The end of the season is here and we have witnessed 16 weeks of extraordinary football; 1,696 plus players who are faced with solving movement problems that the majority of human beings could never fathom being confronted with. Collectively, we have marveled at the best in the game at doing just that. And while this is happening there’s more going on behind the scenes. I take it upon myself to dive into the film of this, both the highs and the lows and everything in between, in an attempt to understand those problems and the movement skills used to solve them, from the inside-out. When the smoke settles on this endeavor, I make a stand on who I believe the most masterful mover in the league is on that the analysis and what you read today is that result.
We are now completing year five here at ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ and in those previous years we have had some truly astonishing movers that we have featured here.
2013 – LeSean McCoy (Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles)
2014 – Earl Thomas (Safety, Seattle Seahawks)
2015 – Antonio Brown (Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers)
2016 – David Johnson (Running Back, Arizona Cardinals)
With our reigning Mover of the Year going down during the very first game of the season, it’s time for a new Champion to prevail. Turns out, the deeper I got into my analysis the more clear it became as a number of players began to emerge as my frontrunners for the 2017 Mover of the Year:
- Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons – With two of the four previous Movers of the Year being RBs, the top dude at this position is always going to get serious consideration. Freeman is one the best decelerators in the game and has also added a tremendous amount of adaptability across his movement skills.
- Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks – The 2014 Mover of the Year is back on top of the safety rankings but will his decisive movement behaviors have improved enough to regain his championship from three years ago?
- Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks – The teammate of Thomas and the unwavering leader of the Seahawks, Wilson is a three time All-Movement First team performer because his perception-action coupling and his movement creativity which are on another level in comparison to not only his QB peers but most others across the League.
- Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers – The 2015 Mover of the Year is the definition of must-see TV anytime he steps on a football field. Having been an All-Movement First team member in four consecutive years (yes, 4!), can he reign supreme once again in this stacked group?
Guess whose back?
This likely won’t come as any shock or surprise as unless you have been living under a rock you probably have a good idea not only just how good this player is but also what I personally feel about his movement skill-set. Even in a league that is packed full of standout movers, Antonio Brown, WR of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is in a league of his own. When we think of movement skill and mastery on a football field, I like to use this definition to guide me: movement skill expertise is “the functional relationship between an individual organism and its environment, characterized by attunement to relevant perceptual variables and concomitant calibration of actions (Jacobs & Michaels, 2007)”.
Armed with this definition during my weekly evaluation of football players, I attempt to study the level of proficiency within all three B’s of a player’s movement skill (behaviors, brain, biomechanics) as he executes through the problem-solving processes necessary to respond to the ever-changing environment that is NFL chaos (and pressure, anxiety, fatigue, complexity, etc).
Well, simply put, Antonio Brown IS the current epitome of that definition. He embodies it. Straight-up, no questions asked, not even close. Don’t @ me!
Furthermore, putting this problem and solution connection to work really starts to encompass what movement skill expertise is about: dexterity. Famous motor behavior scientist (and my hero) Nikolai Bernstein stated that: “Dexterity is finding a motor (aka movement) solution for any situation and in any condition (1967).” I am going to go out on a limb here but if Bernstein himself were to have been a football movement connoisseur and studied the sport like he did some other tasks, he would have salivated over watching the resourcefulness that Brown displays when coordinating and controlling his movement solutions under the context that an NFL Sunday will demand.
What do others have to say about AB84?
