IT WAS THE TYPE of mistake that very well might get into a quarterback's head (hello, Jay Cutler) and ruin an entire game, but when the Lions' Matthew Stafford threw a pick-six on his second drive against the Redskins on Sunday, you could have guessed that he'd bounce back with an eight-play touchdown drive and something like his 385 passing yards. And across the line, it was a safe bet that Robert Griffin III would continue to improve (363 total yards) as he worked his way back from off-season ACL surgery. The two QBs combined to throw for 711 yards, and although Stafford, the classic dropback passer, and RG3, the new breed of mobile QB, have distinct styles, they share a few traits: comfort working out of the shotgun, an ability to improvise and total confidence that they can make the big play even after a mistake—all virtues that they developed playing high school football in Texas, a hypercompetitive world that is increasingly leaving its mark on the NFL.
"That's what we do in Texas," Stafford said following Detroit's 27--20 win, beaming with a grin not unlike the one he wore after leading Highland Park High to the 4A Division I state title in 2005. "We throw so much, it's not a big deal when we get to the next level. It's year-round—off-season workouts, spring football and definitely seven-on-seven."
At times Sunday's game looked quite a bit like seven-on-seven (an organized brand of touch football that is growing in popularity in Texas), with the Lions deploying four-receiver sets on nearly half their passing plays and with Griffin operating out of shotgun, rolling right to work the sideline.
The fact is, NFL Sundays have more of a Texas feel than ever before. Last weekend alone Andrew Luck's Colts staged a wild upset over the 49ers, Andy Dalton led the Bengals back from down 16 to shock the Packers, Ryan Tannehill threw a last-minute game-winner for the Dolphins against the Falcons, and Drew Brees dismantled the Cardinals in a Saints victory—winning QBs with Lone Star pedigrees.
All told, seven Texas-bred passers started in Week 3—a whopping 21.9% of the league's QB1s—and eight more held clipboards. In 2011 alone, three of the top eight picks—Luck (No. 1, from Stratford High), Griffin (No. 2, Copperas Cove) and Tannehill (No. 8, Big Spring)—played high school and seven-on-seven football in Texas. And on Sundays we're witnessing the finished product. But if you want to understand how one state is developing so many talented passers, you'll have to head to the source.
IT'S 4 P.M. in Leander, Texas, a suburb northwest of Austin, and 16-year-old Jarrett Stidham—6'3", 190 pounds and clean-cut—has already thrown 12 touchdowns. Or is it 13? It's easy to lose count at the Texas State Seven-on-Seven Championship tournament, where on this mid-July day each team will have three games in pool play in temperatures that reach a mind-melting 100¬∫. Whatever his TD count, Stephenville High's sophomore quarterback needs at least one more to pull even with Fairfield in his second Division II game of the day. And for that to happen he'll draw from the Yellow Jackets' regular-season (11-on-11) playbook, which, like so many others in Texas, bears the imprint of former Stephenville coach Art Briles—the same Art Briles whose spread offense at Baylor helped Griffin win the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
By definition, seven-on-seven is spread football—one quarterback, one center, five receivers—and Stidham's favorite plays have Briles's flair for applying pressure written all over them. "We try to get two receivers in the same area," Stidham explains, "and make the safety decide to follow either the one who runs the dig [a crossing route] or the one who goes long." Plays like this are particularly effective with Stidham, who has one of the strongest arms sideline-to-sideline in the 128-team tournament (even if, to the chagrin of some of his more technique-obsessed observers on this afternoon, he sometimes throws sidearm, much like Stafford).
That right arm has already earned Stidham scholarship offers from Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kentucky and Tennessee—all before he started even one regular-season game at quarterback. In fact, he was a receiver on the Yellow Jackets' Class 3A title team last year. But after an off-season of fine-tuning in spring practices, at college day camps (at each of the aforementioned schools, plus Alabama and Florida) and in more than 20 summer seven-on-seven games, culminating in the Leander tournament, he has a veteran's feel for the position that becomes evident on the third play of this drive, when the safety bites on the dig receiver and Stidham lays the ball into his long receiver's outstretched hands for the touchdown. "Scholarship throw!" one fan yells, and Stidham hustles down to congratulate the teammate, an ear-to-ear smile unobstructed by any face mask. (Seven-on-seven is played without pads or helmets.)
The Yellow Jackets go for two (two-point conversions start at the 10-yard line), and Stidham finds his tight end in the front corner of the end zone for the 43--42 victory. Stephenville will take all three round-robin games, and Stidham will be ranked the day's top performer by Rivals.com, but the kid knows that a win here doesn't matter in the way that a victory in an actual 11-on-11 game two months from now will. (And while his team will be eliminated the next day by Rice Consolidated, Stidham's strong play has since extended into the fall: The Yellow Jackets are 3--1, and he has thrown for 682 yards and eight TDs, plus four more rushing.)
