I will never forget my first big playoff game as a quarterback coach. We were on the road in a hostile environment. Down by 7 late in the 3rd quarter, we called a simple Curl-Flat concept against Cover 3. I had drilled this read with my quarterback a hundred times. If the flat defender runs to the flat, then hitch up and throw the Curl. If the Flat defender drops to the Curl, then throw the Flat. It was the simplest read a quarterback will make—but something broke this simple process in that game. The pressure of the game, combined with the flat defender not doing what he was supposed to, forced my quarterback into a tailspin.
The cause? The flat defender didn’t move.
He just stood there and my quarterback threw the ball right to him for an interception. I will never forget the look on his face as I met him on the sidelines. He was the most confident under-pressure player I have ever coached, but the look on his face after this play was one of fear and desperation.
He looked at me and said, “I have no idea what I’m seeing out there!”
That is the most isolated I have ever felt as a coach. In that moment, I was exposed and I had no method to bring him out of his despair. It was a moment that I never wanted to be in again.
During that off season, I began to re-examine my coaching methods. I needed to prove I was teaching my quarterbacks the best process to make post-snap decisions. In the previous season, most of our passing game was mirrored route concepts, sprint outs, naked boots with a few full-field concepts. Every pass-concept read was simplified and taught as a single-defender key read. All the quarterback had to do was identify the proper defender key and apply an if-then statement post-snap to determine where to throw the ball.
It was easy to teach. We had success with the process. I wanted to dismiss my quarterback’s meltdown, but I couldn’t let it go. Why did a reading process that worked so well break at the worst opportune time? As I searched for a reason I found a term that is used to describe what happened to my quarterback. It is called cognitive tunneling. Cognitive tunneling is a mental glitch that occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.
I had drilled my quarterback into an autopilot state to make a throwing decision based on 2 defender key movements. The pressure of being down by 7 in the playoffs, along with a defender key movement that he didn’t anticipate, triggered an alarm that zoomed his focus even more on the defender key. When a quarterback is cognitively tunneling, his focus is so tight on what’s wrong that he loses the wide-focus ability to determine what is right. The result is a decision, or lack thereof, that will make you question the intelligence of the individual.
The discovery of the cognitive tunneling effect was an open door into a whole new world of how to coach reads and recognition for my quarterback. I became obsessed with finding methods to better coach the mental decision-making process. So we set out to develop a better process to accelerate post-snap decision-making. Identifying the non-negotiables of defense and sequencing routes in rhythm provided a consistent process that could be used with any pass play in any offense. We called it R4. R4 is mnemonic that stands for Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release. These are the four route, footwork and decision-making phases a quarterback and coach have available on every pass play.
It was during the development of R4 that I ran across old notes from when I coached receivers. Back then I researched smooth tracking of the eyes to improve catching the football. The two areas of research were on speed-reading and juggling. As I reviewed the notes, the connections between visual processing and quarterback decision-making leaped off the page.
Speed Reading and Quarterbacking
To increase your reading speed, you must understand how the eyes work. The eyes do not make a smooth line across the text. They make a fixation on each word and then jump to the next word and make another fixation. A saccade is the term used to define eye movement from one fixation to the next. A saccade last around .2-.5 seconds. This places the average reader between 120-300 words per minute. In figure 1 you will see an example of how the average person reads a sentence.
There are two types of vision involved in a saccade. Peripheral vision and central vision. Peripheral vision has a wide 180-degree view. In reading, peripheral vision is used to locate the next word in a sentence and the beginning of a new line of a sentence. Central vision has a narrow focus. Central vision is used to fixate on the sound of word and determine the words meaning.
The science behind the secret to speed-reading is learning to increase your peripheral vision to reduce the number of fixations per line to see more words at the same time. This can be accomplished by visually grouping words into clusters. Figure 2 reveals how a speed reader looks at a sentence.
By viewing a cluster of words with your peripheral vision, your central vision can anchor on a key word at the same time for a fixation. This unlocks the door for a faster, more fluid, pathway of information intake.
