I’ve head this comment often these days from analysts as they discuss NFL or NCAA quarterbacks. The term game manager tells us way too much about a coaching philosophy that values game managers.
In my academic field people often distinguish between leaders and managers. I do not agree with the distinction, but let’s assume the coaches do. A manager works under terms of predictability and implements directives deploying existing resources. You expect reliability and consistency from managers. The manager, unlike a leader, implements rather than creates. To be a good manager, you focus upon judgment, but very constrained judgment within a system of limited options. Making a QB a game manager does several things:
1) The plan matters more than the player. The QB under this rubric executes a plan that the coach conceives. In a sense this resembles baseball's VORP measure, it assumes a minimal quarterback at league average with no real value above replacement. So the plan matters more than the player.
2) This demonstrates a very risk averse approach where a coach/team emphasize minimizing mistakes and sticking with the plan. It reifies limits in the team.
3) It instantiates the utter dominance of the coach and the coach’s mind—the plan—over the talent or status of the QB or team for that matter. The QB reduces to an automaton, a certain coach’s dream. The QB's discretion exists but within a narrow universe of calls.
Granted all teams approach games with a plan based upon scouting the other team’s tendencies and built upon one’s own team’s strengths and weaknesses. As Dwight Eisenhower reminded us, “plan, but don’t trust the plan.” A good plan serves as a frame to guide and probe and then adapt to what the other side throws at you. A game manager approach minimizes the guide and maximizes the plan is the plan, a soviet approach to play.
The problem with game manager approach to football lies in the rigidity and self-imposed limits it puts on the QB, the team and even the coach. The coach has defined as out of range an array of tactics and strategies for the QB and team. Having a game manager philosophy narrows the job of the opposing defense because they know what not to expect and can concentrate upon the limited repertoire of the game manager.
No plan survives contact with the enemy, and game managers are not trained to overcome adversity or surprise. Game managed team do not come back when down. A game managed team will struggle facing new alignments or surprises. The plan dominates the mind set and schemes, but plan driven teams leave very little room in its captain, the QB, to improvise and adapt.
Another language exists to describe quarterbacks—leader, playmaker, captain, game-changer. This can flow from talent and skill, but it also describes an attitude of player and coach. More than a few of the game manager QBs reflect a coaching assessment of their constrained skill or experience. The plan/manager approach locks in limitations before the game starts. It represents the triumph of risk assessment over play.