Losing Your Football Innocence

Photo by Jill Greenspeth.

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 developing 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 the film for 30-plus years, 5 days a week has moments with more questions than answers after watching the 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—at least until you’ve taken the time to study the player’s film. Once you have, data can help clarify what you’ve seen—especially a player speed, acceleration, quickness, and strength.

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 a 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 was 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 with 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.

40 responses to “Losing Your Football Innocence”

  1. Hey Matt, this is off topic and a month late probably, but I wonder if you could expound further on Blaine Gabbert at some point? Your assessment caught my eye because you brought up a comparison to Brett Favre, which I saw, but had not read anywhere else. I’m particularly intrigued by Gabbert because of his persona, which I think could transcend the game the way Favre’s did for much of the past couple decades. Provided he produces on the field of course. Gabbert seems not only physically gifted for the position, but also intellectually and spiritually. He could be huge.

    • Robert,

      First, thanks for checking out the new blog. Second, just a reminder but comparisons are more about individual skill sets or tendencies and not necessarily the entire package. I do think Gabbert has the physical gifts and raw passing skills to develop into a strong NFL starter.

      There are a lot of evaluators/scouts/former scouts I respect who believe Gabbert overreacts to pressure in a way where it’s a significant concern. I agree he does react to pressure, but there is a significant difference with his movement in the pocket against pressure and those that I’ve seen that have really struggled in the NFL. Gabbert doesn’t turn his back to pressure as frequently as many prospects at his stage of development and he’s often buying time in a more controlled fashion (upper body more aligned and eyes down field).

      Even in his “wild moments” moving around the pocket, his behavior was more akin to a McNabb and Favre, who at their best were excellent at making plays on the move. Like these two quarterbacks at their best, Gabbert is aggressive with placing the ball in tight spaces, but generally does a good job of avoiding the mindless or reckless mistake.

      When I say “reckless,” I don’t mean throwing the ball into coverage he didn’t see (Iowa game at the end). What I mean is knowing a receiver is double covered at an angle that will require a 1-in-1000 type of throw, but trying to make the throw anyhow (Ryan Mallett is guilty of this kind of recklessness). On the other hand, Gabbert will try to place the ball only were his receiver has a chance to catch the ball or no one will get to it.

      Coverage mistakes are bound to happen, but I think there are times where people judge a quarterback for these mistakes and label him reckless. And in this case, that might be reckless.

  2. Some part of Gabbert’s reaction to pressure might be due to the fact that Gary Pinkel coached a “no negative play” passing game quite strenuously. He mentioned in one interview that he probably “overcoached” Gabbert that way. Basically to avoid sacks and interceptions at all cost. That would tend to make a quarterback appear more skittish in the pocket I think. As it was Gabbert threw an exceptionally low percentage of picks. Under 2% I believe in his time at Mizzou. I suppose he isn’t “Favre like” in that respect.

    • Jevon,

      I haven’t yet, but it’s been recommended by some folks I respect. Looking forward to reading Pat’s work in the next year or so…

      Thanks for contacting me. Hope you enjoy the blog.


    • Jevon,

      I have read this book since my first response. In fact, I’ve read it three times. It’s a great start for getting a deeper look into the game.I’m sure I’ll be reading it again.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Great article! This is the first of your blog that I’ve seen and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it. Is it possible for you to send a link or name of the Forbes article you mentioned? I think it could be enlightening for my boss and girlfriend for that matter.

    I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on Seattle’s Mike Williams. As a Seahawks fan I’m hoping that he will have an even better year in essentially his second season as a “re-born” NFL player.