Try it yourself. In figure 3 below, read the first sentence with central vision focusing on one syllable at a time. Then read the next sentence focusing on clusters, using both central and peripheral vision at the same time. Which was easier?
This was where I quickly discovered my quarterback reading-process was flawed. I needed him to react quickly and make fast decisions. The problem was training that process using only central vision. Central vision is tied to our conscious, slower analytical brain. It zooms in to define what we are seeing. By telling my quarterback to zoom in on a single defender, I was essentially asking him to speed-read a sentence using only a peep hole.
Figure 4 below is an example of a smash concept. In the smash concept, I was coaching my quarterback to defender-key the corner back. If he drops, throw the hitch route. If he moves up on the hitch, throw the corner route. If the corner did one of those two moves, we had some success. If he did something outside of those two moves—like just sit there—it derailed the read.
Teaching my quarterback to centrally focus on a single defender-key placed him in a vacuum. It closed his perception in determining the post-snap positions of the other defenders. Many times, my quarterback would throw the corner route because the defender key response told him to, but the safety would make a play on the ball. This was because the central vision of the quarterback was not able to process movements of multiple defenders in real-time. If defenders are the words in a story, then my quarterback couldn’t get past the first word in a sentence.
Peripheral vision and grass
The key to speed-reading is enhancing the use of peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is tied to our accelerated-intuitive subconscious brain. It has a wide view that can process multiple movements in space and directs the eyes where to aim next. Here is an example in figure 5 of the smash concept using peripheral vision to determine the best throw.
Throw to grass is a common coaching term used to engage peripheral vision for quarterbacks. The idea is that the wide focus of the periphery can process open grass and inform a fast and best decision for the quarterback.
If this were true, then a speed-reader could read the sentence in figure 6 in a single wide-peripheral snapshot.
Peripheral vision cannot stand alone when it comes to reading or quarterbacking. To speed-read both central vision and peripheral vision is required to work together at the same time. A quarterback still needs a central focus to inform the picture that the peripheral is seeing, along with a confirmation response to throw the ball or go to the next receiver. At this point, I almost gave up.
How do I coach and combine both central and peripheral vision together in a post-snap processing world? The answer was at the end of my speed reading notes.
Trackers and Pacers
There are three inhibitors of speed reading when central or peripheral vision is used as a standalone: regression, back-skipping and the length of a fixation. Trackers and pacers are tools used in speed-reading to prevent this from happening. A tracker is an object—like a finger or pen—that moves along the sentence with controlled speed. This allows your eyes’ fixations to stay on a smooth visual track just ahead of the pen. A tracker also serves as a pacer. A pacer allows the eyes to maintain accelerated fixations and reading speed. Figure 7 has an example.
In speed-reading, the tracker and pacer tool is a pen. It provides a space and time frame of reference for the reader. These were the key tools I needed to coach my quarterback and get his central and peripheral vision working together to speed-read the defense. Figure 8 shows how.
The pacer is the drop of the quarterback. This communicates the amount of time available to read a space and when to move to the next route in the progression. The tracker for the quarterback is the receiver and the route-side space he is trying to own. The quarterback needs to keep his central vision tracking ahead of the receiver in the pace of the drop. The action word we use to coach central vision is hard focus.
In a speed reading analogy, the words for the quarterback to read are the defenders. To speed-read them, the quarterback will cluster them together with his peripheral vision and read their movement post-snap. Their movements make a sentence to read. The action word we use to coach peripheral vision is soft focus.
The tracking and pacing tools of speed-reading provided the framework of how to better coach post-snap vision and decision-making. For example, let’s say a quarterback is first processing a rhythm corner route in his progression. A rhythm route in R4 terms is a route that has one stem, attacks vertically and breaks in 1.8 seconds.
In figure 9, we see that the 5-step drop of the quarterback is the pacer, and the receiver running the rhythm corner is the tracker. Pre-snap, the quarterback locates the route-side space of the corner route and clusters the defenders in that space with a soft focus. On the snap, he uses a hard focus to track just ahead of the receiver, making fixations while the soft focus moves ahead to process defender movements in space.
