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The Q Factor
The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback
By James Dale
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There are elite athletes in every sport — people who possess tangible and intangible qualities that allow them to overcome daunting odds, spot opportunity in the midst of adversity, and turn defeat into victory. No position embodies this dynamic more than football quarterbacks, and nothing is a greater test of performance than the NFL.
The tangibles — metrics, stats, ratings, bowl games, championships — are critical to evaluation. But they’re not enough. Every year, highly rated college quarterbacks are analyzed, critiqued, hyped up and/or doubted, and those who manage to survive the scrutiny are drafted early. Some of those early picks make it to the top, some end up journeymen, and some just wash out. Why? What separates the elites from the pack?
In THE Q FACTOR, former NFL coach Brian Billick takes the highly promising 2018 NFL quarterback Draft class — the most touted class since 2004 (Manning, Roethlisberger, Rivers) and 1983 (Elway, Kelly, Marino) — and measures the top five quarterback picks to gauge how, why, and if they succeed. They are all first rounders, all with sterling college credentials, all talented athletes, all taken by teams betting their futures. One or maybe two could go on to greatness. But which ones, and why? Could the prediction process be better? Are the “experts” looking at the wrong factors? How do we find the best of the best?
That’s what THE Q FACTOR explores…and finally explains.
By Michael MacCambridge
There was a great quarterback once.
Big, strong, smart. He could spin it, he possessed all the tools, and he’d forged his game in the high-level pressure and competition of the SEC.
Pro scouts were raving about him early. They admired his poise and brains; they liked his field vision. He was a leader of men, a true can’t-miss prospect.
Then he was drafted, and though he was all the things that scouts said he was, he labored in relative obscurity for more than a decade in the NFL.
Injuries. Setbacks. Interceptions.
He played for three different teams, and never made the playoffs. Never even played on a team with a winning record.
So the great quarterback was perceived as a journeyman.
Those are the breaks. He soldiered through it and (this is another part of being a great quarterback) he never complained.
Also: He was a family man. Had some good kids, a couple of whom were named Peyton and Eli.
And here, in the example of Archie Manning’s professional career, we have the vexing conundrum that Brian Billick and James Dale are attempting to unravel in The Q Factor.
I suppose some would consider the elder Manning a disappointment in the pros, though I think of his case as more of a cautionary tale.
Football is so different than baseball or basketball. Mike Trout gets to the majors and it doesn’t matter how hopeless his teammates are; he’s going to hit his 40 homers, steal his 30 bases, and win multiple MVP awards. LeBron James is drafted by the hapless Cavaliers, and he’ll still win Rookie of the Year, go to the All-Star Game, and within a few years win the MVP and carry a nondescript group of teammates to the NBA Finals.
But football is a harsher, much more interdependent environment. You can have all the skills in the world, but if you get drafted by the wrong team, you will never reach your true potential as a pro quarterback.
It was Archie Manning’s misfortune to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints at a time when they were about the wrongest team in all of professional sports.
How much of a shambles were those Saints teams of the early seventies? The year before Manning was drafted, the Oakland Raiders picked a player in the first round of the NFL Draft who was nowhere to be found on the Saints entire draft board (the gifted tight end Raymond Chester of Morgan State). A year after Manning was drafted, the Saints hired a general manager named Richard F. Gordon, who possessed precisely zero football experience. Gordon had just retired as an astronaut at NASA, and had orbited the Moon forty-five times as the command module pilot on Apollo 12, but the skills required for that mission proved not particularly relevant to pro football.
So Manning took his lumps behind a woeful offensive line. He broke his arm and came back too early. His best offensive weapon was a slow, steady wide receiver named Danny Abramowicz, who looked (and ran) like Buck Owens in shoulder pads.
Alternative histories could be written about what might have been. For instance: Suppose Terry Bradshaw (drafted a year earlier) had gone to New Orleans instead of Pittsburgh, and Manning had wound up with Chuck Noll’s Steelers instead of the Saints, and had spent his career handing off to Franco Harris and throwing to the likes of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. If that happened, which do you think is more likely: That Bradshaw would still be in the Hall of Fame? Or that the Manning family would now have eight Super Bowl rings? (At least.)
