So, I had originally planned on making my main project of the offseason a series of "'Other QB' vs Game Film", comparing and contrasting them with incumbent Bucs starter Mike Glennon (in fact, there's somewhere in the Bucs Nation drafts page a half-written entry of "Matt Ryan vs Mike Glennon vs Game Film".
Unfortunately, real life came calling (who knew starting up your own business eats into your time?), and in the interim, Lovie Smith made my planned series rather moot, due to signing Josh McCown, and naming him the starter heading into training camp.
Thankfully, that didn't preclude me spending my spring indoors watching old game film, thanks to a suggestion from Bucs Nation colleague Jason De La Torre - it just meant that rather than watching QBs from other teams to compare and contrast them with Glennon, I get to run an offseason 'vs Game Film' series about our new man under center. So, with that being said - welcome to Josh McCown vs Game Film.
First up is the Week 7 match up between the Bears and the Redskins. Mid-way through the second quarter, Jay Cutler suffered a groin injury during a sack, one which would hold him out for most of the season - and one which gave McCown the opportunity to shine. I went into this game largely ignorant of McCown's general play - while I'd seen the odd clip here and there, watching Bears games are hardly high up on my list of ways to spend my time - so wanted to see what it was the Lovie saw that made him confident of benching Glennon for McCown.
I go in-depth into some of the plays below, but first, as always, here's the throw-by-throw chart of McCown's performance:
|Pass Attempt||Down & Distance||Result||Notes|
|1||2nd & 16||Scramble for 11||Good job of checking through his progression, but not hesitating when the green opens up ahead of him. Every receiver was covered|
|2||3rd & 5||Incomplete to Forte||Coverage was good; after going through his progression McCown decides to leave the pocket. Either he was trying to manoeuvre to get Matt Forte open and the pass was just too high, or it was a deliberate throw out of bounds|
|3||2nd & 8||Incomplete to Jeffery||Bootleg off of play action. It appears McCown and Alshon Jeffery were not on the same page - McCown seems to expect Jeffery to continue breaking towards the sideline, but Jeffery turns upfield as if expecting a pass over the top|
|4||3rd & 8||14 to Marshall (2 YAC)|
|5||2nd & 8||Dropped by Marshall||McCown was under some duress from the Redskins' D but managed to get the pass off, pass was low but hits a sliding Brandon Marshall in the numbers, a difficult catch but one you'd expect Marshall to haul in|
|6||3rd & 8||Incomplete to Jeffery||With pressure in his face, McCown underthew the ball; a bad pass|
|7||1st & 10||9 to E. Bennett (10 YAC)||Designed receiver screen to Earl Bennett|
|8||3rd & 3||Thrown away||Had the opportunity to throw to Jeffery on a slant, but chooses to scramble out of the pocket instead, possibly in response to a safety coming downhill that would have blown up Jeffery. It appears that he was expecting Jeffery to double back on himself when he saw McCown scramble, which would have led to Jeffery being wide open, but Jeffery doesn't follow McCown towards the sideline (see A below)|
|9||1st & 10||22 to Jeffery (26 YAC)||Designed receiver screen to Jeffery|
|10||1st & 10||8 to E. Bennett (1 YAC)||Quick slant (see B below)|
|11||1st & 10||Scramble for 13||McCown had options, but one of the Redskins defenders grabbed out for him, causing him to scramble. Nice pick up with his feet, and slid at the end, something he doesn't always do|
|12||1st & 10||5 to Marshall (8 YAC)||Looks like an audible at the line by McCown, recognising that the corners were giving the receivers deep cushions and changing to a quick smoke route|
|13||2nd & 5||28 to Jeffery (4 YAC)||Perfectly placed over-the-shoulder throw by McCown to Jeffery, who catches the ball in stride. Brandon Merriweather comes in with a helmet-to-helmet hit, adding an extra 15 yards to the large gain (see D below)|
|14||1st & 10||3 to Wilson (7 YAC)||Designed receiver screen to Marquess Wilson|
