See spots. That's my thing now. The older I've gotten, the more that's become my thing. Don't worry so much about where defenders should be or where they're supposed to be or all those kinds of things. Just see spots.
- Matt Ryan
In August, Matt Ryan was asked where he would start if he was teaching young quarterbacks how to beat the NFL's new generation of defenses. The Falcons quarterback answered with a phrase that drew some criticism because it sounded as if he had lessened the importance of reading defenses and was simplifying what everyone agrees isn't simple: playing quarterback in the NFL.
"When some people saw it they freaked out," Eagles backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. "But [Ryan is] one of the smartest people I know. There's something to be said about overcomplicating the quarterback position, and that is when guys struggle. When you're just seeing literally every single possible thing on the field it's not always good. You don't always want to do that.
"So I get it. I didn't know how to verbally say it, but ['see spots'] makes sense."
It's clearly working for Ryan, who returns to his hometown as the NFL's hottest quarterback. The 6-3 Falcons, who will face the Eagles on Sunday, have the league's highest-scoring offense and the Exton native is receiving MVP buzz after the most prolific nine-game stretch of his nine-year career.
His counterpart would probably be the type of young quarterback to benefit from Ryan's sage advice. Carson Wentz said that he actually read Ryan's training camp interview with ESPN The Magazine after Daniel forwarded it to him this past week.
Wentz said he had never heard the phrase "see spots," but he related it to progression reads quarterbacks go through as they look for "areas" their receivers will be open. But to combat evolving defenses and to get the ball out quicker it is sometimes easier to go into a play knowing what spots will likely be open based upon a particular coverage.
You still have to see the defense, but there often isn't as much time anymore to go through the reads, "1, 2, 3." There are shortcuts - like seeing spots - that can be taken after you've read the coverage pre-snap.
"Every play is like a math problem," Wentz said Friday. "So you're like, 'OK, safety's there. Here's my indicator. It's Cover 2.' And there's certain times when you just don't need to stress about all that because you know, it's doesn't matter what they're giving me, I'm throwing to him if he's open.
"If I drop back and then the defender's already in that spot - I think that's what [Ryan's] getting at - then he's not going to be open. So I just go to the next spot."
Wentz and Ryan have a fair share in common. They were both top-three draft picks. They both started in the NFL from day one. They both went through ups and downs in their first season, although the Falcons would make the playoffs in 2008. The Eagles' postseason hopes, in part because of Wentz's recent struggles, are hanging by a thread.
But Ryan, who said he has watched Wentz a few times this season, didn't have to face in his first season defenses as complex as they are now. What originally led to his "see spots" comment was a discussion about how versatile schemes, hybrid defenders, and disguised pressures have led him to prefer "spot-read" pass plays rather than those based on coverages.
"The longer you play the more you know what certain coverages look like," Ryan said during a conference call Wednesday. "Teams do such a good job of disguising and making it difficult on you. And so, recognition of spots and what spots look like in certain coverages and knowing how to attack that - I think that's the No. 1 thing."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said that he teaches his quarterbacks about "space focusing," which he equated to Ryan's "see spots" concept. His quarterbacks approach the line of scrimmage with a "first wide vision" of sideline to sideline. They then work to a "second wide vision" that is narrower. Then they read the defensive front.
"And then the 'third wide,' which is really now that space focus that we're talking about at the snap," Pederson said. "You're like, 'OK, I have an idea about where I want to go.' You don't necessarily want to look at your man, obviously, but there are spots on the field where you think at least your guy's going to be.
"You're looking into space. You 'space focus' that area."
It hasn't shown up as much in the stat sheet, but Wentz has improved at manipulating zone coverages with this eyes. While "see spots" is mostly a zone concept, it can apply to man-to-man defense.
"For instance, if you're throwing a slot fade," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, "there's a spot where we call, 'On the red line,' where you think that ball is going to be completed."
Wentz threw just outside the "red line" on the Eagles' final play last Sunday in the loss to the New York Giants. Receiver Jordan Matthews could have looked back sooner and adjusted, but the pass was slightly errant. It may have stung, but put into proper perspective, it was just one of the many disappointments Wentz will have to endure.
The irony of Ryan's "see spots" advice to young quarterbacks is that it took him years to come to that realization, and really, to have enough experience to get to that point.
"That's developed over time, and over reps," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, "because, let's face it, playing quarterback you keep getting better because of the experience you have, your skills are getting better, you're mental quickness is getting better."
Wentz, by most estimates, is ahead of pace. He said he already has plays where he knows he can "speed up" his reads based on his knowledge of defenses. And he, of course, has the arm strength to carry out what he envisions.
"What separates quarterbacks now [is] the ability to process all that information in a millisecond, make a good decision based off that snapshot and then to physically be able to get the ball to where you want it to go."
- Matt Ryan
Wentz has had setbacks and will continue to have setbacks. But patience should be rewarded. Ryan has been one of the league's best quarterbacks for years, but it took this long for him to see the light.