Vision is a magical term in football. It’s not a single skill, but an integration of several. It requires anticipation, awareness, confidence, creativity, pacing, and split-second processing of all these traits (and others) to determine optimal risk-reward.
Vision is a dazzling illustration that the game of football is not a science, but performance art. Science can provide tools and analysis to sharpen the processes and techniques of the artist, but there’s a point where applying scientific analysis to art has diminishing returns.
Great art transcends rules and structure. Vision is one of several monkey wrenches in the plan to construct a master key that some hope will unlock a consistently accurate formula for scouting football players.
Last winter, I had a football writer laud the merits of Kapri Bibbs. He saw my post on Isaiah Crowell and told with as much confidence as one can convey in 140 characters that he disagreed with my assessment: Kapri Bibbs is the most talented runner in this draft.
The statement surprised me. Bibbs had an excellent season, but I came away with a much different view. Crowell displayed all the skills that contribute to great vision that Bibbs did not.
Crowell’s draft stock plummeted due to behavioral concerns, but Bibbs was at best a late-round pick in May for two reasons:
- Bibbs’ lack of playing time: Although his 281 carries in 14 games last year was a good sample, the NFL likes multiple years of game film. For them, Bibbs didn’t play enough to provide a full picture of what he might become with more exposure to the college game.
- Bibbs’ vision is NFL-adequate, at best: Unless there’s more to Bibbs than what’s available on tape, his vision is good enough to compete for a roster spot and develop into a contributor. However, I did not see him display the level of awareness, anticipation, pacing, creativity, and split-second processing of all these traits to elevate his game to the pantheon of players that merit consideration as “most talented.”
There’s no shame in this for Bibbs, he’s a fine football player. But there’s a difference between good and great that I want to show you with the help of Bibbs, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles.
Those who were high on Bibbs may argue that he is not the same style of runner as either McCoy or Charles, but vision is a multifaceted trait and there are enough links that Bibbs, McCoy, and Charles share to generate worthwhile conclusions. I also mention other backs closer to Bibbs’ stylistic spectrum of running style.
Good Vision: Kapri Bibbs
Here’s a play where Bibbs has an opportunity to turn a short run into a big gain. It’s easy to watch this play and conclude that Bibbs lacked the agility to break it into the second level, but there’s an equally strong argument that Bibbs lacked several components of vision (decisiveness, anticipation, awareness, and creativity) to make it happen.
This is a 1st and 10 with 4:15 in the second quarter. Bibbs is behind the quarterback at the CSU 34 in a 13 personnel pistol set versus a 4-man front and one safety deep. Here’s the video of the play and then a frame-by-frame breakdown.
Bibbs takes the exchange towards the line slanting to the right. When the backside defensive end penetrates across the tackle’s face and earns three yards of depth into the backfield Bibbs cuts back and finds a nice backside seal to the left.
The vision Bibbs displays to diagnose and avoid the penetration (above) to reach the line of scrimmage is good work. This is the kind of awareness and decision-making that NFL runners have to demonstrate on a regular basis.
But the difference between a runner with good vision and great vision is the ability to avoid the defensive end, spot the safety (the player directly below the “Colorado St. 10” on the telecast’s scoreboard at the top of the screen), and avoid that final defender between the runner and the open field.
The frame below shows the massive amount of open field that Bibbs has at his disposal to create against the safety. We don’t know for sure if Bibbs actually sees the safety, but his helmet is turned in a direction where it appears the back has spotted the defensive back working downhill.
Keep in mind, there is also a linebacker unblocked at the second level in the middle of the field (just inside the right hash at the 25) and the safe decision for Bibbs is to stay downhill and finish for whatever yardage he can muster. However, the top runners I have seen in this situation are able to set up both defenders in these positions and create more space.
As Bibbs works through the large gap towards the line of scrimmage, you can see the linebacker sliding towards the hash to meet Bibbs over top. The safety is also working inside. This is the point that a top-shelf runner baits the linebacker to break down early with a jab-step or move to the inside. The move would also force the safety to take a sharper angle inside and create more space to the outside for the runner to cut or spin.
Again, this isn’t Running Back Vision 101. Bibbs has an A in this remedial course. We’re talking about Running Back Vision Course 7200: Ph.D. Seminar Rushing Skills — when and how the best in the game break the rules. There’s no bell curve for the backs in this class.
As Bibbs gets within a foot of the line of scrimmage, the safety’s hips are turned towards the left hash. If the Rams’ runner had further encouraged this break down with a move inside and either a cut or spin outside it would have been difficult for both defenders to react in time.