So it is on field 11A in sprawling Southwest Williamson County Regional Park that the next great Lone Star QB might have just been revealed. Or maybe it happened three fields over, where another prodigy was operating the offense he had learned in seventh grade. Or a quarter mile away, where a young man, thought to be a runner, showed off his refined throwing motion.... If you're lucky enough to have a golf cart, you might see any number of future NFL QBs in one of 15 simultaneous games. The pace of the day is frenetic—fans and players scamper through the heat, trying to locate fields tucked away in remote pastures, seeking refuge under the hundreds of pop-up tents that dot the sidelines. On a scale of 1 to 10, the intensity is a 5, a far cry from the 11 of a Friday night in Anytown, Texas. Still, fans here are impressively knowledgeable and eager to get a closer look at their players.
Seven-on-seven is highly organized touch football. Games are 40 minutes long with a running clock and are played on a 45-yard field with two 15-yard first downs. Receivers (there is no running) are down by contact, and there's no blocking or pass rush—a QB has four seconds to release the ball before the referee whistles a play dead. But most important in the development of a young passer is the rule that he cannot take off running, which forces him to read the field and find somewhere to throw.
Old-school types, of course, claim this is not real football. But the 2,000-odd athletes who qualified in regional tournaments to reach this championship and the fans who drove in from all over the state take it rather seriously. So does Adidas, which sponsors the event and outfits every player. So do the Texas high school coaches, who aren't allowed to participate in seven-on-seven but who reap the benefits of their players' staying together all summer, spending less time pursuing other off-season sports. So do the nation's college coaches, who also can't attend but who are guided in their recruiting by seven-on-seven buzz. And so, lately, do franchises in the NFL.
SEVEN-ON-SEVEN, WHICH was big in California long before Texas, is played today all over the country. But as with most things, it's simply bigger in Texas, where some high schoolers compete in more than 50 seven-on-seven games during the summer, playing for their schools in any of 32 qualifying tournaments, or for one of a growing number of national touring teams, or in unaffiliated games outside of leagues. This increasing participation over the past 15-odd years, along with other changes, has helped transform Texas into a quarterback paradise.
The hybrid game provides ample opportunities for quarterbacks to get in extra passing reps, notably those who might be tempted to play other positions—or even other sports. Tannehill, for example, spent his sophomore season in 2004 as a defensive back, and he played both baseball and basketball at Big Spring. "Seven-on-seven was huge for me," says Tannehill. "Without it, I'm not sure I would have had the chance to develop as a high school passer the way I did. It gives you a chance to work on fundamentals like footwork and timing in a game setting. I wouldn't have gotten that elsewhere."
For decades Texas had been a running state, producing powerhouse tailbacks like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas and Ricky Williams while the quarterback well sat dry. Only three passers from Texas high schools were first-round picks between 1978 and 2006, when the Titans took Vince Young No. 3: Andre Ware (No. 6 in '90), David Klingler (No. 7 in '92) and Tommy Maddox (No. 25 in '92), none of whom flourished in the NFL. Then, in the late '90s, the football landscape shifted, with one of the major fault lines located at Stephenville High.
Stephenville has no right being a state powerhouse; with barely 18,000 residents, the middle-income town an hour southwest of Fort Worth hasn't enjoyed the stunning population growth that has touched the suburbs of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. And for this anomaly, they have Briles to thank. In 1988 he took over a program that hadn't reached the playoffs in more than 35 years. To compete with bigger players, bigger talent pools and bigger budgets he developed his version of the spread offense, and it took off. "At the time, I wasn't thinking big picture," says Briles. "I was just trying to figure out something each year. We were having trouble with bigger players, and we started spreading the field to counter that. We kept developing it from there."
Under Briles the Yellow Jackets won four Class 3A D-I titles between 1988 and '99, and they broke a 73-year-old national high school record with 8,664 yards of total offense in '98. Until then, most Texas schools ran the veer and the wing T, and quarterbacks seldom threw. But suddenly, with outliers like Briles, as well as Copperas Cove's Hal Mumme (1986 to '88) and Southlake Carroll's Todd Dodge (2000 to '06), the state's minnows had a template for success.
Larry Zierlein, an offensive line coach with the Arizona Cardinals, has a unique perspective on the phenomenon. In addition to his 37 years as an NFL and college assistant, for the past 17 he has run the Lone Star Coaching Clinic for high school coaches, operating out of College Station. "In 1998, I had two offensive coaches speaking at the same time," Zierlein recalls. "I reserved the big room at the Ramada Inn for the wing T coach, and the small room for Purdue assistant Jim Chaney, who was running a spread offense under [coach] Joe Tiller. The wing T room was practically empty. And we couldn't fit in all the coaches who wanted to find out about the spread." Zierlein says he occasionally brings in NFL people to talk—three of the 17 assistants slated to speak at the next event, in February, are from the pros—but from that subset, high school coaches only want to hear from defensive minds. Says Zierlein, "They don't think they can learn anything they need from the offensive guys in the NFL."
