If Cassell Can't Play, the Answer is Croyle, not Thigpen
During the Chiefs awful 2008 season, if there was one bright spot that exhilarated and caught the imagination of Chiefs fans, it was the resurrection of the career of Tyler Thigpen. Six games into the NFL season, most Chiefs fans must have thought that the Chiefs already anemic offense had no where to go but down when Thigpen was forced into the starting role following injuries to Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle. Certainly, you couldn't have blamed them for thinking this way. Going into Thigpen's start again the New York Jets, he had played miserably completing only 42% of his throws with two touchdowns, four interceptions and NFL worst 44.3 QB rating.
However, on the late October day, something truly amazing happened. The Chiefs spawned the innovative K-gun offense and suddenly Thigpen played like an NFL quarterback, throwing for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns and actually outplaying (although ultimately losing to) Brett Favre. But, the ride didn't end there. As it turned out, the creative idea of allowing Thigpen to run his college offense was the only bright spot for the Chiefs beleaguered coaching staff in 2008. When all was said and done, in his last 10 games, Thigpen completed 58% of his throws, with 16 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and a much-improved 84.6 QB rating. However, the success was not without cost. The new offensive set resulted in the Chiefs offense being completely unable to run the ball, by definition as opposed to talent. Additionally, an offense so predicated on the pass was sporadic and hot and cold. As a result, the Chiefs were unable to put teams away in the second half of games, as their already suspect defense became exhausted when the offense hit a cold streak or scored quickly.
In addition, as team adjusted to the K-gun, Thigpen got less effective as games progressed. While having an outstanding quarterback rating of 97.1 in the 1st quarter of games, Thigpen's rating dropped to 79.3 in the 2nd quarter, 69.2 in the 3rd quarter and plummeted to 62.6 in the 4th.
So, the question becomes, was Tyler Thigpen potentially the Chiefs quarterback of the future, or was he the function of an unconventional offense that NFL teams were not used to seeing? Unfortunately, it would appear that the case can be better made for the latter. If you include the preseason from 2008 and 2009 and with the first 6 games of 2009, in which Thigpen has been forced to take snaps in a conventional offense, you see there is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect. In 174 passes, in a conventional offense, Thigpen has completed only 45% of his throws with 5 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 48.6. What is more, these total statistics are not improved much by Thigpen's 2009 preseason statistics, which reflect a completion percentage of 51% and a quarterback rating of only 51.6.
So what is the problem here? The problem primarily comes down to mechanics, game speed and his passing ability. Having played tight end in high school and then runing a spread, shotgun offense at Coastal Carolina, Thigpen never learned to drop back conventionally, and his footwork shows it. His feet are often in an awkward position when he throws from the pocket and this causes his passes to sail. In addition, Thigpen is not well schooled in "stepping up in the pocket". Matter of fact, you don't see Thigpen "step up" instead he usually sprints towards the line of scrimmage as he throws. This makes it more difficult for him to throw to his left and to keep his vision downfield.
Additionally, the speed of the game seems to be a problem. Thigpen seems to lack the ability to read defenses quickly and get the ball out in conventional set. In 2008, operating out of the K-gun, Thigpen's reads were simplified so that he would make one read, in one area of the defense, and get the ball out quickly as opposed to making multiple reads at different levels. Also, being back in the shotgun made it easier for him to be comfortable and see the field in order to find his receiver. Finally, the spread formation meant the he was more often able to isolate on one receiver without having to worry about traffic underneath or overtop of the route. The problem with this is that, as the games progressed, the defense adjusted to take his first option away. Once this happened, Thigpen, confronted with now having to find a 2nd or 3rd option, would force the ball into coverage (often to Tony Gonzales) only to have the pass knocked away. The result is Thigpen's 34.5-point negative swing between his 1st and 4th quarter QB ratings.
Finally, Thigpen's arm is at best on the fringe of being NFL caliber. Much of this may be the result of his aforementioned footwork. However, setting that aside, Thigpen's passing motion is often not fluid and he appears to almost shotput the football. The result is a fluttering pass that sails in the intermediate game and throws that sometimes come up woefully short in the long passing game. If you review the films from 2008, you will find that Thigpen was Ė quite surprisingly Ė the recipient of some fairly outstanding catches from Dwayne Bowe, Devard Darling, Mark Bradley and predictably, Tony Gonzales, particularly on intermediate and deep routes.
Certainly, this isn't to say that Tyler Thigpen may not someday be able to be an effective NFL quarterback. The problem for the Chiefs is that Todd Haley wants someone for now and not someday. Unfortunately, put back in a conventional set this preseason, Tyler Thigpen has looked much more like the quarterback he looked like in the first six games of 2008 then the one he looked like, at times, during the last ten.
When all is said and done, the best answer for the Chiefs is probably Brodie Croyle. Croyle's preseason rating (in an almost identical number of attempts) is 24.3 points higher than Thigpen's (80.4 to 56.1) and his completion percentage 9 points higher (60.7 to 51.7). More than the number is the way that Croyle has played. Croyle has a far more fluid passing motion with a stronger arm and superior accuracy. It is quite arguable that Croyle has the best arm of any quarterback on the Chiefs' roster, including Matt Cassell. Additionally, Croyle has gotten the ball out quickly and made good decisions. He steps up well and seems to be comfortable with the offense.
Of course, the concern with Croyle Ė quite understandably Ė is that he has been injury prone. However, if the Chiefs believe that Croyle cannot stay healthy then they should not have kept him on the roster. What could be more useless than a play that you can't play? Ultimately, the Chiefs need to find out if Croyle can stay healthy or not. There is little doubt that if Croyle is healthy that he is better right now then Tyler Thigpen. If Croyle's get injured then Thigpen will be waiting in the wings. Until then, however, the Chiefs need to do what Todd Haley has been saying all along and play the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win. Right now that man is Brodie Croyle and not Tyler Thigpen.