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Just how important is making off-script plays for the modern NFL quarterback?

Related: Bill Belichick on analytics in pro football: ‘I’d prefer good players, good fundamentals, good execution’

NFL: New England Patriots Minicamp Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard this one before, but Patrick Mahomes is pretty good at playing the quarterback position. One of the reasons why he is among the best players in the league at his position and a one-time MVP is his ability to perform not just within the structure of the offense but also make something happen outside of it.

Look no further than Super Bowl 55. While the Kansas City Chiefs’ potential title defense ended in spectacular fashion when they were blown out 31-9 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes proved time and again why he can never be counted out.

There was this play that saw him recognize an opening and scramble for a a first down to keep a drive alive. There was this one that saw him spin through a would-be sack to get the ball off in time. And there was this one that saw him almost complete a miraculous throw despite being in the process of falling to the ground.

None of these plays were drawn up like they eventually unfolded, but Mahomes still gave them a chance due to his otherworldly improvisational abilities. He has shown those ever since taking over as Kansas City’s starter in 2018.

For as spectacular a player as Mahomes is, he is not the first quarterback in NFL history to do the things he does. Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford are just four of the QBs who have all been able to keep plays alive that should have long been dead. In turn, they became some of the most productive players of their respective eras.

Still, Mahomes is the poster child for a new generation of quarterback: an athletic freak, who is not a traditional dual-threat weapon but who can challenge teams with his arms and use his legs to buy additional time if need be. The Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen is another example of that type of player, as are the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield or the first four passers drafted this year (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields).

This type of QB is undoubtably en vogue now, and while not every player capable of improvising will automatically turn into the next Mahomes (or Stafford) teams still continue to look for them. Being able to make off-script plays therefore seems to be a prerequisite for successful NFL quarterbacking these days.

That said, there is quite a bit of nuance to this statement as veteran NFL analyst Greg Cosell pointed out in a guest column for NBC Sports. Cosell argues that the topic of quarterback skillsets is not as cut-and-dried as a player like Mahomes makes it seems:

If you believe that improvisation is now essential to play NFL QB at the needed level of excellence versus the increase in sub-package defenses (5 defensive backs, 6 defensive backs, at times 7 defensive backs) and the expansion of pressure/blitz schemes, then you need to have a reason for the continued excellence of Tom Brady. (You could put Drew Brees in that category as well.) And please don’t tell me it’s because he’s great, as if that removes you from answering the question. Why is Brady great? What are the traits and attributes that have resulted in him playing at a Hall of Fame level throughout his career, and continue to do so, without the mobility to make outside of structure plays? That is what you need to study and evaluate, in great depth. You must develop a detailed and precise understanding of this before flippantly tossing out the platitude that off-script plays are now a necessity.

Tom Brady is a seven-time Super Bowl winner, has won a combined eight MVP awards, and is the consensus greatest quarterback of all time. He also is a player deserving of the “traditional pocket passer” label due to his lack of athleticism compared to other modern NFL quarterbacks. His success, as Cosell notes, is not built around his ability to make something out of nothing.

Brady has a much better arm that he is oftentimes given credit for, and he is one of the most mobile quarterbacks in NFL history (just not in a traditional sense), but his abilities to execute within structure and win the mental part of the game are unparalleled. They have allowed him to build a Hall of Fame résumé and to lead the New England Patriots to six championships before winning another one in his first season as a Buccaneer.

By modern standards, however, Brady seems to be part of a dying breed — one getting replaced by a new type led by Mahomes, the quarterback he and Brady’s new club handily defeated in the Super Bowl earlier this year.

As Cosell points out, however, the foundation of Brady’s skillset is still one NFL coaches are looking for. Not just that: they are still at the very heart of successfully playing the quarterback position.

There is not a coach in the NFL who would draft a quarterback based on his ability to extend plays if the coach felt that that quarterback could not execute the structure of the pass game with the needed efficiency and consistency on a play-by-play, game-to-game basis. Quarterback is a subtle, nuanced, disciplined craft position both before and after the snap; that is how it is taught. Coaches do not roll the ball out in practice, and then say let’s run around and make some plays. Maybe in college, but certainly not in the NFL.

Nevertheless, there still seems to be a shift when it comes to the value of skillsets: making off-script plays seems to be more popular than ever, especially with the NFL continuing to import schemes and play designs from the college level. Brady’s former team is in an interesting position when it comes to this development, on both sides of the ball.

On offense, the Patriots have recently invested a first-round draft pick in a quarterback built in the mold of Brady and other pocket passers. Mac Jones, the fifth QB off the board in late April and New England’s future face of the franchise, lacks the same athletic traits than the four men drafted ahead of him: he is best when working alongside the structure of the offense and is far less proven outside of it.

In his column, Cosell called Jones a “litmus test” for the debate between favoring athleticism and off-script ability versus traditional quarterback skillsets. It is not hard to see why: he won’t make plays like Mahomes or Allen, and will instead rely on his feel for the pocket and understanding of what is going on around him to be successful in the NFL.

Can he be that? That is the proverbial million dollar question, but he was drafted by a team that has successfully employed this type of quarterback throughout its dynastic run. Sure, Jones is no Brady — nobody is — but he is a similar type of player and one whose success will be built upon the same essential pillars: by embedding him into a sound structure that allows him to play to his strengths and attempts to mask his weaknesses as best as possible.

As for the defensive side of the ball, New England has adapted to the influx of “new age” quarterback talent and the challenges facing passers of that kind bring. The move towards a positionless defense might not be a direct result of recent developments, but it certainly helps against them.

After all, beating them physically is a tough thing to do: players such as Mahomes or Allen are outstanding athletes and can make most defenders look foolish when extending plays or trying to make something happen with their feet. Challenging them on a mental level, however, can lead to success — both Mahomes and Allen have shown some weaknesses when going up against the Patriots’ hybrid fronts and aggressive coverage looks.

The offseason additions of Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Jalen Mills further follow this recent trend. The Patriots have players in both their front seven and secondary that can be moved all over the formation, creating a challenging pre-snap environment for opposing passers.

With all that said, how important is making off-script plays for the modern NFL quarterback now? The answer might lie in the reigning NFL MVP, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers is a master at improvisation, and has become one of the best quarterbacks of all time because of it. However, his ability to work within the offense’s structure has allowed him to take his play to a new level in 2020: the second season under new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur produced tremendous results for both passer and team, with Green Bay getting within one game (against the Brady-led Buccaneers) of the Super Bowl.

Rodgers hit his groove in the offense, and finished the year setting new career highs in completion percentage (70.7%), touchdown passes (48) and yards per attempt (9.1). The future Hall of Famer played some impressive football, in large parts because he showed trust in the structure and had to rely less on his innate abilities outside of it.

In a sense, one could therefore say that improvisation and off-script performance is like a nice add-on. However, it will not help you much if the foundational tools perfected by Tom Brady are not up to NFL standards: pre-snap diagnosis, decision making, pocket movement, and an ability to work within a script are all must-haves for successful quarterbacks.

This is why Brady is still successful after more than two decades in the league. It is also why New England apparently felt comfortable drafting a classic pocket passer in the first round this year.