Readers often ask me for advice on how to watch football with a more critical eye. My answers are below, but if you take my advice you’ll lose your football innocence.
Let’s dispense with the obvious:
You love football.
I love football.
We wouldn’t be interacting on this blog if we didn’t.
I’m stating these facts because in lieu of what I’m about to share, you may forget that I love football. And that’s a shame.
You’ll probably never know how much I love football. It was as regular a part of my day as brushing my teeth during my youth in Cleveland, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia. Backyards. Playgrounds. Practice fields. Summer camps. Streets. Even hallways of apartment complexes.
As a latch-key kid, I loved football so much that I used to prepare for my truancy from elementary school with “pre-skip” visits to the library. There I would check out books featuring the likes of Red Grange, George Halas, the T-formation, Gale Sayers, Deacon Jones, Sam Huff, Jim Brown, and Bronko Nagurski. I’d then spend my “day off” reading out loud to the bewildered family parakeet.
Yes, I had my own special bus…
I think you need to know this about me in light of the fact that for the person interested in film study my advice seems dour. The first thought that comes to mind: Say goodbye to a normal life.
There is a reason football people call film study grinding tape. When done well, it’s a methodical, unrelenting process that ultimately turns into a job. Granted, it’s often a fun job, but it’s still work.
I have frequently spent as many as eight hours studying a single player in one game – and that includes fast forwarding through plays where he’s not on the field. I realize most of you aren’t that serious about studying film and you don’t need to make that kind of commitment to develop a more critical eye. However, you do have to be willing to give up some of your football innocence.
At first, you might not enjoy taking a sober look at the game. However, the deeper appreciation gained is worth the effort. I make my share of mistakes and I’m sure there are experienced scouts or draft analysts who would disagree with some of the points I’m about to share. But I’m sharing part of my path and what has been valuable to me.
10 things you can do to become a more critical viewer:
1. Watch football alone: Football is a great outlet to let off some steam and bond with friends and family. However, what you’ll be doing requires more focus than what the average fan is going to enjoy. Trust me.
If you want to develop a more critical eye you need to be willing to set aside a game to watch by yourself on a regular basis. While watching games with an experienced tape grinder can be helpful, there is no substitute for logging those hours on your own road to self discovery.
2. Become a student, not a fan: You have to temporarily put aside your game day habits as a fan. I’m not telling you to abandon watching football for the sheer enjoyment of it. However, you have to have the mindset that this is homework.
Set aside time where you’ll have minimal interruptions. Although most don’t have an eight-hour block to watch an entire game in one sitting, making the commitment to take as much time as needed to break down and understand what you’re seeing is vital. If it takes you two weeks to finish studying a facet of a game (be it a player or a unit of a team) that’s okay. It’s the journey that’s important.
3. Pick a player, any player: In the beginning, focus your attention on one player. Pick a position that you really enjoy watching. I suggest the first group of players you study are NFL veterans renown for their technique, because they are the standard setters for developing a more critical eye (see point No. 8).
Since the “tape” you’ll be using is a televised game and not coaches tape, it will be more difficult to examine certain aspects of wide receiver, safety, and quarterback play on a consistent basis. Although I believe there are times where the televised games actually offer better details of specific techniques that you need to see from these positions, the coaches tape’s end zone view provides a better macro view of the X’s and O’s.
That said, nearly all of my evaluations are based on recordings of televised games and me and many of my peers have delivered solid analysis. What you’re going to discover is that although your primary focus is on one player you’re going to develop a greater awareness of what several other players on the field are doing. Over time you’re going to develop an enhanced understanding of the game.
4. Wear out these three remote buttons: l l, <<, & >> : Pause, rewind, and better yet, the combo of pausing and using frame-by-frame fast forward in slow motion will be your best friends. These symbols on my six-year-old remote are worn off the buttons.
I suggest you begin studying by watching every play at least three times:
- In real time.
- In slow motion. Use frame-by-frame rewind and fast forward as often as needed to see everything that the player you’re studying is doing, what his teammates are doing in support, and how his opponents are acting or reacting to the player you’re studying.
- Watch the play again in real time.
Take your time with the slow motion viewing. Don’t regard it as some form of training wheels to help you eventually notice more in real time. It might be an indirect benefit, but it isn’t the goal.
The slow motion viewing helps you see keys to a player’s motivation: where is he looking, what are his teammates doing to set him up for success or failure, and how that player and his opponents act or react to each others’ decisions.
5. Sometimes you’re going to discover more questions than answers: It’s okay if you finish watching a series of plays or a performance of a player and you feel like you have more questions than when you began. That’s a good sign. It means you’re figuring out what you specifically need to learn.
NFL Films Producer and avid film watcher Greg Cosell has the luxury of calling NFL coaches to ask questions about plays, and he does so regularly. If a guy who has watched film for 31 years five days a week has moments with more questions than answers after watching film, then you’re in good company.
6. Take notes: Whether it’s a laptop, an iPad, a spiral bound notebook, or to-go napkins from the barbeque joint down the street, take notes. Organize those notes into sections for questions, a place to diagram plays, and an area to describe examples of good technique. You can always use the glossary from the Rookie Scouting Portfolios. I break down in detail what I’m using to evaluate skill position prospects.
