2018 Play of the Week – WK5 – Saquon’s movement skill-set is as good as advertised

Note: Just a quick reminder that throughout the 2018 season, I have elected to take a different approach than I have over the first handful of seasons of me breaking down plays here. Instead, this year, we will focus more efforts on connecting the problem-solution reciprocal relationship more deeply. This new emphasis will be evident below…

Play: Saquon’s movement skill-set is as good as advertised  

Saquon pic 1

Video of the Play:

https://www.giants.com/video/saquon-shows-freak-athleticism-on-30-yard-dash

Game: Giants at Panthers

Player: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, New York Giants

Other contenders this week:

  • DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: On Sunday night football versus the in-state rival Dallas Cowboys (okay, they may not actually be rivals per se), the Texans found themselves in overtime with
  • Marcus Maye, Safety, New York Jets: As time expired, the Jets young DB returned an interception 103 yards as he attempted to add insult to injury for the Broncos as they were already down 16 only to be caught from behind at the 1 yard line

Pertinent Problem Constraints at-play:

Organism – If you’ve followed my social media outlets or even my blog posts for any period of time, you know that I am most definitely a fan of Saquon Barkley’s movement skill-set. In fact, I have attempted to uncover the intricate characteristics within his movement toolbox a few times here on the blog in the past including during a pre-draft movement analysis as well as when I investigated his very first carry of his NFL career back in the preseason. If you haven’t read those posts and want to get an expanded understanding regarding Saquon’s movement behaviors before going any further, take a peek here:

https://footballbeyondthestats.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/2018-nfl-draft-preview-opening-the-movement-toolbox-of-saquan-barkley/

https://footballbeyondthestats.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/2018-play-of-the-week-rookie-preseason-edition/

Thing is, I expected Saquon to hit the ground running and find some early success even though I also thought it was going to take some time for him to find his connection to organizing the most functional movement solution to the unique problems present in the NFL (as I mentioned in the pre-draft analysis). That all said though, I know it’s only five games into the season, but Saquon in 2018 is precisely why this blog site is entitled ‘Beyond the Stats’ as if you were to take a peek at any of the game’s stat lines, you may believe that he is struggling. However, this would NOT create the context needed to make such an analysis. In fact, in each game, Saquon has had to dig real deep in his toolbox to accumulate yards due to the lack of consistent play from his offensive line. Ironically enough, much like another familiar name on this blog, Barry Sanders, Barkley has found himself often having to create a whole lot of something out of what is frequently a whole lot of nothing in front of him and around him. Thus, up to this point, I can say that Barkley is exceeding my expectations for him based on the constraints he’s had to almost constantly deal with and his ability to find his way despite those constraints. As anticipated, the dexterity within his movement skill is quite impressive especially this early on.

Environmental – Temperatures were in the low to mid 80’s all game long with no precipitation, low wind, relatively high humidity, and some cloud cover nearly all game long. The home of the Carolina Panthers, Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina, is an open stadium with natural grass and presents an environment that is a relatively welcoming place to play. Panther fans are passionate but not over the top rambunctious and/or hostile. Their guys were coming off of a 10 point victory at home versus the Bengals a couple of weeks back and entered at 2-1 after having a bye in week 4 whereas the Giants were sitting at just 1-3 after a number of tough losses in the first quarter of this season.

Task –As mentioned earlier, the level of difficulty of the problem at-hand, nearly rep after rep, which Saquon is exposed to and expected to organize a movement solution to, is very high on the intensity & complexity spectrum for any RB in the league. Luckily for the New York Giants and as we will see in our play of analysis today; this is not an ordinary RB. When hearing people talk about RBs playing at a high level, you may have heard someone use the cliché of endearment, “couldn’t get tackled in a phone booth.” Well, the problem presented during today’s play will be the living epitome of this phone booth movement. With the Panthers up 20-13 a few minutes into the 3rd quarter, the Giants face a 1st and 10 from their own 28 yard line, two tight ends and a 1WR to Eli Manning’s right with Saquon behind him ready to work some movement magic that maybe only he could…

