Lone Star quarterbacks spreading across NFL

HOUSTON —  In May, something happened in the NFL that seems like it should have happened before, but never had. When Andrew Luck of Stratford High School, Robert Griffin III of Copperas Cove and Ryan Tannehill of Big Spring were taken in the NFL Draft, it marked the first time in the 76-year history of the draft that the first three quarterbacks taken were all native Texans.

On the surface, this seems significant in a trivia-question kind of way, but it doesn’t feel particularly meaningful. If anything, it feels a little surprising that this had never happened before. Texas is a big state where high school and college football are immensely popular. You would expect this sort of thing to happen from time to time.

But this is more than an inevitable, but ultimately meaningless, coincidence. It is the result of a subterranean shift in the football landscape two decades in the making.

Or, perhaps more to the point, a shift from the plains of Texas to its skies.

“I grew up in the state of Arkansas, watching the old Southwest Conference and watching the type of football played,” said Tommy Tuberville, now the coach at Texas Tech. “For years there, there weren’t too many quarterbacks that came from the state of Texas and played in the NFL.”

For decades, the best quarterbacks always came from California or the Rust Belt, with a few southerners mixed in. Of the first three quarterbacks taken in each draft from 1990-2000 (33 total), eight were from California and seven were from Pennsylvania or Ohio. The only native Texans were Andre Ware and David Klingler, both of whom ran the Run-N-Shoot at the University of Houston.

But in the mid-90s, something had started spreading across Texas, and it was the spread offense.

Chris Massey has been coaching high school football in the state since 1989, with stops at Conroe, perennial power Katy and now Deer Park.

“When I first started coaching, everybody ran a two-back or three-back offense,” he said. “If you threw it 12 times a game, whew, you threw the ball a lot.”

This was largely the influence of the regional colleges trickling down. At the time, both Texas and Texas A&M operated ground-oriented offenses, as did the majority of the Southwest Conference. Houston was throwing it around, but Houston was an outlier. Even a Texas kid being recruited north to the Big Eight, where he might play somewhere like Oklahoma or Nebraska, probably was being recruited to play in an I-formation or option offense.

And this affected the way high school coaches assembled and coached their teams. The best athlete almost always played running back, and you did everything you could to make sure he had the ball as often as possible.

But in about the mid-90s Massey could see that changing. Teams began putting those great athletes at quarterback and started trying to spread the field. Massey did it himself. At Deer Park he runs the same offense he always has, with the same play calls and everything, but he does it out of spread formations now.

At the same time all of this was happening, another movement was afoot. The 7-on-7 drill, traditionally just a drill used by quarterbacks and receivers in practice, was becoming a game of its own. The State of Texas hosted its first 7-on-7 state championship in 1998. The game is played in the summer, in shorts and T-shirts. There is no tackling, no blocking and no offensive line apart from the center. There is a running clock with no timeouts. The quarterback has four seconds to throw the ball. It’s 15 yards for a first down, and the field is only 45 yards long.

You can imagine the effect this has on a quarterback. He gets to experiment will every kind of throw in the book. He spends all his mental energy learning to read coverages without worrying about a pocket. And he gets a number of repetitions in a competitive environment that otherwise would be impossible. High school coaches are not allowed to coach during the summer, so, much like AAU basketball, 7-on-7 football is a way for quarterbacks and other skill position players to develop in the offseason.

There is now an entire generation of Texas high school quarterbacks who don’t know any different, and they take that 7-on-7 training right back to their spread offenses in the fall. Texas coach Mack Brown, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Tuberville all cited the 7-on-7 game as a major reason so many good quarterbacks come out of the state now.

“Over the last four or five years the offenses have really leaned heavy on spread-passing style attacks in high school,” Gundy said. “I think it’s almost an on-the-job training for those quarterbacks before they get into college.”

Of course, Texas has always produced a lot of NFL players at all the positions. It is Texas, after all. It’s a big state, and high school football is king. 

For the last four years, about 11 percent of the total NFL population has been from the state of Texas.

That’s second to California (12 percent), and just ahead of Florida (10 percent). No other state comes close to those three. This is not surprising, as California is home to nearly 38 million people, while Texas has just under 26 million.  

But among the 84 active quarterbacks in the NFL right now, 18 (21 percent) are from Texas, including eight starters. California has 14 overall and six starters, and the entire deep South (which we’ll call Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida) has 16 total quarterbacks and five starters.

Put another way: For every 1.4 million Texans, there is an NFL quarterback from the state, which blows away California (2.7 million:1), the South (2.6 million:1), the combination of Ohio and Pennsylvania (2.4 million:1), the Midwest (4.5 million:1) and the U.S. as a whole (3.5 million:1).

“I think you can look anywhere, any state, and tell which types of offenses are in the rotation in the state,” Tuberville said.

In other words, something like the Luck-Griffin-Tannehill trifecta wasn’t a freak coincidence. It was at least eight years in the making.

Whether or not this is a “good” thing is debatable and probably irrelevant. There is, perhaps, some collective thickening of the stew in Texas, just from having so many of its own play the most high-profile position in American sports. But it doesn’t mean Texas high school football is necessarily played at a higher level than it was in 1990. It just means the passing game is.

Brown, Tuberville and Massey all said the spread of the spread has had a detrimental effect on other aspects of the game. Offensive linemen in the state sometimes have trouble firing off the ball in straightforward run-blocking situations, defensive players have skewed smaller out of necessity, and fullbacks and tight ends barely even exist.

“If you’re looking for a blocking tight end, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree,” Tuberville said. “You better go somewhere else.”

Those kids, Tuberville said, still exist. It isn’t that children born in the state of Texas suddenly, in one generation, got smaller and quicker. It’s just that if the TV version of Friday Night Lights were real, Tim Riggins would have been on defense.