Breaking Through by Breaking the Rules

Cerebral and instinctive are two loaded words when it comes to football players. A story about Anthony Dixon at the 2010 Senior Bowl underscores that point. Photo by Roger Smith.

My piece Logic (Newton) or Chance (Luck)? got a comment the other day that sparked a thought I want to share. Here’s the comment and my response:

Jason on November 3, 2011 at 5:49 pm said: Edit

Cam has shocked me about his play this year, but one thing I have noticed is Cam shows no fear and lets his receivers make plays. I have also seen a lot of inaccurate throws that defenders have gotten their hands on, most should have been intercepted. This past week I thought he played his best game of the season. He made a lot of good throws down the field. I am glad I took him with my last pick since I took Bradford in the ninth and Charles in the first or I might not have any wins.

Reply ↓

Very true about the inaccurate throws but that’s part of the deal, you have to be willing to let your receivers fight for the ball. Newton has confidence in Steve Smith and look at the results. Kurt Warner had confidence in Larry Fitzgerald as did Tom Brady in Randy Moss. Warner has said that it took Fitzgerald telling him not to worry about the perfect throw but to throw the ball in [his general] area because he had that kind of skill.

Once Warner let go and did what was against his judgment as a passer, he had success with Fitz. I think there’s a tier of professional play where you actually have to learn how to break the rules to go from good to great. That’s hard for anyone to do in their profession. Artists do it. Entrepreneurs do it. Leaders do it. But only the very best [have the knack for knowing when and how to break the rules to attain great results].

If instincts are the express lane on the highway of logic, Priest Holmes' cerebral instruction provided Jamal Lewis a good map to reach it. Photo by Henry Plumley.

Intuition is the express lane on the logic highway. This is why Dan Shonka and a host of other scouts, former scouts, and analysts will tell you stories of great running backs explaining that they don’t have a method to their inspired madness that is a memorable carry. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a method.

If there weren’t a method worth seeking, organizing into words and concepts, and sharing then there’s a good chance we would have never seen great NFL seasons from Larry Johnson, Jamal Lewis, and Priest Holmes. The football media often refers to the coaching trees in the NFL and there is at least one documented running back tree:

Earnest Byner

Priest Holmes

Jamal Lewis      Larry Johnson

Perhaps we should call it the RB Bonzai tree, because it’s not very big but it has a big visual impact with its aesthetically pleasing twists and turns that come from the big plays that came from these backs. Since Byner has also been a running backs coach with the Redskins, Titans, and Jaguars you could also include Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Clinton Portis, LaDell Betts, Rashad Jennings, and Deji Karim to this tree. However, we’ll stick with the players in the diagram because it was Holmes who credited Byner for helping him learn the fine points of running the football and Lewis and Johnson who learned from Holmes.

Adrian Peterson might be the most instinctive runner in football today. As one of you readers mentioned in my series where I ranked the top-20 RBs of the RSP from 2006-2011, Peterson looked like a pro as a freshman at Oklahoma. However, Peterson credits former Colorado Buffalo star running back and Vikings RB coach Eric Bienemy with helping him become a more patient runner.

This is an important point to remember about Peterson. As instinctive (and amazing) as he was entering the NFL, he actually got better by learning some of the fundamental rules of good running. It doesn’t mean that Peterson always follows the rules, but having a functional knowledge of how the steps logically fit together only enhances his ability.

Peterson, or any good back for that matter, isn’t running between the tackles like he’s doing a math problem. However, just like any performance medium, you learn techniques and theory to the point that you can simply stop thinking about it and just react to what’s going on in that performance environment. You just play.

For Cam Newton to make the plays he has, he has to have worked hard enough on the fundamentals and more advanced techniques to get them “under his fingers” and just play. It means he’s either super-smart or unbelievably dedicated to make the transition he has thus far. You don’t perform as well as he has as a rookie against three different defensive concepts from Dom Capers, Greg Williams, and Lovie Smith unless you are thinking at a higher and faster rate than the average player.

A good example came during my first trip to the Senior Bowl. During media night I spoke with running backs Anthony Dixon and LaGarrette Blount. I asked each player to describe their favorite running play with their college teams. I had watched both players enough to know that Dixon’s was a counter play from a spread formation and Blount was a pure zone guy.

Dixon broke down his favorite play with a lot of detail. Step size, reading the keys at the line, how to set up the crease, etc. A quick aside to this story that will factor into a later point: Dixon’s explanation completely belied the perception of some media I spoke to at th event that he wasn’t a smart person. Just remember sports writers and analysts are just as likely to arrive at snap judgments based on ingrained biases they haven’t confronted with some level of introspection. In other words they are human beings just like the rest of us.

Dixon gave one of the most intellectual responses on running with the football that I’ve heard. In contrast, LaGarrette Blount said he just ran to daylight and it was that simple for him. Blount and Dixon were originally acquired by the Niners immediately after the draft. Dixon made the team and has failed to carve out significant playing time. He’s been criticized for some indecision and not playing physical enough. Blount left the Niners and signed with the Titans where he was eventually cut a the end of camp and signed with the Buccaneers where he’s the starter.

This isn’t an indictment of a player that can intellectually discuss his position. It’s just an example that intelligence comes in many forms. To varying degrees, conceptual, emotional, and physical intelligence are all important to playing the game of football.

Cerebral can be good. Intuitive can be great. If you ever studied the poet William Blake and his literary philosophy you know what I mean. Blake categorized it in stages of innocence, experience, and a return to innocence after that experience, you can draw similar parallels in the development of football players or other athletes.

There’s the instinctive stage, the cerebral stage, and the instinctive stage post-cerebral. Matt Ryan is cerebral with the pass rush and maneuvering the pocket. Tom Brady is instinctive in this area. Brandon Lloyd had off the charts physical intelligence adjusting his body to the football and securing it, but his conceptual understanding of routes and emotional maturity needed more time and work. When that all came together, Lloyd became one of the best receivers in the game last year. Michael Irvin was very cerebral, but he was also highly instinctive.

Just remember when you hear the words instinctive or intuitive sometimes that’s a much bigger compliment that cerebral because instincts don’t get hung up on the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is more valuable.


3 responses to “Breaking Through by Breaking the Rules”

  1. You mentioned Matt Ryan being very cerebral and earlier in the article you talked about QBs breaking the rules to let the WRs just to go make plays. Do you think Matt Ryan can ever flip that switch?

    • Mike,

      I think he will, but I don’t think he’s ever going to be an elite quarterback. He isn’t the type of play maker that can transcend what’s happening around him. He’s tough, he’s smart, and he’s capable of really strong play with a great running game and strong cast of skill players. I just don’t believe he has the elite athleticism, elite arm, and most importantly the comfort in the pocket (he can take a hit but he perceives pressure a bit too often and reacts poorly to it) to compare favorably to the Rodgers, Brees, or Bradys of the game.

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