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.


  1. Should have written this before the game, it would resonate more. Didn't you pick SF to win the Super Bowl?

  2. To MWT: actually, after going back and forth, I ultimately picked the Ravens on Friday on our show (I picked BAL to cover the spread in the paper and SF straight, but had to make that pick earlier in the week so I just took SF straight to cover my ass since I hadn't come to a firm decision). One big reason I eventually settled on BAL was the QB position, as we talked about on our show the Friday before the game. Other factors included a sense of over-confidence that I got from the 49ers, while the Ravens seemed more focused on the big work still in front of them.

  3. Your theory is good, but your numbers are flawed. If an offense sees 60 plays a game and half of those are straight running plays where the QB gets to take off, then a DTQB would enjoy those same plays off. However, when you throw in the read option, I'd say about 75% of those plays are either a read option or pass, in which the DTQB definitely has to make more decisions, in addition to being punished more when he runs. But I think the overarching point, one that's understated in your award winning piece, is the combination of being tackled/getting hit more often throughout the course of a game and season than a traditional pocket passer, AND having to get up and go back to the line of scrimmage and do it all over again. If you've ever played football in full pads, you'll know that every hit hurts to some degree, and that adds to the mental tax that the DTQB must pay every game.

    Now, coaches can play this one of two ways, since it seems this is the current NFL trend. One is to try and convert him into a traditional pocket passer as soon as possible, before he gets too many miles on him. Two is to use the Shanahan theory, which is try and win a super bowl with him as quick as possible, before he gets too many miles on him. In other words, he becomes a disposable commodity, much like most running backs over the last 10 to 15 years.

  4. Like I said, if you posted this article prior to the Super Bowl occurring, it would have resonated more. Now it just seems like Monday Morning Quarterback type stuff. The more people try to predict the less they know. Why do people push sportscasters to predict a sport where it seems no one knows what's going on? Just enjoy the ride.

  5. To MWT (again): I think you're stating the obvious. It would have also been better if I had posted this article before the season started, no? But can't you also argue that the article is timed well after at least having a full season of evidence for everyone to consider? I understand your point about enjoying the ride, but that's not my job. My job is to offer opinions or insight--to cast a critical eye on the past as well as the future. The Super Bowl just gave us a bit more evidence that perhaps my theory could--could--be correct. I think you're stating the obvious when you point out that had SF won the Super Bowl, I wouldn't have written this article. But they didn't, and so the running QB theory is now officially up for discussion. Thanks for reading, and for the feedback.

  6. My favorite defense against an option-style QB in the NFL is this: Whoever is assigned to take the quarterback needs to destroy him, every time, even if the hand-off is somewhat obvious. It is legal, and I don't see the league changing that rule (or lack of rule).

    I don't understand Shanahan. Griffin has all of the tools to be [Drew Brees + twice the athleticism - the whiteness] (which comes out to being the perfect football player, according to

    Steve Young was the perfect quarterback. He had the passing tools, the mental sharpness, and the ABILITY to run. He didn't abuse his running skills. He used them when the defense forgot about it. Coaches in the NFL need to teach this part of the game to ALL quarterbacks, but speedy ones in particular.

  7. Pulitzer material Junes!!

  8. I would offer that the DTQB diagnosis is becoming far to prevalent. It is akin to autism in some respects... it has always been around, there has just been a recent onslaught of coverage. Percentages of the overall sample size for DTQB's have probably been roughly the same over the years, we just have a different lens to look through due to the matriculation of the play callers in recent decades.

    There was probably a greater disparity in the game plan between Sammy Baugh and Randall Cunningham than there was between Steve Young and Collin Kaepernick. The coaching trees have many more branches these days, and when there is a spike in the DTQB population, it is magnified. How do you not discuss it?

    In conclusion, I will take this column as a good head's up to not let any person label me as a DTQB moving forward. I will not be pigeon-holed. Additionally, I would advise all prospective DTQB's to avoid autism.

    -Ryan in Plano

  9. While I think the concept of too much information is valid, I don't know that an extra 20 decisions over the course of a 3-4 hour NFL game can make that much of a difference. I would say that elite soccer players, NASCAR drivers, tennis players, and even high minute NHL and NBA players make many more decisions on what to do with the ball/puck/car over the course of their event than a QB. Plus I think you can make the case that there are far fewer "critical" decisions that can really stress the nervous system than just the total number of plays in which the QB is involved.

    Furthermore, when all of these sports are played at the ultimate level the action is entirely too fast to actually make conscious decisions that stress the brain. Through sheer repetition, practice, and genetic aptitude, the athletes that are performing these tasks are acting instinctively to what they see without making a conscious "decision.". If they were to visualize, interpret, consider options, decide, and execute on every play in the stressful manner that you suggest, they wouldn't make it to Div 1, much less the NFL.

    Where your argument is strongest however, is the point about the physical toll a running QB takes. I would say the fatigue from the hits and the sprinting at full speed would degrade the instinctual reactions far more than just the sheer volume of plays they are involved in. Just look at how Tom Brady reacts after running 80 plays in NE's offense. He doesn't get hit, but makes far more "decisions" than the DTQB's ever will in a single game and looks just as good, if not better, in the fourth quarter.

  10. Craig,
    Great piece! Defenses will catch up with the DTQB. Watching Wilson here in Seattle the past season, I believe he will work very hard this offseason to be the guy who figures out how to stay ahead of the defenses. He is what I would call the DTQBG - Double Threat Quarterback Genius. Outside of the physical tools, would be interesting to get an idea of his IQ because he seems very intelligent. Time will tell on your theory.
    The physical toll being a DTQB will also be a factor in duration these current QBs can sustain it while getting hit more the normal pocket QBs. Case in point RGIII..

    David V

  11. I think there is another component to your fatigue theory. If Adrian Peterson breaks off a 40 yard run, he taps his helmet and comes out of the game for a play to catch his breath. If RG3 breaks off a 40 yard run, he has to come right back to the huddle and be mentally sharp for the next play.

  12. To texastailwind: Thanks for the feedback. I actually mention that exact point in paragraph seven, FYI.

  13. Good analysis, makes a lot of sense Junez. I don't remember, but was there evidence of this in the 4th quarter? We all know that the 9ers only came alive in the 3rd, but they couldn't get over the hump and get the lead. After the failed 2 pointer, do you remember seeing some plays where they missed an open man or anything like that?

  14. The game's only 60 minutes long. That's generally about 30 minutes per team. I don't think anyone will get mentally fatigued in a half hour. One or two fewer mistakes by his teammates, and Kaepernick would have won the Super Bowl.

  15. I think it is a solid piece of work. I would amplify your Pulitzer work by saying that for a QB to be responsible for rushing yards as well as the passing yards, is putting so much of the team's success into one player. Its too much. We have yet to see a player who can deliver that in the NFL. There is too much talent on the other side of the ball. QB's are the best passers, but RB's are the best runners. Let them run.