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Crumbling their cookies: Why arm strength matters

It’s not just about the deep ball

In 2020, Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen’s passes traveled an average of 21.4 true air yards. This was most in the league, per ESPN. “True air yards” represents the actual distance the pass traveled accounting for horizontal distance, as opposed to simply “air yards,” which measures distance traveled perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.

At the time I encountered this metric, I tweeted it out with the following final statement: “There are more ways of taking advantage of a big arm than throwing 60-yard bombs every play. Make the D defend every blade of grass.”

It was at the suggestion of Buffalo Rumblings Editor-in-Chief Matt Warren that I elaborate on this tweet. Sometimes in the scouting process and even with existing NFL quarterbacks, arm strength is simply equated with distance throwing, and the benefits of having a cannon attached to your shoulder aren’t discussed any farther than that. The pleasant thing about this discussion for Buffalo Bills fans is that their starting quarterback has arguably the strongest arm in the NFL. Let’s dive into the non-target depth related pluses to pass velocity...


A. LESSENS NEED FOR ANTICIPATION

Anticipation and arm strength are inversely proportional in terms of necessity for NFL quarterbacks. The more of one you have, the less of the other you need. Quarterbacks who have less than ideal arm strength need to make their throws earlier to have them arrive at the target at the same time as a stronger-armed player—meaning their anticipatory traits need to be superior. There are quarterbacks who have managed this balance effectively to Hall of Fame results (Drew Brees chief among them), but the added need for anticipation brings with it opportunity to get fooled by the defense. The earlier you make the throw, the less of the defense’s movement you’ve seen prior to launch, which then necessitates superior diagnosis skills. In this way, the lack of arm strength actually creates the need for TWO more quarterback traits to help offset that void.

B. EXPANDS AREA OF TARGETABLE FIELD

There is a common turn of phrase in the scouting community that a quarterback “can make all the throws.” The only reason this phrase is even part of the vernacular is because there are plenty of signal callers who CAN’T make all the throws. In a previous Buffalo Rumblings piece, writer Jeff Kantrowski talked about Nathan Peterman’s lack of ball velocity and how it relates to out-breaking routes. Multiple interceptions were thrown by Peterman and other players like him because they simply don’t have the hose to get the ball to its intended location on time. The added split seconds the ball is in the air when compared to a quarterback with a strong arm is all that’s required for a big defensive play.

C. MAINTAINS OPTIONS IN THE RED ZONE

I mentioned above that the targetable parts of the field expand with a strong-armed quarterback, but in the red zone, that arm strength takes on a different function with the available field drastically shrunk: It allows passes to be completed in smaller windows. Players will tell you that everything speeds up in the red zone, and the ball velocity being able to keep up is a boon to the offense.

D. ENVENOMS THE SCRAMBLE DRILL

A subsection that could be filed under point “B” to be certain, but given Josh Allen’s particular flair for the dramatic, I felt it deserves its own letter. When the quarterback initiates the scramble drill, either through the conclusion of their progressions or pre-emptive pressure, typically half the field will be cut off from them as they scramble right or left of the pocket. The adage “don’t throw late across your body” is specifically such because quarterbacks historically do not have the ball velocity to make cross-field throws without a defender closing that window due to the amount of time the ball needs to be in the air. If you have an exceptionally strong arm, these types of throws, although still not always advisable, are a threat and, as such, it opens up windows for players like Stefon Diggs to show their aptitude as receivers in the scramble drill.

E. EMPOWERS RPO AND PLAY ACTION

Getting defenders out of position is a huge part of playing offensive football in 2021. Play-action and RPO (Run-Pass Option) usage continues to be high as offenses seek to take advantage of defensive players having to confirm the ball location before getting to their assignments in coverage. Defenses can attempt to mitigate this with better athletes in the back seven. They’re trying to make sure those windows that are opened through RPO and play-action usage close quicker, but if your quarterback has tremendous ball velocity, even the best athletes won’t be able to close those windows before a ball is whizzing by them.

F. ADDS MECHANICAL MARGIN FOR ERROR

Not everything is going to go right every play in the NFL. Sometimes the defense wins. Sometimes they pick the right play to cover what you had called as an offense. Sometimes the tackle gets beat. And on these occasions, the quarterback may have to make throws from less-than-ideal platforms and angles. Any boxer will tell you that arm power is largely related to the bottom half of your body’s ability to transfer power through your hips into a smooth and powerful arm motion, but the ability to plant perfectly and make a throw as one would at Organized Team Activities happens much less frequently than NFL QBs would prefer and, in these moments, having velocity that can be generated with your arm under disadvantageous lower body circumstances is critical. Stefon Diggs’s third touchdown against the New England Patriots in Foxborough during the 2020 season was made possible because Josh Allen can generate excellent velocity while running to his left with a quick flip of his hips and throwing mostly off-balance.

There are plays that strong-armed quarterbacks can make in the NFL that others simply cannot. As with any trait, it gives the team options.


...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!