Decision Making Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

We’ve all seen a QB drop back to pass – but have you ever thought about what he’s thinking as the 40 seconds tick off the play clock? As an evaluator, and ex-quarterback, Mark Schofield is most interested in a player’s decision making and information processing.

Sky.

It always amazed me how beautiful and serene I could find the sky from behind my facemask. The hot August morning sky was a brilliant shade of orange and pink, brightening as a campus settled down to sleep as seventy or so football players were just starting their day of double sessions. The dreary, grey New England skies that signaled winter in October, and another season winding down. Whether it was a quick moment of pre-practice stretching, or after being driven to the turf by a massive defensive lineman during a game ‒ as a quarterback, I grew to appreciate the sky.

“Get up.”

That’s the voice in my head. It is always there.  Every practice. Every game. Telling me, reminding me of all the bits of information I need for the next audible, the next snap, the next drive. Most of the time it is coverages, fronts, blitzes, and progressions. But sometimes it is the basics.Cleveland-Browns-Jabaal-Sheard-sack-Jacksonville-Jaguars-Blaine-Gabbert

Okay, deep breath. Nothing hurts, too much. Right wrist feels a bit wonky. Let’s flex that a few times. Ok. Check the scoreboard. Clocks are both running. Guess the pass was complete. 2nd and 7. Well, had to check the ball down on that play, nothing was open downfield. Guys are huddled. Good. Spot the coaches. RB coach showing me a closed fist meaning we are using base personnel this next play. The tight end coach ‒ what’s he doing? Right, that’s for my TE and he’ll get the pre-snap motion or shift call. One thing I don’t have to worry about ‒ yet. Where’s my head coach? There he is. Ah, open face to hand, meaning weak. Got it. His arm extended right. Right. Got it. We’re going weak right. His right arm straight up now. That’s one. Left arm angled downward. That’s nine. Weak right 19. Okay. Check the wristband. What’s that Floyd lyric? “13 channels of shit but nothing to turn to?” I’ve got 100 on this wrist band. What’s play 19? There it is.

“Trade. Trade. Trade.”

That’s Hank, our tight end. He gets the pre-snap shift call from our tight end coach. This is a basic shift, where the TE lines up on one side of the line, then shifts to the other before the play.

“Weak right lion X-585 A-Check-Swing B-Shoot. On Two. Ready – break!”

Weak right means that we’ll have an offset i-formation in the backfield, with the fullback shaded up and away from the strength of the formation, which will eventually be on the right side. But we are trading on this play, meaning we start in a pro left formation with the TE and one receiver left and a single receiver to the right. But early in the cadence, Hank will shift from left to right. So I gotta make sure that our X receiver starts on the left, lines up as a flanker, and then moves up to the line of scrimmage before the snap, otherwise we’re getting flagged for illegal formation. I also need to make sure that our TE and Z receiver are aligned properly on the right as well.

Chicago-Bears-Jay-Cutler-Sack-Detroit-Lions-Ndamukong-SuhLion. That’s our protection call, meaning a slide protection to the left. Not exactly tricky with the naming structure, rocket was our slide protection to the right. X-585 is the pass pattern. Starting with the X receiver on the left, who runs our 5 route, a deep comeback. Then our TE in the middle runs the post, while the Z receiver on the right who also runs a deep comeback. A check-swing, that’s for the tailback. He’ll check blitz protection on the right and if no one comes, he’ll run a swing pattern to the right. Our fullback gets a shoot route, with no pass protection responsibilities, so he’ll just release into the flat.

“X-585. Weakside versus Cover 1 or Cover 3. Strongside versus Cover 2 with quick check on post route.”

There’s the voice again, reminding me of the progression reads on this play. First thing I need do at the line of scrimmage is to identify the coverage. Where is the free safety? He’s right over the football, ten yards deep. The strong safety is down in the box shaded to the TE. The corners? They are seven yards deep looking to gain outside leverage. I can see their eyes, and they’re looking at me, and not the receiver. This looks like zone,  Cover 3 to be exact.

“Zone.”

I’ve started our cadence. It always began with either “zone” or “man,” to try and help our receivers read the coverage. Some plays required route adjustments, so this helped everyone get on the same page. Hank starts to shift. The X receiver slides up to the line of scrimmage, Hank jogs past me and now aligns to the right. My eyes scan for a linebacker…there he is, #59.

“59 is hot! 59 is hot!”

Both Hank and I call that out. This outside linebacker is unaccounted for in the protection, so he’s my responsibility. If he blitzes, Hank will look for the ball quickly on the hot route. If that OLB blitzes and I miss it, well, that’s what doctors are for, right?Brady Sacked credited

Speaking of which, where’s that defensive tackle? The guy the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams are here to scout. If he’s lined up at DE I have to adjust protection, or even check to a run. That was what we spent our entire Tuesday QB meeting covering. I spot him own over the right guard.

