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Examining Luke Falk's development as an Air Raid quarterback

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In which we're pretty sure we've been too hard on WSU's redshirt sophomore.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Given WSU's rich history of quarterbacking, we've got pretty high standards for the guys who play that position. And, to be frank, we've been pretty rough on Luke Falk's performance this season.

Holds onto the ball too long. Fails to throw guys open. Refuses to push the ball downfield.

We expected a lot out of him. Just how much, we weren't really sure; we knew asking for 2014 Connor Halliday was too much, but given Falk's three starts last year and his two years in the system, it seemed 2013 Connor Halliday was in reach. And it was driving us nuts that he didn't seem to be at that level.

So much so, that Jeff believed he had seen enough of Falk to know he wasn't the answer. Bring on Peyton Bender!

Then a funny thing happened -- we actually looked at what Halliday did in that junior year:

Connor Halliday - 2013

Data from cfbstats.com

Date Opponent Result Att Comp Pct. Yards Yards/Att TD Int Rating
8/31/13 @ 2 Auburn L 24-31 65 35 53.8 344 5.3 1 3 94.15
9/7/13 @ 19 Southern California W 10-7 38 26 68.4 215 5.7 0 2 105.42
9/14/13 Southern Utah W 48-10 41 32 78 383 9.3 5 1 191.87
9/21/13 Idaho W 42-0 43 31 72.1 346 8 4 2 161.08
9/28/13 + 11 Stanford L 17-55 36 24 66.7 184 5.1 0 1 104.04
10/5/13 @ California W 44-22 67 41 61.2 521 7.8 3 1 138.3
10/12/13 Oregon St. L 24-52 49 26 53.1 248 5.1 1 3 90.07
10/19/13 @ 9 Oregon L 38-62 89 58 65.2 557 6.3 4 4 123.58
10/31/13 21 Arizona St. L 21-55 54 29 53.7 300 5.6 2 1 108.89
11/16/13 @ Arizona W 24-17 53 39 73.6 319 6 2 1 132.83
11/23/13 Utah W 49-37 62 39 62.9 488 7.9 4 0 150.31
11/29/13 @ 25 Washington L 17-27 59 32 54.2 282 4.8 2 2 98.8
12/21/13 + Colorado St. L 45-48 58 37 63.8 410 7.1 6 1 153.86
Totals 714 449 62.9 4597 6.4 34 22 126.52

It's not like he was bad or something, but ... man, there were some real stinkers in there, especially early in the year. A potential win against Auburn sabotaged by interceptions. The win against USC that was largely in spite of him. The Oregon State debacle.

We had a thought in our heads of what Halliday's performance was that year -- a thought that was overwhelmingly positive based largely on the good feeling of that being a bowl team. It also didn't hurt that Halliday's best performances came as the team closed strong to get to that bowl. Turns out, memories can be a bit faulty!

Let's stack Halliday's 2013 season statistics up against what Falk has done so far as a starter. Heck, for good measure, let's throw in Leach's best quarterback, Graham Harrell, in his first full season as a starter. Remember: Halliday already had a number of starts under his belt.

Starts Att/G Comp/G Pct. Yards/G Yards/Att TD/Att Int/Att Rating
Connor Halliday (2013) 13 54.9 34.5 62.9 353.6 6.4 4.8% 3.1% 126.52
Luke Falk (2014-15) 6 56.0 37.8 67.6 416.2 7.4 5.4% 2.1% 143.5
Graham Harrell (2006) 13 47.5 31.7 66.8 350.4 7.4 6.2% 1.8% 145.5

Statistics are not the end-all-be-all to everything; in fact, we have spent a fair amount of time and effort in various forums explaining just why Falk's stats aren't as impressive as they look -- the garbage time yards against ASU and UW when the games were well out of hand (largely because of his own lackluster play early), the high completion percentage at the expense of pushing the ball down the field, etc. But wow ... even when you think to yourself, "these numbers don't tell the whole story," that's not enough to explain away how he's pretty much blowing away what Halliday was doing in a season that we thought was pretty good, on the whole.

Oh, and he's also basically doing what Harrell did, only Harrell had the advantage of taking the reins of a successful program.

Where does he still need to grow up?

