Quarterback Progression Process
All NFL quarterbacks use progressions of some kind in the passing game; a way to determine where to go with the football within about 3.5 – seconds. Some quarterbacks can “stretch the play out” and give themselves a little more time and avoid a sack. The pictures below will a quarterback using progressions and it’s easy to see that he gave at least four different receivers a quick look before he finally got the ball to the last receiver in the progression which turned out to be his running back. As the QB comes to the line of scrimmage he will determine if the protection needs to be changed or redirected and then, among other things, what the progression will be based on what he believes is about to happen once the football is in his hands. The quarterback has a thinking process he goes through pre-snap, but once the ball is in his hand, he is reacting to what is going on around him; there is no time to think.
Defenses in the NFL have morphed into concepts that change depending on what the offense does which makes it all but impossible to “read a single defender.” In fact, if a defensive coordinator suspects or knows that a quarterback is trying to read a certain defender, he can easily make that QB throw interceptions by given him false reads, which is why most offenses now use progressions. They still use pre-snap keys, but they go through a progression from one receiver to the next depending on coverage. In the time it takes the high school quarterback to decide his primary receiver isn’t open, the NFL quarterback has already gone through his entire progression of 5 different receivers in some cases while moving in the pocket to extend the play.
Generally speaking, once the quarterback receives the snap from center he shouldn’t even be looking at or tracking his receivers because he should know where they will be when it’s time to throw the football. The quarterback’s main concern is “where are the defenders and where are they going?” His eyes are downfield watching their drops and coverage areas; he isn’t thinking to himself “its cover three on the right side and “bracket coverage” on the other while the football is in his hands, but he is aware of what he sees and he is reacting to what he sees in front of him in relation to the progression of the passing concept.
As the quarterback nears the top of his drop his eyes go to the target area and when his back foot hits the ground, he has already started his throw-motion and then allows himself to react to what he sees. That means the football is coming out unless there is a reason not to make the throw. This is very different from the way quarterbacks used to be trained when it came to reading defenses. In the old days, the quarterback was taught to confirm the receiver was open before he threw the football, but if you do that today you’ll only get to the 1st receiver in the progression and by time the ball gets to him, the DB will most likely be right there to make the tackle, knock the ball down or worse yet, intercept the pass.
Today’s quarterback drops back intending to make a certain throw and even starts his throw-motion not knowing for sure his target will be open, and it turns out this works much better. The football comes out faster and it’s far easier for a quarterback to start his throw-motion in rhythm and stop it (if needed), than it is to wait on the receiver and then try to get the football there before the defense closes in on the receiver. NFL quarterbacks are doing this routinely in games and practices but it happens so fast and they make it look so easy that we don’t notice it at all unless it’s pointed out to us.
The original Top Gun QB Academy located in southern California focuses on teaching NFL techniques to professional athletes as well as college and high school quarterbacks.