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: The Movement Miracle in Miami
Video of the Play:
Game: Patriots at Dolphins
Player: The Dolphins Offense
Other contenders this week:
- Derrick Henry, Running Back, Tennessee Titans: If someone would’ve asked me after the completion of the Thursday night game who the Movement Play of the Week was going to be, I would’ve answered as confidently as could be, “Derrick Henry.” It’s for that reason that the Titans RB is the only other real contender for the top spot this week. Henry did his best ‘Beastmode-run’ rendition versus the Jaguars when he literally threw Jacksonville defenders around the field en route to a NFL record-tying longest run of all-time.
Pertinent Problem Constraints at-play:
Organism – Though Kenyan Drake found his way into the end zone, and was required to do the majority of moving in order for this play to be successful, this success also hinged on literally all 11 players doing their job to a high proficiency. Though we will talk a great deal below about the various interactions which took place in order to see this all come to fruition, I want to mention this first before we go any further as it’s been driving me absolutely bananas since Drake found himself walking into the end zone. Yes, Kenyan Drake ran a 4.45 in the 40 yard dash when he ran at the NFL Combine in 2016. For comparison purposes, Rob Gronkowski ran a 4.68 at the University of Arizona’s Pro Day in 2010 (so, even then, he was probably deep into the 4.7’s). BUT…to the all the pundits out there, STOP with the ridiculousness that these metrics and associated physical characteristics factored into what we witnessed play out. It didn’t! Not even in the slightest! What did? Well, for starters, how about the fact that Rob Gronkowski plays offense and they had him playing a deep safety in this respective formation where he was expected to execute upon a skill that he has VERY little experience within, while defending and attempting to tackle an NFL running back in the open field?! It had nothing to do with his speed, it had very little to do with his back or the tightness of his hips, and it had almost everything to do with the fact that he doesn’t possess the movement solutions to do this: for tracking a ball carrier in open space, for perceiving how that player is behaving, for being able to anticipate where he potentially can go, for making accurately timed decisions off of this rich information in the environment, or for matching his own movement actions to be coupled to any of the aforementioned. Okay…whew; rant over!
The other organism constraint here that is certainly at-play is one that we rarely talk about; the Coach in charge of the tactical strategy (aka the play call) as well as the technical execution (aka the way the tactical strategy employment has been practiced). Of course, this just so happens to be the Head Coach that most will regard as the greatest that this sport has ever seen in Patriots Head Coach, Bill Belichick. Of course, here we can and should also add his defensive coaching staff, as well. Though who I am to second-guess the GOAT, because after all, he’s won just a few more Lombardi trophies than I have. However, it bears asking the rhetorical question that has been posed on countless football analysis shows since the game took place, “In a situation where it is going to be overly difficult for a successful Hail Mary to be executed, and instead, one is likely to see a pitch-back, off-loading, lateral of the ball between multiple players, why is Rob Gronkowski even in at this point?” If it’s a sure Hail Mary that will follow, I can obviously see placing your best ball high-point guys on the roster there in an attempt to knock the ball down and seal the victory. But, in the case where Ryan Tannehill is going to have to throw a ball 80 yards to even reach the end zone…I don’t get it (because of that which was discussed above).
Environmental – I can think of quite a few worse places to play a football game in December than Miami, Florida; this was the backdrop for the week 14 match-up between these division rivals. The Dolphin’s Hard Rock Stadium is actually one of the few NFL stadiums that I haven’t been to before. The natural grass field in this open stadium is one that players traditionally seem to describe as one that delivers confidence for movers and usually offers a great blend of traction, along with both speed and safety. Sunday’s weather conditions found the teams dealing with low 80s but with high humidity under a partly cloudy sky. The socio-cultural constraints may be the bigger ones at-play here though as with as consistent as both Tom Brady-led and Bill Belichick-coached teams have been throughout the years, they have also seemed to struggle at times versus the Dolphins in Miami. Maybe it’s the division rivalry, or maybe it’s something else, but either way, the struggles seemed to haunt them a bit all the way through their postgame press conferences this week.
Task – By now, anyone who calls themselves a football fan has seen it numerous times. But, the Miami Dolphins find themselves in the face of dire straits, a mere seven seconds left in the game, down by five points and standing 69 yards away from the end zone. To execute a Hail Mary (which the Patriots may have been thinking was coming?), the time quarterback Ryan Tannehill would need to drop back far enough while taking enough time to allow his receiving corps to get far enough downfield, he would be another 10 yards behind this spot (that is if he could survive that long by navigating even the three rushers that are likely to come. Thus, the only real option for the Dolphins here is to look for a ‘hook & ladder’ type of play by hitting an in-cutting WR at a moderate distance who will have to buy enough time to toss a ball behind him in ‘rugby-type’ fashions which would then cause a cascade of subsequent tosses to try to keep the play alive while working down the field.
On this same note, some of the other things I’ve heard said since the play (to go along with the linear speed disparities mentioned above) were from those inquiring why American football teams don’t try to run plays like this more often as they would in rugby? Well, let me give you a list of reasons, all of which point to the fact that based on the contextual differences between the two games, the risk versus reward of these types of plays in the NFL is just too swayed to the ‘too risky’ side unless it’s being executed at a time when there are no other options (as it is here). 1). Offensive possession of the ball in American football varies quite considerably than in most rugby games. 2). Turnovers, which are very likely when you start tossing the ball around the field, is a metric that directly correlates to the W-L column in the NFL. The team who wins the turnover battle frequently wins the game. 3). Possession of the ball is too valuable; it is protected at all costs and at all times. The mentality around the ball in rugby is just completely different. 4). A football is actually much smaller and thus, much harder to handle. 5). When lateral/off-loading passes begin to happen, it quickly draws more players into that area and dramatically changes the space to work with (whereas there are usually much different spatial and temporal relationships emerging across the field in rugby games).
Information Present/Affordances for Action
Though we are going to highlight the problem to be solved for each performer who touched the ball during the play (outside of QB Ryan Tannehill), I want to make the mention here of the obvious informational constraint that was acting upon the problem globally: the fact that the game was on the line and the clock was ticking down fast. This reality of this situation brings the associated pressure to another level…however, it could also be speculated that because of how unlikely it was that this play would work, that pressure and anxiety would have been less than if they were closer to the end zone and had a play with higher success probability called.
- Kenny Stills (#10): WR Kenny Stills is the first Dolphin to touch the ball when he catches it at the 47 yard line. Let’s face it; often times in this situations, the play stops here and the defender, especially one who has this clean of a potential shot, takes down the receiver. However, the Patriots defensive back (#31) makes a weak tackle attempt and comes in at a poor striking position. This allows Stills to turn to his right and scan back up the middle of the field, while likely still ‘feeling’ #31 behind him slipping in a compromised fashion, which allows Stills to realize that he has bought himself just enough time to adequately perceive what’s going on in the rich landscape of affordances around him. He takes one coiled step with his left leg and pitches it to his right to fellow WR DeVante Parker.
- DeVante Parker (#11): When Parker sees Stills is tossing the ball back to him, he intelligently stops his feet briefly to ensure that he will give Stills a target which will relate to a lateral/backwards toss of the ball and not a forward pass (which would be illegal). As soon as he receives it, knowing that time and space is not on his side (as it never is when the ball is being tossed east to west on a football field), he takes a few acceleration steps while bringing his path closer to the place where he knows another Dolphins skill player is bound to be (based on his perceptual detection prior to getting to receiving the ball). This player is Kenyan Drake who had leaked from out of the backfield is streaking down the sideline with a Patriots linebacker (#53) trailing hot on his tail.
- Drake (#32): Because of the accurately timed & placed toss from Parker (this in and of itself rarely happens this way!), Drake doesn’t miss a beat in his stride. If he had, he likely would’ve been brought down by the tackling attempt by #53 who makes the diving leap at Drake’s feet when he realizes that Drake is about to separate from him. To get himself out of the trouble that comes from hanging out by one’s self here, Drake cuts it back to his left into the middle of field in hopes of getting himself around other Dolphins skill players to potentially keep the play alive if it’s necessary when the time comes. Fortunately for Drake though, that time never comes! As he’s running back laterally towards the numbers (running parallel to the 40 yard line along the 38 yard line), we see him visually scanning and attempting to take in the specifying information regarding the movement behaviors of the Patriots defenders. From this information detection, he realizes (likely through relatively subconscious processes) that there is enough space available to him which affords him simply running north through the gap.