To be fair, a runner with great vision also knows his limitations and it’s uncommon to hear a writer talk about a back having great vision when he has medium grade agility. However, there are several backs we’ve seen in the NFL that lack top-notch agility and are still capable of eluding the safety on this play.
One class of players with agility just a notch below the likes of Gayle Sayers, Barry Sanders, LeSean Mcoy, and Jamaal Charles include a collegiate runner like Crowell and NFL backs like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Ryan Mathews. They aren’t known as ankle-breaking, moves-upon-move-upon moves runners, but they possess a terrific skill for making that next cut at the beginning of the second level to turn a moderate gain into a big play.
Another tier of backs that we don’t often associate with great agility is Rudi Johnson or Alfred Morris, but they are a fine example of runners with terrific vision despite possessing only adequate NFL-caliber agility. These two runners–or post-injury Edgerrin James and Frank Gore (more on them later) do a consistent job of integrating the anticipation, creativity, footwork, and balance to win this matchup with the safety.
Bibbs never attempts any kind of move we’d see from the pantheon of NFL runners I mentioned above. Instead, lowers his pads in an attempt to split backside safety and linebacker and even then his pad level is a bit late to maximize effort to finish with power.
He’s either lacking anticipation and timing or he’s hesitant as a decision maker. If you look at the frame prior to the one above, Bibbs is still fairly upright this late in the run. Runners with great vision are also a hair more decisive.
When Bibbs lowers his pads, it’s fast enough to maintain forward progress, but he does not generate anything more after contact. The linebacker hits Bibbs head-on and drives the runner backward, ending the play.
Great Vision: LeSean McCoy
Note: The videos for McCoy below have soundtracks that are not safe for work.
In a similar situation as Bibbs, McCoy illustrates the difference between good and great vision. At first, you might think I’ve mistaken agility for vision but stay with me. Here’s a run where McCoy is deep in his own territory against a formidable 49ers defense that has eight men in the box.
This has some counteraction at the beginning with McCoy and the fullback working to the right tackle, but McCoy makes an immediate cutback towards the left guard. The Eagles line does a fine job of accounting for the 49ers inside linebackers–especially the center, who works in combination with the left guard to make sure that the defensive tackle is blocked before reaching the second level and ending his run by sealing Patrick Willis to the inside.
McCoy’s counter-action early in the play that helps set up the defense and aids the efforts of the offensive line. What makes McCoy special is the agility and vision to set up two defenders (circled in orange above) and turn a short gain that leads to a 3rd and three or 3rd and four into run that earns nearly 15 yards.
Both the safety and edge defender dropping from the line of scrimmage are unblocked. Against the average NFL back, they have good enough angles to force the runner inside.
When McCoy was a rookie he had the agility to make any NFL defender look as foolish as he does now. But the difference in McCoy’s game then and now is a product of enhanced vision.
McCoy often made that one extra step and tipped-off the defense. The reasons he did so are common issues with many young NFL backs transitioning to the league — a lack of confidence at the point of attack and/or indecisiveness that comes from adjusting to the speed and athleticism of the NFL.
It’s this extra move that sometimes prevented him from earning extra yards as a first-year player and it is common with a lot of young, talented backs.
The frame below is a good place to illustrate where McCoy would pitter-patter his feet in the past (where I’ve circled him in yellow), but now his running is more streamlined. He still has dramatic moves in his arsenal that few runners in the league, the difference is that he doesn’t waste steps. This is a product of timing and anticipation — two facets of vision. The result is the NFL’s version of McCoy posterizing two defenders in the crease.
McCoy makes his move above and within a split-second both defenders will create a pileup on I-49, leaving the Eagles runner in the open field. It’s a move of Sayersesque quality from McCoy.
Note that I said earlier that there are few runners with the agility and vision to execute this play. The two skills are married and sometimes difficult to explain where one begins and the other ends.
Many observers of a play like this will credit his agility more than his vision. The agility is the most immediate reason why McCoy can make two defenders that have him dead to rights look silly. However, when McCoy’s agility leaves him he’ll still have the vision and anticipation to see how to make it happen–even when he can no longer physically do it.
There are a lot of backs in the NFL that can make a sudden move or cut that could have the same result (even if it’s not as pretty), but it’s the anticipation, timing, and confidence that comes with seeing the play unfold that few backs possess.I mention him a lot when I write about running backs, but Edgerrin James had this skill. He had tremendous vision and the agility to execute what he saw.
