Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh has been dead for over a decade, but how he impacted the game of football and evaluated the quarterback position still shines bright.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh knew Walsh well, Walsh even gave him tips on footwork when Harbaugh was the Chicago Bears starting quarterback. When Harbaugh was introduced as the head coach of Stanford in 2006, Walsh (a former Stanford head coach and interim AD) was in attendance. During Harbaugh’s first year at Stanford, he was able to pick Walsh’s brain aplenty and share conversations about life, and football. Although Walsh passed away in 2007 before Harbaugh’s first season at Stanford, Harbaugh has since implemented drills that are inspired by something the late coach told him.
“It’s in the name of Bill Walsh,” Harbaugh said in 2015. “I spent time with Bill Walsh, before he passed away, during my first year at Stanford. And I asked him one day ‘what do you look for in a quarterback?’ And he said ‘athletic instincts.’”
“I asked (Walsh) what he meant by that and he said ‘it means he’s the best athlete in the entire high school. He could go make the basketball team, at least be the sixth man, he could make the soccer team, he can swim, he can field balls from center field, he can be a shortstop and could probably pitch on the baseball team,’ “ Harbaugh said.
I thought it would be a good time to bring up the Walsh/Harbaugh relationship at this point in the season, specifically with Harbaugh calling the loss to Wisconsin a “gut-check”. Bill Walsh will always have an impact on Harbaugh innately, no matter how many years that pass, and diving into his teachings is fun for a writer like me that appreciates the history of this game we love.
Michigan’s at a point in the season where anything and everything should be on the table to change course, and yes, that means at the quarterback position as well. There are many areas of improvement needed for the team to get to where they need to be, quarterback included, and as it stands, the competition should be open and fluid going forward between Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey.
Without interjecting my own opinions on who should see the field in games to come, without speculating on how banged up Shea Patterson is or how bad McCaffrey’s concussion was, I simply want to use Bill Walsh’s philosophy for evaluating quarterbacks to ask some questions in a little while.
Instincts- “To become a great quarterback, there must be instincts and intuition. This is the area that can be the difference between a very solid quarterback and a great quarterback. This isn’t an area you can do much with as a coach. You can certainly bring a quarterback up to a competitive standard, but to reach greatness the quarterback must possess that inherently.”
Demeanor- “He must be courageous and intensely competitive. He will be the one on the field who is running the team. His teammates must believe in him or it may not matter how much physical ability he has. If he is courageous and intensely competitive, then other players will know and respect that. This will be a foundation for becoming a leader.”
Mobility- “Mobility and an ability to avoid a pass rush are crucial. Some quarterbacks use this mobility within the pocket just enough so they are able to move and pass when they “feel” a rush. But overall quickness and agility can make a remarkable difference. As an example, there were some very quick boxers in Sugar Ray Leonard’s era, but he was quicker than they were and because of that he became a great champ.”
Productive while injured- “Quarterbacks must be able to function while injured. The pro season is about twice as long and more punishing than a college season. They are vulnerable to getting hit hard every time they pass. They must be able to avoid being rattled, get up and show they are in control and can continue to lead the offense.”
Delivery- “A quick delivery , one that is not telegraphed to help the defense, gives the quarterback an advantage when he finds his intended target. That’s when it is essential to get the ball “up and gone’’ with no wasted motion. Some of this can be acquired by learning proper technique. But to a certain degree, a quick release is related to a quarterback’s reaction time between spotting his receiver and getting the ball “up and gone.’’
Touch- “Touch is important, especially in a medium range passing game. One of Joe Montana’s most remarkable skills was putting the right touch on a pass so that it was easily catchable by a receiver, who often did not have to break stride.”
What makes a great QB- “The single trait that separates great quarterbacks from good quarterbacks is the ability to make the great, spontaneous decision, especially at a crucial time. The clock is running down and your team is five points behind. The play that was called has broken down and 22 players are moving in almost unpredictable directions all over the field. This is where the great quarterback uses his experience, vision, mobility and what we will call spontaneous genius. He makes something good happen.”
Questions after looking at Walsh’s criteria
- Does one of Michigan’s quarterbacks have the ability to make great spontaneous decisions during crucial times?
- Will one of Michigan’s QB’s show an intense competitiveness that rallies his teammates and makes them believe this season isn’t over and they’re never out of a game?
- Does one of them have inherent instincts at the position? The type of instincts that can’t be coached.
- Which QB would be considered the best athlete at their high school and could play multiple sports?
- What about a quick delivery and the ability to deliver an accurate ball with touch?
- How about mobility that goes beyond the functional variety, mobility that actually has a defense concerned the quarterback can take one to the house on a read-option run?
Walsh’s criteria is rock solid, and whoever checks more of the boxes will give Michigan the best chance to get the 2019 season back on track.