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MHR University - Have You Ever Wondered...?


I get a lot of questions in my e-mail box each day. Some of the questions I've received are pretty common, and come up quiet a bit. I'd like to take a look at some of the questions that come up about "things we hear" that may or may not be true.

For example, we always hear that some running backs improve as the game goes on. Is that true? Do other player positions "get in a rhythm" as the game goes on? (Some do, some don't; read on). Are offensive linemen the "smartest" guys on the field? Why, or why not? Does the Denver altitude really affect opposing players?

There are a lot of myths that surround football, and there are even some "myths" that turn out to be accurate. Today, we'll take a closer look at some of these issues, as well as others that members may want to bring up in the comments section.

Do Running Backs Get Better as a Game Goes On?

It's a common phrase used by game announcers, isn't it? "Davis is a great RB who just seems to get better as the game goes on. The more he runs, the better he does picking up the yards".

Could this be right? After all, people can "get in a rhythm" as a game goes on ("getting in the zone" as some folks call it), and besides, can't a RB learn from the defense as the game wears on?

I don't buy it. There may be numbers showing an improvement or a decline for a particular RB (or RBs in general), but from my years in coaching, I think there is another variable at play. That variable has been discussed at MHR before, and long time readers may be familiar with the issue.

If a RB seems to be getting stronger or faster as the game goes on, I believe this is an illusion. As a player continues to exert himself physically, his endurance and strength start to fall. We know this in other sports and professions. For example, as an assistant coach I had heard for years in wrestling (middle school and high school) that the longer a match goes on, the less "fine motor" skills a wrestler has. A wrestler may remain strong, but his ability to coordinate his arms, hands, fingers, legs, hips, etc begin to decline. I heard this again years later, when I was trained in law enforcement defensive tactics - Fine motor skills begin to deteriorate only seconds after a struggle begins. Wrestlers in most programs spend more time building endurance to counter this problem, and law enforcement officers are trained to gain rapid control of a subject during an encounter rather than use long, choreographed systems of physical engagement.

(The brachial plexus stun - The karate / police instructor uses little energy.)

So how does one explain why a runner may be looking better than a defense as a game wears on, especially if he is wearing down? The secret has been known by coaches for ages.

Running backs do indeed wear down as a game progresses. However, the players on defense wear down quicker. The RB is getting "better", he's deteriorating more slowly than the defensive players are. There are many reasons for this, and we'll touch on a few.

1) Proactive vs Reactive Play

First, almost every movement made by an offensive player is proactive. In about the space of the first second a play begins, almost every move made by a defensive player is reactive. The offensive players are much more able to conserve valuable energy on a play, simply because they know what they are going to do, and then they execute. Defensive players, for the most part, spend their time reacting to events around them. This causes more "stop and starts", change of direction, and even requires more cognitive calculations for a potential tackler.

Don't believe that this can wear you down? Try making the drive from Denver, Colorado to Kansas City, Missouri. Spend most of the trip going in one direction with cruise control. A year later, make the same trip, but don't use the cruise control. Without the cruise control, your mind is constantly calculating the speed you are driving (whether you are looking at the speedometer or not), and constantly telling your foot to push down or to let off of the accelerator. This is in addition to the literally thousands of subconscious decisions a human mind is making during a minute of driving (ranging from regulation your breathing, to interpreting what was said on the radio, to watching other cars, etc).

2) Punishment

We think of defensive players as being the "tough guys". They're the ones who knock down the others guys, make tackles and sacks, and knock out receivers over the center of the field on medium passes. Offensive guys are trying to avoid contact, right?

Well, not exactly. In the case of our running back, he will take some punishment when he is brought down. However, the defense as a whole is punished even more.

Consider a few of these points. First, If the play is a running play, defensive players are targeted to be knocked down or out of the way. The defensive line can't know for sure if the play is run or pass (the "reactive" point), but they also don't know if the offensive line will be holding back to protect the QB, are charging ahead and cracking some skulls! (Ask any offensive lineman if he prefers pass or run blocking. The most common answer I used to hear was "run blocking", because the player gets to dish out the punishment).

As an LB, you are likely to get battered by lead blockers more than you are likely to get a tackle. Ray Lewis once said that he preferred the 4-3 over the 3-4, and the reason was because he wanted to be protected so that he could make plays. For all of his toughness and ability in bringing down opposing RBs, Lewis spent much of his time (as all front seven players do) taking hits from the offense.

3) On each drive, the more the offense runs the ball, the more worn down the defense gets

And why is this? For the reasons stated above, to begin with. In addition, it is because running the ball makes a drive last longer on the clock, which magnifies the problem. The offense may also set their own tempo, something the defense can't do.

