Whole Nine Sports

The Magic of Minshew II

Gardner Minshew
Jon Otiker
Follow Jon on Twitter @j_otiker
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If you were to ask NFL analysts before week 1 who would be the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for September or who would be the most impressive rookie quarterback through the first quarter of the season, you’d probably receive lots of credible and well thought out answers. Optimists thinking Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury would light things up in the desert. Maybe Dwayne Haskins replacing the boring Case Keenum to lift up a mediocre Redskins franchise. Perhaps Marquise Brown torching defenses like he did at Oklahoma. Maybe even the talented Iowa tight end’s TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant. One thing is for sure, not many would think that it would be the Jacksonville Jaguars 6th round pick, the 178th overall player and 10th quarterback picked, Gardner Flint Minshew II.

But since Nick Foles suffered a broken left clavicle in week 1 versus the Kansas City Chiefs, “Minshew Mania” has been sweeping Duval and the rest of the NFL. Minshew’s numbers through the first quarter of the season so far are:

Minshew Stats

The stats are impressive for a rookie quarterback, but they fail to show the energy and life that he’s brought to a Jacksonville team that has been stuck in quarterback purgatory for so long. While the TD:INT ratio and completion percentage reflect the good decision making and accuracy, they fail to showcase his exceptional pocket presence and clutch factor in winning games.

One of the most interesting storylines in Minshew’s NFL wins is the contrast of his draft profile compared to that of the two quarterbacks he’s beaten. Mariota, the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Joe Flacco, the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and even Drew Lock, the 42nd overall pick by the Broncos in this past year’s draft, taken ahead of Minshew.

Minchsew comps

Even with the success of traditionally undersized quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Russel Wilson, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray, few players possessed so many traditional red flags as Minshew. He operated a true air raid offense at Washington State, not one of its closely related counterparts seen throughout college football. He had what was described as threshold arm strength, just enough for an NFL quarterback, but not starter quality. He wasn’t an explosive athlete and didn’t make plays with his legs. The previous quarterback to come out of Washington State, Luke Falk, had a similar scouting report, and was cut by the team that drafted him not even a month into the season. Even with traditional quarterback measurables being slowly replaced, Minshew did not most any standard for an NFL starting quarterback.

But what about the guys who did? Mariota will likely not be resigned by the team that drafted him, Joe Flacco has been good with one magical Super Bowl run, but not regressed significantly ever since, and it remains to be seen what Drew Lock will be.

Gardner Minshew II

What Minshew lacks in physical tools he makes up for with instincts and feel for the quarterback position. Minshew is accurate, shows good anticipation to make up for a lack of arm strength, shows good feel and presence in the pocket, and is confident in his decisions throwing the football. Mariota on the other hand is timid as a passer, rarely challenging tight windows, and needing his receivers to show clear separation before pulling the trigger.

His old head coach Mike Leach said it best in an interview on NFL network, “He’s got great pocket presence, that’s what he probably does best. He doesn’t take negative plays.” In today’s game, where there is a clear talent gap between offensive and defensive line play, quarterbacks who have the athleticism and feel to maneuver the pocket and buy extra time are the ones who are finding success and winning games.

Minshew

The second part of Coach Leach’s quote is equally intriguing, “he doesn’t take negative plays.” Every NFL team has its own “formula” to win football games. For Doug Marrone and the Jaguars that formula is a strong ground attack complemented by an efficient passing game, and strong defense. The Jaguars want their offensive and defensive lines to physically wear you down with body blows, so the same small 3- and 4-yard runs turn into 20+ explosive plays. Think about Fournette’s one big run late in the game versus the Titans after being bottled up the entire night, or his big runs in the second half of the Broncos game. Minshew’s role is simple: don’t turn the ball over, don’t take negative plays, and keep the offense moving on schedule.

So far, he has done that and more. The biggest question hasn’t been the rookie quarterback, but whether Leonard Fournette can consistently look like the player that he was at LSU and versus the Broncos. The former fourth overall pick is still the driving engine behind this offense. The majority of the Jaguars offensive possessions that resulted in punts were due to negative plays in the run game on early downs, putting them behind the sticks.

There are a few areas of Minshew’s game that are allowing him to have this early success, his pocket presence, his decision making and football IQ, and his anticipation as a passer. I looked at a few select plays from his first three starts that highlighted these strengths, and how Minshew is finding early success.

Pocket Presence

Gardner

The second part of Coach Leach’s quote is equally intriguing, “he doesn’t take negative plays.” Every NFL team has its own “formula” to win football games. For Doug Marrone and the Jaguars that formula is a strong ground attack complemented by an efficient passing game, and strong defense. The Jaguars want their offensive and defensive lines to physically wear you down with body blows, so the same small 3- and 4-yard runs turn into 20+ explosive plays. Think about Fournette’s one big run late in the game versus the Titans after being bottled up the entire night, or his big runs in the second half of the Broncos game. Minshew’s role is simple: don’t turn the ball over, don’t take negative plays, and keep the offense moving on schedule.