These circumstantial hypotheticals aren’t just ancient history, either. They are the sort of things that football people discuss deep into the night. What if Andrew Luck hadn’t had the joy of football pounded out of him by a woeful offensive line in Indianapolis? What if Pete Carroll had stubbornly stuck with his big-money free agent signing Matt Flynn as a starter, rather than the rookie Russell Wilson, whom a vast majority of scouts felt was “too short” to succeed in the NFL? What if the Chicago Bears had selected a more mobile quarterback—Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson—in the 2017 draft?
Football is circumstantial. We realize this in the main, but we often forget about it in the rush of pre-draft hysteria. H. L. Mencken once wrote, “The public wants certainties; there are no certainties.” Mencken wasn’t writing about the tortuous, high-risk, high-reward process of evaluating college quarterbacks. But he could have been.
We are, however, becoming incrementally wiser. And what Billick and Dale accomplish here is nothing less than a treatise on the eternal challenge of projecting what twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds are going to do in the crucible of professional football.
We do know this: Great quarterbacks do great things. And among those great things is they make great throws.
I have watched a lot of football games in my life. There are some things I’ve seen that remain imprinted on the brain. There’s a pass Joe Namath made in 1968 that I still daydream about every once in a while. You can see it in the opening minutes of the NFL Films Super Bowl III highlight video. It came in the 1968 season opener, on the road against Kansas City. Namath took his normal deep drop, then threw with an easy motion down the left hashmark. But the ball emerged from his hand as if from a rocket launcher. It is the most effortless pass you’ve ever seen that travels more than fifty yards in the air. Don Maynard caught it in stride for the Jets’ first touchdown of the season.
Billick and Dale understand the intoxication of those kinds of passes. But they also understand the hard work, preparation, and study that goes into the process, well before the play is ever called and the pass is ever made. They recognize that great quarterbacks also do simple, prosaic things. Like getting to the facility early in the morning. Like mainlining film study. Like spending hours on their mechanics, so that during the game, they don’t have to think about their footwork, or their throwing motion, or varying their snap count.
The mystery of thinking outside the box to find the perfect quarterback is nearly as old as the game itself. In 1946, Paul Brown sought out Otto Graham, because he was impressed by Graham’s basketball-playing skills at Northwestern, and thought that the very same traits of court vision and quick, adept hands would be crucial in running the T-formation offense he wanted to install on the Cleveland Browns.
By the end of the sixties, as the twin examples of Johnny Unitas’s stoic purposefulness and Joe Namath’s slangy self-assuredness were on display, people began to recognize that the traits of a great quarterback called not for one specific thing but for a blend of skills. There was a monthly magazine called Pro Quarterback in that era, with a recurring comic feature by the artist Jack Davis, titled “Superfan,” about Y. A. Schmickle, a “mild-mannered, boring accountant” who was miraculously transformed into a star quarterback when an old coach injected him with the secret-formula PSCWPLB (“Passing of Unitas, Scrambling of Tarkenton, Confidence of Namath, Wisdom of Starr, Poise of Lamonica, Leadership of Dawson, Belly of Jurgensen”). Scouts have been seeking the magic elixir ever since.
They have also, since that time, become much savvier about data. One of the things I most enjoyed about this book is the enlightened view it provides of the role analytics plays in the modern scouting process. I respect analytics. I spend quality time with analytics. But even I have come to realize that, though we are now armed with terabytes of next-gen data, the challenge of speculative discernment about the quarterback position remains nearly as much of an art as it is a science. The Browns’ Paul DePodesta says it best elsewhere in this book: “Analytics don’t work by themselves.”
There’s something else as well, beyond the data, and beyond whatever does or doesn’t happen at the combine. With the best quarterbacks there is a sense of poise that is hard to quantify but easy to recognize. I’ve heard some scouts call it “grace under pressure” (the phrase is attributed to Hemingway, but it translates well to the position of quarterback). At its best, there is an almost mystical aspect to it. Think of the best quarterbacks you’ve ever seen, and how they behaved in the crucial moments of big games.