In lieu of the RSP, here are some very basic, common sense things that you should be watching to learn more about technique:
- How a player uses his hands.
- How a player uses his feet.
- How a player uses his shoulders and upper body.
- How a player uses his knees.
- The angle a player bends when engaging an opponent.
As for getting your questions answered, additional film study, reading, and listening to experienced NFL players (see below) talk about technique or strategy are good options.
7. Listen to ex-players: There is a great deal you can learn about the game from ex-players analyzing tape or discussing techniques and concepts of their position. I have learned a ton just from watching pregame shows. Who better to learn from than former NFL starters – many with Pro Bowls on their resume?
The way Steve Young once described how footwork bridges the mental and physical sides of football was one of the more insightful pointers I’ve seen. Cris Carter made a great presentation on the way receivers should use their hands. Merrill Hoge’s film break downs of blocking schemes on running plays are frequently excellent.
If you’re here I probably don’t have to mention this, but I will just in case someone referred you here: Don’t fall into the trap of letting an ex-player’s personality, speech, or other on-air tendencies annoy you. There are definitely personalities I enjoy watching more than others, but what I’m seeking is information. Why should I discard gems from knowledgeable players because they have difficulty enunciating a word correctly or they have incorrect grammar?
Remember, most politicians have great enunciation and grammar and we’re still buying what they’re selling even when we know we shouldn’t.
8. The NFL is the standard you use to study college players: This is perhaps the most important of concepts you need to remember. If you want to really become more observant of what separates a good college player from a good NFL prospect, you need to study NFL players and use their techniques as the standard to evaluate college players. You’re going to discover that the better NFL veterans are far more consistent executing techniques on plays with smaller margins for error than their college counterparts.
Top NFL quarterbacks operate more consistently and productively from a tighter pocket. Top NFL running backs display better judgment with when to bounce a play outside and when to get the pads down and grind out the play inside as designed. And top NFL receivers are far more precise with their footwork and more skilled at turning and cutting at top speed without tipping off a change of direction.
Listen to who the ex-players-turned-analysts say are the best NFL players in the game and why. Then take those reasons and study those players until you can apply that standard to another player. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have great footwork and presence in the pocket. That’s the standard you should be using to judge the development of other college quarterbacks.
I have had the pleasure to speak with Greg Cosell a couple of times at length and each time we’ve talked (with years going by in between), he remains astonished that evaluators of college players aren’t required to study NFL players. One would think this is how scouts should calibrate their observation techniques. If I ran a scouting department, I would require each scout to have a laptop or iPad with film highlights of specific players who our organization believes set the standard at every position when it comes to proper technique.
9. Ignore most statistics: If you’re studying a player’s technique, execution of the game plan, decision-making, and athleticism, most stats are not only useless, but misleading. The only stats I seek from a box score before I sit down to study a player’s performance are those that show enough opportunities to get a strong sample size (attempts and targets/catches). There are many stats linked to players that are more indicative of how well the team executed, rather than the player.
A perfect example is a running back I once saw who averaged less than two yards per carry. If gave any real weight to his stats, this player sucked. However, I looked solely at technique and because I did, I graded him as future NFL starter.
One of his games that I studied was against a national championship-caliber defense. His opponents were far more athletic than his offensive line. In fact, all but seven players on the entire roster of the opposition could bench press as much, if not more, than all but the strongest offensive lineman on this runner’s team.
Although this runner had as poor of a statistical game as one can imagine, his technique, attempts to execute the game plan, decision-making, and athleticism were strong. In three NFL seasons, that player has started all 48 regular season games; averaged four yards per carry behind a mediocre offensive line; and has at least 50 catches and 1400 yards from scrimmage each year. That player is Matt Forte.
In contrast, I’ve seen players compile great stats, yet lack the skills to even come close to approaching the standards we see in the pros. While I will display game stats for each player’s game that I study, it’s just to provide the reader another layer of context. A player with great stats but sub par skills could indicate he’s a great fit for his college team due to the system or his athleticism. A player with sub par stats but great skills could be a fine performer surrounded by lesser talent.
10. Have a slice of humble pie: It’s easy to tell the difference between the average football fan and the guy who grinds tape. The average fan behaves as if he’s a football genius. The average tape grinder knows he’s a football idiot. He also can explain why in great detail.
Part of adopting a student mindset is having the willingness to accept that you’ll be wrong a lot. Learning requires the ability to accept your errors.
I recently wrote an article about this topic. The subject was an accounting professor whose award-winning research was recently cited in Forbes. Her study dealt with the concept of cognitive dissonance in investing.
What she discovered is that people tend to make emotional choices once they commit to a decision. Moreover, it doesn’t matter if they are an expert in their field. If they’ve taken a stance, they defend that stance even if presented with evidence to the contrary.
In fact, they will seek analysis from sources that aren’t even as credible as the information presented to them in order to get validation that they made a good choice, even if the result eventually says otherwise.
In essence, we stand by our decisions to placate our egos because it’s often more important for us to be perceived as experts than behave like them. The sad, but comical thing about this is that we all do it if we make a decision before we fully weigh the evidence. I have no problem admitting I do it. The only real cure for this problem is having insight – and that’s a topic for another time…
Hopefully this will help you shed your football-genius innocence and become a student of the game.