Driving home from work this past evening I was mesmerized by a radio rant from Qadry Ismail, "The Missile" from Brizer's hometown of Wilkes-Barre…
Ismail said basically that the difference between making a 53-man roster in the NFL or not is BRAINS…
Paraphrasing, Qadry's rant went like this: "You get to the level of rookie minicamp, and then full-team OTA's, you discover that 80 or 90 guys have essentially the same physical talents… Now they hand you a playbook (or an iPad) with over a thousand different combinations of plays and maybe 55 different keys to each play you've got to memorize…I tell you, man, it is intimidating…"
NFL players are often cited as impressive physical specimens, but it's not their tree trunk-like legs or bulging biceps that are most impressive. It's their brains. That much is made clear by learning about the most mundane of tasks required of every NFL player: memorizing the playbook. It's an act which often goes unrecognized because it is so fundamental. Players are given plays, they memorize them and they execute them on the field. Yet as a variety of current and former NFL players have explained, it's not as easy as it sounds.
Trent Dilfer, a 13-year NFL quarterback for five teams who's now an NFL analyst for ESPN, recalled exactly how he memorized his plays. "Visualization," Dilfer said. "You must highlight, draw (the play), put the playbook down and find a quiet place in your mind and visualize every aspect of the play. A lot of time is dedicated to that. The basic principle is repetition as the mother of all learning."
The Huffington Post did a nice intro into this topic which piqued my interest back in early 2011. A blogger named Kyle Stack did a wonderful piece on the topic. And since then, I can't find Kyle Stack anywhere on the NFL blogosphere map…but it was a good piece of football writing.
Dilfer noted in an interview with Stack that when he was in Mike Holmgren's offense in Seattle, which he considers the most complicated offensive system in which he played, the quarterbacks would watch film after practice and quiz each other for an hour about plays. After Dilfer tucked his kids into bed at night, he'd sit with his playbook and write plays in red ink. (His quarterbacks coach at Fresno State University, Andy Ludwig, believed that red ink stimulates memorization.) He'd then spend an hour closing his eyes and running through each play before going to sleep.
That's another memorization trick Dilfer used. A Harvard Medical School study published in the scientific journal Biology in 2006 showed study participants tested better when memorizing information at night, sleeping and taking an exam the following morning… rather than memorizing in the morning and testing at night, without sleep in between.
None of the other 12 active NFL players who were interviewed for that study cited using sleep or a particular color as a way to spur memorization. Some did employ Dilfer's strategy of writing down plays. New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal looked at each play a few times after he put it on paper. "Some guys can look at something and have it," the then-ninth-year pro said. "For me, I like to look at it again."
Eric Wood, a guard for the Buffalo Bills, used an old-school memorization drill during his rookie season in 2009. "Cover one side of the plays, run down the list and memorize it just like anything else in school," Wood said.
Former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Brian Finneran picked the 10-15 plays he had to know for each week's game and tried to memorize them by formation. "I categorize it and try to get a feel for the concept of each play," said Finneran.
Other players try more unusual methods. Quarterback Matt Leinart runs through plays over the phone with his half-brother, who lives in California. "He'll give me the play, I'll repeat it and go through my reads," Leinart said, who added he benefits most from drawing plays on a whiteboard. The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner had to digest the Texans playbook on the fly when he signed with them in early September 2010, following his four-year tenure with the Arizona Cardinals.
The transition to a new offensive system, specifically with its new terminology for how plays are called, can be as challenging as any weight-room workout. "It's ingrained in your head that if you say a certain word or play it means this guy is doing this, this and this," Leinart explained. "It's just trying to erase your memory (of the previous team's system)."
Dilfer said it's a three-year process to own a particular playbook. Owning a play is different from memorizing it, Dilfer explained. "Owning it to me goes from knowing it to understanding it to it becoming instinctive," Dilfer said.
How does one own the plays? "If you're not spending an hour every day in your playbook, you're cheating your teammates," Dilfer said. He stated quarterbacks should study three hours per day, given their extra responsibilities in commanding an offense.
It can take a while just to lock down a playbook's language. "A lot of coaches use numbering systems," Dilfer added. He said odd numbers are typically used for plays to the right, even numbers for plays to the left. Many offenses use T and D words for formations: T for Trips, where three receivers are lined up on one side, and D for double sets, such as double tight ends.
