Matt Cashore/USA Today

Ryan Burns Film Study: How Soon Is Now?

An in-depth look at Ryan Burns' 1st Half vs. Notre Dame.

Ryan Burns knew what it meant to become Stanford’s starting quarterback. He also knew coming out of a high school in Virginia that had little in common with the West Coast Terrabyte Offense Stanford employs that it would be a long, steep climb before he might be a candidate to take the field for the Cardinal.  He also knew what all quarterbacks do:  he’d be perpetually receiving far more than his fair share of credit for victories, and blame for losses?

How’s that going so far?

Burns has divided Stanford fans with his play thus far.  He is leading the worst offense in the Pac-12, and by many measures, one of the worst in all the nation. With that, there was bound to be criticism, though Burns may or may not have been surprised to hear it come from his Head Coach after last night’s win in South Bend.

“The quarterback position right now, we did not play well, did not play well.  I thought we've been growing. Both guys have been growing and learning each week, and we did not play well this week. That's the bottom line, it's the truth, and both guys can play better.”

Burns has been very candid about his own play all season, so it’s possible he felt similarly to Coach Shaw.  But it got me wondering about the game I’d just seen him play.  Did he struggle as mightily as it sounded?  So I went back and looked at his first half dropbacks, and this is what I found:


Pass 1:

Formation:  Trips Left and Twins Right vs. Notre Dame’s Cover 2 defense. From the right slot, Trenton Irwin runs a great slant route against an overmatched linebacker.  He darts “across the facemask” of his man and Burns hits him in stride, as his line provides him a clean pocket against a four-man Irish rush.

Release:  1.93 seconds

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 2:  

Formation:  Single Left Strong Left Single Back Twins Right

Rector squats about seven yards past the line of scrimmage as Burns’ pass is broken up by the Notre Dame Linebacker in coverage.  Center Jesse Burkett gets pushed back right into Burns’ lap, leaving Burns with little choice but to unload the ball.  Rector was his first, and only read.

Release:  1.51 seconds

No choice/Ok Throw


Pass 3:

Formation:  Twins Left Single Back Strong Right Single Right

One of Burns’ finer throws takes advantage of a Notre Dame communication breakdown.  Rector is in the slot left, with a linebacker over him.  As soon as Rector breaks out to the sideline, the linebacker releases him, only there is nobody there, as the far outside receiver has taken the Notre Dame defender closest to the boundary on  a deep vertical.  That left the safety playing over the slot to come all the way down and over to the sideline.  By the time he arrives, Rector has the ball and a big gain for a third down conversion.  This was a big boy throw by Burns.

Release:  2.35

Great Choice/Great Throw


Pass 4:

Formation:  Single Tight Left Single Back Strong Right Twins Right

This is as cut and dry a play as there is.  Burns catches the snap and zips an out to Taijuan Thomas for a five-yard gain.

Release:  0.9 seconds

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 5:

Formation:  Trips Left Twins Right

Burns spots Irwin breaking on an out from the slot.  Unfortunately, the second he commits to the throw, Irwin’s defender grabs his jersey and the pass flies by incomplete.  THe refs missed the hold, but Burns made the right choice, or at least a right choice. Flutie commented that Burns was a one-look quarterback, and the question on plays like the last two is Burns making the right choice because it’s the first choice, or because it’s the right choice?

Release:  2.05

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 6:  

Formation:  I Left

Burns hits Irwin, who earned praise for his incredible route running this week from Coach Shaw, on a play action pass for ten yards.

Release:  2.59

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 7:

Formation:  Trips Left Single Right

Stanford slides its protection left, leaving a Notre Dame defensive tackle with an alley right up the middle to Burns.  Love steps up to block him, but they are engaged once again right on top of Burns, who wisely unloads to Rector on a curl route for a six-yard gain.

Release:  1.73

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 8:

Formation:  I Left

The Irish rush six, and as Burns executes a play action fake, he “burns” all the time he has to find a receiver in the face of the Notre Dame pass rush. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide for Stanford’s quarterback and he takes a sack.

Release: 2.85 (Snap to sack)

No Choice/No Throw


Dropback 9

Formation:  Twins Left Strong Left Single Back Single Right

Burns gets caught locked on to his primary receiver for too long here.  Three Notre Dame rushers get into his face and by the time his eyes come off his primary it’s time to run.  He is able to pick up two yards, but this one’s on him.

Release:  2.54 (snap to scramble)

Bad Choice/No Throw


Dropback 10

Formation:  Trips Bunch Right Single Back Single Receiver Tight Left

Another excellent and decisive throw to Trenton Irwin disappears into the ether because of a holding penalty on A.T. Hall.  Irwin runs a square in that would have picked up the first down, but alas….

Release:  1.83

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 9

Formation:  Twins Right Single Back (Harrell) Twins Left

This was not a good snap for Burns.  He attempted to throw up the right seam into triple coverage, and the play was nearly intercepted.  Worse, he had Arcega-Whiteside against a linebacker up the left seam.  This could have been a big play, but Burns’ radar lock took that off the table and then his throw almost triggered calamity.

