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From the ground up: How the Panthers are retooling Bryce Young's footwork to slow down time

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CHARLOTTE— How much time is enough for a quarterback? In the span it takes most people to say their name, passers are asked to cover ground, assess a puzzle of scattered pieces, then put it back together, making the correct play, all while someone who is often a mountain disguised as a man is barreling towards them at full speed.

It's why, when Panthers head coach Dave Canales stated in his opening press conference after being hired that he'd like Bryce Young to get the ball out in 2.7 seconds or less, the number jumped out.

He then reiterated at the NFL Combine, "Get the ball out, get the ball out. We're going to be on a clock every single time this spring."

The head coach landed on 2.7 seconds as an ideal average passing time, over his 20 years of coaching, explaining back in February that "the average pass comes out in like 2.2." That doesn't mean every pass will come out in less than three seconds. Certain concepts and play calls will naturally demand more time. Some, as Canales went on to explain, will stretch the field and should take an average of 3.4 seconds, or play-action concepts with bootlegs that will a little over 4 seconds.

"But for our concepts," Canales continued, "if you kind of get more specific to what we're trying to do, the ball gets to the check down in about 2.7, definitely under three. I'm really looking at that 3-second mark where (quarterback) Bryce better be moving towards the line of scrimmage ready to take off, checking it down to the back in 3 seconds or less."

When Canales and a large portion of the offensive coaching staff were with the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson's throwing time was at its lowest his rookie season. The following year, it jumped, from 2.61 to 3.05. In 2018, Canales was named quarterbacks coach. Over the next four years, as quarterbacks coach, then passing game coordinator, Canales saw Wilsons' average throwing time steadily tick below three seconds, then below 2.8. When Wilson went to the Denver Broncos in 2022, his average throwing time jumped back up from 2.8 to 2.98, and the amount of passes thrown under 2.5 seconds dropped more than nine percent. Those gaps are small, but so are the windows against an NFL defense.

In 2023, Canales was named offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During that Pro-Bowl season for Baker Mayfield, the former Heisman winner had his most passes thrown under 2.5 seconds since 2019, and the lowest average throw time of his career, getting the ball out in an average of 2.71 seconds. It was the best season of Mayfield's career in every major statistical quarterback category, and the second-best passer rating of his career.

Some of the timing, it should be noted, has to do with the type of offense each team runs. When with Cleveland, Mayfield ran more of an under-center offense, requiring longer developing plays. In Tampa, he was lined up more in the shotgun. That was deliberate though, in order to get the ball out quicker.

As Canales explained at the Combine, "That 2.7 seconds just happens to fall into a natural rhythm of throwing it to the first or second guy."

Simply stating an intention to shave a quarterback's throwing time is one thing though. How is it achieved?

It's a multi-prong process that will take every phase of the offseason and into the regular season. The effects might not be seen for months. But if you want to build something solid and lasting, it must be built from the ground up. A solid foundation is the most important aspect to a home, a relationship and a quarterback.

Nate Carroll's life has been steeped in football. Growing up in it, he's spent time on both sides of the ball and it's clear within seconds of talking with him, he knows the game on such an intricate level, he can explain dense subjects in the simplest ways, a trait that serves him well as the Panthers passing game coordinator.

It's also why he can turn on the film and see a play in terms of not just seconds, but tenths— even hundredths—of a second.

"It seems like it's all the same when you're watching a film," Carroll said. "If you don't know what you're looking at, it just looks like quarterbacks just taking a drop."

It wasn't a braggadocio statement from Carroll, just a simple fact. He's watching a different game than most. And when it comes to watching Young this offseason, he's watching the feet.

"We are focusing on getting his feet right and organizing the concepts that he gets to throw, so that he's getting the ball out quickly," Carroll explained. "Trying to be consistent with his footwork so that everything flows through from the ground up."

Canales echoed his coordinator later in the day, stating, "it all starts with our feet, it all starts with the rhythm and timing in the pass game, whether it's under center play-actions or in the gun with our drop-back passes."

How feasible is it though, really, to change one little aspect of a quarterback's foot, and shave off a tenth of a second as a result?