The movement of fixations between hard and soft focus make a saccade. A saccade takes an average person .4 of a second to process. A rhythm drop time of 1.8 seconds would provide up to 4 saccades of vison to determine if the route-side space of the corner is open. This is money in the timeline that many quarterbacks leave on the table.
Speed reading applied to quarterbacking allows them to read the reality of open space availability in real time. They no longer have to “peek deep” or “alert” pre-snap to commit in taking a shot downfield. The pacer of the drop provides a time frame of reference. The tracker of route-side space by the receiver provides a spatial frame of reference. After practicing the tracking and pacing process with soft and hard focus, my quarterback’s ability to throw routes on-rhythm increased dramatically.
Enhancing the ability to throw explosive vertical rhythm routes in real time was a game changer for our offense. My quarterbacks said they felt like they could see a bigger picture and anticipate faster if the route would be open. This was exciting but I was still unsure of how to coach them to maintain this speed-reading ability for multiple routes that break across the field. This is where the science of juggling stepped in.
Juggling and Quarterbacking
The next topic of vision that I researched was on juggling. I taught myself to juggle when I was growing up and I first started out with one ball. Throwing it up and down in the same hand allowed me to track the ball with my eyes for the entire throw-and-catch cycle. As soon as I added another ball to the mix and tried to juggle two balls, everything changed. My eyes could no longer track both balls through the entirety of each cycle. Adding three balls was even more difficult for my eyes. I was throwing balls in the air with my eyes all over the place and failing miserably.
What I learned later as a coach was the science behind juggling was keeping my eyes up and taking a mental “snapshot” of the zenith. The zenith is the highest point of the curvature in the ball flight and it told me when to make the next throw and where to place my free hand to catch the next ball. Here is an excerpt of some of the notes along with figure 10:
“As a graduate student at M.I.T. in 1974, Howard A. Austin investigated how large a region around the zenith had to be seen by practitioners of intermediate skill for them to be able to sustain juggling. He placed between the hands and the eyes of the juggler a fanlike screen that had a wedge-shaped notch cut out of it. Successful catches of a ball occurred even when as little as one inch of the top of the ball flight was visible. That roughly corresponds to a viewing time of 50 milliseconds, implying that briefly glimpsing the zeniths of the ball flights was sufficient to maintain a juggle.”
There are two keys to juggling multiple objects. The first was keeping my peripheral vision wide (soft focus) so I could process the location of the ball at top of each flight. This allowed my subconscious brain to communicate where to place my free hand to catch the ball. The second was using my central vision (hard focus) to take a snap shot of the highest point of ball flight to communicate when to throw the next ball. Once I knew what to look for it was easy to maintain the rhythm of the juggle. Once I felt the rhythm, I was able juggle at the same time as doing other things like walking and talking. I no longer had to think about it. I just felt it.
The connections between juggling and quarterbacking quickly clicked. In juggling, the balls are like route patterns. Properties of the pattern consists of the ball height, timing of the throw and which hand makes the throw. Similarly, receiver routes have properties that consist of depth, timing of the break, and the location of the receiver running them. Putting these juggling and route patterns together make a concept. Concepts in juggling are called notations. Notations are used to describe a juggling pattern. For example, juggling 3 balls in a figure-eight motion is called a cascade. Figure 11 shows an example.
A spacing concept in football has similar relationships with a cascade, in that routes must break open in a sequential order and the quarterback’s vision must be in the right space of the route-break at the right time to maintain rhythm.
Before I understood the science behind juggling most of our passing concepts were mirrored to each side for the sake of simplicity. I had no simple process to teach my quarterbacks how to juggle multiple routes across the field. Through an understanding of vision, patterns and rhythm of juggling, a process of reading patterns of routes in sequence developed. This ability, combined with a speed-reading process of reading patterns of defenders in sequence, allowed an acceleration of full-field reads that was unattainable before.
