Matt Waldman answers common questions posed to him by writers and readers about the practices and player development.
At the tail end of practice, a draft writer approached me with questions about the sessions, player performance, and player development. He wanted my thoughts on what he observed.
His observations and subsequent questions were similar to ones I’ve answered in the past. It got me thinking that these things have crossed your mind.
I’ve asked myself and others some of these questions when I began watching practices nearly a decade ago. Some of my answers are based on years of observing players who’ve been to the game and became professionals. Others are based on film study and the sum of my life experiences as a student, teacher, manager, and writer.
These are my ideas, not laws carved into a stone tablet.
Why is it that many of these players seem incapable of maintaining speed and intensity on runs, routes, or blocks? The season has been over for a while. Are they tired?
What the coaching staff is asking players to do often differs enough from their norms for 3-5 years that it’s difficult for them to change habits in an instant. Just as it took hundreds, if not thousands of reps to learn these skills, it will take more than a few reps in one practice to make the transition.
Because many of the reps involve multiple techniques, it’s easy for the receivers to struggle with one or more of the changes thrown at them. For instance, the wide receivers learning to sell the vertical of an intermediate route will include keeping the head and eyes upfield, the pads low throughout the stem, a longer stem, and a stem run with greater speed and intensity. If most of these techniques are new, they will also have to learn to break back to the ball.
All of these new things will change the old sense of timing and ingrained feel within a player’s body for execution. It forces extra thought and feels uncomfortable. It will dramatically alter the subconscious feel for what leads up to a player catching a target.
These changes will psychologically and physically tire out players thinking hard through new processes. It’s why intensity and/or execution may falter. It’s also why the Senior Bowl is more about learning, responsiveness to coaching, demonstrating focus, and gauging where a player’s technique is and where it can develop.
Whether it’s catching, breaking tackles, or blocking, it appears that there’s a very clear line between players that execute and players that don’t and become quickly evident in practice. Would you agree?
It’s a little more complicated. As mentioned above, these players are learning new skills or making alterations to existing ones. When a player is forced to concentrate on something new, it’s natural for them to make errors with existing skills during that learning process.
Some players are quick enough learners that they can make the transition appear instant. These are the ones that we hear about from broadcast commentators on Saturdays and Sundays. These players are not the rule—even in the NFL.
It’s why you shouldn’t instantly write off players that make multiple mistakes during these practices. Instead, you should watch them in their truest element of comfort: the scheme and team they’ve been a part of for 3-5 years.
If a player catches the ball well for four years at his program but is dropping the ball repeatedly in Mobile, you consider all the possible factors. Is he learning something new that’s a direct or indirect contribution to the receiving process? Is he hurt? Or is he asked to perform a slight, but important variation of an ingrained task that veers from his normal process?
All of these circumstances are important layers of information. Yes, the player will have to learn these new techniques and methods as they transition to a new league and while some things are easy changes and others are rare to overcome, any conclusion that players are incapable of change based on a few days of practice is often problematic—especially if they’ve been successful with a variation of the skill or technique in the past.
Why is it that some players know these skills and others don’t? You look at a player like Cooper Kupp and he appears thoughtful and introspective about his game and the lessons ahead for him. Meanwhile, there are a dozen players who seem complacent by comparison or believe they can rely on their athletic ability to adjust to the upcoming demands of the NFL. What are your thoughts?
These are men 21-24 years of age. I worked at a university for 10 years and as a manager interviewing, training, and developing many individuals between the ages of 21-35 for well over a decade before that. There is a great deal of maturation happening during that age range of 18-27.
Some individuals are well prepared to embrace this maturation process and have a clear path that they follow confidently as they transition from a lifetime spent in school to a career. Others have no idea about planning, organization, goal setting, and independent learning as a lifelong task.
It’s no different on a football field than it is in the rest of society. Some players talk a great talk but don’t apply themselves. Others don’t impress during an interview but they know how to work and they develop faster than those who appear more polished due to an observer’s ingrained cultural norms.
Remember that for many of these players, the Senior Bowl is an introduction to new methods not taught at the college level–as basic as some practice processes may be. Some teams will teach more than others, but the college game is often about finding the top athletes at the high school level.
The top college players can still athletically dominate their competition for the majority of the regular season. Only when those players compete against heated rivals in top conferences or in bowl games do they encounter equal caliber athletes with certain polished skills at their positions that can pose problems for them.
Some players may need a year or two in the NFL to learn how to study, organize their training, the focus of their training, and how to best take care of themselves when it comes to sleeping, eating, managing money, and interacting with family. These issues comprise the hidden part of the iceberg that is NFL Draft analysis.
People often give or demand simplistic answers to complex situations because they either aren’t aware of these dynamics at play or deny their importance.
So these players will get most of this necessary coaching as rookies, right? Teams will introduce players to many fundamental techniques, but showing a player the components of a technique and the why behind isn’t the same as spending hours drilling on it or setting up exercises that will advance the process of learning. This is the responsibility of each player.
It’s why the best players work on the tiniest details of their game before and after practice and during the season and well into the off-season. They seek out veteran teammates, trainers, coaches, and consultants for knowledge and often create their own regimens.
Many players fail to know where to start or believe this kind of work and sacrifice will be necessary for them. After all, they got drafted or they’re starting or contributing for their teams right now, they’re set.
Most learn soon enough that if they’re not constantly working to get better, they will eventually get left behind because the team will eventually find an equal or greater athlete with the maturity, drive, and intellect to out-perform them.
Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez discussed this during an episode of the NFL’s All-Time Team. He told the hosts and viewing audience that, after leading the NFL in drops and getting benched during his second year, he spent the offseason figuring out a practice plan to address his issues.
The Chiefs coaches didn’t do this for him. The idea that players will get “coached-up” on technique and athletic movements is a myth. While many coaches will introduce players to these behaviors, it’s up to the player to incorporate them into their sessions outside of team practices, which are mostly designed to learn the game plan.
I notice that some players don’t show great effort but turn it on when the pads come on. Do you notice that, too?
It’s a conclusion that I’d be careful about characterizing in this way. Some players during Day 1 are taking drills slow so they can get a feel for the new techniques. As I learned while studying music for many years, the slower you can perform something in a clear fashion, the more likely you’ll be able to perform it cleanly at top speed.
This is what you’ll often see with players who are working at a slower pace (and are incorrectly characterized as lazy) on the first day and then look much better during the second day of padded practices. Yes, the light goes on during the padded practice, but the reason is the work done on the day before and not some “magic” mentality.
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