Release:  2.05

Bad Choice/Bad Throw


Pass 10

Formation:  Twins Left Single Back Strong Right Single Right

Notre Dame rushes five but the protection holds up and creates a pocket for Burns. Burns forces a bad pass into double coverage, on a play that looked even worse because A-W falls down while running the route.  In this case, Burns’ excellent release time is a problem, as he had time to search for something better. Burns has shown decisiveness, which is good, but his clock is either too sped up (due in large part to a leaky offensive line) or he is simply not getting through  his progressions on schedule. These two passes were possibly on Coach Shaw’s mind when he voiced his displeasure with quarterback play post-game.

Release:  1.93

Bad Choice/Bad Throw


Pass 11

Formation:  Twins Left Single Back Strong Right

Here we get evidence of Burns’ poise.  Against a four-man rush, Burns looks left, then pulls it down when the pocket breaks down. While rolling right, he keeps his eyes down the field and found Schultz, who expertly breaks off his route and drags across the field into Burns’ sight line.  Burns fires a strike in stride to Schultz for seventeen yards.

Release time:  3.31

Good Choice/Great Throw


Pass 12

Formation:  Twins Left Strong Left Single Back Single Right

Not bad, but not good from Burns here.  As Schultz runs a cross similar to the one he ran for the big gain, Burns gives a quick glance left, but it’s not enough to throw Notre Dame’s James Onwualu off the scent.  He breaks on the ball and forces an incompletion.

Release:  1.51

Bad Choice/Ok Throw


Pass 13

Formation:  Twins Left Single Back Strong Right Single Right

Stanford motions Greg Taboada from right to left, and on the snap, he gets a clean release up the sideline.  With J.J. Arcega-Whiteside releasing off the line in front of Taboada, Stanford floods the zone effectively, forcing Notre Dame’s Luke Cole into the impossible task of covering both.  By the time he peels off A-W, Burns fires a strike to the sorely missed Taboada for twenty-one yards.

Release: 2.21

Good Choice/Good Throw


Pass 14

Formation:  Twins Left Single Back Twins Right

Stanford waits too long to go vertical, but that’s nothing new.  Rector doesn’t exactly get past his defender, but he creates separation towards the inside such that Burns could have thrown him not just open but into the end zone.  He had Schultz on an intermediate route here, but Rector was the right choice. This is the throw a struggling offense can hit to abruptly end the struggle, but it didn’t happen here.

Release:  2.30

Good Choice/Bad Throw


Pass 15

Formation:  Trips Right Single Back Single Left

Burns plays stare down here, and even worse, he appears to clutch, then puts an extra pat on the ball. Cole Luke, undoubtedly salivating like a doberman eyeing a T-Bone, breaks on the ball and makes the pick.  

Release:  3.02

Bad Choice/Bad Throw


So what do we have here?  On 17 dropbacks, Burns made 10 good/great choices, five bad ones, and had no real choice on two throws.  The Pac-12 Network’s Yogi Roth says it’s a poor ratio. “That position needs to be 90%+ in my opinion.” Shaw and Burns would both probably argue that it was five too many, but in the end, Burns made enough bad choices to help keep Stanford off the scoreboard, though he was far from the only culprit.

On 15 passes, Burns threw 11 good/great balls, and four bad ones.  Now, degrees play a role here, as the pick was an atrocious throw when just a bad throw wouldn’t have resulted in a turnover.  The miss to Rector wasn’t a good throw by any stretch, and it didn’t require a great throw to get Stanford into the end zone.   Burns clearly has the arm to make all the throws, but it’s safe to say he made enough good throws and reads to suggest that he can improve in both regards.  Right now he isn’t making enough to overcome a struggling run game or a leaky offensive line.  

Where it gets murky with Burns is the question we asked earlier.  It’s good that on many plays, he identifies his primary receiver and decisively delivers the ball on time.  What we don’t know, however, is whether or not his clock is too fast and he his missing opportunities for plays that might develop further and more fruitfully.  Great quarterbacks are able to keep their clock inside of games when they are taking hits.  Right now, Burns is being decisive, but he’s also erring on the side of hot potato, and that’s something that he has to change.  Unfortunately, much of that comes with time, which is not what fans want to hear.

It should also be noted that Burns’ decision making got sketchy in the two-minute.  There are many who are advocating a streamlined, up-tempo approach because of the success Burns had in the UCLA game.  The problem with such thinking is that you are not able to get opposing defenses to play the defense they often play in the final two minutes of the game, one where the pass rush is often weak and the coverage is not usually tight and aggressive. Also, it should be noted that Burns’ decision making in the hurry-up was basically 50/50, off from his 2/1 good/bad overall in the half.

Burns has definite room for improvement, but I’ve seen more than enough from him to think he can quarterback a successful Stanford offense. With arguably Stanford’s toughest remaining test coming to Stanford Stadium, now would be a good time for him to start. The question, though, is how soon is now?

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