NFL players have brains

26 02 2011

You know that theory that football players are empty-headed jocks who have an IQ no higher than a Golden Retriever? Well, it’s not true. Chances are, an NFL player is smarter than you or I — definitely me. As with many other sports, football is perceived as a simple game. Minimize your turnovers, run the ball, create scoring opportunities on defense, prevent the big play. It all seems so simple, so refreshingly lacking complexity. It’s a bunch of b.s., as I found out in a story I wrote for AOL Fanhouse about how NFL players memorize their playbooks.

Football is a very complicated sport, and the level to which coaches and players strategize at the highest level is mind-boggling. I’ve always been impressed at the number of plays coaches can think of, much less the nuances each one contains. That’s to say nothing of the vocabulary of each play. Some NFL coaches and players will say that most teams have similar vocabularies to their playbooks, but that doesn’t mean the verbage is easy to absorb. It’s highly difficult, which is one reason why the average career of an NFL player lasts four seasons. Physical maladies obviously play a role in that, but the mental execution, or lack thereof, is what can doom a player’s career. Teams might take a chance on an injury-prone player who shows potential; not many have the time to waste on a guy who can’t absorb the playbook and execute what’s within it.

The subject of how NFL players memorize their playbooks has always interested me. The same goes with NBA players and their playbooks, or MLB players and the coaching signs they memorize. Hell, even the way some MLB players memorize all those 10-step high-fives with teammates throws me for a loop. How does Jose Reyes pull it off with 24 teammates?

In my research for this story, I was surprised to find that so little had been written about NFL playbook memorization. It seems as though every other aspect of the NFL has been endlessly debated. I found this bothersome.

NFL fans are smart, curious folks. They deserve intelligent subject matters that discuss the intricacies of the game. I pitched the idea for this story to Fanhouse, and they told me to go ahead and do what I do. So, I began e-mailing NFL team PR staffs to ask if any players would be willing to talk about their preferred methods for playbook memorization.

I didn’t have particular players in my mind — I just wanted variety. I wanted to make sure I represented each position, since an offensive lineman studies a different playbook than a cornerback. Yet even an offensive lineman’s playbook responsibilities differ from that of a wide receiver. Receivers don’t really need to know interior blocking responsibilities, while linemen aren’t always aware of every route pattern. And I wanted to make sure I talked to players young, old and in between. A heady vet like Matt Birk might see things differently than a young buck like Josh Johnson.

The teams I spoke with for this story, mostly off-the-record stuff, told me of the software companies they work with who make digital playbooks possible. This is a new territory, and I’ll throw a hint that I have an upcoming story on a different sport which also takes this into account. Digital playbooks are coming on strong in all sports, although the NFL and college football programs have been using them in some facet for nearly 20 years.

Anyway, I’ve written enough. Here’s the NFL playbook piece.

Click on the link below to read the story:

Method Men_ How NFL Players Memorize Dizzying Playbooks




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