Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Quarterback Decision Fatigue Theory

Colin Kaepernick ended up five yards short of winning a Super Bowl. He would have become the first option-type, dual-threat quarterback to do so. With the emergence of Kaepernick, RGIII, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, there is a new thought in the NFL that this is the quarterback of the future--that in football's new age, you'll have just as good of a chance to win a Super Bowl with one of these guys as you would with a traditional pocket passer. I don't believe this. I think the pocket passer will always have the ultimate advantage.

I call it my "Quarterback Decision Fatigue Theory." For reference, you may want to read more about decision fatigue--none of us are immune from it. My theory is that the dual-threat quarterback is being asked to make more decisions than he can perhaps handle. In high school and college, the great option quarterback can dominate because he's facing high school and college defenses, where there are few, if any, NFL-caliber players or schemes, so the constant decisions he has to make are easier. But once he gets to the NFL, the defensive talent is immense, every week, and the schemes much more complex, and his decisions become more an more difficult, more and more stressful.

On our radio program, we talk a lot about Jason Garrett being overloaded as a head coach and offensive play caller--that he's got too much on his plate during a game to operate at peak efficiency at either job. We also recently discussed Bill Walsh, who said he had to retire because he couldn't keep taxing his central nervous system in the way that he was, since he was GM, coach, administrator, psychologist--he did everything for the 49ers, and it became too great a burden to handle. I've also read numerous studies about athletes, young and old, and how easy it is for those who do too much or train too hard to end up taxing their CNS to the point of diminishing returns.

So, my theory focuses on this question: are coaches asking too much of a true, dual-threat quarterback in today's highly complex NFL?

There is no question that Kaepernick, Wilson and RGIII had terrific rookie seasons. They outplayed and defeated traditional pocket passers many, many times. Except, of course, in the ultimate game. Is it possible that these dual-threat QB's will never be able to win titles because by the end of game, or the end of a season, the odds say that they'll be more worn down than a pocket passer because of all they're asked to do?

Consider the average pocket passer. During a game, his offense will typically have 60-70 snaps. In a perfect world, he will throw it half of the time, and hand it off to a running back half of the time. So, for 30-35 snaps per game, the pocket passer basically gets the play off. Yes, he still has to execute the snap, or audible a run call, but once he hands the ball off, he can already start thinking about the next play--getting himself together.

The dual-threat QB (DTQB) doesn't have that luxury. The DTQB has to be fully mentally and physically engaged for just about every play. If it's one of the typical 30 pass plays per game, he has to go the normal read of the defense at the line of scrimmage, and then through his progressions as the play develops, just like the pocket passer. But the DTQB is also asked to run the read option, which means that for an additional 10-20 snaps a game, he's got to make more big, split-second decisions--from the time he breaks the huddle, to the time the ball is snapped, reading the defensive end, and deciding to keep or hand off. And, if he keeps, he's then got to shift into running back mode. He might be 15 yards down the field, take a big hit, and then he's responsible for immediately getting back to his feet, getting focused, and leading the next play. It never stops for the DTQB.

The pocket passer doesn't tax his body, mind, or CNS the way the DTQB does. The DTQB doesn't get the 30-35 snaps a game off the way the pocket passer does. The pocket passer doesn't take the physical abuse that the DTQB does (unless the pocket passer has a terrible offensive line and gets sacked a ton). The DTQB is also a running back, but the difference is that after a big run, the DTQB has to go right back into battle, while the RB often trots to the sideline for a breather. There are no breathers for the DTQB, and I think eventually it wears them down.

There has been much written on the "Information Overload Theory," and how it applies to fighter pilots and battle field commanders. Why, then, couldn't the same theory be applied to the DTQB? Isn't it at least a possibility that the DTQB is being asked to do too much, to be too engaged for too many snaps? Isn't it possible that by the time the end of the game comes around, that the the DTQB has taxed his CNS to the point that he's unable to make the right decision or the correct throw that might be necessary to win the game? If we all agree that every player is more worn down by the end of the game than they were at the start, then why isn't it also possible that the player that the most is being demanded of would be more worn down than anyone else on the field, thus compromising his decision making and effectiveness?

Much is also made of the DTQB being more injury prone. Isn't it logical to assume that the DTQB is more injury prone not only because he's running more and exposing himself more to hits, but also because he's more taxed mentally, which can lead to poor decisions when it comes to protecting himself? Maybe by a certain point in the game, the DTQB is so worn down physically and mentally that he's not able to process exactly when he needs to slide to avoid a big hit, or his senses aren't quite sharp enough to pick up the weak side defender because his senses have been overloaded?

Add to all of this the fact that, at least according to offensive coordinators around the league, NFL defenses are much more complex than they were even five years ago. The hardest position in sports is that of NFL quarterback, and now we are to believe that by adding the read option to his already difficult job, that the DTQB is simply going to continue to run and throw all over these defenses? My guess is that next season, defenses will be much better prepared to face the read option, which means the DTQB's will be eventually forced more into a traditional pocket passer role in order to succeed. I won't say that Kaepernick or RGIII will never win a Super Bowl, I just think that if they do, they'll do it as a pocket passer, not a DTQB. Each of those guys has a great arm, and could easily win games as a pocket passer, running only occasionally on a scramble--more like Aaron Rodgers.

The Quarterback Sensory Overload Theory allows for the possibility that Kaepernick or Cam or RGIII could turn out to be a truly transcendent athlete--a Michael Jordan-type who is the exception to any rule. But even Jordan had Scottie Pippen to help take some the the load off. It may end up that one of the new wave of DTQB's wins a Super Bowl running the read option and throwing the ball equally well, but I don't see it, and I don't think the DTQB will ever dominate the NFL. Steve Young is the closest thing we've ever had to a running QB winning the Super Bowl, and he wasn't running the option. Colin Kaepernick was all the rage one week ago, but pocket passer Joe Flacco is the one who got his first ring. The Super Bowl is the domain of the pocket passer. It's an exclusive club, and the sign on the door still reads "Option Quarterbacks Not Allowed." I think there's a reason for that--the Quarterback Decision Fatigue Theory.

Private author footnote: Please don't be surprised if I win some kind of major award for the development of this theory. It could be something really big, like a Nobel Prize. If it indeed ends up being a life-changing-type award, I can't promise that I will continue to write these blog posts, but that's a decision that I will only be able to make after experiencing what life is like after winning a Nobel Prize. Hopefully I won't be paralyzed by decision fatigue, which would be the ultimate irony.