Though it’s next to impossible to run out of superlatives about the game’s best mover, I am sure that many out there have gotten awfully sick of reading my words as I ramble on about just how good Antonio Brown really is. So, don’t just take my word for it. To help enlighten you further and to show that I am not the only one who is infatuated with the movement skills of Brown, I have employed the assistance of two of my most trusted peers in the field who I have an ongoing shared mentorship with, Ross Cooper and Cameron Josse, to add their insights into the mix:
Ross Cooper, a Football Position & Skill Acquisition Coach, puts it this way:
Bruce Lee stated, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
No player in the NFL exemplifies these water-like movement capabilities like Bruce Lee described quite like Antonio Brown does. The beauty of AB is his real level of transferable skill in/versus any environment, opponent, weather. AB has an ultimate relationship between his perception & movement solutions, turning the opposing DB’s ‘strengths’ into ‘weaknesses.’ No matter what technique the DB is playing or defensive scheme, AB becomes water. He controls-attacks-dictates-reacts simultaneously! He is the epitome of perception leading action & action leading perception. He manipulates and controls DB’s time & space, while skillfully reacting off of that same time & space. His movement strategies, unreal cognitive-perceptual decision-making, and overall game feel both within his precision route running and also his agility; perceptually and movement wise manipulating-creating-dictating-controlling-reacting via time & space before and within the route, plus extremely lethal YAC. From the first action he takes off the LOS he manipulates DB’s both movement wise & perceptually for the needed space he desires within his full route tree, while also reacting-adjusting into what the DB/defense & offensive teammates are doing during each route/play. AB also uses the environment (field itself) the way he sees fit as a main weapon for his wanted outcome.
AB uses each affordance for action that becomes presented, both moving in tight & open spaces, in a way that allows him a vast combination of authentic movement solutions, level-to-level perceptual skill and the ability of solving multiple problems simultaneously. On-field; “The question is the answer & the problem is the solution.’’ AB showcases this weekly, that he is one of the best NFL movers of all time.
Another trusted colleague and Director of Sports Performance at DeFranco’s Training Systems, Cameron Josse, went on to say:
Brown plays the game with tremendous confidence. It’s as if he fully expects to make a game-breaking play on each and every snap. Psychologically, it’s clear that he understands his impact on the Steelers’ offense and fully accepts his role as a big play threat.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any other receiver that runs routes as consistently crisp as Brown does. Being efficient as a route runner is NOT about executing a route the exact same way every time, but rather successfully maneuvering around different coverage and doing so in biomechanically efficient positions. When we talk about “biomechanical truths”, we are talking about moving with minimal energy leaks and using body positions leading to more optimal movement displays based on a particular sport problem. The problem is always changing and therefore the solution must always change as well. Context is king, as always.
Brown always seems to find a way to be open and continues to advance his ability of exploring and creating movement solutions in his route running, consistently showing the ability to beat his opponent’s best defensive backs. The ‘law of exposure’ from the book, Game Changer (Fergus Connolly, 2017), states that players will adapt and respond to the speed and complexity of the sport problems being presented to them. So, while a team will strategize and put their best defensive back on Antonio Brown, they are risking the chance that this will only further enhance Brown’s creative solutions since it’s just another problem for him to solve.
Brown possesses a truly diverse skill set. His cutting actions and ability to redirect his body in the open field appear smooth and effortless, seemingly getting better with time. One of his hallmark traits is his ability to find a movement solution when it seems clear as day that there isn’t one. His adaptability is his strong suit here, as he understands that he must move at varying speeds and in various positions to achieve what he is intending to do based on what he is perceiving.
He has the ability to work along a wide spectrum of movement bandwidths, such as changing his base of support to manipulate the space he is working in – he can decelerate with a narrow base of support when space is tight, and can also use a wide base of support when he has more room to operate. One of his most underrated attributes is his kinesthetic sense (his awareness of where he is in space) and how that impacts his ability to catch the football. We can certainly admire his route running and movement after the catch is made, but the receptions he makes are incredible.
Consider the reception he made against Kansas City this past season in Week 6 when he caught a tipped pass with one hand while simultaneously avoiding an attempted tackle by the safety and subsequently taking off for a 51-yard touchdown reception. Wide receiver skill set at its finest!
Has his movement skill evolved since 2015?
I certainly agree with all of that which both Ross and Cam claimed regarding Brown. Extending their thoughts, it’s an appropriate time to include my analysis from 2015 when Brown was named our top Mover then just as he is now.
However, when attempting to make the determination to award him his second Mover of the Year in five seasons, it was vitally important to me that I could come to the conclusion that he had in fact gotten more masterful than he previously had been. This was no small order as I made the claim two years ago that the 2015 version of 84 was the best mover I had analyzed during the course of this blog. So, I needed to be able to unequivocally say to myself, “AB’s movement skill-set has evolved!”
