’s lacks sustained focus and/or the patience to chip away rather than play “hero ball.” This is why some NFL scouts wonder whether Rosen gets bored—-kind of like the ping pong player who tries to avoid volleys in favor of trying to win most of the points on smashes.

The Cardinals had by far the worst number of 1st downs (239) and 3rd down conversion % (29.1 %) in the NFL.

What one may also wonder about Rosen at this point is whether he has the innate sense of creativity to win more often on 3rd downs. Creativity is an instinct that is very difficult to teach.

It’s much like the difference between being book smart and street smart. Street smarts depend on one’s ability to think creatively on his own two feet.

Years of teaching Advanced Placement English classes taught me something very significant about the kinds of students who typically ace the exam. Book smarts only gets the top students just so far—-it’s the creative thinkers who respond quickly to surprises, ambiguities and curve balls who generally garner the top scores. AP exams, as many of you know, are a test against the clock.

I would imagine that Kliff Kinsgbury would readily concede that his success with Keenum, Manziel and Mahomes was the result of putting them in a position to make the plays, but also giving them the freedom to add their own creative instincts to the mix.

Johnny Manziel lauded Kingsbury for maximizing his creativity by giving him a simple rule: if the defense takes away both pass option 1 and pass option 2, break from the pocket and do your thing.

The two top rated QBs in this draft, Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray were chain moving dynamos this past season. Here are their production numbers:

2018 Haskins: 70.0 %, 54 TDs, 42.4 ppg., 403 1st downs, 46.7% 3rd down %, 174.1 QBR.

2018 Murray: 69.0%, 54 TDs, 48.4 ppg., 369 1st downs, 50.7% 3rd down %, 199.2 QBR.

Both Haskins and Murray played in wide-open spread offenses, under Ryan Day and Lincoln Riley respectively. Look at the 1st downs and 3rd down completion percentages. In Oklahoma’s case the 3rd downs would have been more if they didn’t hit so many home run TDs, which is why they scored 6 points more a game than Ohio St.

Haskins has that super quick release and Murray has the super quick feet. They both are very good at extending plays and in reacting quickly and creatively under pressure.

Murray topped all of Baker Mayfield’s stellar 2017 numbers except completion %:

2017 Mayfield: 71.0 %, 48 TDs, 45.1 ppg, 361 1st downs, 42.6 3rd down %, 198.9 QBR.

It’s astonishing how similar Mayfield’s and Murray’s production numbers were. Almost carbon copies.

Just today there was a report from a recent interview with Washington St. Air Raid coach, Mike Leach, where he said that “trying to teach accuracy is the biggest mistake high school to NFL coaches can make, pretending they can fix it. You can go get the shortstop and teach him to play QB easier.”

Josh Rosen has a number of very good things going for him—-he has a good arm, he picks things up quickly and now he is playing for one of the most aggressive and imaginative coaches in the NFL. The question is—-can Kingsbury coach Rosen to move the chains with impressive consistency?