Quarterback Development: When Practice Reports Are Useless


Tom Brady succeeds because he doesn’t avoid risking failure every day. That’s how great decision-making is developed and refined in the NFL. That process is like an iceberg that beat writers don’t usually get to see. Photo by Jeffrey Beall.

“A lot of times you learn from your mistakes. You know, you gotta make the mistakes to learn from them,” he said. “And you never know how tight a window is until you throw it, and it was too tight. You try to force a ball into certain areas and then you learn from it, you say, ‘I can’t do that.’ You install new plays and you try to run them over and over and you try to identify all the problems where they come up and then really make good decisions.

“We’re out here running a ton of plays every day, 75, 80 plays a day,” he continued. “Believe me, they’re not all perfect, there’s a lot of learning every day in a lot of the situational stuff that we do. All of it is a good learning experience, whether Ryan or Brian are in there taking the snap, I’m paying attention to see what I would do if I was in there and vice versa. And that’s the only way to play football, you can’t sit here and only concentrate when you’re in. You gotta learn from every day on the field, every rep in practice, mentally and then physically when you get a chance to go out and do it, you gotta try to execute it as best you can.”

-Tom Brady talking about the value of taking risks and making mistakes in practice

This quote from Field Yates’ piece posted yesterday on ESPN’s New England Patriots Report is a perfect example of why readers have to be careful about what beat reporters and analysts observe at practice.

When it comes to assessing the performance of an individual player, practice is indeed sometimes just practice. Journalists, bloggers, and other media don’t have readers, listeners, and viewers standing over their shoulders critiquing every move as they prepare drafts or rehearse scripts or notes of what they intend communicate. Most individuals are given the freedom to prepare in private to create a polished product refined through trial and error, honing of technique, and taking risks to understand the dynamics of the project at hand.

Trent Edwards went from a risk taker with promise to depth chart fodder afraid to fail. Photo by John Templon.

Lasting success comes from repeatedly taking the risks to fail. Perhaps the biggest reason for Tom Brady’s success is his decision-making. I read Chris Brown’s essay in his excellent book Smart Football where he concludes that good and bad decision-making at the quarterback position is too difficult to gauge when evaluating the future prospects of a young quarterback. Brown’s conclusion is based on part with Brady saying he doesn’t know why he does what he does in such a short period of time. I agree with a lot of Brown’s conclusions in this essay.

However, I think Brady’s quote at the top of this piece indicates something that perhaps even Brady hadn’t thought about when he said the things that Brown analyzed in the past. Brady is willing to take risks to fail. Test every angle. Take note of each failure and look for what he can and can’t do with a play call, a defense, a formation, and a passing window.

The first-day quarterback prospects that we’ve seen fail miserably are the ones that have lost their capacity to embrace risk. Trent Edwards, John Beck, and David Carr were all confident pocket passers willing to throw the ball down field and into tight windows as college passers and even early in their pro careers. Somewhere along the way, they had this willingness to embrace risk beaten out of them by opposing defenses and/or coaches. They lost the will to continue failing until they experienced success.

Most practice reports that feature quarterback work are analysis of completions, interceptions, touchdowns, and quality of a throw.  When we learn about development, it’s generally in vague terms:

  • He’s miles from where he was last year.
  • He’s seeing the field better.
  • His decisions are quicker.

If we get the last two bullet points, we’re lucky. Yet, I’m not indicting beat writers. There’s a lot happening at practice and not a lot of time to analyze it all. I’m reminding readers that the analysis of practice, preseason, and the regular season is filled with valuable clues as well as red herrings. Because there is such a large component to the game that takes place before the snap and between the quarterback’s ear holes, progress is harder to see. In that sense, quarterbacks are a lot like icebergs.

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1 comment

  1. I’d also add in that Preseason snaps are also a part of the learning curve for QB’s and any player. On the field for example, QBs are going to get put in a position/scenario and they test themselves. Then they know if they can make that throw or not. Its much better to work this out in preseason or practice as opposed to on 3rd down, behind by 7 during Week 3.

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