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The QB brain: It’s a real thing and science may have some insight

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Why the IT factor isn't just one quality, but many.

The quarterback brain. It's what separates the elite from the average. Every QB in the league can throw a pass well enough to win games, if he has a good supporting crew. He doesn't need to have an Aaron Rodgers arm.

Peyton Manning made a living throwing ‘ducks’. He didn't have the tightest spiral or strongest arm, but he could make deadly accurate passes and thread the needle.

What took Manning’s game and elevated it to the elite of the elites was his brain. Not just because he spent so much time watching game film, that helped pre-snap, but what he did after the snap.

He could throw a receiver open. In order to do that, one needs the ability to see what's happening in front of him, project what the defenders can do and know how much time to get the ball where it needs to be. And then do it consistently. That seems like something all NFL QBs can achieve, but it's not.

The top ones can do this in the middle of the field. Between the hashes and intermediate throws are the pay-dirt passes. The ones that separate the average from the really good. Why? Because this where there are lots of bodies. Short passes and deep ones most often have fewer defenders, hence easier passes.

A quarterback who can hit on crossing patterns/rub routes, is one to watch. It means he knows what the defense is doing, which receiver gives him the best success rate, can fit the ball in a small area and hit him stride for more yards after the catch. The QBs who don't have the skills to target the center of the field (unless a receiver is wide open), better have a good running back because his style of play is going to get shredded by better coaches and defenses.

They also need to be able to shut out the noise. It's why QBs who score high on the Wonderlic Test (given to all college prospects), don't usually become franchise guys. It's one thing to be book smart, it's another thing to be able to apply it correctly in a nanosecond. They focus on what matters and screen out what doesn't.

Another question arises about the Wonderlic: Why were winning QBs like Terry Bradshaw (16), Dan Marino (13), Jim Kelly (16) and others able to do so well with low scores? Why have scores increased so much since then? The answer is two-fold.

A trend we've noticed is that almost all QBs in the NFL tend to come from families with means. They send their sons to camps, have QB coaches and as a result have a leg up on QBs from smaller incomes. Those things weren't available to the QBs a generation ago. Nor was tutoring.

The kids from smaller schools probably didn't have the same grooming. No QB coaching, no budget for traveling to top camps and most likely less access to top recruiters to get into the bigger schools.

In turn, these bigger schools have better coaching and access to tutors. As a result, Wonderlic scores for QBs have increased. Guys with the time and means are now preparing and spending the money for it like taking the SAT. You can bet guys like Donovan McNabb (15) strolled in, took the test and left.

When a QB is scouted for the NFL and is "raw" or scores low, one wonders about their background. If they grew up with a healthy budget, and had special coaching, then one could guess they're not going to improve much. If; however, they never had access, then who knows what their ceiling is?

I equate having a QB brain to being a drummer. Most people, no matter how many lessons, will never be good to great drummers. Sure you can spend years learning it and be able to get better, but a household name? No. You need special intangibles to put you over.

Mark Sanchez is an example of a QB with all the tools, and, yet, turnover prone. Does he lack spatial awareness or good peripheral vision?

Brock Osweiler panics. Does he not trust himself? Has too much faith himself and then doesn't know what to do when things don't go as planned?

Tim Tebow trusted himself, had confidence, a strong arm, but if his first read was covered, he ran. Was he panicking or couldn't see any other choices?

Ryan Fitzpatrick has had the second highest score for a QB - that we know of. Results are supposed to be secret; however, many have been leaked. A guy as bright as he is, should be an All-Pro. He's not because he lacks ‘IT’.

The amount of decisions a quarterback needs to make in a 1.5 seconds is mind-boggling. He must trust his choice, believe he can make the throw and have the accuracy to make it. He needs his teammates to believe he can, too. He needs swagger. He needs to weed through the static to focus on the goal.

This is why there are so many misses in the NFL. What you can get away with in college, you can't in the NFL. You can't run every time a first-choice play breaks down. Or check down. You have to see what a defense is doing and figure what a safety or linebacker may do.

You also have to audible out of bad plays. Most of this can be achieved through practice and preparation. Intense coaching at the NFL will elevate all starting QBs to the next level. The difference is: how do these men react to all the stimuli? Do they suffer from paralysis through analysis?

Do they see too many choices and spend too much time debating options? Do they play from the gut or the brain?

It's been leaked that some low scorers suffer from learning disabilities. While several wouldn't effect playing, it would effect test taking and memorizing a playbook. Or the reverse. A QB with a spatial awareness issue, could do well on the tests, know the playbook and still make puzzling mistakes on the field. While a QB with a slight case of dyslexia, would find taking the test and memorizing a playbook a challenge, but once mastered, would show no signs of it on the field.

In today's NFL, if a QB scored a 13 like Marino, a team would administer further tests to ascertain if there is an issue that won't manifest itself on the field, or maybe they just had a bad day. Maybe they had the flu, their girlfriend broke up with them, or they were focused on a dying loved one. A team would find out the issue, especially at the QB position.

As an aside, the test questions aren't difficult. Completing 50 mostly word problems, many with multiple choice answers, in 9 minutes, is the tough part. Some ask for the math answers to be written as a word, not a number. The next one will ask for a numerical answer. Paying attention to not only the problem, but how to answer, is also slowing. If a QB is a slow reader, or not great in grammer, no matter his IQ, he's not going to do well.

Not sure how being able to pick out which words are misspelled out of ten almost identical words is going to tell you how a QB can perform. Or finding which math problem out of four different types, doesn't equal 66. It's an odd test, which is why it rarely correlates to a player's success on the field.

In the video below, ESPN wired up our own, Paxton Lynch (there isn't one for Trevor Siemian). Lynch's brain under pressure increased its focus and goal orientation by over 150 percent. During his college career, he was a top performer under pressure, this new test could show us why. One can guess that QBs like Terry Bradshaw, Marino, Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham (16), and other low scorers probably would've done exceptionally well. Those men were gritty, gutsy players.

http://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=15387834

This might be a good indicator of why most quarterbacks don't step up to the next level. Their brains aren't NFL elite. Not to say that Lynch is elite, only that the video shows that there is a tie between focus under pressure and success. It could be the reason why too many never reach elite status even with great arms like, Jay Cutler.

They can't ‘mute’ the frontal cortex and the result is playing less by instinct and more by analytics. They're bogged down by rationalizing too many choices. These QB’s actually need less choices, simpler plays. The unfortunate result is simpler plays and less choices means limited success. A catch-22.

This is why a test score, combine, interview or watching game film/stats can't be taken alone. They must each be pieces of the puzzle.

When drafting or watching a QB, one shouldn't focus on one or two items, but on everything. Seeing them play in person, do they interact as a leader? Is he comfortable directing his players? Does he talk to them on the sideline? Does what you see equal the numbers? What's his background? Did he grow up with special camps, gadgets and coaches?

Are his bad traits fixable? Does he improve the more he plays? Does he target the middle of the field? Does he make good decisions when under pressure? Did he come from a pro-style system where there was more chance to see him operate? A third-year starter in a pro style system better be able to check all the boxes.

He needs to show he can make all the throws, read a defense, go through his progressions, throw a receiver open, have a good throwing motion, extend plays because he can see opportunities, lead his men, make good decisions and perform under pressure. A Division-I starter from a big school shouldn't be a miss if due diligence is done.

Someday soon, I can see NFL teams wiring potential draft picks up and see how their brains function. If their numbers under pressure aren't good, science may give them the insight to pull the plug.


If you want to see Andy Dalton, which isn't an apples to apples comparison to the Lynch pressure video, go here.

To see Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, which also isn't the same, go here.