Imagine being Josh McDaniels (Patriots OC) after Tom Brady’s Superbowl LI pick 6 that put the Falcons up 21-0 in the 2nd quarter.

What do you say on the sidelines to arguably the greatest quarterback that has ever played the game?

How do you quickly process his decision making and coach him through it in the biggest game in the world?

These were the questions in my head as I replayed the interception over and over. I found myself in Brady’s helmet trying to see what led his decision making to throw the ball in that situation.

Watching the live video of the play, it looked like Brady predetermines to go to Amendola on the angle route. He stares him down the entire duration of the play.

It’s easy for any arm chair quarterback and fan to see that the angle route was clearly “not open.”

However, playing, coaching and decision making under pressure is not easy.  Especially when it comes to defining what is open.

I have been in big games where my quarterback threw the post into double coverage and I yelled at him, “Why did you throw the Post?”

He snapped back, “Because it was open!” Then we volleyed back and forth, “No it wasn’t!” and “Yes it was!”

In my 1st season of coaching quarterbacks I used sweeping statements to define open. Phrases like Peek deep and Green grass were used to get a quarterback’s eyes to opportunity and his mind to evaluate if a receiver was open. However, upon reviewing game film, consistent open explosive routes were missed every game. Using these sweeping coaching statements meant to enhance what open means still left me and my quarterback in a disconnect.

This was the first step on a long journey to produce a process that could part the cloud on what open looks like.

This process is called the R4 system.

R4 stands for Rhythm, Read, Rush, and Release. It provides the quarterback with the ability to sequence his progression of routes with meaning. Each word provides a body of information that holds the DNA of routes and timing. R4 is more than just words that replace a 1,2,3, and exit-pass progression strategy. Anybody can label a pass play with numbers. R4 is process that teaches a quarterback and coach how to read patterns in real time and accelerate post-snap decision-making under pressure to finally define open.

R4 is built through the time and battled-tested military principals of the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. It is a four-word decision-making process that was created by United States Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd. As a fighter pilot, Boyd understood how critical it was to accelerate good decision-making under pressure. OODA was the answer. 

Observe – Route-Side Space

Observe is the first phase in Boyd’s OODA loop. This demands specific visual techniques to absorb more interactions in the environment. In a previous article “How speed reading and juggling changed the way I coached quarterbacks,” we discussed how a quarterback must observe a receiver with soft and hard focus simultaneously to determine if route-side space was open. Situational awareness of a quarterback is enhanced when the eyes are positioned to observe more information. This allows the quarterback to better position himself to determine what route is open.

Orient – Mental Models

Finding the open route in a pass play is in the orientation phase of the OODA loop. The key to orientation is in the building of mental models that can be compared with live visual observations to inform the best decision. Mental models are visual snap shots of a scenario that is stored in the memory of the mind. The snap shot is a picture of critical information that tells a story of what is occurring.

This is the biggest breakdown in making good decisions under pressure. Most coaches don’t have a common language and frames of reference to teach quarterbacks how to build the mental model pictures of what open looks like.
In the absence of this ability, coaches limit what the quarterback can do on pass plays, or throw them into the fire to learn on their own. This trial and error learning style is why pundits say it takes years for a quarterback to develop the ability to know what open is under pressure.

Decide – Throw or Go

Decide is the third phase of the OODA loop. Once a quarterback orients his mental models to the reality of what is happening, he can then decide to throw the football or go to the next route in the progression. “Throw or Go” is the phrase we use for the conscious decision made by a quarterback during a pass play. The decide phase of the loop can be skipped altogether when one achieves mastery over the observe and orient process. In this case, a quarterback that can quickly recognize patterns gains the ability to “feel” what to do without consciously deciding. “Fingertip feeling” is a common phrase used to describe this rapid cognitive ability.

Act – The Mechanics of the Move

Act is the physical phase of the OODA loop. If the decision was to “Throw,” then a quarterback will act on the proper passing-mechanic techniques needed to deliver the ball to the receiver. If the decision was to “Go,” then the quarterback will act on the footwork and vision mechanics needed to find the next route in the progression.

Deconstructing with OODA

Let’s use the OODA loop and R4 process to deconstruct Tom Brady’s Super Bowl 51 interception. While we do not know for sure how the Patriots teach this concept, we can use R4 to navigate through the best progression. There are two vertical rhythm routes in the concept. A rhythm corner and a rhythm fade. The shallow is a universal rush route that can also be used as a horizontal rhythm route in specific situations like the one below. The situation is 3rd and 6, and the defense is playing Cover 1 Robber. Figure 2 shows an example.