This composure—everything is done in the nick of time, but never in a rush—is a rare and timeless quality, long valued in our most accomplished athletes. “Speed is not part of the true Way of strategy,” noted the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi in his seventeenth-century text The Book of Five Rings. “Speed implies that things seem fast or slow, according to whether or not they are in rhythm. Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast… Of course, slowness is bad. Really skillful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy.”
Yes. That. The best quarterbacks share that ability to keep their heads when surrounded by chaos and mayhem. Think of Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. Or Ben Roethlisberger, bodies falling left and right around him, instinctively moving away from the carnage, to carve out enough room to fire another accurate pass on the run. They never appear busy.
The special blend of qualities that make a quarterback remains elusive.
But after fifty years of watching football, you can witness glimpses at times, and you know it when you see it.
On New Year’s Eve 2017, Kansas City Chiefs rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes started his first game. The Chiefs had already qualified for the playoffs, and were locked into the number 4 seed, so the season-long starter Alex Smith, who’d mentored Mahomes throughout the year, took to the bench.
Mahomes played well, and came out of the game in the fourth quarter with a comfortable 14-point lead, replaced by third-stringer Tyler Bray. But then Bray made a couple mistakes, and the Broncos rallied to tie this essentially meaningless regular season finale.
Then, because it’s football, and coaches are competitive even when there’s absolutely nothing at stake, Andy Reid put Mahomes back in the game, for the final two minutes.
Soon enough, there came a play I’ll never forget: The Message.
Score tied at 24, 1:44 on the clock, Chiefs ball, first and ten at their own 32, trying to move the sticks to get into field goal range. Trips right, Mahomes takes the snap from the pistol, fullback Anthony Sherman to his left; soon the pocket collapses and Mahomes scrambles back and to his right. The Broncos rushers, DeMarcus Walker and Von Miller, are closing in on him, and Mahomes keeps scampering back and away, drifting toward the right sideline. He is all the way back to his own 16-yard line when he backpedals one more step and jumps back to throw, just as Walker is diving into his chest. If you’ve seen plays like this a hundred times, you know that often the quarterback doesn’t even get the ball to the line of scrimmage, and gets flagged for intentional grounding. But this is Mahomes, so what transpires is another pass—half a century after Namath’s throw—that expresses open contempt for the laws of physics and the time-space continuum. Off balance, fading back, under pressure, Mahomes fires an absolute dart, thirty yards on a rope, right to DeMarcus Robinson, who catches it surrounded by three Broncos defenders before going out of bounds.
In the press box that day in Denver, two writers from the Kansas City Star, the columnist Sam Mellinger and the beat writer Terez Paylor, literally came out of their chairs in dazzled astonishment. There was a brief, involuntary fandango of adulatory commotion, and then Paylor—who loves football as much as anyone I’ve ever known—exclaimed, “I am but a man.”
Some throws make you shake your head; some throws open the doors of perception and leave colleagues agape with stupefaction, on the floor of the press box.
“It was plainly unprofessional,” admitted Mellinger of his comportment in the moment. “And I have no regrets.”
That’s the sort of response that the best quarterbacking can inspire.
In the end, the story of football, the story of great quarterbacking, and the story of great quarterback evaluation are all about fine margins.
I can remember visiting Billick once. He and his wife Kim are wonderful hosts, and on this day Brian and I were walking in the woods behind his home, and talking football. We were discussing the process of breaking down game film, and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. When you go back and look at a game, and are reviewing how a quarterback handled his progressions, you will inevitably see numerous instances where both the primary and secondary receivers are covered. “But the best quarterbacks,” explained Billick, “are able to throw it into that coverage and complete the pass anyway.”
This seeming contradiction was echoed by Peyton Manning, in telling the story about his NFL learning curve. It was his rookie season in Indianapolis, and his quarterback coach was Bruce Arians. It was a Monday morning after a typically difficult game (the Colts went 3-13 in Manning’s rookie season, and he threw 28 interceptions). As they were watching film, they came upon a play where Manning, under pressure, held on to the ball until the last instant, then just threw it away.
“Why didn’t you throw it to someone?” asked Arians.
“Nobody’s open,” protested Manning, holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “The window was like that.”
“Peyton,” said Arians evenly. “That is open in the NFL. That’s what getting open looks like here.”
Those are the hard truths that the great quarterbacks internalize.
There are other hard truths and cautionary tales in this book. Especially of the very human trait of people (even really smart people making seven figures a year to acquire and evaluate football players) allowing themselves to fall into the trap of seeing only what they want to see, discounting crucial factors, and making decisions based on hope. That’s how Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christan Ponder all go in the top 12.
It’s an illustration of how difficult the process can be, and provides a message of humility to armchair quarterbacks (and volunteer general managers) everywhere: For every rule that’s ever been written about what it takes to succeed at the most difficult position in sports, there’s probably a quarterback in Canton who was an exception to that rule.
So the search continues. But when you see what the great quarterbacks can accomplish, from Otto Graham and Bobby Layne to Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, you understand why the searching and studying and the agonizing are all worth it.
This book underscores why evaluating quarterbacks remains one of the most fascinating exercises in all of sports, and helps us to be smarter about that process. The next NFL owner with a prime pick would be well-advised to read this book, and view the prospects with a rigorous, clear eye for the most salient factors.
Also, probably don’t hire an astronaut to be your next GM.
There is no position in sports more important or challenging to fill than quarterback. You can win games without a great one, even the Super Bowl, but it’s hard, very hard. I know; I did it—but not for lack of searching. Winning a championship without that elite QB took the best defense in the modern history of the NFL (almost as hard to find as a quarterback). Ever since then, after leaving the coaching ranks and gaining the clarity of distance, perspective, and analysis, I’ve been determined to see if there’s a better way to evaluate quarterback talent and potential. I set out in search of the Q Factor.
Study a small, select group of highly rated, high-draft-pick quarterback prospects—their skills, stats, and character traits—and track their performance and circumstances, and you may uncover patterns of what separates great from merely very good… and maybe reveal methods for spotting and developing future talent—that is, the Q Factor.
We’re putting the 2018 draft class, the most touted quarterback draft class in a decade, under the microscope—who they are, how they got here, who they’re playing for, how well they do and why, and what each is made of: talent, character, metrics, and magic. Studying the ’18 class may reveal the path to better measurement and better prediction, to finding a formula for prognosticating slightly better. And slightly better, just fractionally better, may be enough to make the difference between good and great, between salary-cap dollars spent well instead of burned, to finding a few more leaders and a few fewer busts. For the next class. And the one after. Maybe even a formula that translates into identifying “quarterback-types” in fields beyond the football field.
The Draft: Hype, Hope, and Hoopla
April 26, 2018, 8:00 p.m.—Arlington, Texas, AT&T Stadium
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, flanked by Dallas Cowboy legends Troy Aikman, Jason Witten, and Roger Staubach, strides into his realm—blinding klieg lights, pulsing highlight screens, earsplitting music, choreographed frenzy and fanfare. The fans jeer Goodell, the big-time wrestling bad guy a crowd loves to hate, while stomping and cheering for their hometown heroes and the Game of Football. The 2018 NFL Draft is about to begin. A hundred thousand stalwarts are packed into and around AT&T Stadium. Ultimately over 45 million people will watch this year’s draft, live on network and cable television, and streaming on sports apps.
The first draft was held in a hotel room in Philadelphia in 1936, with ninety names written on a chalkboard and owners taking turns making their selections, a bigger version of a backyard pickup game. This was before scouts, and agents, and the Combine, well before 1980 when brand-new cable channel ESPN approached Commissioner Pete Rozelle for rights to broadcast the event. He agreed, even though he thought no one would watch.
This was before the NFL discovered what Cirque du Soleil, Wall Street, and even NASA learned long ago—spectacle is good entertainment and good business. Put all the elements together and the show is even better. Sight, sound, and lighting wizardry now treat stock market IPOs, space shots, and the NFL Draft like Las Vegas extravaganzas. At the draft, borrowing from NASA, the players/astronauts are in one place, the draft brain trusts/Houston are in another, and the ceremony/liftoff is in still another. It’s all about the show. Of the 250 players in the draft, the twenty-two top players are at AT&T Stadium. But there’s live video of the other players, at home around the country, surrounded by anxious mothers, fathers, and grandparents, college teammates, agents, and hangers-on. And there are live feeds from each of the thirty-two teams’ nerve-center draft rooms back in Phoenix or New York or Detroit or Green Bay. At the draft itself, there are largely ceremonial reps from each team to accompany their picks onto the stage. But if you’re a fan, it all happens in one place, on your screen—TV, laptop, tablet, mobile phone, sports bar, or man cave—wherever you are. The team picks, the kid pumps his fist, his mother weeps, and he walks onstage draped in his new jersey… all brought to you by the NFL to fuel the hype for next season months before it starts.
Who gets picked? When? And why?
Who was the standout quarterback at the Combine? Who ran the fastest 40? How good is that running back from the Pac-12? How about that blitzing linebacker from the ACC? The blazing wide receiver from the Big Ten? Is that kid from the SEC going to play football or baseball? Who’s the top player in the draft, and who will be the overall number one pick? They may or may not be the same.
There’s always lots of talk—endless debate, analysis, emotion, arguments, predictions on future stars and future busts—every year, and this year is no different. Except this year, almost all of the talk is about one position: quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. This year, the experts say, there is a batch of potential first-round quarterbacks to rival the historic drafts of 1983—Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, and Tony Eason—or 2004—Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning.
“NFL teams needing help at quarterback will have no excuses this year with a crop of talent worthy of comparison to even the renowned Class of 1983.”
“Quarterbacks are going to dominate the conversation surrounding the 2018 NFL draft. It’s possible five signal-callers could get selected inside the top 10.”
“The numbers this year will show that this is a quarterback-rich draft class.”
The prevailing wisdom is that, yes, as many as five could go in the first round of 2018. Up to nine could be picked in total. The combination of talent, need, and hyperbole is the making of a true feeding frenzy.
Quarterback is unlike any other position on a football team. The quarterback is the only player who is at the center of every offensive play. The quarterback may get a play called into his headset, but he decides whether to carry it out or call an audible, depending on what he sees at the line; he may execute his audible or go to a checkdown play; throw deep or dump the ball off short; he may hand off or he may fake the give and roll out, or keep the ball himself and run; or scramble to find a receiver late, or throw the ball away on purpose to save a sack or loss. He makes more decisions than anyone else on the football field with the possible exception of the head coach. And his decisions can mean the fate of a down, a series, the quarter, the score at halftime, an entire game, or a season. Yeah, a quarterback is important. In fact, the position is arguably more important than any other single position in any team sport. A quarterback can literally make or break a football team. You can win without a great one (I know; I did it), but it isn’t easy, and you can’t keep winning without one. Finding a great one, a franchise quarterback, may be the hardest challenge in football, or in all sports. So this year, with its promising, tantalizing collection of talent, is getting more attention than any draft in almost forty years.
Roger Goodell waits for the applause (and jeers) to die down, welcomes everyone to the 2018 draft, takes a dramatic pause—drumroll—and announces: “The Cleveland Browns are on the clock…”
Thanks to a losing record, the worst in football for yet another season, the Browns have the number one pick. In fact, they also have the number four pick. They’re on the clock, so they have ten minutes to submit their first selection. There’s been a lot of talk around the league, in Cleveland, in the media, online, anywhere football is spoken, about who they’ll take. One thing is for sure: They need a quarterback. The Browns have an almost remarkable (laughable if you live anywhere but Cleveland) record of drafting badly, especially quarterbacks. In 1999, with the number one overall pick, they took Tim Couch out of Kentucky. He played only five seasons, made the postseason once, was plagued by injuries, and was replaced by his backup. The Browns then went through a laundry list of NFL journeymen—Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, and Derek Anderson—before finally taking Brady Quinn from Notre Dame with the twenty-second pick in 2007. But Quinn could never quite nail down the starter’s job, battling with Anderson until he was traded to the Broncos for the 2010 season. From there, it was back to the backup department with a succession of stalwart placeholders from Colt McCoy to Jake Delhomme to Seneca Wallace. In 2012, the team used its first-round pick to take Brandon Weeden, who, after struggling in his early college career, had a record-setting senior year at Oklahoma State, enough to earn him the number twenty-two pick in the draft. But a combination of interceptions and injuries ended in only two seasons with the Browns.
In 2014, midway through the first round, the Browns took controversial Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Nicknamed “Johnny Football” by his Aggie fans, he beat seemingly unbeatable Alabama and set Heisman passing records. He opted to enter the NFL Draft after his junior year and was deemed to be either the next great superstar or, in the words of Barry Switzer, “an arrogant little prick,” too full of himself to be coached. Unfortunately, the Browns’ twenty-second pick (maybe it was the number 22, like Quinn and Weeden) made more headlines off the field than on (fines for hand gestures, party videos, visits to Las Vegas, and domestic violence charges) and was cut loose before the 2016 season. He hasn’t been able to sign on with another NFL team since.
After three more seasons of back-to-the-backups—Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III, and then trading for DeShone Kizer—it was finally time for Cleveland to get another shot at the number one overall pick in 2018. Would they break their quarterback jinx… or were they really cursed? The cynics were betting on the curse. Nine minutes and counting…
The Browns are facing a classic draft dilemma (in some ways a good problem to have). They have both the first and fourth picks in the first round. Do they take a quarterback with the number one pick or play it more strategically? Picking a franchise quarterback is hardly a science, and Cleveland has the record to prove it. The draft tends to sift out the best players and push them to the top—it does not predict greatness, only pretty goodness. The Browns’ coach, Hue Jackson, has a 1-31 record and is under a lot of pressure. Maybe the wise move would be to pass on a quarterback with the first pick, take the consensus draft superstar, Saquon Barkley, running back out of Penn State, and set out to notch some wins under veteran QB Tyrod Taylor, signed in the off-season. Then, with their number four pick, they could draft the best available quarterback. The Giants were picking number two, and with their commitment to Eli Manning, they were unlikely to take a quarterback. The Jets at number three were going to take a quarterback, but that would leave four of the top five prospects on the board for Cleveland’s number four pick. Plenty of draft rooms had Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) at the top, but plenty had Sam Darnold (USC) number one, followed by Josh Allen (Wyoming) and Josh Rosen (UCLA). Since there is no obvious winner, Cleveland might well get their favorite anyway. Sound strategy… but not what the Browns are known for.
The Cleveland Browns take Baker Mayfield…
- "A great quarterback is the most valuable asset in American team sports. Brian Billick's THE Q FACTOR is a fascinating and necessary search for an answer to the question that defines the NFL: How can a team identify a championship quarterback in the making? A must-read for anyone who cares about our modern-day national pastime."—Ian O'Connor, New York Times bestselling author of BELICHICK
- "Brian Billick was offensive co-ordinator of the Minnesota Vikings team that set an NFL record for points scored, and he went on to win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He has the smarts, instincts and scars to evaluate the quarterback position. In THE Q FACTOR, he gives us real insight on the search for the best recent quarterbacks and the profound decisions that impacted the entire league. THE Q FACTOR is a must-read."—James "Shack" Harris, former NFL quarterback and front office executive
- "How do you find a great NFL quarterback? Which stats matter and which don't? How do you measure things like decision-making and leadership? Brian Billick has taken on one of the great challenges in sports, deconstructed the whole process and rebuilt it from the bottom up. This could change the search for leaders on the field...and maybe even off the field."—Gary Kubiak, former NFL quarterback, offensive coordinator, and Super Bowl-winning head coach
- "As a QB who fell through the cracks and wasn't given a chance by many 'experts', I was fascinated by Brian Billick's THE Q FACTOR. I've been asked a thousand times, 'Why did so many people miss on you?' and 'Is it possible to accurately evaluate the QB position?' Billick tackles these questions and gives us answers. THE Q FACTOR is a deep dive into the most important position in sports and a must-have tool to help find 'the next great QB'."—Kurt Warner, Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL commentator
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages