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: Harris creatively heads to the house from 99
Video of the Play:
Game: Broncos at Raiders
Player: Dwayne Harris, Punt Returner, Oakland Raiders
Other contenders this week:
- Zach Ertz, Tight End, Philadelphia Eagles: With the Eagles holding onto their playoff hopes for dear life, their record-setting tight end came out with his very best on Sunday including a long touchdown reception where he found himself cutting and creating through the stout Texan defense.
Pertinent Problem Constraints at-play:
Organism – Punt returners (PR) just do not get the love that I feel as though they deserve. Yes, we may marvel and recognize them when they end up flipping field position or better yet, taking one to the house like witnessed in today’s play. However, already among a group of anomalies, you truly have to be a different type of cat to excel as a punt returner. Every player in the league is courageous but a PR has to be absolutely fearless to stand in the fire of 11 men running down the field with a singular purpose to tackle your a**! Every player in the league has to be able to adequately perceive and make accurate decisions but a PR has to be able to do it under problem demands which are often the most intense, novel, and overall complex as any which will be faced on a football field. The 31 year old PR (and kick returner) Dwayne Harris is a guy who has specialized in special teams and made a living off of thriving in its demands first with the Cowboys, then the Giants, and now the Raiders. Far from being a physical, athletic specimen by any stretch of the imagination (at least for NFL standards), instead, Harris represents what an excellent return specialist should be; a movement problem solver.
Environmental – On the lone Christmas Eve night game on this season’s NFL schedule, the Raiders found themselves in Oakland in what will perhaps be their very last game in front of this home crowd and stadium (with next season’s venue up in the air before they head to Las Vegas in 2020). Playing at Oakland as a member of any opposing team has traditionally been one of the most noteworthy (let’s just call it that) due to the crazed nature of the die-hard Raider fans. Thus, to the group of passionate fans who were coming out on a holiday to celebrate and recognize the setting which would give them their last opportunity to see their beloved team, along with playing a division rival, it created a perfect storm for shenanigans…even with both of those respective teams well-out of the playoff chase.
Task – On 4th and 11 from the Broncos 34 yard line, Denver punter Colby Wadman readies himself to attempt to pin the Raiders deep while in the midst of a scoreless game early in the first quarter. Wadman hits it as perfect as he can where the ball sails over Harris’s head in the middle of the field with several Broncos players aiming to down it inside of the five yard line (much like last week’s Movement Play of the Week). However, Harris had other thoughts as we are about to find out. And because of this performance by Harris, and for the first time in the 2018 season, we finally have a punt return movement breakdown…and it may be one of the most exciting punt returns in the history of the NFL, at that.
Information Present/Affordances for Action
On this blog, I have long talked about how difficult of a task endeavor it is to solve the dynamic, complex problems which punt returners face. In fact, I truly believe it is the most complex singular problem-solution interfaces which exist on an NFL football field. The ability to connect to the information present here in this exchange (between problem and solution), to become one with the complexity, and to allow one’s movement actions to emerge in flowing fashion from it, is something that can be looked at as the real, living, breathing laboratory for how perception, intention, and action intertwine in sport movement behaviors.
- As soon as the ball sails over his head, we see Harris turn to visually locate the flight of the ball to watch where it’s about to land; not only to ensure that he doesn’t touch the ball (as this would allow the Broncos to advance it then) but also to see when his opponents do touch it as this would give him immediate permission to go create. We see him act/move in accordance to this information from both the ball as well as the Broncos players as they approach it…just waiting for the affordance to grab the ball to present itself. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris stated post-game that, “I’ve been waiting on somebody to just slip up and toss it back to me. For me it was just a great opportunity in the right place, right time.” In other words, the information present within this play as it unfolded was just the right time for him to be adaptable (stemming from him remaining attuned/sensitive to that specifying information which offered the invitation).
- As he turns around to his left, he quickly has to adequately detect where his best opportunities exist (to his left or to his right). A bunch of perceptual information goes into this, but ultimately based on where his momentum is taking him from his current body position combined with the position of #43 for the Broncos, Harris’s opportunities become limited for him and he almost has to go to the wide-side of the field. He doesn’t hesitate here and instead acts with several hard acceleration steps while leaving his non-ball arm to loosely deflect any tackler’s attempts.
After this local, micro problem is solved, one could make the argument that there is still a great deal left to accomplish; especially being that there was still 95-ish yards left to cover. However, the most difficult problem(s) to solve was already completed (due to the novelty present which came before as well as the intensity of the chasing wannabe tacklers near the goal-line). In fact, Harris himself was also quoted saying, “once I made it around the corner, I knew that I was going to score.”
What qualities stick out that make this Movement Play of the Week?
- Changing cognition: Of course, like any other player on the field, punt returners begin the play with certain ‘if-this, then-that’ type rules present in their cognitive state which drives their intentions (as well as their perception-action coupling). But, a fact which is often not respected enough is that these ‘rules’ can quickly change while in the midst of the chaos found within a football play. For instance, in this play, as soon as the punt sails over the head of Harris, he changes his intention, just waiting on a potential opportunity to open up if/when the Broncos would touch the ball, knowing full well that he has nothing to lose if he attempts to return it once they do (as based on the rules of the game, the worse than can happen is the Raiders would be starting off on the 1 yard line anyway).
- Controlled recklessness: Once this intention changes, there’s something very, very dangerous (in a good way) about an NFL player’s skill when they are essentially allowed to make a mistake (another example would be a QB-WR combination when a defensive lineman has jumped off-sides and they get a free play) with no negative consequences (besides potential injury, of course, but this is always present). This recklessness allows unbridled freedom to just rely on who they are and to ‘let it rip’ so to say.
- Creative deception: I believe that there are actually many opportunities like this where there are various “loopholes” for behaving in new, creative fashions that players (or coaches) aren’t usually encouraged to search, explore, and exploit. However, when given the chance, they will often come up with solutions which easily deceive the opponent and end up being copied by others in the league in the future (note: look at what happened once players started with hurdling tacklers).
How could we potentially guide athletes to acquire similar movement skills?
As highlighted above, tremendous complexity often lives within the problems that take place in any field sport (well, really in any endeavor which is performed at a high enough level). So, beyond the obvious recommendations I can offer here (hint: constant problem solving in repetition without repetition practice structures), what can Sport Movement Specialists really do to assist athletes in increasing their ability to exist within these types of problems and more effectively solve them? Well, a few things pop out to me:
- Require players to run fast while other players are both chasing them (from multiple angles and/or directions) AND simultaneously having to deal with opponents out in front of them (to create moving gaps to run through or players to cut/juke against), as well. This is such an underutilized movement skill that is simple to incorporate which makes linear sprinting skill much more functional to what happens on a football field.
- Change problems frequently on-the-fly in the middle of the player already solving another problem. An example here would be layering in secondary (even sometimes less relevant) task constraints to deal with while attempting to adequately handle the already complex primary problem at-hand to solve.