So far, he has done that and more. The biggest question hasn’t been the rookie quarterback, but whether Leonard Fournette can consistently look like the player that he was at LSU and versus the Broncos. The former fourth overall pick is still the driving engine behind this offense. The majority of the Jaguars offensive possessions that resulted in punts were due to negative plays in the run game on early downs, putting them behind the sticks.

There are a few areas of Minshew’s game that are allowing him to have this early success, his pocket presence, his decision making and football IQ, and his anticipation as a passer. I looked at a few select plays from his first three starts that highlighted these strengths, and how Minshew is finding early success.

This set up the Jaguars for what was almost the game winning touchdown (if not for a terrible 2-point conversion call by Doug Marrone). Minshew once again uses his feet and eyes to pressure the defense. Houston rushes 3 and drops 8 into coverage, trying to force the rookie to make a tight window throw. Jacksonville lines up with trips to the field side and runs routes to two levels to clear things out. The #1 and #3 receivers, Chark and O’Shaughnessy run underneath slants, with the #2 receiver, Westbrook, running a corner route, and Marquise Lee running a backside dig over the top of everything. The goal is to have the two underneath and two over the top levels stretch the Texans zones and for the receivers to work to space in the soft spots that develop.

Texans Play Art

The Texans defense communicates excellently, and passes everything off, tightening all the passing windows. Minshew recognizes this and begins to scramble to put stress on the underneath zone defenders to come up to tackle him. It works perfectly as Chark works to the wide open space at the back of the end zone, and Minshew finds him as he scrambles to his right.

On the play below Minshew is going to have a free blitzer come right in his face. Ideally, he’d find his hot route coming open to his right on a quick drag, but the blitzer blocks the passing lane. Instead of panicking Minshew calmly sidesteps and escapes to buy time and find Dede Westbrook down the sideline. Although the play is negated by a hold, it shows Minshew’s slipperiness to evade and maneuver.

Von Miller and the Broncos defense harassed Gardner all day, but on perhaps his most impressive drive to date, Minshew was able to make Vic Fangio’s defense look silly. Gardner’s contact balance as he steps up and through defenders before escaping from the pocket is reminiscent of prime Tony Romo, redirecting traffic and calmly scanning the field for the big gain.

Which set the Jaguars up for THAT play, the one that has been on SportsCenter top 10 all week. This is a play that’s just pure instincts and feel. The pocket is chaos, there are defenders and offensive linemen crowding him all around, yet he is able to keep the awareness of where his downfield receivers are, have the field vision to quickly scan and find them, and the accuracy to make the off-platform throw.

Which set the Jaguars up for THAT play, the one that has been on SportsCenter top 10 all week. This is a play that’s just pure instincts and feel. The pocket is chaos, there are defenders and offensive linemen crowding him all around, yet he is able to keep the awareness of where his downfield receivers are, have the field vision to quickly scan and find them, and the accuracy to make the off-platform throw.

Decision Making/Football IQ

Gardner Minshew

Quarterbacks are forced to walk a very fine line while playing the position. To be a true “gunslinger” and aggressively look for the big play downfield, but risk turning the ball over like Brett Favre. Or to be given the infamous “game manager” or “captain check down” label, as someone who is too scared to challenge defenses at all. The best quarterbacks in the league know when to do both. Tom Brady will patiently kill you by a thousand little paper cuts, before hitting a big play over the top. He knows the situations and coverages that maximize the risk/reward, and when to take them. While Minshew’s feats buying himself time in the pocket have garnered most of the attention, I’ve been equally impressed with his decision making and ability to quickly diagnose coverage as well.

Minshew has shown similar situational awareness of when to attack deep, and when to take the check down. It’s 3rd & 11 from the 24-yard line. Minshew has the option to try and check it down to shorten the 41-yard field goal for his kicker or be aggressive in trying to get the first down. Mike Vrabel decides to be aggressive, playing press man with Kevin Byard playing single high, and rushing five. Minshew reads it pre-snap and then checks once again that Byard stays in the middle of the field immediately after the snap. Minshew knows that his receiver DJ Chark has the size (6’4”) and speed advantage over cornerback Malcolm Butler (5’11”) and takes a low risk-high reward throw for the touchdown, arching the ball in beautifully over the top.

Given Chark’s size advantage and the ball placement toward the sideline, it’s unlikely that Butler would be able to make a clean play on the ball without Chark making it difficult. Minshew knows this is a low risk-high reward play, and it pays off big time.

Later in the game, Minshew would once again take a well-placed shot downfield. The Titans once again line up in man coverage with Kevin Byard playing single high. Minshew knows pre-snap he likes his matchup of Westbrook on the slot fade versus press coverage. He looks over to Chark on the snap, which gets Byard to take a half step that direction, slowing him down just enough to not range over the top of the slot fade.