One of the major fan criticisms has been that Falk has taken too long with his reads. As fast as Halliday operated the offense post-snap, it's going to seem like anything even slightly slower just doesn't feel right -- sort of like when you've had the cruise control set at 75 mph for hours and then the clog on HWY 26 makes 65 mph feel like a crawl. And while we don't know precisely how this compares to Halliday, We think we can agree that the ball just isn't getting out as quickly.

To try and gain some clarity, we went back and timed all of Falk's throws/scrambles/sacks in the first three games. Here's the raw data in histogram form:

Falk_timing_NCGs_2015

Three seconds and under is what could be considered the Gold Standard; that's getting a gather at the top of a three step and releasing. Four seconds is panic mode -- you either need to have the ball out or be ready to create some time with your legs. Five seconds gets blown dead as an automatic sack in practice. We wen't ahead and removed all WR screens, along with RB delay screens and designed swing passes, which would otherwise artificially skew the data, and you know what?

This really doesn't look as bad as we thought it would.

Falk's aptitude for working quickly underneath is highlighted by the first peak under 2.25 seconds. The majority of other routes cluster between 2.75 - 3.50 seconds, and drop off quickly as it approaches 4.00 seconds. Certainly you'd like it to be faster across the board, but as we said -- probably not as terrible as you thought.

The next real criticism has been Falk's unwillingness to test a defense deep. Both Falk and Leach have talked about it a little in various press conferences. Leach even expanded on it some this Monday, recalling how he's mitigated deficiencies of a couple of weaker-armed QBs in the past by not working deep sideline routes, specifically comebacks and Sail concepts.

From what we've seen from Falk so far, his arm appears entirely capable of every throw in this system. He'll have his comfort throws he falls back on -- he's excellent at touch passes over the intermediary middle -- but Falk could definitely work sideline from the near hash if he wanted too.

We mapped every pass attempt from the Rutgers and Wyoming games. Spots are color coded by position and placed where the ball was caught, not by the resulting yardage of the play. White (unfilled) spots are incompletions, and gold outlined spots are TDs. Bright yellow spots are INTs and orange spots are sacks.

ShotChart_Rutgers1


ShotChart_Rutgers2

You can start to see some themes in these. The first half in Rutgers peppered the right side with Randy (WR screen) to Gabe Marks and Tavares Martin Jr. so much it's pretty comparable to establishing the run. The second half opened up with 11 shots at +15 yards and worked a little H into the mix.

ShotChart_Wyo1

ShotChart_Wyo2

Against Wyoming you can only guess the thought was to get the RBs involved early with around one third of all pass attempts going to F. And after a huge game against Rutgers, Z was only targeted twice in the second half. The only pass attempted +15 yards downfield was caught with one hand by Dom Williams in the end zone. A lot of this has to do with whatever gameplan the offense is trying to execute against that particular defense that week, but it's awfully hard to imagine a scenario where Coach Leach doesn't want any attempts downfield against an inexperienced (and frankly, bad) secondary like Wyoming.

So, we're not going to sit here and say all criticism of Falk is invalid, he's super great, etc. By our estimation, Falk is holding onto the ball too long at times. Falk is sometimes putting his receivers in a position to get murdered because the ball is delivered late. Falk isn't generally challenging defenses down the field for big plays.

But we think we were letting our own biases get in the way of a level-headed evaluation of where this redshirt sophomore really is in his development. We fell in love with Halliday during that junior year when we could visualize how the offense was going to click and explode once he became just a tiny bit more selective with those aggressive throws. It's a lot harder for our brains to engineer that sucker in reverse -- to visualize how a quarterback who readily accepts all these conservative throws ends up leading an offense that breaks off big chunks of yards.

Falk is struggling at times ... but so did Halliday in that first full season as a starter. They're just struggling in different ways.

Whatever you think of what Falk has done with his six starts ... whatever you think of his potential ceiling ... the reality is that when you take the evidence on balance, we don't think you can make a legitimate argument -- as Jeff tried to do earlier this year -- that Falk should be farther along in his development than he currently is. It takes time to master the complexities of the Air Raid, and at this point, he's displayed about as much mastery of the offense as we'd have any right to expect.