Recently, I picked up The Essential Smart Football by Chris Brown of Smart Football fame (which I highly recommend to any football fan). While the book is full of X’s and O’s as well as some game theory, I was struck most notably by his chapter on decision making.
I mostly blame our QB battle for this, specifically the play of Tommy Rees. While I can nitpick poor pre-snap reads or inaccurate throws, my biggest issue with Rees has always been his decision making and finding receivers that are actually open. So many times he would seem locked in to one receiver, throwing into double and triple coverage inexplicably.
Chris Brown dives into this topic using Tom Brady as his example:
Brady drops back and scans his receivers. He gets to one and simply lets the ball go. Brady is asked: “Why did you throw it to that guy?” He replies: “I just felt like he was open.” That’s it? That’s it.
Skunbear roots aside, Tom Brady, is without a doubt in the top tier of NFL QBs. And his big secret? Trusting his gut.
What of coaching though? Doesn’t that account for Brady’s ability to just “know”? Brown continues:
A quarterback might have an idea of where he might throw it, as his rational brain can do some early legwork, but the ultimate decision–during a play–is by the emotional, reactive parts of his brain. The brain, getting some kind of positive feedback, tells the muscles to release the ball. And how could it be otherwise? The decisions happen much too fast for any person to coldly and rationally walk their way through it. The quarterback must simply know…What is particularly scary is that if a guy does not possess this kind of nonrational ability to make such decision, he will kill your team with bad “decisions,” and coaches get fired for not teaching the quarterback how to do something that is unexplainable in words.
A coach can only work on the rational brain. Brain Kelly can spend hours upon hours until he is purple in the face teaching Rees (or any other quarterback for that matter) how to make pre-snap reads or how to recognize certain coverages. However, only so much of this can actually bleed into the nonrational parts of the brain.
I can relate to the nonrational “just feel it” part of sports. I suspect anyone reading this post has similar experiences as well, whether it is from old high school glory days or that one (and only) spectacular shot hit during a golf round.
I’ll never forget catching a line drive come-backer during one game I was pitching. I never even saw the ball after it left the bat. Instead of ducking and covering my head, I swung my glove across my stomach and caught the ball to everyone’s surprise, including my own. I couldn’t explain the play then and I still can’t. I just “knew” the ball would be there.
The managers have their own Bookstore-style tournament every year (full disclosure: I really suck at basketball). During the tourney, I found myself on a fast break (full disclosure: I’m really slow). My angle to the basket was cut off, but I knew I had a teammate trailing me. I never saw him, but had an idea of where he might be. My reaction: a behind-the-back bounce pass that hit him perfectly in the chest and in stride (full disclosure: he missed the layup…I think I surprised him too). I’ve never even tried such a pass in my life, but I “knew” it would work.
At some point, the reactions just have to take over. For the not-so-talented, like myself, it allows for the occasional flash-in-the-pan moment of glory. For a talented athlete, it can allow for them to simply dominate the field. Even for a developing young athlete, one expected to panic and make mistakes, simply incredible “I can’t believe he just did that” moments appear on a fairly regular basis.
When I finished reading that chapter, I started to think about Tommy and his decision making on the field. He doesn’t seem like the QB that makes bad decisions because he believes his talent will let him get away with it. Instead, he seems to be overly meticulous, sticking so closely to the playbook that he will stay on his primary receiver because the play should go there and coverage be damned. Those are two very different worlds.
I actually think that Tommy has a good grasp on the playbook and is able to make the correct pre-snap reads more often than not. However, once the ball is snapped, it is as if all ability to play smart football disappears and that scares me.
Perhaps this is the true genesis of why I feel like Tommy’s time is done at QB. Not so much because of the obvious talent on the roster in Hendrix, Golson, and Kiel, but because it just seems that Tommy doesn’t “know” what he is doing out there.
Or, as Tom Brady might say, I just don’t feel like he has it.
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