4) The offense can rest (to some degree) a portion of the on-field players

On every play, each defensive player may be in a position to make a tackle, to bat down a ball, or to make another key play. On offense, some players catch a break. (I'm NOT saying that players "not in on the play" can just take it easy). For example, a lot of pass plays can wear down a QB - but he gets to play things a little easier when he hands off the ball. A WR on the side opposite a run play can block a corner away from the play - but he doesn't have to stick with the run block as long as the players on the other side. NOT because the WR is lazy, but because the RB will either be far down field, or the play will have ended with the corner still to far to engage the play (and neither player is close enough to have to worry about jumping on a fumble, for example).

So even the RB himself catches a break. HIS team controls the timing of rotations, while the defense has to rely on the offense's decisions. He also gets to run some plays, block some plays, and go on a route (real or sold) each play. But every single defensive player has to be prepared to be the key player on each play.

If RBs Don't Really Improve as a Game Goes On, Does Anybody Get in a Rhythm?

Sure they do! Ever played a game of, let's say, ping pong? How about an arcade styled game? If you have, you have likely "gotten in the zone" and racked up a string of successes that made you invincible for a period of time.

This is a mental trait, and is created when a mind becomes very focused. Soldiers in combat can experience heightened senses, gamers can get to a point where only the game exists, and football players can rack up dominance in a couple of ways.

1) Intimidation

One way to get in a zone is to wreck your opponent's zone. A QB who makes several excellent passes in a row may be said to be "in a rhythm", but what may be happening is that he has intimidated the other team. When I was coaching, I often saw defenses play too conservatively because a QB was kicking their butts. By backing off the coverage, the defense gave the QB more room to work, which created a vicious cycle (more completed passes, more dejection by the defensive coordinator and players, more completed passes...)

That isn't to say that the only way to play is aggressively. The defense I ran was very conservative, and very "bend don't break". But one of my keys for good play calling was "don't make decisions out of frustration". My players were coached to play a certain style of football. If I changed that style because another team was doing well, I NOW had two disadvantages - an opposing offense that was playing well AND my players playing an unfamiliar scheme.

Either way, players on the field who often match up one on one (OLmen, TEs, WRs with opponents / QB with his own receivers) can be intimidated if their match-ups are going poorly. This makes the opponent appear to be in a rhythm.

2) Focus

However, certain players do manage to attain a level of concentration that makes them invincible. Chess players at the international level of competition expend an extreme amount of energy during match play. At the highest levels, players spend much time on diet and physical preparation. Despite the stereotype, world champion caliber players are not old men who sit around all day. Players in the modern era (from Smyslov to Anand) where all in their 20s and 30s, and are in excellent physical health. (I know, I know. As football bloggers we are supposed to mock these guys. Not me. I think there is a level of athleticism involved in playing chess at an expert level or higher, much as I would also consider a bomb disposal expert to be a sort of athlete as well).

Whether the cause is psychological (pure mental), Psychiatric (a nureo-chemical response), or even spiritual (meditative), most folks can agree that a person can focus his mind to complete a task, and that adrenaline may play a role.

If you've watched a "mere" QB like Kyle Orton set a record with partner / WR Brandon Marshall in a game earlier this season, you've seen it done.

In my opinion, such acts of extreme focus are often a combination of one player reaching a heightened state of awareness, along with a corresponding drop in confidence by an opponent. In the video above, Orton and Marshall break a record against a team destined for the Superbowl. The Colts defense was amazing this year, stopping teams for a stretch of the regular season that saw them missing three of four defensive back starters for several games. (Of course, the over emphasis on Marshall this game may not have helped - Denver lost this match-up).

Are Offensive Linemen the Smartest Guys on the Field?

A lot has been made out of a couple of points about intelligence and offensive linemen. First, the "Wonderlic Test" (used by NFL teams as part of the Combine) has shown higher results for OLlinemen a surprising amount of the time. Second, OLmen seem to have a disproportionate number of professional level college degrees (such as juris doctorate).

Are they they smartest guys on the field? Well, that depends.

1) Bias

First, part of the equation may deal with bias. Take the following sentence (that I just used a moment ago)...

...higher results for OLlinemen a surprising amount of the time.

Unconsciously, and fairly or not, we tend to think that OLmen shouldn't be as "smart" as say, a QB. (Just like a caveman isn't as smart as a therapist, according to Geico). Why? Is it because they are big athletes with a "mindless" job? Not really fair, in my book. The overwhelming number of OLmen are college graduates, and they play a position that requires team work and nets very little fame (compared to so called "skill positions").

Any pro level playbook requires that an OLman learns a number of different assignments that are called based on a language (terminology that varies from team to team). I would venture that the average person would struggle to remember all of the assignments that a pro level OLmanhas to remember, and to keep every one of those assignments in mind at the speed of a game. (And back to a chess-like focus, these guys have to anticipate pain and physical exertion at the same time they keep the entire playbook in mind).

There is a lot to be said for keeping your "smarts" under pressure...

OLmen are not dummies by any stretch.

2) What is "Smart"?

