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Sports >  NFL

What makes a great NFL quarterback? Not even head coaches can agree.

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 13, 2021

Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is a prime example of a young quarterback who can scramble and run when it matters.  (Associated Press)
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is a prime example of a young quarterback who can scramble and run when it matters. (Associated Press)
By Les Carpenter Washington Post

This started as a whim, a question impulsively tossed to Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury during a conference call early last fall.

What is the one essential trait a quarterback must possess to succeed in the NFL?

Kingsbury has something of a devotion to the position; he’s a former college and NFL quarterback who, at various points in his coaching career, has helped develop Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Arizona’s Kyler Murray. Surely, there must be one thing he looks for more than anything else upon encountering a quarterback he hasn’t seen before – something he values so much that a player’s lack of it would immediately disqualify him as a professional prospect in his mind.

His answer was a bit of a surprise. Rather than slip into a lecture about arm strength or throwing angles or an ability to see open receivers downfield or any of the other cliches tossed around on television as the marks of great quarterbacks, he talked about running – specifically, the ability to run when it mattered.

“For me, it’s, ‘Can they get out of a bad place?’ ” Kingsbury said. “When the play breaks down, you don’t have to run a 4.3, but can they move around to extend the play and make something happen down the field?”

As the season went on, we asked the same question of several more NFL coaches, wondering if they had their own idea of what mattered most to them at the position. In some ways, NFL quarterback play has never been more interesting, with passers of varying ages, sizes and playing styles taking snaps across the league. Just look at Sunday’s divisional-round playoff matchups, with a pair of 25-year-old scramblers (Mahomes and Mayfield) facing off in one game, and aging pocket passers Tom Brady and Drew Brees going head-to-head in the other.

But while all of the coaches had definitive ideas about the one thing an NFL quarterback must have, their answers were not the same. None of them, it seemed, believed in the same, single indelible trait.

For instance, Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said he values decision-making, while Seattle’s Pete Carroll looks for “great character and great competitiveness.” Some of their replies stretched for more than a minute. Interestingly, none of the coaches said anything about throwing. Maybe they assumed the ability to deliver a decent pass is such an obvious skill that it wasn’t worth mentioning, but given the obsession before each draft about who can throw the ball the longest, hardest or fastest, it would seem the kind of thing to have at least been mentioned once.

The closest to do so was San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, who said quarterbacks must be really, really good at one thing, “because if you’re not one of the best throwers in the world, you’ve got to be extremely athletic.” Or, “If you’re extremely athletic … you’ve still got to be able to throw and play in the pocket.”

But Shanahan – who spent years studying the position under his father, Mike, the former Los Angeles Raiders, Denver and Washington coach famous for his success with John Elway – was more interested in discussing something that had nothing to do with the physical requirements of playing quarterback.

“Mentally, you better have a special person,” he said. “I don’t care whether you’re the best player in the league or the worst; it doesn’t matter. They’re going to come after you, especially quarterbacks. You can play better than anyone, and then all of a sudden you have two bad games and it’s all your fault and you’ve got to sit there and take it and be a certain kind of guy that can handle that week in and week out, year in and year out.”

Carroll, Shanahan’s rival in the NFC West, appeared to have a similar thought. In his third year as the Seahawks’ coach, he shocked many by starting Russell Wilson, then a rookie, third-round draft pick, over two more established quarterbacks. Part of Carroll’s decision had to do with the fact that he believed Wilson had a rare maturity that made him seem prepared for almost anything.

Nine seasons later, Carroll and Wilson have been to the playoffs eight times and the Super Bowl twice, justifying his hunch that Wilson had something unique that was difficult to find.

“I mean, it’s so trying,” Carroll said of winning consistently as an NFL quarterback. “It’s just so challenging to stay on top. There are a few handful of guys, the ones who are really the iconic quarterbacks, and they’ve got so much substance to them. They have to. You’re just so exposed and so challenged and it’s so difficult to carry out the job, and maintain the mentality that it takes. And all of that, particularly over such a long period of time.

“These aren’t just the best athletes. These are guys that have everything going for them. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to pull this off.”

For Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor, it was also about intangibles – but of the on-field variety.

“It’s elevating the play of those around him,” Taylor said in November when the question was presented to him.

Taylor, who was overseeing the progress of last year’s top draft pick, Joe Burrow, before Burrow’s season-ending knee injury, previously worked with first-round picks Ryan Tannehill and Jared Goff. Each has gone on to success, leading teams deep into the postseason.

“They believe every play is going to work with them at the helm,” he said, describing the quarterbacks who improve those around them. “If they do their job the way they’re supposed to get it done, he’s going to get them the ball. He’s going to put them in the best play possible to where they can play to their full potential. Joe Burrow does that. For a play caller, he makes a play sometimes when there isn’t a play to be made.”

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