17 weeks and 512 games later, I have found myself in an awfully familiar place: with 1,696 players having been analyzed with a fine-toothed comb, from every angle and at every speed, while they were facing the unique demands and complexity that an NFL movement problem presents. The familiarity doesn’t stop there: per usual, I will once again offer up the use of my personal lens to help bring perspective in a breakdown-type fashion of the player who I believe can, and should, be considered the game’s most skillful mover. Of course, I will also do so while highlighting both the strengths and the weaknesses of this player. Though the work that goes into writing this annual blog post brings me great joy each year, it is my hope that anyone who reads it will be able to understand football movement behavior a little more deeply by the end of it.
In the five previous years that we have named a ‘Mover of the Year’, we have witnessed some near superhuman movement skills from four different players (with Antonio Brown having won the award twice). I am nearly certain that this year’s recipient will raise the bar even further and I am excited to explore his problem solving capabilities with you. Before we do though, let’s revisit the past and pay a little respect to the best of the best in movement skill since 2013.
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)
2017 – Antonio Brown (Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers)
But, it’s time to stop living in the past and instead, look to the present and future. Thus, here are our top contenders for 2018:
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers – To be the champion, you have to beat the champion, right? This is especially true when the champion is our only two-time winner of the Mover of the Year. Unfortunately for AB84 though, this race to maintain his top dog status proved to go through an extremely talented group of performers across other positions as well as his own (note: he was up-ended for First Team All-Movement at WR, as well).
Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams – When talking about the analysis and evaluation of movement skill on a football field, one of the main criteria to investigate is how/if the player is able to solve the most complex and intense of movement problems that can be faced based on his position; meaning, no matter the problem in front of him, to find a way to adapt with one’s solutions to match the needs of the problem. Well, imagine being an interior defensive lineman, whose reputation precedes him as arguably the best player in all of football, being continually doubled and even tripled on well over half the snaps that you take on a Sunday…and even so, still leading the league in sacks, pressures and tackles for a loss. THAT is how extraordinary Aaron Donald was in 2018 and it’s what makes him a very worthy candidate for the Mover of the Year.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants – What can be said about the movement skill of Saquon Barkley that hasn’t already been stated? He’s been featured here on our blog site on more than one occasion for very good reason: he is easily the most special rookie mover that has entered the league since I’ve been analyzing movement skill on this blog (this blog was established in 2013). Thing is; he showed that this statement was a true one right from jump-street as his rookie season got started and he never looked back. Crazier yet, being a rookie, to think of what limits may exist as the real potential of his movement skill-set is head-shaking. Saquon is special.
Khalil Mack, DE/LB, Chicago Bears – In 2018, I was able to see Khalil Mack live for the very first time. And let me just say…ayekarumba; this man is an absolute creature who clearly stands out during any NFL game just as he did throughout all of this past season. From start to finish, there may have not been a more consistent impact maker with his movement skill than #52 for the new Monsters of the Midway in Chicago.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs – The man who will likely end up being named the NFL Most Valuable Player also deserves being a finalist here in recognition of our most skillful mover. Though it was his first foray onto our All-Movement Team, he proved to be the cream of the crop at his position and is truly capable of executing in ways that any other QB simply cannot imagine. When we are talking about already standing with the other 1,695 other athletes who play on Sundays, this is no easy feat, and this authenticity and creativity leapfrogs Mahomes to this best of the best list.
It’s never an easy endeavor when attempting to narrow down the extensive list of extraordinary movers to four or five of the game’s very best in any given season. It’s an even more difficult task to adequately compare the skill-sets of that finalist group to name one guy who exemplifies what movement skill on an American football field is all about. A legitimate argument could be made for each of the players listed above to ultimately be named the 2018 Mover of the Year. That’s truly how exceptional each of their movement toolboxes really is. However, at the end of the season, there can only be one man left standing.
Just as a reminder, when we think of movement skill and mastery on a football field, I like to use this definition to guide my study and evaluation: 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 that definition in mind, the NEW Champion and the winner of the 2018 Mover of the Year award is…
SAQUON BARKLEY, Running Back New York Giants
I will tell you what, even though I love analyzing the movement of running backs and have a soft-spot bias for guys who are out there creating at the position, I didn’t want to give the 2018 Mover of the Year award to Saquon Barkley. It’s not that I have anything against him at all. I want to see him succeed! It’s just that, being a Football Movement Coach for veteran NFL players, I can consistently be found touting to others about how different and difficult the environments and tasks are (the context of the problems to solve) from that which the best college players ever faced with in the NCAA. So, if NFL movement problems really are that different from the college game, imagine the different type of animal who would be capable of executing more proficiently than all others with such little experience existing in those problems. Thus, the more it played out and the season progressed, the more this Saquon situation began to look like the inevitable reality to come.