    • Hey Bill,

      Thanks for the comment. The Forbes article references the research. However, I did a short piece on the author’s research that gives a layperson’s explanation. Once the magazine has reached publication, I’ll send you a link to that piece. However here is the author, title, and location of the actual research:

      Jane Thayer . “Determinants of Investors’ Information Acquisition: Credibility and Confirmation.” The Accounting Review, January 2011

      As for Mike Williams, I’m a believer. I actually talked about him on The Audible last Thursday. I read that he’s training hard for the coming season and I think there were definite signs of what many evaluators thought he could become. I was impressed with his physicality in tight coverage against the Cardinals in Seattle last year. In that game, I thought Williams demonstrated confidence and flashes of dominance to “win” the ball even when the defense knew the ball was coming his way. The key will be Hasselbeck. If the Seahawks can keep him in the Emerald City or the organization can bring in a strong veteran who will work to develop a rapport with Williams and throw the ball in tight coverage with confidence, then I think Williams could approach a 1000-yard season. The rapport part is a big issue. That to me is what made Fitzgerald a statistical star with Kurt Warner. Not saying that Fitz isn’t a great receiver. However, his game, like Mike Williams, isn’t predicated on speed. He needs a quarterback with the accuracy and confidence to place the ball windows that are even tighter than normal for the NFL and let his receiver use his physical talents to win the battle.



    • The Forbes piece is an online blog by writer Chris Barth from Jan. 3, 2011, “Investing Intelligently without Indulging your Impulses,”

  4. Hey Matt,

    I’m curious how you obtain your tape? Do you DVR games? Tape them? Or do you order them from somewhere?

    • Hey Garret,

      I DVR games. As many as I can. I create a spreadsheet to track the games and players I need to see. With a regular cable package I get plenty of games. Especially with replays that come on regional channels the following week.



  5. Awesome, thanks for your insight. I’ve been watching a lot of film lately (partly inspired you), but since I am just getting into it I have to watch the “Daniel Thomas” vs. on youtube etc.. (Thomas is a beast by the way and I love him and his situation, I have 1.04 and 1.05 in my Dyna this year and am thinking him and Williams!) That is the league I e-mailed you about; I can trade that 1.05 for a 1.12/B. Scott, or J. Starks and I own Grant. However that’s neither here nor there right now. I’m writing to see what you think about Murray, I’ve been watching as much film on him as I can find and love what I see, I think the boys may have drafted him to be their starter, however I’m concerned about his durability, I know the terms “durability” and “injury prone” are so overused these days, but he has had some pretty legit injuries and does seem prone. I’m liking Delone Carter and his situation around the same ADP personally, but Murray’s home run potential does intrigue me. Thoughts?

    Also not to get too into ‘who would you draft’ but seeing as I have a 1.04/5 back to back any receivers you may feel comfortable reaching for there? Seems like Little is going around 1.07/8 and Baldwin similarly, Cobb is early to mid second. You had Baldwin ranked relatively low, has your ranking of Baldwin changed since learning his landing spot? He seems primed to go right in as the WR2 next to Bowe. I’m between reaching for a receiver or just loading up on RB to increase my chances of landing a guy that’s a producer.

  6. The RSP does a pretty good job of discussing my thoughts on Murray, who I probably watched more games of than any 2011 rookie prospect. I think the positive thing about Murray that makes him worth the risk is that he’s addressing his flexibility and balance through yoga and MMA. No.1, those are good ways to work on becoming a more looser, more flexible athlete. No.2 the measures are proactive, which tells you he doesn’t just read his own press clippings and he’s about continuous improvement.

    Nothing about Baldwin’s landing spot has changed my mind. In fact, I almost perversely want to say it reinforced my view of him. I would much prefer Little and Cobb to Baldwin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowe, Moeaki, Charles, and maybe even McCluster are better options in the KC passing game than Baldwin. Baldwin has some talent, but I think he’s more borderline starter than borderline star.

  7. Thank you very much, I know sometimes the questions about teams can become tedious, that’s why I tried to center it around individual players.