|15||3rd & 6||7 to E. Bennett (1 YAC)||Quick drop and a quick throw to the quick slant|
|16||2nd & 9||Scramble for 10||Everyone on the playside was more or less covered, McCown appears to notice while hitching to the backside the large amount of field open in front of him and takes it. Would have liked to have seen him slide at the end of the run rather than getting tackled|
|17||1st & 10||20 to Jeffery (2 YAC)||McCown looks to his primary read but doesn't like what he sees, hitches to the backside of the play and throws a nice jump ball to Jeffery down the sideline (see E below)|
|18||2nd & 7||Incomplete to Marshall||McCown was hit as he threw, leading to a bad ball|
|19||3rd & 7||Incomplete to Marshall||McCown was again hit as he threw, leading to a bad ball|
|20||1st & 10||-5 to Forte (0 YAC)||Designed RB screen to Forte, defense sniffs it out immediately|
|21||2nd & 15||28 to Marshall (15 YAC)||Perfectly placed ball allows Marshall to catch in stride, enabling him to make significant YAC (see C below)|
|22||1st & 10||35 to Jeffery (18 YAC)||Great anticipatory throw, firing the ball into a soft spot in between zones before Jeffery gets open (see F below)|
|23||1st & Goal, from the 9||9 to M. Bennett, touchdown nullified by penalty||Nice anticipation, but ball was a little off - could have been a bit more infield and a little higher, but Martellus Bennett reels it in for what would have been a touchdown had Earl Bennett not lined up on the line of scrimmage, thus making Martellus an ineligible receiver|
|24||1st & Goal, from the 14||Incomplete to Marshall||All the receivers were equally covered, including Marshall, so not much McCown could have done. Hit on a defenseless receiver by Merriweather give the Bears half the distance to the goal line|
|25||1st & Goal, from the 7||7 to M. Bennett (0 YAC), touchdown||McCown sells the play-action, freezing London Fletcher and allowing Bennett to get behind the linebacker. Easy throw for the TD|
|26||1st & 10||11 to Forte (9 YAC)||Down by 4 points, 33 seconds to go, one timeout left. In some ways I question McCown's decision-making here - there's a deep throw open - but if the idea was to preserve the timeout then it's an understandable decision since Forte is wide open (see G below)|
|27||1st & 10||7 to Forte (8 YAC)||As with above, I question this decision, even more than the previously play. Pressure seems to have gotten to McCown mentally (see G below)|
|28||2nd & 3||Sacked||Difficult as all the receivers were covered, and the game situation precluded scrambling from being a viable option, which in other circumstances might have been the best choice. Only one real option was open, and McCown never really had the opportunity to look that way due to pressure|
So there's the overall view of McCown's first outing in 2013 - but below are several plays broken down in detail, looking at some of the areas where he did well - and where he struggled.
A) Hesitation hurts
The first play we're looking at struck as me as being too... Glennon-y; and whereas you could in some respects forgive Mike Glennon for the kind of actions we'll see on this play, it's something that I was expecting McCown to have eradicated from his game: hesitating to make the easy throw, and instead scrambling for no obvious reason.
Alshon Jeffery is about to run this slant route; due to the formation, there's a bunch of Redskins defenders on the strongside of the field; Jeffery's slant is going to go through a nice open piece of field - which is ideal, given hat the situation is 3rd & 3
So here's McCown, looking into the middle of the field - being a vet QB, you'd assume he would see the wide-open field ahead of him, and knowing he has a receiver about to run into that area, should be throwing with anticipation at this point.
You can see above, McCown is beginning to cock his arm to throw - Jeffery has field in front of him (in the yellow circle), and the only concern really is the safety bearing down on the him (in the beige circle). Still, as long as Jeffery holds on, this should easily pass the down marker, setting up a first & goal situation.