Really? A rookie?!
Honestly, I battled with myself and my own psyche so much throughout this process that I was initially hesitant and doubtful in awarding Saquon our Mover of the Year award. I mean seriously, how could it be that a rookie could beat out 1,695 other players, each of whom is so incredibly talented but also extraordinarily adaptable, many of which who have been in the face of the movement fires, and learned how to organize authentic movement skill as a result? Really, is it even possible? The more I dove into Saquon’s film, investigating from numerous angles and watching at various speeds, attempting to understand what makes his movement mindset really tick, the more I realized that not only was it possible, but Barkley is actually different from any other player that I’ve talked about here before on our blog. In a league where every player is an anomaly, Saquon Barkley is an additional one-off, different from every other player in that he is already more skillful than all others (again, from a movement problem solving perspective) and he hasn’t even done more than barely scratch the surface on what he’s ultimately capable of!
When making this selection, I knew I would inevitably get questions oriented around the current incompleteness and lack of evolution of Saquon’s movement skill-set. It’s a viable question, “If a player does still have some glaring weaknesses in his movement skill-set, and thus, the behavioral dynamics of the solutions he organizes (the perception-intention-action coupling) still lacks completeness, how can it be that he is the Mover of the Year?” This is especially more true when I have often chosen to throw around ideas which pertain to dexterity in movement to describe the mastery which is characterized by our annual Mover of the Year. Dexterity, according to Bernstein (1996), is: “The ability to solve any emergent motor (movement) problem, in any situation and in any condition.” Truth is that Saquon still lacks movement dexterity (i.e. the right solution being organized under some situations and conditions), which I am being completely forthcoming about. Well, even with those current gaps that I feel that he has shown me definitely exists, Saquon has also shown, week-after-week, all season long, that he is capable of solving problems that had dispositions that others weren’t equipped to handle. Additionally, Saquon is capable of coordinating and controlling movement solutions in ways that no other player in the league could even fathom. This, to me, is what begins to justify his status as the 2018 Mover of the Year.
In fact, as I said a number of days ago in the All-Movement Team announcement, in my mind, Saquon represents the new breed of movement skill. This moniker isn’t just at the running back position. In my mind, he is the example across the entire NFL. To say Saquon Barkley is a movement phenom is putting it lightly. He is not only the new breed, but he’s a different breed. What’s crazier about it still though? He can get much, MUCH better yet from a movement skill standpoint as the nuances of his repertoire can, should, and will evolve through enhanced perceptual attunement, more accurate decision making, and increased functionality of his movement solutions organized as he gets more frequently exposed to the diversity of problems he’s now required to face.
For a global 30,000 foot view of what makes Saquon the unique and special movement creature that he is, let’s look at the following summary offered in SWOT analysis fashion here before diving in a bit deeper later on. This SWOT analysis will be our way of indicating:
- What’s currently going right (what’s cool about how he’s currently solving problems)
- What could currently be going better (what problems is he failing to solve)
- Where could his movement skill go heading forward (what should he consider polishing within the craft)
- What could stand in the way of seeing that movement skill go where the potential indicates (what can stop Saquon besides Saquon)
Additionally, this SWOT will be written in a way as if I were speaking directly to Saquon himself.
