Learning Through Doing

All of us come to the game of football as fans first and foremost.  We watch games on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or whenever we can, and we watch teams move the ball down the field and put points on the board.  Most of us naturally learn more the more we watch, we develop a level of understanding that you’ll never get simply from checking out the box scores of a morning.

All games are like that, your understanding of them grows the more you watch.

Yeah the QB threw for 250 yards, but did you see the three dropped interceptions he threw?  Were those ever bad decisions!

The middle linebacker made 18 tackles, but it’s only because they picked on him in coverage all day, throwing to the tight end and moving the chains every snap, he wasn’t anything to get excited about.

Watching the games is always important, and the more you look inside the game and start to break down and analyze why things are happening the more you learn.  That’s what turns some people (myself included) into analysts rather than simple armchair fans.  The difference is often just the difference between watching the game and going back and re-watching it, going frame by frame on some plays to pick out some details and answer some questions you never had a chance to see live.

I’m not here to make a big deal out of the semantics of what makes an analyst, or who is ‘just a blogger’, in the age of digital media and easy access to the tools, anybody can be a football analyst.  With sites like Pro Football Focus chumps like me can even get paid to be an analyst!

The point I’m making is that you don’t need to come from the game in order to have a valued opinion on football anymore  We all follow hundreds of people on twitter, many of whom stand outside the traditional football mainstream, but whose opinions on the game we value and read daily.  Access to games, twitter and the thirst for knowledge along with sites like Pro Football Focus have changed things.

That being said playing the game does give you a different perspective on things.  It makes you think about certain aspects of the game from a different viewpoint, with an emphasis on areas you weren’t as intimately familiar with as somebody watching it from the armchair.

Pro Football Focus has a couple of people who play or played the game and while the level is obviously far lower than the NFL, College, or probably even High School, the principles are the same and what it teaches you about the game remains interesting.  Ben Stockwell played in the UK on both sides of the ball and in a variety of positions, but plied his trade primarily on the line, and that has no doubt improved his level of expertise in that area.

I play in Ireland and have played wide receiver and defensive back, both corner and safety.  This has taught me about coverages and techniques in a practical sense, and a way that I likely would never have appreciated from simply watching the game, even from analyzing it.

In addition to getting a better understanding of coverages through actually playing in and against them, you get a far better idea of what players are doing and why they’re moving in specific ways, in short, what they are reacting to on any given play.

The real difference between playing and watching is seeing things from the individual’s point of view, and not as a bigger-picture whole.  Analyzing before ever playing the game you might identify the coverage perfectly, see a mistake and drop the hammer on the guy that made it.  Once you played you start to get a better feel for what he saw on the play that caused the breakdown, or what the offensive players did to create it, it’s an extra level of detail and thought that you often don’t go into before you’ve been the guy that fucked up yourself.

It doesn’t necessarily change the end result – who gets the blame and how much they are blamed, but you appreciate the reasoning behind the mistake, and that is a deeper level of understanding.

You learn as a receiver what moves can make a defensive back shift position and open up space which you can exploit, and as a defensive back you learn what you can do to keep tight to a WR.

Playing corner has given me a far deeper appreciation of Darrelle Revis than I ever would have had just watching him lock down receivers.  There is a vocal minority of people that believe he gets Michael Jordan treatment, that he gets away with contact that other players don’t, but from playing I think the answer is a little simpler than that – I think he gets away with contact that other players simply can’t make.  Revis has mastered the art of maintaining contact with a receiver until they try make their break, and he holds that contact just enough to slow their break, limiting the separation they get.  At the same time he is getting an early read by feeling movement before he sees it, then he releases them.  That is incredibly hard to do, and most players can’t do it without straying over the line and  holding back receivers, getting flagged for it as a consequence.

Revis doesn’t get away with illegal contact others get called for, he has simply mastered where the line is, and developed a technique that he knows will never get called.  There are a couple of players that are close to being able to play this way, but so far none have mastered it the same way Revis has.

Another thing that you learn from doing rather than watching is a better appreciation for ball skills.  When you’re not the guy the ball is coming to it’s all too easy to deem everything a reasonably comfortable catch and lambast failure on all but the most ludicrous of attempts, but when you’re playing either receiver or defensive back you experience which balls and angles are trickier than they appear, which are the easiest catches to make or hits to take.

You expect any pass coming right at a receiver to be caught, but there is a strange gray area right under the shoulder pads but above the waist where your hands are in something of a no mans land.  The ball is too high to catch properly with palms facing up, and it’s too low to watch it into your hands at the correct angle with your fingers pointing up.  You see a lot of passes dropped there, and that seems to be the perfect target area, but I hate those catches.  When they’re coming at you there’s a moment of indecision when you’re not sure which way to go at them, and ideally you need to move your body entirely to make the catch one way or the other easier.

Drew Brees once said that he doesn’t aim passes for that center mass of his receivers, either on the numbers or on the upfield shoulder as some teach, or people assume you should – Brees aims for their eyes, reasoning that the best place for ball location to allow them to watch it in at all times is if it’s coming directly for their face the entire time.

I have direct experience of this unerring accuracy.  When Brees was playing in London against the Chargers he took an intentional safety at the end of the game to eat time off the clock.  As he ran back towards his own end zone he tossed the ball out of the back of the end zone right at my face!  I was a press photographer for that game and was sitting behind the advertising boards at the back of the end zone.  With an entirely end zone to aim at Brees picked out my face from 20 yards away to the point I had to swat the ball away to save either my teeth or my camera.

I would much rather catch a ball traveling for my face than one coming for my numbers.  Before playing I’m not sure I’d ever have thought about that before, and every time I saw one of those passes dropped I’d just brand the receiver stone handed and move on.  Now I criticize their concentration, but I can relate to why it happened and cut them a little unspoken break in my mind.

In the end having played the game is not the be all and end all. There are plenty of guys who make a lucrative living as a TV analyst because they were an ex player who I have no time for at all.  Likewise there are people who have never played at any level whose opinion I value, but I do think that playing teaches you a new perspective and a level of detail you may never have got without doing so.

It’s not better, and it’s not vital, but it’s just different, and I’m glad I have the alternative perspective it gives.

5 thoughts on “Learning Through Doing

  1. Pingback: Ask Your (Non-Fantasy) Football Expert: Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus | Zach on Sports

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