The toughest challenge an NFL rookie quarterback faces isn’t the gargantuan defensive linemen trying to decapitate him. Nor is it the outrageously athletic defensive backs who can make an open passing lane disappear in an instant. No, the biggest opponent a quarterback faces is often his own playbook.
A player can have prototypical size, great vision and a rocket for an arm, but if he hasn’t mastered the team playbook, his true talent will never be on display.
But why is learning an NFL playbook so damn difficult? Why does the experience inspire talented, intelligent players like Jared Goff to compare it to “learning a different language”?
Jordan Palmer is the perfect man to provide answers. Palmer spent eight years as a QB in the NFL, and he now tutors players such as Christian Hackenberg and DeShaun Watson. STACK caught up with Palmer to get his insights on the monumental challenge that is learning an NFL offense.
The Pro-Style Process
Casual football fans might be familiar with the term “pro-style offense.” It’s a broad term used to refer to any offensive system that closely resembles those traditionally used in the NFL. But when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks, Palmer believes the term “pro-style process” can be more useful.
“College coaches are limited in what they can teach college players with the amount of time they’re given, so a lot of coaches have gone to simplicity. Instead of huddling, they look to the sideline,” Palmer says. “What I’ve noticed over the years is that the gap between the college and pros is getting wider and wider in terms of what’s expected of the quarterback. So when I look at it, I don’t think of it so much as a pro-style system. In the NFL, there are a lot of different types of systems. In college, it’s more about the process.”
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What is a pro-style process? For one, it involves calling plays from a traditional huddle. The hurry-up offense certainly has a role in professional football, but the huddle is still the NFL’s bread and butter.
“[Los Angeles Rams No. 1 pick] Jared Goff, who’s rarely huddled before, a lot of what he’s struggling with right now is just getting in a huddle, reading the play, repeating the play and trying to create a picture in his mind of what the hell that play is. It’s more about the process than anything else,” Palmer says.
To command a huddle, a quarterback must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire offense. If a player doesn’t know what he’s doing on a given play, he looks to the quarterback for answers. If the quarterback can’t get his guys in the right spots, he’s failing at his job. “Every time you break the huddle, one of these guys is asking you, ‘wait, what’s the formation? What’s the snap count? Do I go over here?’” Palmer says.
What is it about an NFL playbook that can make a rookie quarterback feel like he’s never picked up a football before? Many of these players have had access to excellent coaching throughout their amateur football careers, so it’s not like they’re coming in totally clueless. However, learning an NFL system is akin to learning a different language—you might know exactly what you’re trying to say, but you have to know how to communicate it. Rookie quarterbacks often have experience with the concepts involved in a given play, but it can take a long time for them to learn the new terminology.
“Learning a new offense is just like learning a new language. If I say, ‘hello, my name is Jordan,’ or ‘hola, me llamo Jordan,’ I’m saying the exact same thing,” Palmer says. “I might call it Dot Right Two Jet Holt Bronco, or I might call it Divide Right 22 Hoss 678 Hook Flat. Those are the exact same thing, just using the language of two different systems.”
Knowing It and Owning It
When you hear that a rookie quarterback is struggling with the Xs and Os of an offense, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He might be perfectly capable of diagramming the plays in a white board session, for example. But there’s a big difference between knowing a system and owning a system. If you want to have success at the highest level, you can’t just know the offense—you have to own it. That means having absolute conviction in your own knowledge, to the point where you can confidently orchestrate an offense. If a quarterback’s not at that level, it comes through in their play. In the NFL, an unsure quarterback is an ineffective one.
“I see a difference between knowing something and owning something. My name is Jordan William Palmer—I’ll never screw it up, I will never say ‘um,’ I will never say it out of order. I own that information. A lot of quarterbacks play knowing the system but not owning it,” Palmer says. “And if you don’t own it, it slows down your process. The ball doesn’t come out as quick. You’re not as accurate. You’re not as sure. When you watch the best quarterbacks play—Brady, Brees, Carson Palmer—they’re not really reading stuff. They know the offense so well and they know the coverages so well, that they’re essentially just waiting for defenders to get out of the way so they can throw it . . . it’s just impossible for these rookies to come in and do that.”
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When you consider that your average NFL play call might sound something like “H-Set to Gun Spread Right H Hot Duel China Drive F3 Alert Mustang Dragon on a White One,” you realize how difficult it must be for a rookie quarterback to own that information before the start of the regular season. (That’s an actual play call Palmer shared with us.)
To make things even more stressful, the expectations for rookie quarterbacks to contribute right away have never been greater. If you’re a quarterback selected in the first or second round nowadays, you’re practically guaranteed to see significant time during your first season. Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. Palmer believes the reduced patience in rookie quarterbacks is a result of GMs and head coaches having shorter leashes than they used to.
“GMs and head coaches don’t get five-year plans anymore. They get two-, three-year plans now. So the pressure to play right away is exceedingly high,” Palmer says. “When Carson [Jordan’s older brother] came into the league in 2003 as the first overall pick, he didn’t play a snap his rookie year. He was a healthy scratch. Jon Kitna started every game, and Carson got to sit and watch.” Palmer believes that Christian Hackenberg—the New York Jets’ second-round pick—is actually in a better position right now than Goff. Hackenberg’s currently fourth on the Jets’ depth chart and isn’t likely to see significant time this season. “There’s no pressure, Christian can learn at his own pace. In L.A., they’re saying they’re going to let Jared learn at his own pace, but make no mistake about it—everyone wants his pace to be really fast,” Palmer says.
It’s easy to get caught up in the extravagant contracts and the million-dollar endorsements, but the truth is that rookie quarterbacks might have it harder than ever. Not only is the gap between the college game and the pro game cavernous, but NFL coaches are now limited in the amount of time they can spend with their rookie signal-callers.
“NFL coaches have limitations on time. They can’t just meet all day and all night. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement changed that,” Palmer says. “Ken Zampese [former Cincinnati Bengals QB coach, now the team’s offensive coordinator] taught me football. I didn’t learn football until I got into my second year in the league. But I met with that guy all day and all night, legally. Now, you can’t do that.”
When you consider all of these factors, you realize that the expectations of a highly-drafted quarterback have become astonishingly high. It doesn’t matter how smart or how motivated he is—mastering an NFL system takes time, patience and thousands upon thousands of reps. “Experience is so valuable. It’s just impossible for these rookies to come in and [own an offense], Andrew Luck or not. You need that experience,” Palmer says.