Obviously, you were able to skip ahead in the test and know the answer I ended up residing on (that his movement skill HAS improved). So, in which ways has this occurred?
On the surface, Antonio Brown is still the exceptional mover I deeply analyzed and glowingly raved about back in 2015. The route precision, the sharply attuned perception, the ridiculous space manipulation, and the diverse agility actions…all of those characteristics are still well intact and if anything, like a fine wine, that skill-set has gotten even riper. The ability to coordinate, control and skillfully organize a movement solution no matter the situation (the task dynamics) is still the best in the game.
But what do we see when studying and investigating the 2017 version of AB84…that is, the evolved movement mastery of Antonio Brown? Well, for a moment I want you to remember above when I mentioned Bernstein’s definitive words on dexterity in movement skill; specifically, the second part of that quote… “And in any condition.” THIS is exactly where and how AB has gotten even more proficient, at least in this movement coach’s opinion.
One of the major indicators of true movement mastery is the ability to be able to have a movement solution to any movement problem which presents itself and to do it under the extreme constraints present which can act as key performance inhibitors to even some of the game’s best. I am speaking here of the realities of playing football at the highest level like which is witnessed in situations late in games such as psychological influence (pressure/anxiety) or physiological influence (fatigue; both physical and perceptual-cognitive). These condition changes can significantly impact the level of robustness (i.e. stability and adaptability) of even a professional athlete’s movement skills; often drastically changing both the strategies as well as the execution of the solutions organized (bringing many superhuman movers’ behaviors back down to earth).
As everyone knows, I usually don’t pay a whole lot of attention to statistics. However, used here, they help paint a picture as we illustrate this point. According to situational statistics found on the NFL website, in the 4th quarter over the course of this season, Brown snatched 28 balls for 550 yards (average of 19.6/catch) and in the last 7 minutes of games he racked up 12 catches for 291 yards (24.2/catch!!). In contrast, when AB84 won his first Mover of the Year award in 2015, he recorded 30 catches for 429 yards (14.3/catch) and with 7 minutes left he had 20 catches for 248 yards (12.4/catch). Thus, you can see the huge difference late in games in 2017 and this showed qualitatively as well as AB84 was routinely at his best when it counted most.
Obviously, this perspective can only give us so much context because there is always a lot going on which make up these situations and the numbers which accompany them. However, I do believe it’s clear, what makes Antonio Brown better right now (than he was in 2015) is that when a game is on the line, and pressure, anxiety and fatigue is theoretically at its peak, you wouldn’t want any other WR lined up to make plays for your team.
Every system has a flaw: so, where does he go from here?
I like to think of all sport movement problems, as well as the solutions that are connected to them, as highly integrative systems that are each peculiar in their own ways with interacting constraints every time that they come together with one another. This is the very essence of the concepts contained within ecological dynamics; ecological psychology and dynamical systems theories, which we can use to study motor behavior in sport. On the solution end, any complex dynamical system is adapting through means of self-organizing its component parts in a way that satisfies the system’s constraints. We can think of Antonio Brown (and more specifically his movement system) as a complex system self-organizing a movement solution under the unique problem he/it faces.
Even in the midst of what appears to be the most optimal of self-organization for any system though (as I have claimed AB84 to be), my personal feelings tell me this…every system has to have a flaw…a weakness. Obviously, movement on a football field is complex. Additionally, the individuals that Brown (or any player in the league) face are also the very best at what they do. Thus, no system is perfect and has the solution for every problem ever presented even if it’s highly attuned to a range of problems. Instead, we know, there’s always a weak link in any system. So, with AB84, who is the game’s most attuned and adaptable player, where is it?
