WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Drew Brees corrals the snap, takes a three-step drop and makes his first read down the right sideline.
The Allegheny Mountains sit beyond his receiver, but the view in front of the mountain view isn’t what he wants to see.
His first read is covered. One Mississippi.
Brees bounces to his left, positioning himself toward the middle of the field as he continues his progressions, and extends his neck to so he can see over the line.
Pressure begins to emerge through the middle. Two Mississippi.
Brees takes a step and begins to roll to the left. He takes one step, then another. There’s his man. Brees lets go of the ball, and rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks reels in the pass as the clock nears 3 seconds.
The play only contained minor dramatics, but Brees knows he was cutting it close — something his critics say he now does too often. He was sacked a career-high 37 times last season; like all other quarterbacks, Brees learned long ago that the best way to avoid absorbing contact or being sacked is to get rid of the ball before the clock ends up on the wrong side of 3 seconds.
But the clock isn’t what told him to get rid of the ball. Sure, Brees’ instincts likely alerted him that he was beginning to near the danger zone before he saw a man coming up the middle. But there was something more obvious telling him it was time to get the ball out of his hands.
“My feet tell me when to throw or when to run,” Brees said. “We call it the clock in your head, but the clock in your head comes from your feet because you know that this is a three-step drop or this is a five-step drop. One hitch there, two hitches there. If you get to that third hitch, you’re running out of time and there’s going to be guys on top of you.”
Like any other organization, the Saints put a stopwatch on every pass thrown by their quarterbacks. It’s a constant point of emphasis for quarterbacks coach Mike Neu, but not in the same way it is with armchair analysts. You could tell Neu that Brees took an average of 2.73 seconds to throw last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and point out that figure is well above the 2.64 seconds he posted in 2011, but those numbers are meaningless to him.
It’s not that he isn’t worried about how long Brees takes to get the ball out. He worries about that aspect of the offense more than anyone. It’s his job. The problem is that the data lacks context and doesn’t account for variables.
Each and every throw is different. New England’s Tom Brady (2.46 seconds in 2013) is annually among those with the fastest triggers in the NFL, but he makes his living throwing short and intermediate passes. Brees, on the other hand, last season threw 77 passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air, fourth-most in the NFL. Those plays take longer to develop than, say, a bubble screen.
So, instead of placing a hard clock on his quarterbacks, Neu encourages his players to accomplish a certain aspect of the passing process within a certain amount of time.
“There’s always a timing mechanism involved,” Neu said. “In the progression, they know how quick they have to get off the No. 1 or No. 2 guy to get to the back side of it. There’s that clock in their head. We watch all the film and talk about two hitches on throws; we’ll talk about this is a set-up-and-one-hitch throw, this is a no-hitch throw. Those guys know that.”
Brees took a beating last year. The 37 sacks he absorbed not only set a career high, it obliterated his previous mark of 27, set in 2005 with San Diego. This led to speculation that he was holding onto the ball too long at times. The numbers add some credence to that line of thinking.
In 2011, Brees was sacked in an average of 3.34 seconds. That number climbed to 3.72 last season. There are many possibilities for that number jumping, including the quality of protection from the offensive line or his receivers taking longer to get open. But it could be he saw more situations where he was asked to hold onto the ball.
And, yes, there are times when the right move for a quarterback is to hold the ball as long as possible, like when a defense drops eight men into coverage in an effort to take away all passing opportunities.
“Defensively, we will play some two-deep, six-under where we drop eight (into coverage). When we are dropping eight, you are going to see ... a smart quarterback pitch, flush, hold onto the ball because he has a three-man rush versus a four-man rush,” coach Sean Payton said. “Hopefully the plays where we’re holding onto the ball longer, it’s because they’ve seen it’s a three-man surface and now playing that defensively means the quarterback is going to have another hitch. He is going to have another step or move.”
What does that mean for the quarterback’s overall time to throw?
“I would want to make sure that, as I’m watching, ‘Hey, has he gotten a handful of these drop-eight coverages?’ ” Payton said. “Because when they see drop-eight, they are going to hold onto the ball and really stretch the defense.”
The Saints purchased a computer system during the offseason that is programmed to sound a horn every 2 seconds when the play calls for the quarterback to take a two-step drop, or every 3 seconds on a five-step drop.
If the quarterback has already gotten rid of the ball, the play runs its natural course. But if the quarterback is still holding the ball when the horn blows, he is to begin scrambling in an attempt to extend the play. The purpose of the horn isn’t to speed up the quarterback; it’s to encourage freelancing.
It’s under these circumstances, Payton said, when a large majority of plays are made.
“If you study a game and you watch it, 35 (to) 40 percent of your passing game happens spontaneously — not on purpose, but a flush pocket — and you have to be able to teach the receivers and tight ends or eligible players to move in a certain fashion,” Payton said.
The point he’s making is that there are too many variables involved to draw conclusions from a quarterback’s time-to-throw numbers. There are baselines that can be set, but 2.73 seconds one week might not be the same as 2.73 seconds the next — or even on opposing sides of the ball in the same game.
And for the Saints, at least within their system, that time is as good as any figure posted by any other quarterback in the NFL.
“Drew has been doing it so long,” Neu said, “that he has it perfected about as well as he can perfect it.”