“What is “open”

This was the question that was stuck in my head as I sat in an office listening to a respected D1 offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.  He had been mentored under some of the best passing game minds in football and was illustrating his methods for reading a Shallow concept.

I built up enough courage to ask the question. “Coach, how do you teach your quarterback to know what is “open”?

I will never forget the look on his face.  I couldn’t tell if he was stumped or if he was offended that I asked such an elementary question.  There was a 7 second pause that felt like 7 minutes.  Then he said, “He just knows…” and continued drawing and talking progressions.

“He just knows…”

I was deflated by the answer.  All I kept thinking was, “What if my quarterback just doesn’t know”.

During that following season, I was teaching physical science and on page 1 of chapter 1 was the definition of a frame of reference.

Frame of ref·er·ence


  1. A set of stable points to which measurements or judgments can be made.

This term spoke to my coaching soul. This is what was missing in my coaching process. If I could not give my quarterback clear frames of reference that define open, how could he accurately and efficiently determine what is open?

 “Open” Space is Negative Space

In a previous article “How speed reading and juggling changed the way I coached quarterbacks,” we discussed how quarterbacks can enhance their observation of multiple defenders positions at a moment in time.  An increase of visual information does not provide a standalone revelation to what is open.  It’s how you process the information that defines what is open.

To do this a quarterback must predict the probability of defender’s movements in the future. This requires the ability of intuition. Intuition is nothing more than recognizing patterns and understanding what they mean.

An example of intuition is seen in a picture of the FedEx logo.When Lindon Leader created the logo he used the E and X as a frame of reference to reveal a pattern of open space in the shape of an arrow.  The hidden arrow was a symbol for speed and precision. In the art world, open space between images is called negative space.  Artists will sometimes use open space between images to form hidden pictures. When you know the picture to look for and the frames of reference that creates it, the picture is no longer hidden. Your eyes are drawn to the open space without thinking. The result is intuition, seeing what others don’t.

What if you could use the same process for teaching your quarterback how to find open space?

You can…

It’s called the R4 system. 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.

The process begins with building mental models.

 R4 Mental Models

The FedEx logo is an example of a mental model.  A Mental model is a visual snap shot that is stored in the memory of the mind.  The snap shot is a picture of critical observed information against frames of reference to determine a current and future meaning.  Quarterbacks create a pre-snap mental model when they anticipate post-snap defender movements. Decision making is rather simple when the post-snap movements match up with the pre-snap mental model. The challenge occurs when the movement of defenders is different or the information that was anticipated is missing.

For example, what is happening in your brain when you look at figure 2?Is the open space of the arrow still there? Right now, your mind is crossing over from the unconscious “with-out thinking” to activating the conscious “thinking” part of your brain.  Your slower conscious mind is comparing the missing X frame of reference with the mental model of the original FedEx logo. It’s through the connection of comparison that you will start to see that the arrow of open space reappears. You have just created a new mental model that reveals an open arrow of space.

 Telling the Story of Open

This connection of comparison is what is missing in most quarterbacks.  Quarterbacks need the football frames of reference version of the E and the X to see the unseen arrow of open space. Without the frames of reference, they cannot create mental models to process multiple defender movements and what they mean.  Even if they could, they still need a system that allows them to store and organize the myriad of mental model patterns that can take place post snap.

Storytelling is the method that provides the process for this to happen. Stories have been used since the beginning of time as an information delivery system.  Stories organize vast amounts of information in a word and picture sequence that can easily be understood and recalled. Stories also have key frames of reference that orient the listener. They are the plot, the stage, and the scenes.

The Plot – QB Drop

All stories have a plot. A plot is the key frame of reference that set’s the sequence of events and allows the reader to know where he is at a moment in the stories timeline. The plot and time frame of reference we use with the R4 process is the drop footwork of the quarterback. The length of the quarterback drop, along with the reset steps in the pocket, orient the eyes and the mind on where to be. Figure 3 shows an example of the 3-step shotgun drop timeline.The Stage – Hard Deck and Vertical Tubes

All stories have a stage, set or backdrop. The stage provides visual frames of reference to process the movements of the characters in the story. The stage frame of reference we use with the R4 system is the Hard Deck. In football, the hard deck is a horizontal frame of reference line that extends across the field and can range from 7 to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.

The Hard deck is the transition line into vertical space. It measures the vertical range of a receiver at the last step of the quarterback drop (1.8 sec). The speed of your receivers dictates that range. As a baseline, we place the hard deck at 7 yards. Why 7 yards? This is the minimum vertical distance an average WR should be at in 1.8 seconds. Figure 4 below shows an example.

Another space key frame of reference in R4 is the vertical tubes. There are 5 vertical tubes available in American football. This is because the offense can, at the most, release 5 receivers out in routes to attack this space. Figure 5 below shows an example.The Scenes – Rhythm, Read, and Rush Routes

All stories contain scenes, whether it’s Act 1, 2, 3 or Beginning, Middle, End… etc. The scenes for the quarterback are the route or route-combo he is processing at a distinct moment in the time line. Routes are broken up by the R4 families of Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release. Each route scene must visually connect and compare with a mental model to determine if the route-side space is going to be open at a specific point in time. Figure 6 shows an example below.The drop, hard deck and vertical tube frames of reference quickly define open space availability for each route scene. Like the FedEx logo, once we know what to look for our eyes immediately are drawn to the open space every time. Figure 7 shows an example below.Since open space is always moving and changing post snap we needed a language to assign an action word for open.  We developed the action word “CAPPED” to represent a defender in a dominant position covering space.  We use the action word “UNCAPPED” to represent a defender in a non-dominant position opening space or space that is void of a defender.