With an entire convoy of Patriot defenders now in his dust but still trailing him rapidly, as Drake crosses the 25 yard line he zeroes in his perception on what lies ahead so when he does, he rapidly understands that in this environment there is really only one more man to beat. As we talked about above, this man just so happens to be All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski. It should be said that if we look at the problem that now sits in front of Drake; we see that there is a vast abundance of space to both sides of Gronk along with approximately 10 yards separating them. Having seen even high level defensive backs 1v1 with skill players in situations such as these during countless representative tasks in movement practice settings, I can say with certainty that the advantage scale would be dramatically tipped in Drake’s favor even if this would have been a DB and it wasn’t Gronk. There is just too much space and the defender (Gronk) is back on his heels at the mercy of the movement behavior emerging from the dictating player (Drake). In other words, Drake’s toolbox here is wide open as he has his pick of where to go and how to act.
What qualities stick out that make this Movement Play of the Week?
Reminder: It’s not straight-ahead, linear speed! Sorry; just had to reiterate that in case there was any shed of doubt or you had skipped over the rant above. Instead, there were a number of other important movement qualities which were imperative to this play actually working.
- Shared affordances: With each toss, each performer who received the ball had to attempt to perceive affordances (opportunities, invitations, and action capabilities) of his teammates that were on the field and interacting in this overly creative, under-practiced play. Without accurate perception of another’s affordances, this play certainly wouldn’t have gone off the way that it did.
- Exploitation: When Kenyan Drake got in the middle of the Patriots defensive teeth, he was surely anticipating that he was going to be gang tackled by a handful of defenders. However, once he found that they were all acting relatively passively (as passive as one can in this urgent situation), he trusted what his eyes were telling him and acted accordingly (by heading vertical up the field ASAP).
- Adaptability under pressure (aka clutch performance): I’ve said it before and I will surely say it again…a player (or a group of players) can never be too adaptable! Being that this play ended up being the longest play from scrimmage to win a game with no time remaining since 1970, I would say that this one fits that adaptability distinction. Where it fits on that spectrum goes up considerably when we think of how little this type of play is practiced in the traditional NFL practice scheme (i.e. very, very little…and never in the same way twice!). In fact, the only play that I can think of that potentially comes close to this level of adaptable execution from an entire offensive unit would be the ‘Music City Miracle’ play when the Tennessee Titans executed something similar versus the Buffalo Bills in the 1999 AFC Playoffs.
How could we potentially guide athletes to acquire similar movement skills?
Everyone knows how enamored I am with the all-important qualities of both adaptability and dexterity within movement skills, so most would probably bet that this section would be yet another stance for setting up a variety of constrained problems for players to solve in tight space while utilizing the use of a repetition without repetition practice structure. Based on this play, I could certainly go that route. However, much like the Dolphins offense, I am going to throw you for a loop here today and explore a totally different idea.
Though I mentioned that even if Rob Gronkowski was a defensive back instead of a tight end, I feel it’s likely that he wouldn’t have possessed the movement skills to bring Drake down in the type of space that was at-hand within the problem, it’s still a worthy topic of discussion to ask a ‘what if?’ question here. Namely, what would have happened one this play IF Gronk would have even a base level of the perceptions, intentions, and actions needed to execute in a defensive action? As you may remember back to my blog post at the end of the summer regarding “Modifications within my NFL movement skill refinement process”, I discussed the idea of ‘changing roles.’ This role reversal would involve having a player play his typical opponent’s position on the field at times in the practice environment so that they could begin to understand the strategies and solutions of their opponent at deeper levels. In Gronk’s case, I think some of this work would potentially also open up some freedom of movement by at least offering him some low-level coordination strategies for utilization for these types of situations even if they occur really infrequently. In fact, though I programmed for this in 2018 only a few times with my personal players, I did see an increase in each of my players’ comfort levels organizing movement in these ways. Thus, a little could go a long way. That all said though, I still don’t think Gronk would have brought down Drake but at least he would’ve looked a little more controlled in attempting to do so!