BEFORE GRIFFIN arrived last season, the Redskins ran a pro-style offense: In 2010, according to STATS ICE, Donovan McNabb took 66.1% of his Washington snaps under center. But last year, under the same coaching staff, Griffin lined up in shotgun or in the pistol 76.8% of the time. (That's fewer, still, than Stafford, who took a league-high 85.8% of his snaps from afar.)
Across the board, the trend seems to be for teams to adjust to their quarterback's skill set, instead of the other way around, and the Redskins borrowed from Briles's bag of tricks to help maximize Griffin's talents as a rookie, most notably by using the read-option, often in spread looks. "NFL teams have come around asking questions about our offense," says Briles. "I try not to share too much because I believe that what we do is unique, and I'd like to keep it that way." Whatever Briles is doing, it's working. The Bears currently lead the nation in total offense with 751.3 yards per game, and quarterback Bryce Petty leads the FBS with a 239.5 passer rating, which, if it were to stand, would shatter the current record. Last year Griffin's successor in Waco, Nick Florence, a quarterback with little of Griffin's athleticism and even less of his arm strength, averaged 375.2 total yards, second in the nation to Texas A&M's Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel. (For all his individual flair, Manziel benefited from the same conditions as most other successful Texas QBs, including playing seven-on-seven.)
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, like Briles, gets lots of questions from NFL coaches; the Packers' defensive staff recently visited College Station for a couple of days. Sumlin can see the ways in which the conditions in Texas shaped Johnny Football et al. "These guys walk through the door, and they understand coverages, progressions, blitz looks, site adjustments—things that you used to have to start from zero on—and it's a lot easier to fit them in," he says. "These guys are a step ahead. That has a lot to do with the [state's] coaches, and it has a lot to do with playing seven-on-seven."
Some Texas QBs in the NFL play bigger than their height: Brees (Austin Westlake High), the Chiefs' Chase Daniel (Southlake Carroll) and the Texans' Case Keenum (Wylie) each stand a suboptimal 6 feet. Others are surprisingly quick for their size, such as Tannehill and Luck, who at 6'4" and 240 pounds still ran the fourth-fastest 40 time among 14 QBs in his draft class. Several others hide a fierce competitive streak behind a nice-guy image: Brees, Luck and Dalton (Katy High) certainly fit that category.
Looking for a common denominator? Sumlin believes that Texas-bred quarterbacks seem to have a greater ability to shake off mistakes and focus on the next play. Look at the list of NFL interception leaders dating back to Week 1 of 2012 and you'll see plenty of Texans—Brees, Luck, Dalton and Stafford are all in the top seven. But they're also high on the TD list over the same period, with Brees and Stafford on top, one-two.
"What you're looking for is a mentality," says Briles. "A guy who won't back down." A guy like Keenum, the NCAA's alltime leading passer, whom Briles recruited to Houston in 2006 when he was the Cougars' coach. Now an NFL third-stringer, Keenum spent a July afternoon in Houston, speaking to 125 teenage QBs and receivers at the Air It Out Camp, a traveling crash course in passing fundamentals. There he recounted his road to the NFL. "I got just one offer: University of Houston," he told the kids. "A lot of people told me what I couldn't do. I was too short, didn't have this, didn't have that. But I always believed in myself. You cannot let other people tell you what you can do." Which, of course, is Texas's unofficial state mantra—You're not going to tell me what I can and can't do.
In a sense, Keenum is the predecessor to Manziel. Both play or played under Sumlin (Keenum at Houston, after Sumlin replaced Briles in 2008) and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. But more than anything, you can see in each one some of what drives the Texas QB phenomenon: competitive spirit, moxie, football intelligence and a love of the game.
"One thing all of us have in common, we realize how important it is to play quarterback in Texas," says Keenum. "From a young age, we're taught to respect the game."
JAY GREENE, who heads the department of education reform at Arkansas and who previously served as a professor of government at Texas, firmly believes that athletics and academics are mutually beneficial, and that Texas football breeds a competitive spirit, as reflected by the state's recent economic growth. According to Greene, competitive spirit and lax regulation provide a fertile ground for creativity and excellence. "The amount of competition within Texas is huge, and a highly competitive environment is going to increase innovation and motivate people to do things differently," Greene says. "It's no surprise that Texas is producing athletic innovation. You've seen a similar spirit of innovation in Texas's business world.... It's a place where thinking differently is valued and produces results. It's in part a mind-set. And that mind-set certainly is seen in football."