The Wonderlic is not a comprehensive IQ test. In fact, much of the test isn't IQ based at all. Even so, what is "smart"? Let's look to educational psychology for the answer. In very basic terms, we may call "smarts" one of three things.

Intelligence- How well someone's mind can compute, store, and retrieve information, regardless of knowledge.

Let us say two students sit in a class room and listen to a lecture. One student may soak in the entire lecture, and be able to recite it, while the other has to take notes. Is one "smarter" than the other? The first student has a great mind, but just like Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man", may be able to instantly count over a hundred match sticks on the floor without being able to hold a job.

IQ is also considered to be something you have at a certain level or don't. You are born with it. Tests that adjust for age show that one does NOT increase in intelligence. However, one may increase one's knowledge (see below). Intelligence can be lowered, as in brain trauma, drug use, or hearing Billy Madison's answer to a question (which can make a room of people "dumber" as seen below...

(Ok, I just wanted to see that bit again)

Intelligence is a great thing, but it isn't the "end all" of smarts. Sure, I think Bobby Fischer (back to chess) may have had a great intellect, and he could clearly be called smart. (In addition to his chess brilliance, he had other key traits of a genius. He once called a friend in Iceland, but was embarrassed when his friend's daughter picked up the phone and the language barrier couldn't be breached. After struggling, Fischer hung up. Years later, Fischer met the friend and recounted the entire conversation). But there are other factors in play, such as...

Knowledge - What a person knows.

Back to our two students. One learns without effort, while the other struggles to learn. But what if the first person doesn't apply his intelligence, and the other uses his (lesser) intelligence wisely?

Picture two glasses. One is large, the other small. The large glass represents a great intellect, able to be filled with much more "knowledge" than the smaller glass. However, what if the smaller glass has more water (knowledge) in it? We see this a lot in classrooms. The smart child that doesn't apply himself (perhaps out of boredom), versus the "average" child that applies himself diligently and ends up in medical school. The kid that studies his butt off may win the spelling bee, or get on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire".

In terms of intelligence versus scholastic effort, my favorite examples have always been Bach and Mozart. Mozart was a natural, who could supposedly write entire operas and symphonies (for dozens of different instrumentalists playing at the same time) off the top of his head. Bach, on the other hand, spent tortuous hours, days, weeks, months... ok, you get the picture. Still, Back did mathematical things with rounds, fugues, and cannons that haven't been done before or since his time (often called "mathematical" brilliance in his musical pieces). Who was smarter? Who cares? The end result by both composers is an aesthetic joy that few can compete with, despite the fact that each used a very different type of "smarts". But it doesn't end there.

Wisdom - How one applies what he or she knows in his or her life.

For example, a very intelligent man may become a doctor. His effortless accumulation of knowledge makes him very rich, and he ends up at the top of his profession. That's fine. A different doctor saves a lot of lives. Rather than rely on his intellect alone, the doctor uses his medical knowledge and studies and studies day and night until he is able to create a new approach to a surgical technique. That's fine too.

But a third doctor is wise. He doesn't become rich and famous like the first doctor, nor does he create a new surgical approach. Instead, he packs his bags and decides to practice medicine in a remote area of Alaska where doctors are rare. This man heals the sick and injured on a small scale, but changes lives in a very intimate way for a small community. Like the first two doctors, he will never be forgotten.

Of course, nobody is absolutely one of the three categories at the expense of the others. Each person (including the football players - I'm still talking football here) has a combination of traits. I consider myself knowledgable, but not particularly intelligent. I study my butt off. I also become wiser as I grow older.

Forrest Gump was disabled intellectually, but gained a lot of knowledge from his experiences. More importantly, he was wise ("Life is like a bunch of choc-o-lates....")

He was also a running back, not a lineman.

Does Alltitude Affect Performance?

This gets debated quite a bit. I think that it does.

First, the military thinks so. Soldiers brought to Ft. Carson, Colorado Springs are required (or were, when I lived in Colorado) to go through months of lower physical training standards whle being worked up to speed for the Army's physical training test (the APFT).

Second, the experts for the US Olympic team have placed their headquarters for training most events in, you guessed it, Colorado Springs. This came after it was found that athletes at the Mexico City games suffered terribly in terms of endurance - except for the athletes from high altitude places (like the home team).

A period of a few days helps to alleviate some of the worse reactions to physical exertion at altitude, when the body starts to change its bio-chemical metabolic balances. Some changes take months though.

Some (like me) would argue for Denver to play a physical, run oriented game to take advantage of opponents who come to Denver from the rest of the country, where oxygen is more abundant.


Which brings us full cycle back to the first point of this entire story; does a RB improve over the course of a game?

I guess the answer is no. Not only is it the defense that is really wearing down, but between being punched in the side of the neck and knowing why many Americans have problems with map reading, one can forgive a RB for looking good as a game wears on. And that's whether the offensive linemen are chess players or not.