Very feasible, according to Carroll.

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"(Bryce has) got a lot of nuances that he'll do depending on the type of route that he's reading so that he can time up exactly as the receiver's breaking, he's breaking off his back foot as well. So, we're breaking at the same time or even with anticipation before the receiver breaks," Carroll explained.

"There are little tiny trigger steps he'll use or adjustment steps he'll use, or resets he'll use to try to quicken up his drop or to keep a better balance so he can make those throws the way he needs to.

"We're trying to get the ball out faster. We're trying to get guys out of the backfield, trying to get guys in the flat, trying to create space for him to throw. It all starts with the consistency of his footwork and his preparation before the snap so that he can assess the defense quickly and get the ball out appropriately."

Young's accuracy, as Canales previously mentioned, and ability to throw on the run without resetting are both aspects coaches can build off of as well, ticking that throwing clock even lower and lower in practice. Ideally, Carroll said, it will be below two seconds eventually. An infinitesimal amount of time to the naked eye, but the difference between wins and losses during the season.

"We know once the clock ticks into three seconds, you can't always control the pass rush even if you feel like you have protection," Carroll said. "So, the goal is always to get the ball as quickly as possible in the rhythm of the play with the footwork."

Nate Carroll with quarterbacks

This isn't dependent solely on Bryce Young though. As Canales said at the Combine, the goal is just asking Young to do his part.

Added Carroll, "I don't want all these hero ball plays so that he's always putting himself at risk."

For Young to do his part, the receivers and the offensive line are also doing theirs. In coaching it, Carroll highlights both a specificity and flexibility to give the quarterback structure and freedom within any given play.

"We teach a lot of the routes off of steps. So, the receivers know exactly how many steps they're taking. The quarterback knows exactly how many steps he's taking. So, we're on the same page. There are some times we teach off of depths and we give the receivers options to choose how to make different turns at the top or different set of steps to create more separation, because an open receiver is a lot easier to throw to than a covered receiver.

"So, there's timing routes and then there are routes where we ask them to get more open and so we give the quarterback variables in the footwork for those type of things so he can be ready to deal faster or slower, based on what the receiver is doing with his route."

Even if there is a clock on Young and Andy Dalton in camp, the ultimate goal is not so much to achieve a 2.7 average throwing time—although that is the most obvious step to take—but rather to create a pace that flows during games.

"We're looking for that rhythm that fits the pass concepts," Canales said, adding, "as we've been able to be on the field through phase two, and now in the OTAs, being able to see those concepts come to life with different coverages, different pressures, different types of receivers, that's where the growth is really starting to happen for Bryce and even Andy, and he's got a natural way to kind of create that rhythm."

By building in options, that rhythm is naturally created as well. If a quarterback has multiple targets out of any given tree, even plays that by definition are scramble drills, still hold a structure for more optimal success.

"Building it as in a progression type of offense for him," Carroll explained, "where number one happens fast, so he gets to number two and number three, quickly as well. Less than three seconds is that the average time it takes you to get through two reads.

"You can see just in this past week he's got a lot better. (Monday), it was his best day. We're playing fast collectively at the position group, at the quarterback position group. And that's critical whether it's the right read or not, getting through the progressions, getting on number two and number three, usually those guys are as open as number one.

"Just get through your progression, get on to the next play and don't let the pass rush beat you."

And as the coaching staff gets to know Young better, that rhythm will adjust how they build a playbook and eventually, call games.

"We're going to fit this offense to Bryce," Carroll promised. "Right now we're in the process of teaching all of our concepts still. As we get closer through training camp and then finally in the season, we'll finally get to our real offense and what we're going to be with Bryce, and he'll have input at times on certain things that he likes. And we'll try to make the best out of what we have here and try to be as hard to stop on offense as possible."

You build a quarterback from the ground up. It takes time and patience and complete trust in the process. That process is still ongoing for Young and the Panthers, and as the clock ticks closer to the start of the season, it will slow down for Bryce Young, making 2.7 seconds feel like all the time in the world.

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