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Rapid Cognition and Playing Quarterback at Texas Tech

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Back in December I was finishing up Blink and couldn't help but relate my experience in reading this book with UCLA's coaching search and how it related to Coach Leach. At the time I had a bad feeling about Leach leaving the South Plains and I was wrong, thankfully. A few months later I've picked up and finished Gladwell's first book, Tipping Point, and there was so much good information in Blink that I picked it up again to revisit some thoughts I had at the time about rapid cognition and decision making.

Here's a quick definition of rapid cognition and brief overview of Blink and the prevailing thought for me as I picked it up again was that rapid cognition is football, or more generally, athletics in general. Making quick decisions based upon a set of circumstances which are all happening within 4 to 5 second period of time. Better yet, it is the ability to make the right decision rather than the wrong decision that separates good players from less successful players and those players who are truly athletically gifted and have the ability to make these types of decisions are probably the most successful of athletes.

In Blink, Gladwell notes that there are three lessons to be learned from Blink:

  1. When talking about rapid cognition, experience may be the biggest reason for success, however, like anything else in life, that experience can fail you.
  2. Sometimes experiences and circumstances can keep you from making what are typically good decisions.
  3. Sometimes you can succeed more because you know less about your opponent, i.e. knowing too much information can impair understanding.

From reading everything that I can about Coach Leach, I know that he is a huge proponent of repetition, making the same throw, again and again until the action, becomes second nature. In fact, it was the "Do your job" speech during halftime of the Insight Bowl against Minnesota that made me come to Blink again, which also included Hal Mumme's Practice Plan. If you haven't read how Mumme prepared for games you should, if for no other reason that to understand how Leach operates as I think that Leach puts quite a bit of stock in how Mumme prepared for games. Consistent and successful practice is the key for winning football, but more than that, but according to the practice plan, Mumme tries to create situations, the unplanned event, in practice to give the quarterback that needed experience.

We also know that Leach tries to keep things fairly simple, or rather, his offense's success is not based upon numerous formations and a play book 5 inches thick. Rather, Leach's offense is based on reacting to the defense and making quick decisions based on those reactions or actions of the defense.

I think that we can all agree that Graham Harrell's biggest fault hasn't been the untimely interception, but it's the multiple interception game that creates an offensive meltdown. I thought that it would be my Texas Tech civic duty to see if I could figure out if there was something I could do to help solve this situation.

Now we bring this back to Blink and those three items listed above and how they relate to Texas Tech's quarterback.

Experience: I certainly think that Harrell meets the experience requirement. This will be his third year starting for the Red Raiders, so lack of experience isn't an issue and there shouldn't be a situation that Harrell hasn't see before. Hell, Harrell had over 700 pass attempts last year alone and over 600 in 2006. Film sessions, and pure repetition in practice alone should make this a non-issue.

Circumstances That Impair Good Decisions: This one is tricky, but it completely makes sense the more I think about it. Making good decisions in a split second is a gift. Whether it be a quarterback, a linebacker or some other position, that ability to make a quick decision in a limited period of time with a number of stimuli all happening at the same time is the definition of rapid cognition. Gladwell points out that despite having all the experience in the world, a person can still make poor decisions and it can be easy to disrupt that gift. Gladwell uses real world examples in Blink, but they are common place. An emergency room doctor makes split-decisions every minute he or she is at the hospital. The split decision of a police officer when confronted with an alleged perpetrator. The good decisions are routine, but it's the bad decisions that make headlines.

So my question is how can Leach improve Harrell's ability to make good decisions?

This video clip demonstrates all of the Missouri interceptions, but pay attention to the first two plays, which are two of the four Harrell interceptions. Watch closely:

 


NCAA Football Highlights on Veoh.com

 

Is there anything strange about either of these two plays? Anything out of the ordinary? Missouri drops a ton of players into coverage and Harrell is throwing over the top on both throws. Both of these situations seem like circumstances that aren't so out of the ordinary as to cause two interceptions, right? There's no pressure to speak of and Missouri is only rushing 3 linemen in both circumstances. So what happened? I don't know that I'm sophisticated enough to say what happened or what caused Harrell to throw behind Crabtree in the first play, or into double/triple/quadruple coverage in the second play, or if Missouri did something that Harrell was unfamiliar or didn't recognize. However, it seems very likely that this is a situation where a couple of things possibly happened: the quarterback and receiver weren't on the same page, there was a physical mistake, running a wrong route, or making the wrong read.