The reason James was still an excellent starter after he blew out his knee was his tremendous vision and he’s a perfect example of a back with average to above average physical skills (post-injury) and great vision. He adjusted his game to meet his lesser physical skills and was still quality NFL starter for many years.
Frank Gore is another example. Before two devastating knee injuries at the University of Miami, Gore was as fast and agile as LaDainian Tomlinson, but with greater power. The 49ers have spent the past 3-4 years trying to find a back to bump Gore from the starting lineup.
Once McCoy creates the opening, he has an easy run to the first down marker. He turns east-west to avoid the oncoming defensive back and earns another 6-7 yards to the sideline.
Vision Is Also The Integration of Eyes-Mind-Feet
McCoy’s touchdown run against the Giants is a sick display of vision and agility working in harmony. I’m going to discuss the first two of three excellent cutbacks that McCoy makes on this play.
The first is a fantastic display of anticipation and timing. You see this in the footwork, something that astute observers of running back play broach all the time. “The key to a good runner is his feet.”
I prefer to drill down a little more. What the are really saying is the link between the eyes, the mind, and the feet. It’s one thing to have the agility to execute a 90-degree cut with great suddenness — that’s footwork/agility. It’s an entirely different thing to vary step width, cuts, and pacing as a play unfolds — that’s the integration of several skills, including footwork/agility.
As a former musician and improviser, a great analogy to running back play and footwork is soloing with a drummer. For those of you non-musicians out there, imagine the running back as the soloist and all the teammates and opponents on the field as the drummer and his drum kit.
Break down the movements of players on the field and it’s one big rectangle of people interacting with each other with. The ball-carrier/soloist makes a move and as many as 21 players/the drummer react to that movement. At the same time who those 21 players/drummer move generates a reaction from the ball-carrier/soloist.
The movements of the ball carrier and the surrounding players in football are analogous to the rhythms between the soloist and the drummer on a stage. Both football players and musicians must possess control over their instrument that requires awareness, agility, anticipation, and creativity to respond to the environment around them.
Take five minutes and listen to the interaction between the drummer and saxophonist in the video below. Listen to the rhythms/movements and timing of the phrases as they engage each other and imagine a running back working with his linemen to find an open crease.
The press and cutback of a ball carrier aren’t much different than the tension and release of a musical phrase.
Running the football is all very musical. The best musicians and runners have the caliber of agility, pacing, and awareness to achieve an amazing level of creativity. In the case of this touchdown run, McCoy’s control over the stride length and pacing of his feet is incredible.
At this point of the run, McCoy makes a hard plant and cut that’s nearly a 90-degree change of direction. What follows is what makes McCoy special. He doesn’t try to burst from this cut like a younger Knowshon Moreno or even some of the great runner-athletes with a lesser feel for the position. Instead, McCoy continues with smaller steps across the face of the line.
The ability for a runner to control his footwork and vary this pace only comes when a player’s mind is seeing the field fast enough. Many runners are capable of pulling off a play like this once or twice in a season with enough carries. However, few do it as consistently as McCoy. These extra-small steps help McCoy maintain his balance and patiently sift his way across the line and “square” the safety coming hill towards the gap of McCoy’s cutback.
McCoy’ position is not exactly “squared” to the defender, but the runner establishes a position that gives him at least two options to change direction. The move McCoy makes to avoid both the edge defender and the safety is one of those “don’t try this at home” stunts.
In fact, there’s so much “wrong” about what McCoy does here when comparing his run to fundamental axioms of the position. However, McCoy’s work –as “wrong” as it is –epitomizes great art.
Great literature, music, and art have one thing in common throughout time: The skillful breaking of conventional rules. On this play alone, McCoy violates three major rules of running back play:
- Don’t cut east-west behind the line of scrimmage
- Don’t carry the ball loosely
- Don’t bounce a play to the corner store on a red zone attempt when you’re already down by 11 late in the first half.
Yet McCoy’s skill of knowing when to break the rules elevates this play to a level of greatness. Players like McCoy are why there will never be one master formula, stat, or equation that will help us determine who is good enough or not good enough to play in the NFL.
Analytics will be helpful in the same way that grammar is helpful to writers, music theory is helpful to musicians, and other techniques are helpful for visual and performing arts. However, the highest levels of achievement occur when artists transcend the rules.
Jamaal Charles: Great Vision Is Anticipating And Attacking At Breakneck Tempos
If LeSean McCoy is an artist on the field then so is Jamaal Charles. This run against Oklahoma is an example why I saw a prospect who could do it all when he emphasized efficiency over boredom-inspired daring. It features three cuts, each smaller movements in succession that are so well-timed that Charles creates an 80-yard touchdown from a play that easily could have ended with a four-yard gain.
