What type of displays should set off fireworks in the minds of talent evaluators? David Johnson’s touchdown catch against Atlanta is one of them.
Repeat after me: There is no magic moment without layers and layers of data processed beneath the surface.
Try to remember this in light of the moments below:
Bo Jackson running up the sideline so fast in practice that, for the first time in his life, Howie Long felt wind in the wake of a sprinting player.
Rookie Tom Brady walking down the steps of Foxboro Stadium with a pizza box under his arm and upon his first introduction to Bob Kraft, telling the Pats owner, “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.”
Larry Bird telling Xavier McDaniel exactly how he would dispatch the Sonics defender and enforcer while he’s taking the ball up the court with McDaniel plastered to him—and doing it to the letter.
The fictional Roy Hobbs—as instructed by his manager—knocking the cover off the ball during his first at-bat in the majors.
These are answers to the most common question I’ve asked in some form as a magazine features writer profiling people in a wide variety of fields:
When did you know [the subject] was special?
They are great storytelling devices for a reporter. It’s why feature-length profiles of athletes often include an anecdote of a teammate, coach, scout, or general manager share an a-ha moment that foretold a player’s greatness.
I believe there’s magic in life. I believe in the intuitive flash, the a-ha moment, the experience where, for a brief time, all the tumblers click into place and you know and feel the balls-to-bone truth of the matter in front of you.
I also believe in process. Even with magic, there is process. Layers and layers of information you’ve acquired through work, study, and life experience.
It’s a moment where your mind integrates all that past data with something it’s observing in the present. For those sensitive to their own mind-body connection, they feel that magic in some form that I described above.
Many wizened talent evaluators still have these moments. Increased knowledge of the game doesn’t negate them.
The more you learn, the more likely you’ll have these moments where seemingly disparate layers of information about football technique, art, biomechanics, music, x’s and o’s, philosophy, or whatever you’ve studied in life, clicks into place while observing a player’s performance.
These ring true moments aren’t always flashy plays as fans and media define them. The “difficult play” if we were to define the term by what’s profiled in media is a play that requires an acrobatic display and/or a measure of toughness to complete.
But a difficult play can also be far less flashy and it can go unnoticed by many—even by more discerning eyes. I call these “Quiet Plays”—plays so good but lacking flash, that if you’re evaluating the player making them, you hope other observers don’t notice.
Quiet Plays have richness of detail that people often miss. If told this was a great play, they will find it underwhelming to the praise assigned it.
Using athletic ability and technique as the standard, this catch and run by David Johnson below is a great Quiet Play. On these terms, it might be the most impressive play I saw in Week 12.
If I were to assign a scale of difficulty for difficult targets, many of the elements involved with his catch would be on the upper limits of such a scale:
- Targets that require a receiver to turn against the path of his moment to catch.
- Targets arriving close to the ground and the receiver cannot leave his feet to attack.
- Targets requiring a receiver to twist and reach across and behind a body part supporting his weight.
- Targets requiring full arm extension and fingertips to catch in an awkward position.
The flexibility and balance Johnson displays just to make the catch is a fantastic integration of athletic ability and hands technique.
The fact that Johnson maintains his balance turning through an opponent’s contact and scores is icing.
If I saw a player—any player who might catch a ball (this includes backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs)—make this kind of catch in a warm-up, drill, practice, or game, fireworks would be quietly going off in my head.
Quiet Plays are an example of accumulated knowledge that lies between the lines. They aren’t things anyone can teach you; they’re the things teachers hope you discover as they give you the layers of information to connect into place.