The following is purely speculative but I want to share the ideas anyway. To do so, I want to expand on something my friend Ross mentioned above regarding Bruce Lee, and one’s movement skill being more “like water.” When taking this quote and applying it to movement on a football field, it begins to speak to the need to not fit within any sort of container for solving the problem involved in one’s sport; either as it pertains to the strategies employed or the technical execution utilized to carry out those strategies. In fact, this idea is where Bruce Lee’s famous quote on execution within a martial arts fight (or street fight) really stems from where he said, “The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is the result of your technique. My movement is a result of your movement.” Of course, to me and my thought processes regarding movement skill acquisition, this idea is one that I remind myself (and each of the players I consult for) of each and every day.
For those that are unaware, what led the late and great martial artist Bruce Lee to find himself immersed in his thoughts of Jeet Kune Do (JKD) occurred in 1969 when he realized that other traditionally-practiced styles of martial arts (even those that he had practiced/mastered) had become too rigid & fixed, too patterned & unrealistic. He foretold how this new style was to be a hybrid mixture of other styles but which should be more personally connected to one’s own style. It’s because of this that it was not only a hybrid of other styles but also other activities that he would adopt from so one was able to flow and move fluidly (like water and without specific prescribed technique) no matter what the situation called for.
Because of that, JKD, in Lee’s mind, was to always allow for authenticity and honest expression through one’s movement. Like an artist telling a story through a painting, from the outside looking in, a fight could unfold to be told in the same way. It just so happens that I believe this is the very same thing we witness of the football movement skills which emerge when an individual is highly attuned to the affordances that exist around him and he’s in a state where he can adapt accordingly.
Thing is, that’s what makes where AB84 is right now and what he could potentially be on the verge of accomplishing from a movement skill standpoint so damn special! Could it be that Antonio Brown is at this football movement equivalent of developing his own Jeet Kune Do right now? Meaning, a place where he exists with such oneness with the problems that he is facing that IF he were to expand himself even further, AND allow for even greater creativity, that he would come up with his own even more authentic way of moving on a football field?
So, what’s my advice to Antonio Brown to do just that? How can he create the AB84 version of JKD? Well, first, come to the realization that no one can ever get ‘too masterful’; there can never be too much attunement…too much adaptability……too much dexterity. Taking this another step further, though he’s the NFL’s best movement problem solver, this offseason as you prepare for the future, go solve more problems…and a wider variety of problems…and (maybe most importantly) against a wider variety of LIVE opponents. Go out and look to create with one’s movement in new and maybe even unorthodox ways. Look for more opportunities to add deception in your skill sequences; more hesitation, more feinting, more faking, more changes in timing of the movement actions.
Basically, present yourself with practice tasks which stretch your current grip on your movement solutions (aka require you to expand your movement skill-set and the use of your toolbox even further and sometimes in novel ways). This movement practice environment should allow for:
- Exploration – Searching the problem landscape to be able to adequately explore how the movement solutions can be coordinated and controlled differently (or in refined ways)
- Amplification – The problems faced each day should amplify education to each of the 3B levels (behaviors, brain, biomechanics) of how the movement skill is being organized (what’s being perceived, the decisions made because of this, the execution of the biomechanical actions)
- Exploitation – Once one is comfortable in this constantly ever-changing practice context, the mover can begin to exploit different aspects and nuances of the respective problems that they have now become accustomed at solving
Meaning, in a nutshell, get out of the pre-planned footwork drills and, instead, get into more representative tasks and contextual problem solving. It’s in these ways that I could see the NFL’s most masterful mover get even better! It’s scary, but it’s true. In these ways, AB84 would add more dimensions to the movement solutions he coordinates (new and/or refined movement strategies and/or pattern combinations) and how he controls his current movement solutions (adding adjustability and an even more functional ‘fit’ between he and a wider variety of problems he could encounter). If we think he’s the face of dexterity in movement skill now, just wait and see where he would be if he would take this approach.
No matter which way we cut it I think it’s still rather clear; Antonio Brown is the most masterful mover in the game. He owns himself within his movement solutions, he organizes highly authentic and creative movement actions which remain efficient and yet effective and he is able to become one with the situation at-hand. We could not ask for a better representative of movement mastery than AB84 and we should all sit back and marvel at the movement behaviors which emerge. The only question remaining then is; can he get even more skillful?! I know at least one Football Movement Coach who is really excited to find out.