Charles stretches the play to the right, cuts back to the middle behind good blocking, and makes the second dip away from the linebacker to generate a solid gain, but he still maintains the wherewithal to spin off the backside pursuit and turn this into a transcendent gain.
Charles makes this all look easier than it is. He’s so decisive in his movements at the right time and it includes how he attacks the backside defender to set up his spin move. Note how he dips his left shoulder into the defender before he completes the spin.
Charles has the advantage with this interaction because he made the first contact and put the defender on his heels. Now Charles can use his free hand to push off the defender while he spins into the open field. It’s these small details that are all set up by an attacking mentality. But you can’t be the first to strike unless you’re the first to see the opportunity to attack.
The fact that Charles attacks his opponent after two cutbacks in succession is also a great example of a player who processes information fast and doesn’t get overwhelmed by heavy traffic. He didn’t freeze; he was fully aware of where he was and what to do.
This is a man in control of his instrument at a breakneck tempo. Marshawn Lynch lacks Charles’ breakaway speed and some of Charles’ high-end agility, but he’s always attacking and anticipating defenders.
Hesitation vs. Decisiveness
Bibbs loses four yards on 1st and 10 with 13:29 in the third quarter. It’s a 22-personnel offset pistol with the fullback to the weak side and an unbalanced line to the right side. SJSU plays a three-man front with eight in the box and sends double A-gap run penetration on this counter. The linebacker reaches the backfield and wraps Bibbs for a loss of four.
Bibbs saw this same blitz in the first quarter. Quality NFL runners do a more consistent job of anticipating blitzes they saw earlier in a game — especially when the linebackers’ pre-snap movements were there to diagnose.
The more troubling aspect of Bibbs’ performance on this play is his hesitation when the linebacker earns the penetration. The runner freezes a split-second after he crosses the face of the linebacker. Bibb’s back foot plants as if he might attempt a cut back when the path in front of him makes that option nearly impossible.
The best move would have been to dip farther outside his blocks rather than cut against the grain, but in this split-second, Bibbs’ eyes, mind, and feet aren’t working in harmony. If you freeze the video at 1:43 you’ll see that slight hesitation and that plant of the back foot.
In contrast, McCoy is far more fluid against penetration up the middle. McCoy’s eyes are looking to the line of scrimmage as he takes the exchange. He reads the pressure flying up the right hash and his move is a light-footed plant and cut that is actually two small hops and a pivot towards the backside of the defense.
There is no way McCoy sees Muhammad Wilkerson (No.96) at that moment and decides he’ll make the cutback. It’s all happening too fast. But after McCoy’s initial cut to avoid the linebacker’s penetration, the runner anticipates the opening of the backside. Before he makes the cutback, he knows where to look for Wilkerson.
It may appear to be a subtle difference between anticipating and reacting, but a play like this illustrates that anticipating leads to a 33-yard touchdown while reacting leads to a small gain or loss. Anticipation comes with an understanding of run blitzes, the offensive scheme, and where the openings might be.
There will be times McCoy faces this blitz and gets caught in the backfield, but the difference between McCoy and an average professional runner is how quick he is to anticipate and make a decision. Returning to the music analogy, a “measure” is a unit of time and music in the way a yard is a unit of space on the football field. Excellent musicians can read music several measures ahead of the notes they are actually playing.
Performers that work in pit orchestras, studios, and make pop music performers sound good are often excellent sight readers of written music. This skill is built on hours of practice and a well-developed awareness of several layers of information pertaining to sheet music, their instrument, music theory, performance experience, and life experience. A lack of experience with any of these things can cause a musician to hesitate and make a mistake.
It’s a similar case for football players entering the NFL. They are less likely to succeed if they have several layers of skills and experience that they have to learn on the job.
McCoy only had to make minor adjustments to his game for him to blossom in the NFL. Two of those adjustments were reacting with confidence to what he sees on the field and then streamlining his movements to maximize his decisions. A third adjustment was to learn his limitations at a higher level of football compared to what he could get away with at Pitt.
These were important alterations to McCoy’s game, but they were well within the scope of his abilities because of that integration of eyes-mind-feet. Charles, C.J. Spiller, and several other backs had to learn the same lessons.
Bibbs may develop into a productive contributor in the NFL, but I think there’s a good chance that there’s too much for him to address and become as great of a talent as one of my colleagues mentioned to me on Twitter.
The difference is vision; a simple term for a multifaceted, complex idea.
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