The Narrative – C.A.P.

The narrative is the words of story that describe the current actions of the characters but allow the reader to predict outcomes from those actions as well.  In the football world, a narrative is needed to describe the current position of defenders.  The “CAPPED” and “UNCAPPED” terms accomplished this to an extent.  However, it didn’t inform the probability of their movement in the future.

The highest need of a coach and his quarterback is to be able to determine the current position of defenders and predict the probability of their movements in the future.

As a result, we took the “CAP” term and created the C.A.P. acronym that could communicate current defender positions and future movements at the same time.  The three non-negotiable terms that define position and movement of a defender are COVERAGE, ANGLE, and PERSONNEL.


COVERAGE is the current vertical and horizontal dominant position of a defender in space. There are four total positions that a defender can be in at a moment in time. They are OVER or UNDER route-side space vertically, and INSIDE or OUTSIDE route-side space horizontally. Using this language allows a quarterback to process and define these coverage positions throughout the drop to determine if route-side space is CAPPED. Figure 8 shows an example.Angle

The next layer of the C.A.P. is the hip ANGLE of a defender. The angle of the hips reveals future direction a defender can go to close on an area of route space. This reveals the reality of the route space that can be defended.  There are only four hip ANGLE positions that a defender can be in at a moment in time. They are FULL, SQUARE, MAN or ZONE. Figure 9 shows an example.Personnel

The final letter in the C.A.P. acronym stands for the PERSONNEL. PERSONNEL is a measure of the ability of a defender to change direction and close on space. This information must be graded and understood by the quarterback before he enters the game. To measure this ability, we grade each PERSONNEL defender. We discuss the R4 grading process in the complete R4 system online modules for members. It’s knowing the talent ability of who you are throwing to, versus who you are throwing against, that confirms the final decision to “throw”.Reading the C.A.P.

Using the narrative of the C.A.P. against the frames of reference of the drop, hard deck, and vertical tubes, allows a quarterback and coach to clearly define what is open.  Figure 11 has an example below.

This an example of a Drive concept.  The rhythm route is the 7-step post on the right. Against the hard deck frame of reference the post attacks over and inside space.  On the drop the quarterback maintains a soft focus on the route side space while keeping a hard focus just ahead of the receiver.  Using his vision in this way allows him to connect and compare mental models with what he is seeing live.

The language of the C.A.P. helps inform this process for a clear snap shot of what is open.  On the 2nd step of the drop the cornerback is OVER & INSIDE with a FULL hip ANGLE.  This dominant position of COVERAGE along with the future movement direction of the hip ANGLE “CAPS” the rhythm post.

Understanding “Open” Uncapped Space

Once you can read the C.A.P. you can begin to see the unseen negative space just like you did with the FedEx logo.  Figure 12 below has an example.A defender must give up something to gain something.  In this previous play the corners hip angle was in a FULL turn position to defend vertical space.  A defender cannot simultaneously defend both vertical and horizontal space at the same time.  Therefore, there is UNCAPPED horizontal space available for a moment it time.  If a quarterback and receiver can stay in rhythm and read the C.A.P. correctly, they can adjust the rhythm post break angle and attack this open space opportunity.


Coaching and quarterbacking is not that forgiving with time. It takes years of trial and error experience for most to build mental models that define what is open. Learning from failure is the most common course of improvement.  However, the speed of improvement is only as fast as the quality of feedback that informs it.  This is why you need a turn key process and common language to accelerate your decision making.

The concept of negative space in the FedEx logo was the front door into the R4 process that accelerates decision making of what is open.  The ability of finding consistent football frames of reference combined with a language of the C.A.P. allows you to build mental models in the absence of experience.   When the experience comes the R4 process informs the feedback faster with more detail further accelerating the best decision on the next play.

Open is no longer up for loose interpretation.  Open is the anticipation of a wide receiver breaking into or owning route side space against a dominant position, hip angle and closure of a defender.  The R4 C.A.P. process provides a simple language of leverage that allows you to see and say more with less.  When you see what others don’t, you make plays that others won’t.

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The R4 process is no longer just for the passing game.  The same process that accelerates decision making for quarterbacks on passing plays accelerates the coach’s decisions on every play.  What if you could get your entire staff and players seeing run and route space with the same eye and mind?  What if you could play the game before it’s been played?  What if you could increase your explosive plays per game and reduce your bad play calls per game?  With the complete R4 system you can.  Go to www.r4footballsystem.com and sign up or email us at r4footballsystem@gmail.com to receive information on how to get access to all the teaching modules and materials that lay out the process of R4 for pass game, run game, game planning and play calling.  You won’t regret it.