Instead, McCown decides to leave the pocket and scramble towards the sideline. I really don't understand this decision; there's no pressure on McCown, and he would have picked up the first down if he had passed to Jeffery. Instead, he hesitates, appears second guesses himself, and takes off running, as you can see in the yellow circle. The only explanation I can come up with is that McCown was simply being greedy - the path to the endzone is now open, as you can see in the beige circle; I believe McCown, rather than settling for the shorter gain and setting up first & goal, wanted a touchdown.
Here's what leads me to that conclusion: I've illustrated in yellow McCown's line of sight, and the large amount of open field he's staring towards. I suggest that McCown was expecting Jeffery to see McCown scramble and immediately double back on himself, which would have seen him open in that large yellow circle. The issue is, as you can see from the beige circle, Jeffery clearly wasn't on the same wavelength. As a result, McCown has to throw the ball out of bounds on 3rd & 3. A terrible decision by McCown, and frankly, this would have had me worried...
...except that McCown appears to learn from his mistakes, and quickly.
B) The right way to hit a slant
If I was concerned by the previous play, McCown allayed those concerns quickly; in fact, the following play was the second play of the very next Bears' possession.
Similar situation here - a slant from a receiver (in this case, Earl Bennett) into a big patch of open field. I like to think that those instant printouts you see players looking over on the sidelines came into play here, or maybe his QB coach just told him to take the easy gains. For whatever reason, a similar situation here wielded a much better outcome.
This time, McCown does the sensible option - as I've circled, he's releasing at around the same point he should have released in the previous example, with Bennett open (in beige) despite a DB coming downhill at him (in blue).
And even though that DB tackles him immediately, Bennett holds on to the ball for an 8-yard gain. For the first time in a few years, it's good to see that the Bucs will have a QB who can learn pretty much instantly from his mistakes - a QB who can learn drive-to-drive, not week-to-week.
C) Slants in stride - hallelujah!
Anyone who read the (presumably now retired) "Mike Glennon vs. Game Film" series will know that by far my biggest issue with Glennon was his poor, sloppy ball placement, and the way it killed off so many YAC opportunities by removing the opportunity to let receivers catch in-stride. Suffice it to say, McCown doesn't suffer from the same problem.
Brandon Marshall's running a slant route above, and as you can see in yellow, the ball's just been thrown. What I've circled in beige is the sort of area we consistently saw Mike Glennon throwing at on these types of routes.
Instead, McCown throws the ball to where Marshall can catch in stride, as circled in yellow. To give a better comparison, let's switch to another view:
As you can see, again circled in yellow, the ball is in front of Marshall, who is able to catch it with his shoulders still facing towards the sideline. Now, let's compare that to pretty much the same throw from Mike Glennon, from what was nominally one of his better outings last season, a win against the Detroit Lions:
Here, you can see that Vincent Jackson has had to turn his shoulders back towards Glennon; the ball is thrown at him, not in front of him; all of which killed off his opportunity to make significant YAC, as he had two defenders on him as soon as he turned downfield.
Conversely, as Marshall has caught in stride, he is still moving at full speed - and so is able to exploit the wide open patch of field I've circled, adding 15 yards to the play for a total gain of 28.
D) Deep sideline throws!
Another aspect that Mike Glennon struggled in, though one that he showed improvement in as the season wore on, was deep sideline throws - the same throws that briefly made it look like Josh Freeman had recovered his sophomore season form in the middle of the 2012 season.
The Bears are in a significantly un-balanced formation, lining up in effectively a 3x1 receiver set due to a tight end and an H-back both lined up on the left of the line, which I've circled. Accordingly, there's a big clump of defenders on one side of the field, and really just one cornerback on the other outside of the box. There's a deep safety, who as I've circled has a lot of field to cover - though the deep cushion given by the corner in the beige circle offers the possibility of the Redskins disguising a two-high shell. In either case, given the alignment of the single high safety before the snap, McCown knows that if the receiver on his right can burn the corner playing press on him, then there's a possibility of a big gain - and that's exactly what happens.