Minshew drops the ball perfectly in the bucket, but Westbrook isn’t able to secure the catch, resulting in an incompletion. Although it might look small, that extra half step Byard takes is crucial to the success of the play. Byard is one the best free safeties in the NFL, with the range to make plays all over the field. The quick look to Chark is enough to create the extra 3 yards between Byard over the top and Westbrook at the catch point, and a potential touchdown versus an interception.

This next play against the Broncos also showcases Gardner’s ability to read coverage post snap and take well timed shots. The Broncos come out in a 2-high safety look, with Justin Simmons playing to the offensive right side, splitting the twin receivers on that side. The Broncos run a soft cover-2 with the underneath defenders sinking quickly. Bryce Callahan, #29 is going to come up and jam DJ Chark before sinking with him.

Broncos Play Art

Minshew keys in on Justin Simmons (outlined in red) post-snap, as he is the key read once Minshew knows its cover 2. The Jaguars have 4-verticals called, which does a good job stressing the safeties into trying to play over the top of the routes of the #1 and #2 receivers to their side. Geoff Swaim running the seam is going to hold Simmons there just long enough that he can’t get over the top of Chark. Callahan jams Chark then gets his eyes back to Minshew, which slows him down in his pedal, creating a “hole” in the coverage between himself and Simmons. Minshew puts the ball in the perfect place, on a line high and outside, where Callahan won’t have a chance to make a play underneath, and Simmons won’t have time to get over the top or break on a ball that hangs inside.

Unfortunately, this touchdown was negated due to a holding penalty on Cam Robinson but was still a nice showcase of Minshew’s football IQ. Prior to this play Minshew calmly “dink and dunked” his way down the field, taking short completions that the Broncos allowed. With three timeouts the entire field was available to use, and Minshew showed patience waiting for his touchdown shot, which he took full advantage of when it came.

Anticipation

Gardner Minshew

Given Minshew’s lack of physical arm strength, throwing with timing and anticipation is paramount. We’ve all seen older quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning make up for their diminishing arm strength later in their careers with this trait.

The play below is the type of NFL level throw that quarterbacks routinely need to make. It’s a simple deep out route, but it has to travel about 22 yards through the air.

Minshew quickly recognizes man coverage and has the ball coming out of his hand right as Chark begins to plant his foot to make his break. The Josh Allen’s and Pat Mahomes of the world can wait to make this throw until Chark has his eyes back to the quarterback, delivering it on a frozen rope. Minshew is aware of his limits and is able to get the ball out early before the corner has time to make a break on it.

Similarly, Minshew had two throws for big first downs on his final drive of the Texans and Broncos game. Trying to conserve the clock, the Jaguars are trying to work the sidelines as they drive the field. DJ Chark’s speed warrants off man coverage from the corner, leaving room for the deep curl route. Minshew sees the Texans lined up in a cover-4 alignment and once he sees the outside corner turn into his side shuffle, he knows he’ll have the curl to Chark. The ball is coming out of Minshew’s hand before Chark has even begun to sink his hips to turn. It arrives on time, allowing Chark to get out of bounds for the ideal 2-minute drill play.

On his game winning drive versus the Broncos, there was a little bit of ugly, a little bit of luck, and this beautiful throw to put the Jaguars in field goal range. Jacksonville runs a basic flood pattern, with Chark running a nine route, Westbrook running the deep out, and the tight end Geoff Swaim running a “pig” route into the flat.

Once again Minshew calmly stepped up in the pocket, and has the ball coming out of his hand before Westbrook has even reached the top of his route. The ball hits him in stride allowing him to create after the catch and get into field goal range.

In addition to his anticipation, Minshew’s lower body footwork and quick release allow for an efficient delivery. Minshew does a good job lining his feet and shoulders to his target and driving with his lower body to generate extra power in his throws. Combined with his anticipation, he has the ability to make accurate throws to all levels of the field.

Gardner Minshew Mike Leach

Minshew isn’t perfect. (Editor’s Note: Yes, he is.) The lack of arm strength shows up on drive throws and on some deep balls that falter on him. And while his decision-making leads to fewer turnovers, he will pass up some more aggressive tight window throws in favor of the check down. But what Minshew is doing as a 6th round pick is truly amazing.

Bandana on, mustache trimmed, and a smile on his face, Minshew is enjoying every second of playing the game he loves. His energy is that of a kid playing in the backyard, and its infected the entire team. While Minshew doesn’t fit the traditional quarterback mold, he’s shown he’s exceptional in other areas that are just as important: accuracy, poise, pocket presence, anticipation, football IQ, and the “clutch” factor. It’s not always pretty, but right now Minshew is playing winning football, and keeping the Jaguars in the race for the wide-open AFC South.