It's a mind-set that can also lead to controversy—controversy to which seven-on-seven is hardly immune. High school coaches may not be allowed to oversee practices or coach games, but for the most part they handpick their team's seven-on-seven staffs and are able to keep tabs on their players. Meanwhile, traveling all-star teams, led by coaches unaffiliated with any high school program (or even by players themselves), are becoming ever more popular, leaving some observers to fear that seven-on-seven could evolve into AAU basketball, where kids become vulnerable to outside forces.
Doug Stephens, the executive director of Texas's seven-on-seven championship, says that the state's governing board over football is well aware of the threat of outsiders co-opting seven-on-seven. (Several prominent college coaches, including the University of Texas's Mack Brown, believe that high school coaches should be more directly involved with their seven-on-seven teams.) Meanwhile, he points out that he's getting more calls every year from parties in neighboring states that want to duplicate the three-day tournament. As soon as it wraps up in Leander this year, equipment will be shipped to Arkansas for a similar event.
And who knows? Maybe one of those areas will someday catch up to Texas in its ability to churn out quarterbacks. Geographic trends shift. Western Pennsylvania, where pro-style offenses caught on early, was a QB hotbed from the 1950s through the '80s. That all ended as the Rust Belt population dwindled, but Texas won't have that problem any time soon. It was the fastest-growing state from 2000 to '10, and last year five of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in Texas. Even if other states show the same commitment to spread offenses and off-season activities, it will be hard to match Texas's intensity.
BACK IN Washington on Sunday, the spread formations and the creative throws from the two quarterbacks gave the game a distinctly seven-on-seven, touch football feel, but while his home state's influence is still clear in his playing style, Stafford, in his fifth season with Detroit, seems to be losing a bit of his Texas accent. He says he's a big RG3 fan and that he roots for Texas quarterbacks—he's just not sure when he sees one. "They are so many," he says, "I can't keep track."
Says Briles, "With seven-on-seven and all the [evolving] passing attacks, Texas is going to keep churning them out. Other states will catch up in some ways. But they'll never match the passion in this state. We're going to keep pushing the envelope. And we're definitely going to keep passing."
Seven Texas-bred passers started last week—21.9% of NFL QB1s.
Texas high school coaches "don't think they can learn anything from the offensive guys in the NFL," says Zierlein.
Drew Brees, Saints
Threw for 50 TDs and 5,461 yards at Austin Westlake, where he was 28-0-1 as a starter. Despite being named Class 5A D-II MVP in 1996, only Purdue and Kentucky made offers.
Andy Dalton, Bengals
Didn't earn full-time starting job at Katy High until senior year, in 2005. Took Tigers to Class 5A D-II title game, but fell to Southlake Carroll and QB Greg McElroy, now on Cincy's practice squad.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Starred at Copperas Cove, where Hal Mumme introduced the Air Raid offense in the 1980s. Initially committed to join Briles at Houston; followed him to Baylor.
Andrew Luck, Colts
Carried Stratford to 2007 seven-on-seven finals, where they fell to Georgetown; then, as a junior, helped the Knights, a Houston school not known for football, end a 13-year playoff drought.
Christian Ponder, Vikings
Led Colleyville Heritage to third place in 2005 seven-on-seven playoffs and earned all-district honors as a senior in the ultracompetitive Dallas suburbs.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
Modest 1,258 passing yards in 2006 as a senior at Big Spring, a doormat for teams like Odessa Permian, which in '04 slaughtered his Steelers right before the premiere of the Friday Night Lights movie.
Matthew Stafford, Lions
Baseball standout at Highland Park (alongside teammate Clayton Kershaw) before quitting to focus on football. Threw for 4,108 yards, 38 TDs in 2005 and was named EA Sports' Player of the Year.
Chase Daniel, Chiefs
Seth Doege, Falcons*
Matt Flynn, Raiders
Nick Foles, Eagles
Jerrod Johnson, Bears*
Case Keenum, Texans
Kevin Kolb, Bills
Ryan Mallett, Patriots
Josh McCown, Bears
Luke McCown, Saints
Colt McCoy, 49ers
Greg McElroy, Bengals*
Week 4's big Dolphins-Saints showdown has a decidedly Texan taste to it: QBs Ryan Tannehill and Drew Brees both come in undefeated. Peter King tells you what to expect in his Window into the Weekend at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DEEP THOUGHTS Stafford, a shining example of the Texas QB movement, looked downfield often on Sunday, connecting on four passes of 25 or more yards against the Redskins.
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FIELD OF DREAMERS Young mavericks such as Stidham (right) often get their first serious dose of downfield passing in seven-on-seven (left), which from above resembles the spread game found throughout college and the pros.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BREES)
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DALTON)
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LUCK)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GRIFFIN)
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PONDER)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TANNEHILL)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STAFFORD)
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED