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Saturday, November 21, 2015

A fascinating glimpse

Into the world of an NFL quarterback. It's not hard to see why the athletically gifted, but less intelligent or less dedicated college stars reliably fail once they find themselves in the deep end:
In a conference room on the second floor of the Cardinals’ Southwest-motif headquarters in Tempe late Tuesday afternoon, Garver and assistant tight ends/special teams coach Steve Heiden sit at a long table, looking up at the whiteboard. Arians is seated at the end, wearing his trademark Kangol cap, pondering his practice plan for Wednesday. He wants to make sure every play counts in his three practices this week. Not only will the game plan be about 20 plays longer than the usual 150-play catalog he uses—Cleveland’s “rolodex of coverages,” as Palmer says, makes Arizona want more options in the game plan—but Arians will be coaching a team in a hurried week, against an opponent few on his team and staff are familiar with.

Observing Arians as the plan is being finalized, you realize there is no secret to the plays that are his pets. There is a section smack dab in the middle of the white board headed HOME RUN. It means exactly how it sounds: big shots, far downfield.

Arians picks out six Home Runs per week. This week, one of the Home Runs stands out above all: Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide. “I love the play this week,” Arians says.

Pistol means Palmer will take the snap four yards behind center. It’s a short shotgun snap. Strong tells the fullback (backup center A.Q. Shipley, in this case) to line up to the tight-end side of the formation. Right is the side the tight end will line up on, assuming the ball is spotted in the middle of the field or the right hash. Stack tells the two wide receivers on the play to line up in a stack to the opposite side of the formation from the tight end. Act 6 is the protection, telling the two backs which linebacker to block if the ’backers rush; the fullback will seal the tight-end side, while the running back will take the blitzer from the middle or weak side, if there is one. Y Cross Divide comprises the two routes run by the wide receivers. The Y, or slot receiver, will run a deep cross through the formation and hope to take a safety with him, while the split end in the stack will run a divide route; that means the split end, likely Larry Fitzgerald, will run a stutter-and-go, running maybe seven yards downfield, faking toward the sideline, then sprinting downfield. The route is divided into two segments, the first ending in the deke to the right, and then the go.

Just one of 171 plays the Cardinals installed for their game with Cleveland.

“You pretty sure you’ll run it this week?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” Arians says. “It ties into what we did last week running the ball. We’ll take one of the runs they’ve seen with A.Q. in the backfield, and we’ll run play-action off it instead of a run. It’s a concept, a play, our quarterback and receivers know, but we haven’t run it out of this formation or this set. Larry’s really good on the [divide] route. Plus, it’s a seven-man protection, so we’ve got probably 3 to 3.5 seconds for Carson to get rid of it.”

The play stands out for several reasons. One: Cleveland safety Donte Whitner is very aggressive. If he sees Shipley in the backfield, his study of the Cards is likely going to lead him to think it’s a running play. So Whitner could cheat toward the line, thinking it’s a run, or he could blitz to cram the line of scrimmage, or he could stay back in coverage. “He’s all over film, getting his eyes in the backfield when he never should,” Palmer says. Two: The Y receiver would be either of the two young Arizona speedsters, John Brown or J.J. Nelson, and the likelihood of one darting across the formation would cause the remaining safety, Tashaun Gipson, to shade toward helping the Cleveland cornerback over the top on Brown or Nelson. Three: Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham, running a short cross opposite and underneath the Y cross, would likely be picked up by a linebacker and be open. Four: Fitzgerald isn’t the fastest receiver on the field, but as Arians says, he runs a heck of an out-and-up; if Palmer has the time, Fitzgerald on a corner would be tempting, because he’d likely gain half a step on the corner with the fake.
It's very cool to see how little is left to chance... and yet how big a role chance nevertheless plays with regards to the eventual outcome. There are several important life lessons to be found there. Be sure to read both parts.

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39 Comments:

Blogger Aeoli Pera November 21, 2015 9:23 AM  

Best infographic of all time.

I took the Wonderlic once. Neat little test, never learned my score though.

Test is normed to have a mean of 20. They keep the standard deviation under wraps (probably to stay out of hot water), but from what I've read it's between 5 and 7.5, and probably closer to the latter. Figure between 6.5 and 7 and I doubt you'd be too far off.

Blogger Cataline Sergius November 21, 2015 9:50 AM  

Tangential to Topic; But if any of you has consistently bad luck in your choice of sports teams, I would appreciate it if you would root for Ohio today.

Honestly, I think MSU is down to luck today but luck counts for something.

Anonymous WillBest November 21, 2015 10:09 AM  

It is rather amazing how much effort goes into each 11 seconds.

And the idea that they are knuckle dragging, muscle bound, jocks is pretty idiotic at the professional level. Though there doesn't seem to be much benefit to being super smart (only guy over 35 to win you an SB is Eli).

Kind of funny that D-linemen aren't listed. Is it because they are muscle bound apes who are basically doing little more than chasing whoever is holding the ball. Maybe they have just been unlucky, but up in Chicago of the last 5-6 plays to get in trouble were all d-line players save one tight end.

Anonymous redsash November 21, 2015 10:09 AM  

A very long way from Lombardy's, "Gentleman we are going to run 4 basic plays. We are going to run them to perfection. You're going to be faster and stronger than the opponent you face." All teams knew the Green Bay sweep was coming, the left guard was pulling, and Taylor was coming, yet one NFL championship, and two super bowl wins. BTW against the Browns and Jim Brown, Taylor got over 100 yards and MVP.

Blogger Nate November 21, 2015 10:29 AM  

when teams are really pounding the run and the D is warn down... o-linemen will often get talkative. They'll flat out tell the d line what is coming... because it doesn't matter. They can't stop it.

Bruce Matthews was notorious for it.

Blogger Dave November 21, 2015 10:44 AM  

That's pretty much what Gibb's and the Hogs did too: "Try and stop us."

Anonymous Cash November 21, 2015 10:53 AM  

So you have to have the brains, the athletic ability, the leadership abilities, the work ethic, the strong arm, the height, memory. Anything else?

Anonymous VFM #0202 November 21, 2015 11:11 AM  

I know nothing about football but I've been studying Vox.

1) It's good to sit inn an easy chair in front of the fire* you've lit in your opposition's bowels.

2 ) It's a team sport.

*BTW, whatever happened to Operation All Your Downturn In Sales Are Belong To Us?

Blogger dr_doug November 21, 2015 11:23 AM  

WillBest:
"Kind of funny that D-linemen aren't listed. Is it because they are muscle bound apes who are basically doing little more than chasing whoever is holding the ball."

33 years ago I was on a choir tour and stayed overnight at the defensive coordinator of a major NFL team. I specifically remember his comment that the defensive linemen were pretty smart at football but not much else.

Blogger RC November 21, 2015 11:31 AM  

It's very impressive what a small group of well-resourced and super-talented men can accomplish. The outliers are the spice of life.

Blogger Cail Corishev November 21, 2015 11:47 AM  

I've been listening to Chris Cooley, former tight end for the Redskins, do his film breakdown every week, where he discusses a handful of key plays/drives in depth. It's amazing how complex it is. The TV commentators don't even scratch the surface. He'll say things like, "On this play the QB should have noticed the LB lined up two yards forward from the normal spot for this shell and had the RB shift to the other side and motioned the line to block left and...." And they're supposed to make these observations and decisions during the few seconds of walking up to the line and hiking the ball -- and then there are more adjustments and decisions to make after the ball is hiked. More for the QB than for anyone else, but the other players have a lot to think about too.

I also read a book called The Power of Habit. The author talked to Dungy about the way he trained Tampa Bay, and it was all about habits -- basically drilling these guys to the point where they'd make the right moves without thinking about it. He wanted a lineman to see the man across from him putting his weight on one foot and react correctly without thinking -- without even knowing why. It makes sense -- if you're going to run guys out there with sub-90 IQs (and the lack of mental quickness that correlates with that) there's simply no hope that they're going to be able to decide where to run on every play. It has to be automatic.

I'd be surprised if there's not a strong correlation between a team's IQ and its winning record. If I were drafting for a team, I'd go way past the Wonderlic and look for tests that not only gauge IQ, but specifically thinking speed and short-term memory. Maybe some teams are already doing that.

Blogger Gordon November 21, 2015 12:11 PM  

The things that have changed since Lombardi's days are that the defensive players are bigger, stronger and much faster. Today's d-linemen would be able to chase down Taylor from bèhind.

I talked Carl Eller one night outside a bar in Minneapolis. He was one of the famed Purple People Eaters of the Vikings in the 70s. I asked him if he realized that the Edina MN high school front four is 40 pounds heavier, 1/3 again stronger and significantly faster than he and his colleagues had been in their prime. He laughed and said he could play college ball today with his back-then talents, but maybe not D1. He also said, they were a lot tougher back in the day. A coach today could not get away with what coaches like Bud Grant or Lombardi did.

Blogger Jim Milo November 21, 2015 12:26 PM  

OT: Milo is covering the Greg Elliott case live this afternoon

That's the one involving that vile Toronto feminist Steph Guthrie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViiAiHW0OiQ

Blogger Hammerli280 November 21, 2015 12:36 PM  

@11: I know the Redskins under Joe Gibbs were using IQ testing as part of their recruiting in the 1980s. They weren't interested in dumb players - the stupid ones make stupid mistakes.

Blogger Mr.MantraMan November 21, 2015 12:55 PM  

Too much IQ seems to be a drag IMO. Athletics almost makes me a believer in the 5 Intelligences theory of intelligence.

Anonymous Brian November 21, 2015 1:13 PM  

@11

A lot of college coaches don't so much run plays as they do concepts. Hal Mumme's Air Raid is like this; they'll run the exact same play but from 7 or 8 or 10 different formations. Players don't have t remember 200 plays, just a few routes and where to stand. It looks complicated on film and tricks most people, but a good coach (like Belichick dissecting Faulk and the Rams) figure it out and can shut it down fairly easy. Four Verticals is one of those concepts that has made it to the pros: Palmer likes it a lot and has used it everywhere.

Blogger Cail Corishev November 21, 2015 1:16 PM  

Too much IQ might be bad, yes. One of the knocks on Alex Smith is that he's too smart (he got a 40 on the Wonderlic, which is very roughly equivalent to a 140 IQ) so he tries too hard to think through every possibility out there. He looks better when they're behind and have nothing to lose, so he thinks less about the risks and just throws it.

But I think not enough is worse. If a guy's physically gifted but dumb as a stump, then the coach has to keep the playbook simpler and try to run the guy by remote control from the sideline, which just doesn't work well in the NFL. It limits a team too much, and defenses vary too much for plays coming in from the bench to work well without off-schedule modification.

I'm certainly not saying intelligence is the most important factor. I just think it's much more important than most fans realize, because it's not easily visible the way accuracy and speed are. It's also harder to test for than those things, especially since you're not necessarily looking for raw IQ, but the specific ability to recognize movement in space and think through a large decision tree quickly.

Anonymous Dave #39 November 21, 2015 1:33 PM  

@2

Who are the Bobcats playing today? Did not take you for a MAC fan, but OK. Seriously, this Buckeye has great respect for Sparty (grew up outside Jackson), but did you have to resort to referring to us the same way scUM does?

OpenID Jack Amok November 21, 2015 1:57 PM  

Kind of funny that D-linemen aren't listed.

And Offensive Linemen are on average the smartest group. One of the problems the Seahawk's have had this year is terrible O-line play, and interestingly enough, Tom Cable (their O-Line coach) thinks colleges do a poor job of training O-linemen, and that D-linemen are more athletic. So he likes to draft D-Linemen and convert them to O-Line. Watching Drew Nowak (the guy they tried to make their center) play, you could see it all. On some plays, he would make phenomenally athletic moves you don't associate with a man that big, but on other plays, he would totally mis-read the defense and let a guy go right through almost unblocked.

Offensive linemen have a lot to think about. They're not just gorillas steamrolling guys.

Anonymous jack.amok@yahoo.com November 21, 2015 2:06 PM  

If a guy's physically gifted but dumb as a stump, then the coach has to keep the playbook simpler and try to run the guy by remote control from the sideline

Even more important than raw IQ is processing speed. The difference between a Tom Brady and a Matt Ryan is Brady and Rodgers can make the right decision in 1.5 to 2 seconds. Ryan can make the right decision too, but he needs 2.5 to 3 seconds to process everything. And then there are a whole host of career backups who can have all the time in the world and still it's a crapshoot if they make the right decision. So if Ryan has a line that gives him time, he looks like Brady. If they don't, he looks like a scrub.

Blogger Desiderius November 21, 2015 2:19 PM  

Dipshit Dan Rooney followed his ProgDem playbook and kept sloppy Mike Tomlin over Bruce Arians, so now he gets to watch the most talented team in the league post mediocre results year after year.

Blogger Desiderius November 21, 2015 2:35 PM  

Cail,

"Too much IQ might be bad, yes. One of the knocks on Alex Smith is that he's too smart (he got a 40 on the Wonderlic, which is very roughly equivalent to a 140 IQ) so he tries too hard to think through every possibility out there. He looks better when they're behind and have nothing to lose, so he thinks less about the risks and just throws it."

General intelligence is generally applicable, which is why Alex Smith has a better record than most quarterbacks (playing under the proverbial high general intelligence/high conscientiousness Offensive Lineman Andy Reid has also helped), but greatness requires a much narrower genius that may also include wide blind-spots. A Brady or a Harbaugh doesn't so much under-think things as much as they slip effortlessly to the level of abstraction necessary to the immediate challenge upon which they can narrowly focus.

"Some beauties yet, no precepts can declare,
For there's a happiness as well as care.
Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master-hand alone can reach.
If, where the rules not far enough extend,
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky LICENCE answers to the full
Th' intent propos'd, that licence is a rule.
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common track.
Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which, without passing through the judgment, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains."

Pope, Essay on Criticism

As success at football also requires one to be a leader of men, a charisma that doesn't map exactly onto conventional intelligence is also required.

Anonymous BigGaySteve November 21, 2015 3:02 PM  

And the idea that they are knuckle dragging, muscle bound, jocks is pretty idiotic at the professional level.

As seen in the article he play basically explains everything that needs to be done, and people only need to know the part that applies to them. None of the linebackers need to know the difference between pistol and shot gun plays. The only ones that need to know what all the words in the play are quarterbacks & coaches.

The things that have changed since Lombardi's days are that the Performance enhancing drugs flow freer.

Anonymous Forrest Bishop November 21, 2015 3:55 PM  

@8. VFM #0202
I know nothing about football but I've been studying Vox.

Yeah me too. US Football is that movie they keep playing over and over on TV, the one about some men running around on some grass. I won't spoil the ending. Do they still call it TV like they did last time I looked in the 1970's? This article excerpt is the first time it's looked mildly interesting. Back to chainsawing up the 100' tree that landed on my house last Tuesday. And don't even tell me an Echo is a girly Stihl.

Anonymous Yid Kid November 21, 2015 4:56 PM  

Holy hannah.

I begin to understand how the Dark Lord manages to tell his enemies to punch themselves, then sit back and watch them do it.

Blogger Cecil Henry November 21, 2015 5:04 PM  

I think running 171 plus plays may be falling in to the trap of too much choice, and the illusion that such choices matter.

Do these complications give better play performance or just the illusion of better choice.

I really wonder.

I've seen a lot of plays fail from poor execution. A different play is not needed. Just a better carrying out of the details.

Half the time with the Patriots you know what;s coming. And it still comes just the same!!!

That's a great team performance.

Blogger kh123 November 21, 2015 5:15 PM  

@26 "Do these complications give better play performance or just the illusion of better choice."

Well put. Concept that carries over into many other things.

"I've seen a lot of plays fail from poor execution. A different play is not needed. Just a better carrying out of the details."

...And at the same time, how often has this been said by folks like Krugman.

Blogger kh123 November 21, 2015 5:26 PM  

...Different sport, but read an interview awhile back with John Surtees, and he brought up what Palmer mentions here: Persistence, as well as consistency. Said he'd rather have raced at 99% the whole way through rather than pushing it at 101% on some points and then bringing it in on a sloppy 95%, which he mentions the newer bikes allowed without having to regain lost revs over as long a period.

Blogger Desiderius November 21, 2015 5:29 PM  

"And the idea that they are knuckle dragging, muscle bound, jocks is pretty idiotic at the professional level.

As seen in the article he play basically explains everything that needs to be done, and people only need to know the part that applies to them."

Any male mind (above, say, 85 IQ) in harness to a specific task over time is capable of remarkable mastery. Few of the line workers I ostensibly supervised at GE had beyond an eighth-grade education, yet they were able to apply advanced statistic methods to the manufacturing process and had developed a feel for their machinery that went beyond anything that could be taught in a classroom.

Anonymous ENthePeasant November 21, 2015 5:31 PM  

Complexity rules in the NFL based on players being fairly unique, but similar, as far as physical ability goes. But execution in the NFL is a bit of a joke. They can run all the plays they want but having someone do their job on every play is impossible with time constraints and complexity involved. So it comes down to fooling someone with formations and motion. Six home runs a week? Interesting but not likely to be more successful than the bread and butter plays they run daily. Athleticism to be admired for sure... but intelligence? Not really, they make too many mistakes in the NFL.

Anonymous redsash November 21, 2015 5:31 PM  

Dave: Under Gibbs it was Riggins left, Riggins right, choose your poison.

I'll match the speed strength ability and meanness of Doug Atkins against any defensive player of the last thirty years.

Blogger Cataline Sergius November 21, 2015 6:54 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Cataline Sergius November 21, 2015 6:54 PM  

@2

Hey whoever you are...YOU ARE AWESOME!!!

Anonymous Dave #39 November 21, 2015 7:17 PM  

@33. Well done sir. You deserved the win.

Blogger Cataline Sergius November 21, 2015 7:49 PM  

@34

You guys are so much better than U of M fans.

Blogger Cataline Sergius November 22, 2015 8:50 AM  

Actually on topic now. I think MSU's surprise win over Ohio yesterday comes down to one major thing.

They built their entire playbook around Connor Cook and he was on the bench. Instead they were facing two UFO QBs. Ohio defense was making it up on the fly and it showed.

Blogger E. Burke November 22, 2015 10:57 AM  

One does wonder if the coaches have considered the possibility of diminishing marginal returns to complexity.

Blogger Desiderius November 23, 2015 2:45 AM  

Both MSU QBs played with a lot of poise. Dantonio's a helluva coach.

Anonymous Brian Millice November 24, 2015 3:16 AM  

Enjoy it now. Football as we know it will die out soon. More and more parents (including fathers) that I know are prohibiting their junior high and high school sons from playing American Football now that the reports about serious brain injury have been released showing that even high school players likely suffer permanent head injury... and if the best high school athletes move from football to soccer/baseball/lacrosse, etc., then the best players in college will no longer be football players, which means the NFL... well, you get the idea.

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