Now let’s go over how to juggle a progression of routes using the smash concept in Figure 12 is an example.
The juggling process informs the quarterback to know how and where to look next in the route pattern. The rhythm corner in the smash concept starts the juggling pattern. The zenith is the curve of the view path of the quarterback. If we were juggling a ball, we would keep our eyes moving across the zenith with our peripheral vision to locate the next route breaking into the view of the curve.
Using R4, we overlay the routes with properties to understand their break sequence. To illustrate we are going to create a full-field passing concept shown in figure 13. This is a smash concept combined with a levels concept.
The pattern of routes in this progression are a rhythm-corner, a read-dig and a rush-fin route. The quarterback will use his feet as a pacer to process the route side space of the rhythm corner on the 1.8 seconds of the drop. He will maintain a soft focus on the play side defenders and at the same time maintain a hard focus on the route side space of the corner using the receiver as a tracker.
If the hard focus confirms that the corner route is capped, he will reset his soft focus and feet across the zenith until he locates the route-side space of the receiver on the dig route. Each resetting or hitch-move of the feet takes .4 of a second. This is the same amount of time it takes an average person to make a saccade. This gives the quarterback two fixations of hard focus to take a snap-shot of the route-side space to determine if that dig-space is capped. Figure 14 shows an example.
If the quarterback confirms that the dig-route is capped, then he will reset his feet and soft focus to the rush-fin route. The quarterback will again use his hard focus to snapshot the route-side space of the fin-route to determine if there is a defender capping it. If it is capped, he will then release away and make a play on the run. Figure 15 shows an example.
Multitasking moving objects and patterns in rhythm is accomplished with soft and hard focus. The juggling term used to describe this visual combination process is snapshotting the zenith. This allows the juggler a consistent visual frame of reference to use with any juggling pattern possible. Here is why this matters for a quarterback. He doesn’t have to see and process everything that is happening at once on the field to make the best decision. He just needs to have is feet and eyes in a position to snapshot the route-side space of a receiver just before he breaks open. To get the eyes and feet together in the right spot requires a rhythm and understanding of route timing in sequence with drop timing. The soft focus can then process if the space is capped and the hard focus informs where to throw the ball or where to move the feet next.
Speed-reading, juggling and quarterbacking are about pattern-recognition of words and defenders in space to reveal meaning under a limited amount time. After understanding the science behind speed-reading and juggling, it was easier to develop a better coaching process to accelerate post snap decision making.
The main takeaways that were learned:
- Reading a defender key by itself places a quarterback in central vision dominance. This decelerates decision making under pressure, increases the probability of cognitive tunneling, and negates the ability to read multiple defenders.
- Reading grass by itself places a quarterback in peripheral vision dominance. This inhibits comprehension and limits information needed to inform where to throw.
- Tracking the route side space of a receiver with a hard focus while maintaining a soft focus on dominant defender positions allows the quarterback to combine both central and peripheral visions. This combination is critical for speed reading, juggling and quarterbacking.
- The pacers of the feet are necessary to stay in rhythm with the route breaks and saccades of the eyes. Rhythm is a non-negotiable in speed reading, juggling and quarterback decision making.
- In the absence of clear visual and rhythmic frames of reference for time and space, acceleration and anticipation cannot be coached or developed.
The science of vision isn’t necessarily for the quarterbacks to understand, it’s the value of the process learned from the science that matters. If you want know if your process is the best, looking at the science in other successful areas can validate your methods. There is no sense fighting how the eyes work, but rather learning to work with them. We must understand why our QBs struggle to make decisions, not just get mad when they do, and try to coach them into a better process if we can. R4 provides not only the process to do it better, but the language to teach it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
If you want to know more about how we implement and apply these concepts with our quarterbacks I would recommend attending an R4 Concept Passing Clinic. You can find the schedule at www.nationalfootballacademies.com
If you want to how the R4 system has evolved to provide a process and a common language that accelerates the run game, game planning and play calling for coaches and players check it out at www.R4footballsystem.com