Walk on the Wild Side: The Immeasurable Measure of Greatness

What is great quarterbacking? Is it the bottom-line result or the skill to place teammates i position to execute? Agree with the latter, and Steve McNair fits the greatness label.  (photo courtesy of Andrew Morrell Photography).
What is great quarterbacking? Is it the bottom-line result or the skill to place teammates in position to execute? Agree with the latter and Steve McNair fits the greatness label. (Andrew Morrell Photography).

“The single trait that separates great quarterbacks from good quarterbacks is the ability to make the great, spontaneous decision, especially at a crucial time. The clock is running down and your team is five points behind. The play that was called has broken down and 22 players are moving in almost unpredictable directions all over the field. This is where the great quarterback uses his experience, vision, mobility and what we will call spontaneous genius. He makes something good happen.” 

Bill Walsh

Like a play that has broken down and 22 players are moving in almost unpredictable directions all over the field, what I’m about to share with you may not seem to connect at first. But just trust me and keep doing what you’re supposed to do and I’ll get you where we need to be.

Wikipedia describes the movie 127 Hours as a “British-American biographical survival drama, co-written and produced by Danny Boyle. The film stars James Franco as real-life canyoneer Aron Ralston, who became trapped by a bolder in an isolated slot canyon in Blue John Canyon, southeastern Utah, in April 2003, and was eventually forced to amputate his own right arm to free himself.”

The site describes the events in the plot that lead to this decision:

As he resigns himself to the fact that he is on his own, he begins recording a video diary on his camera and using the larger blade on his pocket multi-tool to attempt to chip away at the boulder. He also begins rationing his water and food. As he realizes his efforts to chip away at the boulder are futile, he begins to attempt to cut into his arm, but finds his knife too blunt to break his skin. He them stabs his arm, but realizes he will not be able to cut through the bone. He finds himself out of water and is forced to drink his own urine . . . After five days, Ralston sees his unborn son, a blond boy of about 3, through a premonition. He discovers that by using his knowledge of torque and applying enough force to his forearm, he can break the radius and then the ulna bones. He gathers the will to do so and eventually severs his arm with the smaller, less dull knife on the multi-tool. He fashions a crude tourniquet out of the insulation for his CamelBak tube and uses a carabiner to tighten it.   Aaron frees himself [nearly seven days later]. He wraps the stump of his arm and takes a picture of the boulder that trapped him as he leaves it behind. he then makes his way out of the canyon, where he is forced to rappel down a 65-foot rockface and hike several miles before, exhausted and covered in blood, he finally runs into a family on a day hike. The family sends for help and Ralston is evacuated by a Utah Highway Patriol helicopter.

A sanitized description of these events is a “harrowing tale of survival.” I prefer “spiritual terror.” Truth be told what hits the spot for me is “fucked-up beyond recognition.”

A quarterback doesn’t undergo physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual torture in a football game the way Aron Ralston did in Blue John Canyon. But when I read Bill Walsh’s description of great quarterbacking, I see the plot to 127 Hours. The sense of urgency, flashes of intuition and creativity, displays of grit and survival instincts all come from the same desire to avoid death – whether it’s one that’s literal or figurative.

With defeat as the classic death metaphor, a great quarterback plays within this context. He plays the game as if he’s pinned by a boulder and his team is the motley collection of tools available to hatch an escape. Some work as planned while many are rendered useless. More often than not, a great quarterback figures out how to re-purpose those tools into something that works.

Imagine this scenario for a quarterback in a must-win game for his team to stay alive: After his opponent goes up by a touchdown, his offense is pinned to the two yard line on the ensuing kickoff. The offense must drive the length of the field with 5:39 left to tie. The quarterback, who plays in an offense heavily restricted by his head coach except in two-minute drills,  throws, runs, and improvises his way through an obstacle course of dangers:

      • Field conditions that would never meet NFL standards today.
      • A 3rd and two from their own 10.
      • A two-minute warning and barely in the opponent’s territory.
      • A sack.
      • A 3rd and 18 where the ball bounces off the ass of the receiver motioning across the shotgun formation.
      • A 3rd and five from the 5 with 0:42 left.

As receiver Mark Jackson describes the game-tying touchdown in the 1987 AFC Championship game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium (8:55 mark), he explains that the play was in no way designed for him to be the target.

Difficult conditions and five near-defeat events over the course of a 98-yard drive didn’t keep John Elway from leading the Broncos to victory. But it’s not the victory that makes a quarterback great; it’s the ability to keep his team alive with his skill. Great players put teammates in position to make plays – even if his teammates don’t make them.

There are events beyond an individual’s control. Aron Ralston might have died if he didn’t encounter the family on a day hike.

Thirteen years after “The Drive,” the Tennessee Titans began a drive at their own 12 with 1:48   left and one timeout against the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV after Isaac Bruce scores on a 73-yard play up the right flat to put the Rams up by a touchdown.

McNair’s efforts didn’t have a happy ending like Elway’s. Still, the urgency, intuition, creativity, grit, and survival instincts are all there.  When these pocket passers fall into the canyon during a game, they find ways to overcome their limitations and put their teams in position to win – different tools, same mindset.

One is unanimously considered great. The other is unanimously very good. Both possess what it took succeed in the NFL.

Examine every player through the lens of how well he places his teammates in position to succeed and greatness becomes relative to role. Marion Barber was a great closer. Craig Stevens is a great blocking tight end. Marques Colston is a great slot receiver in the Saints’ style of offense.

All three fail in some tangible skill and measure for their position.

NFL Draft analysis is often an extensive study of every tangible skill and measure a player has, but too often the cumulative result is how well a player colors inside the lines. Greatness is a consistent level of awareness and integration of skills that color outside the lines when needed.

The question is how to measure it.

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