When analyzing quarterback prospects there are several traits to look for. From arm talent to keeping cool under pressure, they are all important. Mark Schofield looks at Vad Lee and his ability to overcome the fear of failure and pain-inducing hits to deliver passes where they need to be.
One of the rawest of human emotions, it can consume a person in a way other emotions cannot. It drives a person to panic, to make flawed decisions, to throw reason and knowledge out the window, and to react in ways one would not normally act absent its driving force inside. Such a powerful emotion, it triggers not only thoughts in the head but a physical response consisting of sweating, accelerated breathing, stomach problems and even numbness and tingling in the extremities.
At its core, football is an emotional game. The emotions vary at times, but inherent in the game is the need to bend the will in your opponent. Whether you are forcing a defensive lineman to give up, beating him snap after snap until his legs give out and his mind breaks. Or if you are jamming a wide receiver on the line play after play until he can’t face press coverage anymore. At the quarterback position, the repeated shots to the body can take their toll, both mentally and physically. They accelerate your internal clock, and in an unconscious attempt to avoid those hits, you begin to move faster than necessary in the pocket. If you watched the 2016 AFC Championship Game, the reaction Tom Brady showed after taking multiple and frequent hits can help illustrate this notion.
But sometimes a quarterback can look that fear in the eyes and say “not today.”
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The James Madison Dukes line up with 11 personnel with wing trips to the left, and run the divide concept. Quarterback Vad Lee (#2), on the road, in a collapsing pocket, knowing he is going to take a shot, delivers a great pass to his receiver. Lee, standing tall in the pocket, places this corner route perfectly along the sideline as the pocket collapses around him.
It is another essential part of playing the quarterback position: the knowledge that in order to do your job well means accepting that you will take physical abuse along the way. To hang in the pocket until the last second to deliver a throw, knowing full well that you are going to take a large and often painful hit, is something that is absolutely necessary to be successful. This acknowledgment of physical risk is referred to as “assumption of the risk” in the legal world, which is the understanding that whatever happens to you, you entered this situation acutely aware of the risks involved.
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Sometimes the quarterback can anticipate that a big hit, and subsequent pain, is forthcoming. On this play you can see the blitz posture in the defense, with seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. There is an urge in the back of a quarterback’s mind to check out of the play. But to be successful, the quarterback has to fight that urge. The quarterback should run the play called, stand tall, anticipate the collision and deliver a beautifully thrown ball. That is exactly what Lee does on third-down against SMU where he throws another perfectly-placed pass on a corner route. The WR drops the pass, but Lee stared down this fear and did his job.
There is another fear associated with playing quarterback. The fear of failure. This is not solely attributable to this position, as it is not a quarterback-specific emotion. Every player in any sport must address and overcome the fear of making a mistake. At the quarterback position, the struggle lies in maintaining your aggression and confidence at all times. To succeed at this position you cannot shrink from the limelight. Winners want the ball, as is commonly said.
Now your team is trailing. You are in the last minutes of the game, and you see the same look from earlier in the game: Defense in blitz posture with seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. What will happen in this moment? Will the fear win? Which fear? The fear of failure? The fear of the potential collision and pain? Has the defense won, have they bent your will?
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In the closing moments Lee stares down that blitz, and those fears, once more. He drops in a perfectly thrown anticipation pass on a corner route for the game-winning score.
Lost in the art of player evaluation is the mental component of playing this sport. This is a emotional game played by young men, thrust into adverse situations and facing physical peril on every play. Quarterbacks need to be able to stare at the fears associated with the position and simply say, not today. While evaluators might get lost in examining concepts such as arm talent, physical ability, downfield vision and footwork in the pocket, they can easily miss perhaps the most critical component of the position: Silencing those fears when it matters most.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.