After all this I decide we can proceed with this play. I’ll use a five-step drop and read this to the left, or weakside, between the 5 route from the X receiver and the route in the flat from my fullback. This sets up a nice high-low on that cornerback. He is likely to sit on the deeper route, so I’ll take another checkdown if necessary.

“Blue 88. Blue 88.”

This was the audible part of our cadence. The colors would vary week-to-week, and would indicate either that we are changing the play, or that we’re staying with the call. This week, blue is base. No changes.

“Wait.”

When our TE shifted, the strong safety dropped deep and the free safety rolled up, indicating they are still in Cover 3. But the corners are now coming forward…

“Set.”

The safeties are dropping, meaning they’re rolling to Cover 2 ‒ which changes everything. Now this play has to go to the strongside. OK, that means glance at to the TE on his post route – but only a “quick look.” If he can split the safeties on his post, I’ll throw to him. But I cannot wait for this route to come open, so on the third step of my five-step drop ‒ my second right foot ‒ I need to make a decision.

That is, of course, if I don’t need to throw a hot route first.

“Hut HUT.”

New-England-Patriots-Rob-Ninkovich-Sack-Seattle-Seahawks-Russell-Wilson-Super-Bowl-XLIXOn the second hut, thunder explodes around me. I take the snap, using a cheat step, dropping my left foot first and then driving my right foot back, all while watching that outside linebacker. First right-foot, no blitz, no hot route.

Scan the safeties, and take a quick look at the post. They are rolling their coverage and are more concerned with getting depth than they are the sideline vertical routes right now. So, as I hit that third step ‒ second right foot ‒ I come off the post route.

But there’s one more thing: with the corners now in press coverage, those 5 routes get adjusted on the fly to 9 routes, or go routes. Hopefully the flanker on my right notices. I peel my eyes to the sideline and he’s releasing vertically. I hit my fifth step ‒ third right foot ‒ and start to hitch.

“GET RID OF IT!”

The colors in my field of vision begin to change, from red and white to white and purple. A DT has come unblocked. That guy. Again. Gotta throw this now…

Sky.

Under A Minute

Ted Williams posited that hitting a baseball was the toughest thing to do in all of sports. I won’t argue with the Splendid Splinter, the last player to hit .400, and a man who brought so much joy to my late grandfather over years of Red Sox fanhood. But if I concede that point, then playing quarterback is the second toughest. A hitter needs to process a few bits of information in a compressed bit of time; however, a quarterback needs to process volumes of information in a compressed bit of time, all while eleven large humans are trying to send him to the hospital.

From scanning the coverage and defensive front, to knowing the formation and responsibility of the other 10 men in your huddle, to adjusting routes on the fly and responding to blitzes, and to simply staying upright and then making the right decision with the ball, there are tons of moving parts to account for and a large amount of information to process. It happens in under a minute, and near the end of that minute the only thing people care about is whether you did the right thing with the football.New-York-Jets-Sheldon-Richardson-New-England-Patriots-Tom-Brady-sacked

And if you make the wrong decision? If you are an NFL draft prospect, some analyst will rip you to shreds and claim you don’t have what it takes. 

Improve Your Process

That analyst should know better. They should know the context of each snap, and understand the volumes of information the player is required to handle. Further, they should know that each game, each drive, and each play adds new information; that adjustments are made as coaches throw out parts of the playbook depending on what the opposition is doing to counter.

Evaluators should understand all of that context, look at the whole picture, and not fixate on one play, one drive, or one game. It is the totality of a prospect that needs to be evaluated, not whether one missed post route in a driving rainstorm is over-analyzed. Similarly, because analysts cannot know reads, progressions, or coaching points of emphasis, evaluators should avoid judgments on what isn’t on film. There were times where my coaches told me not to throw a route because of one reason or another.

Draft season is upon us, and twitter will spend the next three months building players up, tearing them down, and lather..rinse…repeat. To evaluate quarterback play it is absolutely vital to understand and consider the decision making process. And it is imperative to consider the context of each decision, remembering that decisions do not occur in a vacuum.

As evaluators, we will never have the information present in the mind of each quarterback on a given play, unless our name is Jon Gruden and we get the chance to sit down with them and break down a single play. But even then, so much information is absorbed and discarded during the course of a single snap that even Gruden won’t get everything. But the context of each play: From the down-and-distance, to the situation, to the location of the game, the point in the season, the flow of the game and all the other external elements that go into a single play ‒ all of those aspects play a part in the decision making process. All of those elements are absorbed and processed by the player, so all of those elements must be considered in the holistic evaluation of the player. This is why taking the checkdown or simply throwing the ball away could be just as instructive as a 35 yard throw into a tight window. Given all the factors, it could be the right decision.

If we try and obtain a level of information close to what the quarterback had on the given snap, we come closer and closer to truly understanding their mental process, and what that may foretell about the player’s ability in the future.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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