After briefly meshing with Matt Forte to sell the play-action, McCown looks straight to Jeffery, who as you can see is already starting to pass the corner. With the single high safety naturally aligning in the middle of the field, there's actually a pretty wide window for McCown to throw into, as I've circled in beige.
The pass is away (in yellow), and Jeffery is now pretty much free from coverage thanks to an advantage in speed over the corner, though you can see the window has narrowed thanks to the safety.
McCown's ball plops down beautifully over Jeffery's shoulder, letting him catch the ball in stride. It's a throw that evaded Glennon last season, and hurt his ability to really present himself as a complete QB. While he did improve and manage to make similar deep over-the-shoulder throws, even allowing receivers to catch in stride, they were almost always in the middle of the field, where the margin for error is a lot greater; with a smaller window to work with, McCown throws the nigh-on perfect pass for the situation.
E) More sideline throws!
McCown showed his proficiency in one type of deep sideline throw in the previous example, but there's the other type of deep sideline throw too - the jump ball.
In the above frame, McCown was initially targeting the slant route on his left, but, noticing defenders waiting in zones underneath who would be at risk of picking off such a pass, he hitches to the other side of the field. Still, having initially cocked his arm to throw to the left side of the field caused the safety on the right side of the field to bail back, presumably to position himself for a good angle to the slant route - as I've arrowed in. This opened up hole in coverage for Jeffery (in blue), who is on an 'out & up' route.
Hitching to the backside, McCown sees Jeffery is now outside of the defensive coverage - though unlike in the previous example, the safety positioning prevents McCown from throwing an over-the-shoulder throw.
Instead, McCown has a relatively tight window to throw in (illustrated in yellow) due to the coverage of the defenders (illustrated in beige). Throwing too deep would lead at best to an incompletion, as the safety is in position to prevent Jeffery from just streaking down the sideline, or at worst an interception for the safety; likewise, throwing too short would put the pass at risk of being picked off by the corner underneath.
McCown delivers the ball perfectly - as you can see, there was very little room for error either over the top of Jeffery or underneath him, but McCown places the ball just high enough to get over the corner, but still well inside Jeffery's catching range.
F) Big boy throws
One other example of something McCown showed several times against the Redskins that both previous starting QBs for the Bucs showed far too inconsistently, before we move onto some plays where McCown struggled. It's something that was particularly frustrating last season as Glennon was able to execute once or twice a game, but would typically be offered many, many more opportunities which he wouldn't pull the trigger on - the 'big boy throw'. Simply, a throw where a quarterback has the offense down pat to the point where he can throw with anticipation into areas the defense have left vacant, long before the receivers are open and visible to the QB.
The Redskins are in a zone defense on this play - leaving a soft spot between zones that I've circled in yellow. Jeffery, who is in the above frame between the hashmarks on around the 36-yard line, is running a deep out that will attack this zone.
And here's where the anticipation comes from - with the DB on that side of the field beginning to rotate over the top, McCown decides to pull the trigger (as I've circled in yellow), delivering the ball into the beige circle. Notice Jeffery's positioning - he's still inside of the hashmarks, with a defender inside of him.
To further prove the point - the pass is now off, with the ball circled in yellow; and yet, Jeffery (circled in blue) is still not in the soft spot between zones that McCown is throwing to (circled in beige).
The ball arrives just as Jeffery gets there; but because the defenders were keying off where Jeffery was, rather than were the ball was going to, the Redskins never closed down the window between zones. While it might seem like I'm making a big deal over a pretty standard pass, the fact is we haven't had a quarterback who would (or could) regularly understand the defense, recognise which of the routes his receivers are on will best attack the coverage in front of him, and have enough confidence in his conviction to pull the trigger, for a long, long time.