So is the video an example of a situation where opposing coaches, or more accurately Pinkel, have figured out what to do to disrupt Harrell's ability to make good decisions? Probably, there's too much history for this not to be true, but what does Harrell do to counter-act these circumstances?

What about this interception from the Rice game (I think it's the 3rd highlight):

 


NCAA Football Highlights on Veoh.com

 

Harrell gets a little pressure as the defensive line stunts and he throws off of his back foot. Not only that, he misses the receiver by 5 yards or so and throws to the wrong wide of there the receiver had drifted. He's really not even close. I think this one is much easier than the Missouri examples . . . throw the ball away.

And this interception from the UTEP game:

 


NCAA Football Highlights on Veoh.com

 

Pretty interesting here. First, Harrell knows exactly where he's going to go. I'm not so sure that Mr. Crabtree knows, but Harrell gets the ball off in 2 seconds. The throw itself looks like it's not close enough to the sideline, but it's also interesting to see Mr. Crabtree complain and if you slow down the play you'll notice that he's getting bumped from the beginning of the play. I have to think that if there's no interference, then Mr. Crabtree gets to that ball. However, I still think Harrell threw the ball to the wrong spot, it should have been only where Mr. Crabtree could have gotten it, not 4 yards from the sideline.

So what can we gather from these plays. A few things. Missouri is going to drop 8 into coverage more times than not against Texas Tech. They are able to get good pressure on Harrell and they are able to force Harrell into decisions where he's not comfortable. You can expect to see the 3 man front and dropping 8 more this year.

In the Rice video, Harrell cannot throw off of his back foot. It's a disaster waiting to happen for any quarterback. And in the UTEP video, he threw the ball to the wrong spot. Those last two situations seem more like physical mistakes than mental mistakes.

Knowing Too Much Information Can Impair Understanding: I get the feeling that Leach understands the value of this last tenant, but it's finding that balance that's the difficult part. Part one of this equation is experience and you really can't be experienced without repetition, taking snaps and throwing passes. The fine line here is that repetition and tendencies can be the same thing that causes a quarterback to have unsuccessful plays. So with a quarterback, perhaps you pull back and recognize that certain plays will have certain tendencies and with those plays the defense makes certain adjustments whereby Leach & Co. figure out a way to counter-act those defensive adjustments. It gets a little circular and I think that at some point, Leach, as the play-caller, and the quarterback has to let go of those tendencies. If the middle of the field is flooded, then perhaps the sideline screen, dump it off to the running back, or getting down the sideline with some of the new speed at receiver to make the defense react is what has to happen in order to make the defense react and play closer to the line of scrimmage. In other words Harrell and Leach might have to do a better job of recognizing what the defense is giving up in order create those mismatches or successful plays.

Geeez, Can You Talk About Some Position Other Than Quarterback? Yes. Yes, I can. I would like to think that this exact same thought process can also apply to almost any position. Every position on the field is making these rapid cognition type of decisions and I would imagine that this is where coaches are torn. If experience is the biggest factor in making good decisions, then this is probably the deciding factor when it comes to a coach deciding on talent versus experience. Here's the other option to consider. If Player A is more talented, but less experienced than Player B, who is less talented, but more experienced, then who do you choose? You have to almost always choose talent, right? What if the differences between Player A and Player B are less obvious? I still say that you take more talent over more experience most of the time for the simple fact that a player who is more talented, whether it be athletically or having that unique ability to recognize and make decisions then there's a better than zero chance that this player is more likely to make an impact on your team.

Concluding the Obvious: So I wonder if a similar process takes place with Leach or other staffs? I tend to err on the side that with Leach you are getting a ton of repetition, more repetition than most programs. The more repetition, whether it be in practice or otherwise, reduces that margin of error when that quarterback has to take the field for the first time. And it's not just the quarterback, it's the entire offense that gets the same amount of repetition. Thus, it really shouldn't be a surprise to see first year quarterbacks in Leach's system do so well (Symons, Cumbie, Hodges, and Harrell), thus reducing the need for the experience factor to be such a huge hurdle for his quarterbacks. It's those other two factors that are the problem, but the reality is that they are a problem for every school at every position.

It's about preparing a player for those circumstances that every college coach faces. Some schools can make up poor decision making with incredible athletes, but a school like Texas Tech typically does not have that luxury, and part of the reason why I think the success that Texas Tech has is quite incredible.