Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is currently promoting his new book “The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback” (co-authored with Lars Anderson). It is an entertaining and educational read from a coach who was instrumental in the careers of Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Palmer (his current QB). Along with some very insightful observations about the life of a football coach and the players they coach and develop, it goes into some detail about just what he believes are the traits that make a top NFL QB. If you are a Dallas Cowboys fan, it is also very encouraging, because Dak Prescott seems to check all the boxes. And it also seems to validate the approach Dallas, including head coach Jason Garrett, took with Prescott during his incredible rookie season.
Early in the book, he lays out a basic explanation of how some teams get it right in trying to find that all important franchise quarterback while others fail miserably.
So many quarterbacks who are drafted high fail - and that has nothing to do with their physical talent. It’s what exists between their ears that matters most, that determines whether one will flourish or flounder in the NFL. Why don’t some first round draft picks last very long in the league? General managers fall in love with their ability to throw a ball down the field, and are seduced by their potential.
But what is very hard to measure when you’re scouting college quarterbacks is how they are going to react to the complexity of NFL defenses. This has nothing to do with arm strength and everything to do with mental strength.
This is a theme he returns to time and time again. While the ability to throw the ball is of course an important factor, it is down the list for him. First, you have to find a player who can absorb the intricacies of the NFL offense, which no longer resembles what most college QBs are expected to do in the spread, no-huddle offenses that have taken over the game at most schools.
One of the anecdotes he relates deals with his research into the top QB prospects for the 1998 draft, when he was with the Indianapolis Colts and they held the first overall pick in the draft. The decision was down to two names: Peyton Manning of Tennessee or Ryan Leaf of Washington State. Manning walked into the interview with Arians and other members of the coaching staff, and literally took control of the interview. He left all of the interviewees in awe of what they had just experienced - what Arians termed the “it” factor.
As for Ryan Leaf - he blew off his interview. Decision made.
In more detail, here are the key elements of a quarterback’s makeup that Arians looks for, and how they apply to Prescott.
What does the perfect NFL quarterback look like?
It begins with something you can’t see. He must have heart - a big heart, a lion’s heart, a heart that beats for an entire franchise. Heart is exhibited when a quarterback plays through pain, when he smashes into a 320-pound defensive lineman on third down to try and gain those extra six inches for the first down, or when he throws an interception and then runs forty yards down the field to make a tackle.
There is little doubt that Prescott has that kind of heart, and it was fully on display during his years as the quarterback at Mississippi State. He has just continued to do that as a member of the Cowboys. He became the face of the franchise almost overnight, and he has done a marvelous job with it, attested to by his winning the ESPY as the Breakthrough Athlete of the year.
Arians goes on to amplify his point about heart.
The quarterback doesn’t have to be the most popular player in the locker room, but he sure better have the respect of every man on the roster.
There is little doubt that Prescott earned that respect. With Tony Romo lurking on the sidelines, trying to recover from his injury in preseason, Prescott won the locker room over to the point that the coaching staff felt comfortable in naming him the starter for the rest of the season. It was a heartbreaking move for fans of Romo - but it was a necessary move for the future of the team. And it was something Prescott earned on merit.
Another trait he must have is what I call “grit.” This is the ability to handle success and failure equally. A quarterback has about twenty-five seconds from the moment he walks to the line of scrimmage and scans the defense to when the play is over. Dozens of decisions need to be made by the quarterback in those twenty-five seconds.
QBs must always - always - act like the next play is going to be a touchdown, even if they don’t truly believe it. The quarterback needs to project calm and poise and steely-eyed confidence. This is grit, living play-to-play and growing play-to-play.
We saw this repeatedly from Prescott last year. He led his team from behind and always went out there confidently. Had the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers not gone completely otherworldly in the playoff game, it would be remembered for how Prescott brought the team back from a 21-3 deficit in the second quarter.
Another characteristic the NFL quarterback must have that you can’t see is the ability to process a vast amount of information in a short amount of time and make prudent decisions based on that intelligence.
No further proof of how Prescott fits this is his ratio of 23 touchdown passes to only four interceptions. Of all the things he did as a rookie, none were more impressive than how quickly he developed the ability to handle the Dallas playbook with so few errors.
The ideal quarterback also needs to be a leader.
This has already been mentioned, but it has to be stressed again. When both Kellen Moore and Romo were lost to injury before the season even started, Prescott donned the mantle of leadership - and the team followed him all the way.
Only after those qualities are accounted for does Arians address physical tools. For him, it is the intangibles that really are the foundation for a quarterback - intangibles that Prescott possesses in full.
Another thing that Arians brings up repeatedly in his book is how important the relationship is between the head coach and his quarterback. He doesn’t just mention how he addressed their performance on the field, but how he related to them as people. That brings to mind the well-documented sessions that Jason Garrett held with Prescott after practices, something that continued through the OTAs this year, and that will likely go on indefinitely. That fits in well with the need for a quarterback to never see himself as a finished product, but always seeking to make himself better. This is another aspect where Prescott seems a near-perfect fit for Arians’ formula.
All this seems to be evidence for why Prescott is unlikely to suffer much of a “sophomore slump”. His success as a rookie was not due to opposing defenses lacking video of him. It was about his possession of the vital ingredients needed in a quarterback. He is the kind of quarterback Arians would love to coach. Dallas should thrive with him for years to come.