Information Present/Affordances for Action

  1. From handoff through the initial line-of-scrimmage traffic: As soon as he takes the handoff from Eli, Barkley realizes that there are two Panther defenders, one of which just so happens to be one of the most skillful linebackers in the league and super-sure tackler, #59 Luke Kuechly (and former All-Movement Team member too), standing in the hole staring him down with a bead on him. At this same moment, he likely can also at least feel (if not also visually see through his peripheral vision) a Panther defensive tackle (#99, K-Short) crashing down on him from his left with additional traffic from his one of his own offensive lineman #71 also placed in his way. Barkley hops to a coiled position rapidly and briefly while also leaning to his left from a slightly wider than shoulder width, relatively parallel stance. He’s not overly committed to how (i.e. what strategy and pattern) he will execute from this position to go to his left…or, at least at this moment, even if he has to go left for sure. However, as is told by the unfolding perceptual information regarding the problem of both the immediate defender (Kuechly who is quickly approaching his own athletic ready position to pounce) and his buddies who create the multiple dimensions of this complex problem (a DB hanging out waiting for him to go right and the hard charging DT down the line of scrimmage) tells Barkley that going to his left is likely the best case scenario. How he’s going to get there is open to his discretion; of course he chooses the spin move here (because, why wouldn’t he?!). Immediately after coming out of the spin, we see his head get around as his eyes lead his perception here onto the Panther LB #54 who is closing distance onto the point where Barkley’s left foot lands coming out of the spin. Barkley’s sensitive perception isn’t limited here to his visual gaze as he subconsciously takes in proprioceptive/kinesthetic information to the affordances for action from the position he’s now in. As #54 decelerates and lowers his center of gravity to prepare to absorb any contact from the young RB, Barkley leaves him grasping for nothing but air as he executes a lateral side-stepping juke to his left. Saquon pic 7a.png
  2. Acceleration to downhill running through the gap: From the end zone camera view, we see Barkley (when he’s on the 31/32 yard line) eyes up directly measuring the time and space he has to work with between his blocking WR (Odell) engaged in his block on the outside with the cornerback and a hotly pursuing safety sprinting all-out laterally parallel to the 40 yard line. Though these two Panther defenders do get their hands on him eventually, based on his excellent dynamic balance coupled with the speed he already has built up here, this contact isn’t even close enough to bring him down. Saquon pic 5a
  3. To accelerate down the sideline or break it back inside? After the two aforementioned Panthers end up tangled in each other based on their tackle attempts, Barkley has essentially one immediate Panther left to beat with a decision to make. I was critical of Barkley in my pre-draft movement analysis, stating that he seemed as though there were times at Penn State that he would look to cut and juke even when the problem didn’t require it. This may again be one of those times where, at least momentarily, it looked as though he may have had a chance to beat the Panther wearing #26 to the edge but he must have felt as though the angle created by the DB was a good enough one which would require Barkley to decelerate quickly onto his left leg (which extends far in front of him to handle the extreme braking forces) and cut back inside. Saquon pic 6a

What qualities stick out that make this Movement Play of the Week?

  1. Understanding (and creation) of time and space: The main KPI (key performance indicator) underpinning attempts to be elusive within agility movement problems is the performer’s ability to understand the precious time and space relationship which exists between the performer himself and his opponent(s) and his teammates. Like a prizefighting boxer or mixed martial artist, the agile football player must bolt and jolt in and out of the situation, creating extra space for himself where there isn’t any (and the time that goes with it) in attempts to ghost the wannabe tackling defenders.
  2. The emergence of creativity in movement coordination and control: As I’ve highlighted on the blog in the past, dexterity is built on the ability to find a movement solution under any situation and in any context. In order to do this, many of the game’s most dexterous movers (think Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr, Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, etc) execute at the far ends of their movement bandwidth and thus find themselves in creative and variable as well as adaptive and functional movement solutions (such as the spin move as well as the lateral transition step to get out of the traffic).
  3. His affordances are different from everyone else’s: There were several times through the sequence of this emergent problem and solution interaction, that it is not only accurate to say that no other RB in the league would solve that micro/local problem in the same fashion as Barkley, but it’s also at least plausible to say that it’s possible that no other RB in the league would have been capable of finding any effective solution if presented with a similar problem.

How could we potentially guide athletes to acquire similar movement skills?

During this section on the write-up for some of the past Plays of the Week, I understand that it can feel somewhat far-fetched to think that players at other levels of football (even those within the NFL), could learn to execute within the demands of problems witnessed in today’s play with solutions that we saw emerge from Saquon Barkley. I will be the first to acknowledge that when watching Saquon execute, what likely only Saquon can do, on a play such as this, is probably the most obvious example of that statement. So, though I would never expect most (if not all) skill players to execute a movement solution which exists in the same universe as Barkley does, I do think we can learn something from what he does within his personal authentic solution as well as how his process of executing, as well. Additionally, though he has been innately gifted from above with extraordinary talent, I do also believe that his exceptional skill has been acquired through fostering and nurturing along the way, as well.

First and foremost, I think we see the movement qualities listed above flow from first the player’s constant intention to adapt. Plays on a football field rarely go how they are drawn up (obvious statement there), and when they don’t, success will come from a player who doesn’t get frustrated but instead attempts to go with this flow; to absorb figurative energy from the problem (the literal here would be the strengths or advantages that the problem possesses) and learn to use it against itself (example in this play’s case: 1 of the NFL’s best LBs sitting in the exact path that Barkley was initially intending to go). This constant adaptability mentality is surely a signpost of dexterity and will allow the second factor exemplified today, movement creativity, to emerge, as well. I’ve found that skill players across the NFL sometimes have to be almost given the permission to be in a creative state of mind when they have a ball in their hands. Many NFL drills and activities (as well as the practice tasks which are done as players move up the ranks at that) almost channel a guy’s movement into a really methodical, mechanistic, robotic fashion of execution…a style usually lacking effectiveness, as well. Even though Barkley’s affordances for action and his movement toolbox are different than his peers, I would venture a guess that if other players were more frequently given a chance to search their skill-set to organize a solution in situations where plays are breaking down, more creative movement solutions would emerge for them (though again, they wouldn’t look like Saquon’s…nor should they!).

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