Dilfer cited an example of one play with a different meaning in two systems. "Red Right 22 Texas is a West Coast play," Dilfer explained. "In another system, it's Split Right Scat Right 639 F Angle. What some players will do when they go to a new team, is when it's Split Right Scat Right, they go, 'Oh, that's 22 Texas.' They hear one thing and they put old language on it; you have to learn the new language." Leinart admitted as much in his transition from the Cardinals to the Texans.
Running back Derrick Ward, who also joined the Texans in early September 2010 after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said his learning curve was much shorter. "It took me a week to understand everything in Houston's offense," Ward said. That was partly a byproduct of the language similarities shared by the Buccaneers and Texans.
Ward claimed to have a photographic memory, which lets him immediately remember plays he goes over in meetings. "This is my seventh year. Once you get the hang of what the offense does, you can differentiate one play from another and it becomes repetitive," he said. The ability to differentiate is pivotal in a playbook that he noted has up to 300 plays. And many of the plays contain pass routes which can have numerous variations depending on what the defense shows, creating a subset of plays within a play.
Dhani Jones, a former middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, said memorizing plays isn't as difficult as understanding their philosophy. "I don't drop the language (from previous systems)," said Jones, who's also been on the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles during his 10-year career. "It's just different words that are used. Quarters coverage is the same as Cloud coverage is the same as strong-side rotated coverage. They're just named differently."
He practiced word association to memorize his playbook. Jones would think of 'snake' for plays when he's called to stay inside. He connotated 'pirate' for plays which had him move to the outside since pirates are on a ship (i.e. they're outside).
It's no secret that quarterbacks carry the most responsibility to know a playbook inside and out. That's why moving frequently from one offensive system to another can doom the career of so many young quarterbacks.
"It's not that they can't learn the playbook," Dilfer emphasized. "It's not an intellectual capacity issue. It's the ability to learn it and play without thinking. A cluttered mind slows an athletic body."
According to Dilfer, no two players serve as better examples of that than quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Alex Smith. In 2010, Campbell, the former Oakland Raiders signal caller who was a 2005 first-round pick of the Washington Redskins, just played for his ninth offensive coordinator in 10 seasons, dating back to his college days at Auburn. He passed for 3,000-plus yards from 2008-09 with the Redskins; his 63-percent completion percentage through those two seasons seemed to put him on a path to success. Yet once Mike Shanahan was installed as head coach, he decided to trade Campbell in order to find an "established" quarterback.
Alex Smith, whom the San Francisco 49ers chose first overall in the '05 draft, by 2010 had played for his sixth offensive coordinator in his previous six seasons. Smith had moderate success in his lone full season in 2006 when he threw for 2,890 yards and 16 touchdowns — not to mention 16 interceptions. That campaign, with Norv Turner serving as the 49ers' offensive coordinator, remains arguably the finest full season of his career.
"[Campbell] and Alex Smith had no chance," Dilfer said of their ability to reach their potential back in 2010. "While each player's talent isn't in question, it's the lack of opportunities to keep even one playbook for more than two consecutive seasons that has harmed their careers." Dilfer was on the 49ers in 2007 and recalled that Smith's competency to digest a playbook shouldn't be questioned.
"Alex is smarter than anybody I've ever been around," Dilfer said. "He'll learn, he'll be able to spit it out and act as if it's second nature to him. But deep down, his brain is so cluttered with so many different coaching points, plays, words and concepts there's no way he can play fast."
Dilfer admitted his inability to play fast prevented him from having a more successful career. A sixth overall pick of the Buccaneers in the 1994 Draft, Dilfer managed just one Pro Bowl appearance during a career in which he surpassed 2,500 yards in a season four times and 20 touchdowns only twice. His role as the conservative starting quarterback on the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens has left him as the oft-cited example of a QB who can "manage" the game, rather than take over a game.
"I was so anal-retentive and so paranoid with learning, that many times, even though I owned the plays, I would still think about it in the game," Dilfer said. "It really, really hurt my career."
What a player sees in the playbook or on film might not always translate to what's happening in front of him during practice or a game. Yet it's a good bet that preparation off the field — studying the playbook, searching for opponent's tendencies — will help a player succeed on the field. As Brian Finneran made clear, the physical challenges of the NFL are no contest for the mental preparation needed to persevere in the league.
"As big and fast as this game is, if you're not smart you won't last long."