    To anyone reading I bought the RSP for the first time this year and it is well worth pricetag. Matt’s in depth analysis is bar none, anyone can get a cheat sheet and read a little snippet about why that player is ranked there (most of the time it’s because it’s the concensus) Matt goes in depth multiple times and multiple ways about each player. The best part about the RSP to me is that he’s not afraid to rank players the way he sees them, see my cookie cutter comment above, Matt lays himself out there and ranks guys sometimes way differently than the ‘consensus’ and he backs it up with his analysis.

  8. Thanks WildMan.. But you’re giving away some of my FF secrets away to my competition! URGH! It’s cool, I’ll just have to come up with new ways to beat them!
    Seriously though, “Da Raidaz” are so talented at WRs shouldn’t Campbell get more love?

    • Jason Campbell just might earn more love this year. I do have concerns about the offensive line in Oakland. Bruce Campbell is one of those athletic wunderkinds that Al Davis covets but he was considered a raw player. From what I understand, he’s replacing Robert Gallery. If the line works out, Oakland could take another step.

  9. Hey Matt, I’m subscribed to receive notifications of posts and glad someone posted here! I have been watching football all my life, been playing fantasy football for 10 years and am a fellow fantasy analyst on a competing website and I want to give you credit for opening my eyes even further to how to watch the game! I found myself watching these pre-season games in a whole new light – and I DVR’d them 😉 – and found myself appreciating the game itself so much more. I watched three full pre-season games to date, not just first and second teams, the whole caboose! I have committed to putting my computer down this fantasy season, I am going to watch the games fully whereas in years past I would pay as much attention if not more to my computer. Man was I missing something, actually studying the players I’m giving advice on! Don’t get me wrong I tended to watch the big games, and of course my Patriots, but the other games were fluff to watching my fantasy scores go up and down like the DOW.

    Thank you for changing the way I watch games, this has been my biggest breakthrough in a while.


    • Garret,

      It’s awesome that you’re getting more out of the games you watch. I know I find myself more interested in what’s happening at the line of scrimmage far more often than I used to years ago. I was watching some of last year’s Super Bowl yesterday afternoon while taking a break from work and I found eyes more focused on the line than what was happening with the ball. I could watch a lot of games just paying attention to the line. It’s increasingly fascinating as the years go by.

  10. […] Losing Your Football Innocence. Give it a read and I think you’ll find the things I write about there will help people watch the game with a more critical eye. First, take some time to watch football alone so you can rewind, slow down the plays and really analyze what’s happening with the player and the players around him. Second, listen to former football players. They are a great wealth of knowledge about their positions and their opponents’ positions. Get over the way the guy speaks or his habits that annoy you and listen to what he’s communicating. Third, learn about line play. When watching running backs, the first place I look to see how a play is supposed to develop is how the offensive line is trying to block the defensive line. The very beginning place to look are the defensive tackles. […]

  11. I was educated on the existence of this site by Mark Clagett at the Aspiring NFL Scout website. I’m glad I clicked the link.

    My decision to study the game more and stop being a fan is something I decided to do earlier this year. This is my first year not playing fantasy football, for that reason. Reading this post validated that decision.

    Which is a good thing, being an agent.

    I really like what you said regarding humility and learning. Self improvement coach Bob Proctor once said, “learning requires a just-right amount of confidence… if you have to little confidence, you’ll feel you CAN’T learn… too much confidence, and you’ll feel you don’t HAVE to.”

    Have a fantastic weekend.

    • Thanks for the comments Alvin. Greg Cosell essentially said the same thing in an interview with me yesterday that I’ll be posting on the site. Most of the film watchers I know and respect have a great deal of humility with their approach to the game. I look forward to hearing from you more as you feel compelled to write.

  12. […] A few years ago, @MattWaldman wrote about losing your football innocence, aka how to watch the game more critically.  Among other things:  watch games alone, be a student not a fan, focus on a player, wear out your remotes, having questions rather than answers okay, take notes, listen to ex players, NFL is standard to compare college to, ignore most stats, have some humble pie.  Link […]

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