How Nichols Can Shed the Game-Manager Label in 2017

Putting a label next to Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols’ name has been next to impossible throughout his seven-year career.

At times, he’s looked like a potential franchise quarterback, particularly when he first broke into the league. Other times he’s seemed to have capped off as a solid backup quarterback. During his seven-game starting streak in 2015 with the Edmonton Eskimos, consequently leading to Nichols being traded mid-season for a conditional seventh-round pick, the Eastern Washington product seemed closer to being out of the league than to being one-and-a-half years away from a monster contract extension, which he’s expected to receive from the Bombers in the coming weeks.

The past two seasons have provided some clarity in terms of who Nichols truly is as a quarterback, as 27 of his 32 career starts were made in either the 2015 or 2016 campaigns. Heading into 2016, Nichols had started just barely one season worth of games in his career. In the case of a late-bloomer at the quarterback position, it makes perfect sense that 2016 was Nichols’ breakout season, and that we likely haven’t seen his best yet.

Nichols established himself as a starting quarterback for the first time in his career this past season. While many will point to the Bombers’ turnover-creating defense, sound pass-protection and consistent run-game for Nichols’ success, the veteran passer still did a great job getting rid of the football quickly and limiting turnovers. Nichols’ numbers don’t compare to those of the elite quarterbacks in the league, but his record as a starter (10-3) speaks for itself. For these reasons, Nichols’ latest label has been a “game-managing starting QB”.

A game-manager in football is described as a quarterback with a very conservative play-style, who makes very few costly mistakes and relies on their defense or rushing-attack to win games. Although there were games where Nichols single-handily carried the team – the West Final in B.C. immediately comes to mind – this is a somewhat accurate way of describing Nichols’ play in his first true season as a starter.

Nichols operated very well within Paul Lapolice’s system in 2016. Entering the season, Lapolice prioritized protecting his quarterbacks and having them release the football quickly, implementing route combinations that give the check-down throws better spacing to get more yards after the catch.

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Nichols dealt with pressure – the achilles heal for most quarterbacks – surprisingly well. His yards per attempt only dropped about a yard when under pressure, and he maintained a very solid adjusted completion percentage of 61.8-percent. More impressively, despite his yards per attempt still being decently high at 7.4, Nichols’ percentage of turnover-worthy-throws didn’t even increase by a full percent when he was under pressure – 4.6-percent of his throws were deemed turnover-worthy when not pressured compared to merely 5.4-percent when under duress.

I first noted a bit of conservative play in Nichols’ game early in the season against the blitz. He was making good reads and getting rid of the ball quickly, but he was rarely actually making teams pay for sending pressure. That changed as the season progressed, and Nichols became a threat when defenses blitzed the pocket-passer on 2nd-and-long.

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While its not the case in the above GIF, Nichols’ mechanics naturally get messy under pressure. But despite his inability to consistently maneuver the pocket, as well as his erratic footwork, Nichols’ quick decisions and recognition have made him decently effective when blitzed or under pressure.

In my opinion, Nichols’ game-manager label was justified by his decision-making in 2nd-&-long situations when the defense drops 8 or 9 defenders in coverage. In these situations, defenses encourage quarterbacks to throw the underneath route so they can rally and make the tackle short of the sticks. While Nichols is good at recognizing coverages – and the coverage’s weaknesses – in these situations, he’s very reluctant to throw into tight windows between linebackers over the middle, quickly targeting his check-down or the underneath throw instead. If he sees pre-snap or during his drop-back that the coverage indicates that he’ll likely be forced to instead quickly progress to his reads in the intermediate level over the middle, Nichols is very reluctant to pull the trigger into a tight window.

Don’t be confused, though. This isn’t an Alex Smith situation. Smith, the poster-boy for game-managing NFL signal-callers, simply refuses to throw the ball deep. He’s far too comfortable throwing underneath and simply does not take any chances. Nichols takes what the coverage gives him, whether it’s a corner-route against cover-3 or a go-route down the sidelines on 1st-down.

nichols-conservative

The exception to this theory is, as mentioned, on 2nd-&-long versus a three or four man rush, and he’s forced to throw across the middle. An example of a situation like this would be if the Bombers had a smash concept (corner-hitch) in the boundary, with a high crosser from the most inside slot receiver to the wide-side and a little 5-yard sit from the most outside field slot. Nichols sees the cornerback drop into a deep-third and therefore knows the corner-route won’t be open. He can’t throw the hitch, as the defense will make the easy tackle and the Bombers will be punting. He moves on in his progression to the middle of the field, and though if he times the throw well and puts some some zip on the ball he’ll be able to hit the high crosser for a first down, Nichols hesitates and throws the check-down to the sit-route. The defense rallies to the pass-catcher and Mike O’Shea sends out his punt team. The home fans are in disgust seeing the QB throw a five-yard pass on 2nd-and-10.

There’s a time and place for throwing, for example, that five-yard sit-route on second-&-long. Offensive coaches love to say, “end every drive with a kick” – an extra point, field goal or punt – and if there’s truly no window open across the middle, its much better to live to see another down than to throw an interception.

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The above GIF is an example of a perfect time to take the check-down. That throw was safe and likely gave the Bombers the best chance to gain the needed yardage for a first-down. Kohlert was tackled one yard short of the sticks, but the Bombers were able to keep the drive alive and convert on 3rd-&-1. While Ottawa’s secondary forced Nichols into the check-down in the GIF above – and that’s OK – it becomes a problem when the quarterback quickly takes defense’s bait and throws underneath when he has even a slight hesitation about throwing over top of the linebackers.

Nichols is just as willing as other quarterbacks to give his receiver a chance to make a play, but he must fight the temptation of frequently taking the defense’s bait and missing opportunities for plays downfield on 2nd-&-long when the opposition drops everyone into coverage.

While there’s other weaknesses in Nichols’ game – those of which that are not linked to his game-manager label, but rather simply all-around flaws – he came along nicely in 2016. Lapolice likely graded Nichols out quite well, and perhaps better than other offensive coordinators would have. There’s a reason Drew Willy absolutely abused throwing the check-down to Andrew Harris out of the backfield in 2016 after seemingly not throwing a single check-down in two seasons under Marcel Bellefeuille. Under Bellefeuille, Willy thrived on using his solid arm-strength and decent release time to force plays downfield, but it unfortunately led to him taking a lot of punishment. Lapolice heavily encouraged his quarterback room when he took over to make quick, safe decisions and avoid taking unnecessary hits – after all, his starting quarterback was coming off a slew of injuries in 2015, including a season-ending knee issue. And while Lapolice certainly wanted to see Willy check the ball down more, it obviously wasn’t his intention to have no. 5 absolutely abuse them.

There’s reason to believe that Nichols can shed the game-manager label in his second year in the system. Lapolice will cater his offense towards Nichols’ strengths and the Bombers’ new-found, really good pass-protection. Nichols, who’s still growing as a passer at almost 30 years-old, has shown glimpses of what he needs to do more consistently in the future.

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Nichols has shown that he’s not that much of a game-manager, but he’s going to have to make more throws like the one in the above GIF against those types of coverages in the future to completely remove himself from that conversation. Although Rory Kohlert dropped the ball, that was a really great play by Nichols – evidently, there’s reason to believe that Nichols can make plays like this more consistently next year and ultimately shed the game-manager label in his 8th professional season.

He needs to be re-signed first before we talk about next season, though.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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