I realise this article might sound like it's offering unfettered praise of McCown (outside of the first example I went through), but the fact is, he was certainly not perfect in this game. When the defense had pressure in his face, he made bad passes; while he wasn't afraid to scramble (and generally his scrambling was a result of good decision making, rather than fear of pressure or impatience with his receivers), he would not always slide, which is going to be a concern if scrambling is as much a part of his game as was suggested against the Redskins; and as I explained in the first example, he appeared to be 'greedy', wanting a touchdown rather than just picking up the easy first down to set up first and goal.
The following two plays, though, might show McCown's limitations - though you could argue the opposite, too. Still, where quarterbacks make the big bucks is their ability to put the team on their backs and lead his offense on game-winning drives when the chips are down. McCown got the opportunity to prove his mettle in his first game of 2014, beginning a drive when the Bears were down by 4 points, with 33 seconds left on the clock and just one time out.
First play of the drive - McCown has a receiver running into a huge empty patch of field on his right, as I've circled in yellow.
The receiver breaks his route in-field, still with a lot of field around him. McCown, however, is winding his arm back to throw to a receiver about ten yards shallower, in the middle of the field, with a defender right next to him. Remember this, as I'll be bringing it back up shortly.
McCown wisely decides to bring his arm back in, hitches to the outside, and hits Matt Forte, who's very wide open - though it should be noted in the beige circle that the deepish receiver would still have been open. Now, here's my dilemma - did McCown make the right decision? On the one hand, Forte only got seven yards on this play - yet on the other, he was well-positioned to get out of bounds, stopping the clock while preserving the time out. If that was Forte's thought process, then that's fine - except, McCown was initially getting ready to throw to a different receiver in the middle of the field who would have had no chance of getting out of bounds. Was McCown trying to fake-out the defense to get Forte open? We'll never know - but if he wasn't, then if he's got the choice of two receivers who are in poor positions to get out of bounds, his decision-making should be questioned here.
Next play, similar scenario - except an even more advantageous one. I've drawn a big yellow circle - it's difficult to see because of the sunlight (remember, you can expand any of these pictures by clicking on them), but there's a Bears receiver right along the sideline who's burning a corner. Also in the yellow circle is another receiver running open along the right-hand numbers. Over the top of them is a single safety; essentially, McCown had the opportunity to look off the safety by eyeing one of the receivers, and then throwing to the other, getting a big gain - and either receiver could arguably have been in position to get out of bounds and save the time out. Instead, McCown decides to again dump off to Forte (in the beige circle); unlike the previous play, he fails to get out of bounds, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. Initially, I thought this may have been a response to pressure from Ryan Kerrigan (circled in blue) - so I took a look at the endzone angle.
And here you can see, McCown wasn't even looking in Kerrigan's direction, having his eyes locked in on Forte, so I don't believe Kerrigan's rush factored in to McCown's decision making. In fact, if McCown was going through his progression rather than locking in on Forte, he would have noticed that he could have climbed the pocket away from Kerrigan, allowing his lineman to wash the Redskins linebacker upfield past him, which might have given him time to work those two down-field receivers against the single safety. The next play, McCown was sacked, ending the game.
When the chips were down and the heat was up, McCown showed questionable decision making. He doesn't always slide while scrambling, he was guilty of shaky passes under pressure, and he showed at least one instance of being greedy rather than taking the smaller, surer gain. Yet McCown also showed that, unlike the previous two starting QBs, he can genuinely make all the throws; he almost always goes through his progression fully; and despite being the back-up quarterback, clearly had enough command of the offense to feel comfortable making anticipatory throws, despite presumably not having the rapport with the receivers that comes from regular practice reps with the starters - something that Cutler would have taken the majority, if not the entirety, of. Simply put, if this game is anything to go by, McCown should have success in Tampa... but it's just one game, and there are still some areas of concern. Let's see if he shows progress in those areas in the next Josh McCown vs Game Film, after a week of training reps as the starter rather than the back up.