Pai Mei, Longtones, and Route Running: Lessons of Kung Fu, Jazz, and Football With Utah WR DeVonte Christopher

Football and music (and in this case, Kung Fu) continue to have a number of parallels for me. I played saxophone from the age of 8 until I stopped at 23.This is roughly the same career life span of most college football players. Those who continue playing beyond college and perform on the highest stage possess a mastery of fundamentals that require a willingness to enslave oneself to the development process: practice.

Practicing the craft of an instrument is the same as practicing the craft of playing a position. There are concepts of precision, timing, teamwork, and leadership that all musicians and football players have to learn about playing together. There are also things a player from both worlds has to refine on his own.

For a musician these fundamentals are rhythm, tone, and technique. To the uninitiated the simplest fundamental is tone – or a musician’s sound. Most people have an inherent belief that once a beginner learns how to make the proper sound and either push the eyes, move the slide, or strike the drum then it’s time to move onto the layered difficulties of “more advanced” tasks.

A lot of people think in this linear direction: Step One – Get a sound. Step Two – Learn to manipulate the instrument. Step Three – Learn to play in rhythm. Music, football, and anything else in life isn’t really that straightforward. For a musician, getting a sound is a lifelong craft of refinement.

I was an All-State instrumentalist for two years and I developed the proficiency to read music that looked like someone mashed an ant farm onto a page of staff paper. But one of my first tasks in college were long tones, patterns, and scales. As a high school hotshot, this was initially surprising and disheartening. I thought I was ready to learn more advanced concepts. When I saw this scene from Kill Bill: Volume 2, I had flashbacks of how I felt as an 18 year-old who was convinced that he was ready for bigger things.

Long tones are about as soul testing as punching one board over and over. The exercise is spent playing one note with the purpose of refining basic techniques of sound production and learning to listen and shape one’s sound. It’s a meditative practice that can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually painful. But like Pai Mei’s exercise for Beatrix Kiddo, the payoff is worth every ounce of pain.

The best musicians on earth spend countless hours on long tones during their early development and even as masters, they still find this simple exercise helpful. One of the reasons is that playing at a super slow, deliberate pace helps the mind and body assimilate the right things. Once these things are learned at a super slow level, it becomes much easier to play at top speed.

This is especially the case with patterns and scales, which in the world of music has a lot of parallels to wide receivers mastering pass patterns. The craft of running routes is a simple, but elegant process that requires constant work and refinement. The point is that simplicity is elegance and genius and neither of these states of being come from thinking that “simple is easy.”

Jerry Rice’s pass patterns were elegant and genius because he practiced his routes like a musician. If he favored a saxophone or guitar instead of a football, he could have been a musical virtuoso. He embraced the wisdom that the simple things require lifelong attention to detail.

Utah senior DaVonte Christopher was a quarterback when he joined the Utes, but has since transitioned to the other side of the pitch-and-catch process. At roughly 6’1″ and 200 pounds, Christopher has athleticism, natural hands, and, hand-eye coordination. He’s also just at the beginning stages of that long road towards technical mastery. However, he shows some promise.

There are two basic types of route running: man-to-man and zone. A receiver facing man coverage has to get separation from the defender and reach a designated area on time. This is a simple explanation because there can be man coverage from one defender and a second, or even third, defender playing zone in a specific area on the field.

Today, the focus is just one receiver running a single route versus a straight forward zone defense. It’s simple in concept, but there’s a layer of elegance worth appreciating. In this case, the receiver has to find the open area in the defense and do one of two things once he discovers it: continue running through that area or adjust his route to settle into the open area. One the receiver does one of these two things he should then look to the quarterback and even turn his shoulders to present a target.

The play where Christopher shows these smarts is a 10-yard gain on a crossing route with 12:30 in the third quarter. The Utah receiver is the single receiver in this 3×1, 10-personnel set.

Crossing routes are simple in concept, but they do require the ability to read the defense and determine man or zone coverage.

Christopher should be at the line trying to identify man or zone coverage. His single coverage options are likely narrowed to the corner, safety or middle linebacker.

These are the three players Christopher should be watching as he releases from the line of scrimmage.

After the snap, Christopher looks to the corner and safety. Both players are dropping into zone. This likely means the linebackers will also be in zone. Christopher will then have to diagnose where to sit down in his route.

Christopher knows that his teammates will be crossing to the deeper reaches of the secondary, which means he can refine his focus to the linebackers.

As Christopher crosses the near hash, he sees the middle linebacker drift towards the middle of the field in anticipation of the receiver breaking across. However, Christopher also sees that the outside linebacker is also in this zone and any route that breaks to the middle or opposite hash will be in the thick of coverage. This is the split-second diagnosis  a receiver has to make in order to find an opening in zone coverage.

The Utah receiver makes this read, turns his head to the quarterback to get the passer’s attention that he’s about to come open. Rather than breaking across the field, Christopher skids to a stop and begins to back his way down field to give his quarterback room inside the middle linebacker, who reacts to the route just as the quarterback is in mid-release. Too late.

Christopher makes the catch with his hands while he turns down field, the middle linebacker overruns the play, and the receiver earns the first down.

Christopher’s inexperience as a former play-making quarterback when he finishes this play by making a sharp turn to the sideline with the hope of going east west to break a big play. He also carries the ball during his run like he just picked up a puppy about to make a mess on his carpet. Although he was smart to tuck it close at the last moment before taking hits from two defenders over top, he’s still demonstrating some old habits from his days as an option quarterback. Honestly I don’t even know if he was an option quarterback, but based on the way he routinely carries the ball, he looks like a quarterback preparing to make the option pitch.
Despite this raw moment at the end, Christopher displays promise with zone routes. Combine this progress with hands as natural as he displays below, and there’s reason to keep an eye on his development.

Looks a little like a Brandon Lloyd-style sideline grab, doesn’t it? As you see, there are an endless supply of players with the talent to become virtuosos but the ones that do it refine their skills with mind-numbing, body-breaking, and soul-testing work.

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