What makes a successful NFL QB?

By all accounts it looks like the Carolina Panthers will draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick. Whether it is the right selection or not will not be known for years.

We will find out by week’s end whether the months and months of evaluating, poking and prodding, debating and arguing will result in just two quarterbacks (Newton and Blaine Gabbert) being taken in the first round, or whether NFL teams have convinced themselves that Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton and/or Colin Kaepernick are worth the risk of moving up into the later part of the first round to procure.

When I wrote "The Winning Edge" with Bill Walsh and asked him to quantify the individual characteristics he thought made up a great quarterback, his answers were — as usual — very eclectic, cerebral and outside the box. I thought it might be a good time to revisit that list and how it applies to this year’s crop of quarterback prospects.

He began with the what he called “functional intelligence.” That is the ability to organize and isolate different categories of tasks that you have to be able to perform. This is not strictly IQ that is constantly being measured and quantified. More, it is the ability to break things down in a more simplistic manner and not overcomplicate the response.

Bill’s system demanded that the quarterback not only knew what to do, but understood the elements of what went into any number of decisions that had to be made on virtually every throw.

Through this lens, Gabbert, Ponder and Dalton shoot to the top of the list. Ponder graduated in just two and a half years, and when you talk with coaches about all three of these athletes their intelligence is the first think people bring up. Locker also ranks high on this list but his athletic intelligence is what jumps out at you. He is the proverbial “gym rat” that every coach wants his quarterback to be. Newton strikes me as very intelligent and is probably the most articulate in expressing it among this group.

Coach Walsh always spoke of an instinctive intuition for the mechanics of playing quarterback. He said instinctive only in the sense that the athlete may not know he possesses these attributes and simply has to be exposed to them to know that they exist. If, however, after a period of time it does not begin to manifest itself, you cannot develop or manufacture it.

If it is not there you are wasting your time. Likewise, if a player shows a continual unraveling or anxiousness that removes his spontaneity and causes repeated mistakes it is near impossible to change this.

Those that have it are a breed apart. You could see this in Joe Montana even back in his college days, both in his calmness under pressure and his anticipation for things happening around him. Among the present group of quarterbacks Newton stands out. Of all his excellent qualities, this one may top the list.

Newton truly seems to have a sixth sense about where he is and what he needs to do. Watching the film of him in Auburn’s comeback against Alabama, there are moments where Newton exhibits an otherworldly presence in the pocket. It is not haphazard or reckless, but very instinctive. Locker also excels in this area. Kaepernick seems the most poised in these types of situations.

The willingness to improve with constant repetition was also a staple for Walsh. The ability to take the mechanics of the position and constantly work them within the proper confines of his abilities.

Those who are familiar with Macolm Gladwell’s Outliers will recognize it as the 10,000 hours it takes to develop an expertise in any endeavor. Efficiency in a quarterback’s footwork is an excellent example of this. Working with the quarterback’s feet is probably the biggest thing a coach can do to improve a player’s ability to express himself at the position.

Coaches are finding that there are any number of people may have the pureness of mechanics to sit unencumbered in the pocket and efficiently set their feet, transfer weight from the back to front foot and efficiently follow through with the arm and shoulder.

The problem is that few throws are made in this placid, unhurried atmosphere outside of warm-up and 7-on-7 drills. In a live game, the quarterback must have the physical skills and mechanics to deliver the ball effectively while moving in the pocket, throwing off his back foot or scrambling for his life.

This is in Ponder’s and Dalton’s wheelhouse. Their mechanics are the tightest and most refined — they should be. Ponder threw close to 1,000 passes as a three-year starter, while Dalton had better than 1,300 as a four-year starter.

Kaepernick is up in this area as well, and seems very comfortable in his own skin. Mallett has the best pure arm of any quarterback in the draft and has attempted more than 800 throws in the past two years, but at times seems to rush himself.

Some people might find it interesting that it took this long to bring up the throwing action of the quarterback. You will notice we did not say arm strength. There are certain assumptions you make about the arm strength of any quarterback, particularly if he has had success in any degree.

It is well documented that arm strength alone is not a major determining factor for a quarterback’s success. The ability to put whatever necessary touch on the ball in a smooth and efficient manner is much more important than pure power.

All of these quarterbacks have the basic abilities to throw the ball well. Mallett has the best arm, while Newton and Locker are the best throwers outside of the pocket. Kaepernick may have the best overall throwing action with a huge arm, however he is going to have to develop more touch to have what Coach Walsh would call “the full repertoire of throws” needed to succeed in the NFL.

Emotional strength is something Coach Walsh put a very high premium on. Playing quarterback in the NFL is likely the most emotionally demanding position in all of team sports. Each quarterback may handle these demands differently, but each must have the courage of his convictions to stand his ground as opposed to just being stubborn and accepting no accountability or responsibility for his play. The difference is incredibly subtle.

This is obviously where the very gifted Mallett is criticized greatly. It is not just the off-the-field concerns, but also that lack of maturity he has exhibited on the field when things don’t go well. It’s not that you want your QB to be totally emotionless to the point of looking as though he doesn’t care (which was the rap on Jay Cutler in the NFC Championship Game).

But of all the players on your team, your quarterback has to be able to cut through the “fog of war” and maintain his composure in the most heated of situations. With what Newton has been put through, he gets high marks in this area.

Finally, the quarterback must understand that his leadership abilities must come through his performance first. We have all seen the player who has a casual, easy way about him that makes people naturally draw to him.

Often this player will exhibit skills that naturally draw his teammates to him, but if he cannot deliver the goods, so to speak, his teammates and coaches will eventually gravitate elsewhere.

This will not come from simply buying your linemen dinner or hanging out at the bar playing darts with the guys. At the end of the day each of these players has been identified as a leader because they have been particularly effective in leading each of their teams to success. The question remains will they combine the right ratios of the qualities listed above to be successful in the NFL. We shall see.