In man coverage, a quarterback will have, on average, enough time for two options. Using R4 in this situation, I would coach the quarterback to Rhythm the shallow or corner route (based on personnel mismatch) and Rush the angle route.

The OODA Loop Problem

According to Boyd, there are two problems that one will encounter in the observation phase of the OODA loop.

1. The observed situation often consists of incomplete or imperfect information.
2. The observer can be overloaded with too much information, making it hard to discern what is most important.

One of these observation issues probably triggered Brady’s bad decision that led to an interception.
The key to overcoming these observation problems is through proper orientation. Orientation fills in the gap and removes the clutter issues that arise in the observation phase. Orientation is the construction of mental models that tell a story of what is occurring in the environment.  Look at figure 3 below.

How would you coach Tom Brady to help him through his bad decision? How do you put yourself in the helmet of Tom Brady and build a mental model that tells the story of what is open in 3-5 seconds?

Answering with R4

The answers you give him are by using the R4 common language and sequential progression process to recreate the mental model of what happened, and use it to inform a better decision next time.
For example, let’s pick up where we left off after the pre-snap OBSERVE phase of Brady’s interception. In Figure 4 we are at 1.8 seconds of the quarterbacks drop.

• His soft focus should ORIENT defenders ahead of route-side space of rhythm shallow route.
• His hard focus should ORIENT to see that #22 has CAPPED shallow side space.
• #22’s COVERAGE is in a dominate position OVER and INSIDE of the shallow route.
• #22’s hip ANGLE is SQUARE in position to break on shallow side space.

Using this mental model story, Brady should DECIDE to GO to the next route in the progression. This should have called him to ACT by resetting his eyes and feet to observe the rush angle route.
Resetting the eyes and feet restart the OODA loop. This requires Brady to OBSERVE the route space that is next in the progression. Figure 5 shows the scene.

• His soft focus should ORIENT defenders ahead of inside space of the angle route.
• His hard focus should ORIENT to see that #23 has CAPPED angle side space.
• #23’s COVERAGE is in a dominate position OVER and INSIDE of the angle route.
• #23’s hip ANGLE is SQUARE in position to break on angle-side space.

This mental model story should inform Brady to DECIDE to “GO” and release out of the pocket. He decides to “THROW” instead.

The result is an ACT that leads to an interception.


Reconstructing with R4 

Now let’s use R4 to reconstruct Tom Brady’s Super Bowl interception play. The first thing we coach is to OBSERVE the situation and snap shot the defensive coverage pre-snap. The pre-snap C.A.P. reveals intent of defense.

• The situation is 3rd down and 6.
• Use the hard deck to determine coverage.
• The defensive coverage is Cover 1 Robber.
• Cover 1 is a man coverage, so we only have time for two options.
• There are no defenders pre-snap in position to C.A.P. the rhythm corner or shallow.
• Personnel mismatch of #88 vs. #59 > #22’s C.A.P. potential on shallow.
• Progression: Rhythm – Corner, Rush – Angle.

The next phase we coach is for the quarterback to ORIENT his eyes to the rhythm route. The quarterback has 1.8 seconds on the drop to determine if route-side space is CAPPED or UNCAPPED. The post snap C.A.P. reveals the reality of space defended.

• His soft focus should ORIENT defenders ahead of route-side space of the rhythm corner route.
• His hard focus should ORIENT to see that the route-side space of the corner is UNCAPPED.
• #59’s COVERAGE is in a non-dominate position OVER and INSIDE the corner space.
• #59’s hip angle is SQUARE out of position to defend vertical space.

The next phase would be to DECIDE to THROW or GO:

• This UNCAPPED mental model would inform Brady to THROW the corner on rhythm.

The final phase would be to ACT and make the THROW.

• This would be incorporating the physical mechanics to make a proper throw.

Open is more than just a defender not being in the way of an oncoming receiver.  It’s a description of the intent and anticipation of a defenders ability to make a play on the ball.  R4 is the language of leverage that provides simple, yet meaningful, words, and a process that explains and informs a quarterback what is open. Modern football is a post-snap moving world that requires a platform for quarterbacks to quickly identify patterns under pressure. Coaches do not have the 10-15+ years it took Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to become an expert to intuitively know what is open. We need a proven scientific process and common language that can accelerate decision making and bridge the disconnect between quarterbacks and coaches. The distance from what a coach and player understands is the difference in execution.

R4 is the answer…

R4 is not just for the quarterback anymore. The same process is now used for run game, pass game, game planning and play calling. What if you can accelerate your career, your coaches’ career and your players’ career 5-10 years? If you are intrigued, sign up at www.r4footballsystem.com or email us at r4footballsystem@gmail.com.