-A wide open toolbox; moves on moves and moves with moves
-Already has the ability to solve problems that others cannot
-Gifted for movement with certain characteristics which give him a functional advantage such as his low center of gravity and an incredible instinctual feel
-No player has the ability to win 1 versus 1 match-ups like he does (i.e. rarely do we see the first guy to him actually bring him down…instead, that guy often ends up grasping for air)
-Can literally take it the distance on any play, no matter what the situational demands are (Saquon is synonymous with ‘homerun hitter’)
-Unlike many backs (especially ones who sometimes try to do too much), he has a great ability to connect to shared affordances with teammates (i.e. utilizes others to help him most optimally solve problems)
-Perceptual attunement across the entire range/landscape of affordance opportunities
–Still sometimes makes moves for the sake of moving
-Still doesn’t always take what’s there (i.e. tries to do too much)
-The toolbox is far from complete; more can be added. More particularly, you can become a more masterful craftsman with the use of the tools that are already in the skill-set
-Let your curiosity guide further creativity
-If you learn to love existence in greater complexity and chaos, an even more fully evolved movement toolbox will emerge (perfect the art of making people miss…while in the midst of any situation)
-Figure out a way to balance getting what you’re supposed to get (i.e. the hard yards, what’s there, etc) with what you want to get (i.e. the highlights and house calls)
-Your deceptive side is first really starting to come out, let it be something that you proactively add to the game
-The team around you will continue to get better by understanding your running style and what they can do to further contribute to 26’s personal success
-Every defensive coordinator now has a full offseason to study how to stop you and will come in with the intention each week of at least accomplishing that goal (i.e. this means the problem complexity is going to only increase)
-You’re a bona-fide superstar now, be careful with what comes with that
-Falling into the trap of letting others dictate how you solve problems on the field (yes, even this analysis)
-Following others for training methods that won’t guide you to stay in the promise-land
-233lb…regardless of body composition (i.e. muscle vs. fat); does it really benefit you to be this heavy with what your craft is built upon?
The Ultimate Vision & Mission…
Each item listed in the brief SWOT analysis above equates to one thing to me, the only thing stopping Saquon from being the very best to ever do it, is likely Saquon himself. Just as he has proven himself to be a generational talent, he has the chance to solidify truly transformational movement skill. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, we know that his talent level has already proven that it can transcend any generation. But with what he’s developed up to this point, what he has the potential to see emerge from himself in the future within/from the style within his craft, and the way he goes about solving movement problems is in a category of its own.
The opportunity ahead of him now is that the way he behaves within the problems he faces, and the layers that he can certainly pursue and hopefully stack onto this current style, can take him to a place where he is mentioned in the same breath as a few others we have seen in the game do exactly that before. I am thinking of players like Jim Brown (his blend of power & speed) and Walter Payton (his extraordinary willpower and ability to morph into whatever he needed to be) at running back, Michael Vick (his videogame-like moves) and Tom Brady (his ability to execute at the game’s most important times) at quarterback, Jerry Rice (his precision and tireless nature which led to consistency beyond measure) and Randy Moss (his freaky ability to dynamically change games by blowing the top off the defense) at wide receiver, and Deion Sanders (his overall athletic prowess and confident demeanor) and Darrell Green (his absolutely blazing speed) at defensive back. And, last but not least, arguably the most masterful mover the sport has ever seen, Barry Sanders (his ability to solve even the most complex of problem in front of him in diverse but dexterous fashions). Each of these guys had a peculiar, signature style about them that was impossible for anyone else to imitate while at the same time nudged people to think differently in regards to what is possible regarding one’s existence and connection to the problems they are aim to solve on the field. Because of that, each of those players changed the future for how their position was looked at and how the game was played for the history of time. This may seem premature, but I believe that given the right circumstances (i.e. his movement skill grows and evolves in ways that I predict, he stays healthy, etc) that Saquon Barkley has this same truly game-changing ability across a bigger timescale.
Before we go any further, some of you may be interested in reading a little more about some of Saquon’s past movement foray on our breakdowns here. In less than a full year, we have already explored this unique movement behavior quite extensively. Going back through the posts below, you will also see some trends in the information that I hope to provide and expand upon even further afterwards.
Pre-Draft Movement Analysis
Preseason Week 1 (his first NFL carry)
Week 5 versus the Panthers
Week 6 versus the Eagles
So, though we dug deep into Saquon’s toolbox before the 2018 NFL Draft back in April, let’s do so yet again, but this time while utilizing NFL plays to see what he was up to that brings me to the place where I can make the strong statements above regarding what lies ahead for Barkley if he so chooses to accept that role as this kind of torch bearer. Hopefully, by the end of it, you will see why I am so high on Saquon Barkley’s movement skill-set, who he is, and what he is capable of doing.
In this case, statistics give us some insight
The reason I named this blog site ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ was simply because I feel as though there is always so many twists and turns of a player’s movement skill and behavior story which is lost if we only utilize statistics to illustrate some of the greatness than any player brings to an NFL Sunday. In Saquon’s case though, I would be amiss if I didn’t share at least a number of things, both positive and negative:
- Led the league in yards from scrimmage and was only the third rookie of all time to amass 2,000 yards between rushing and receiving
- Had eight 40 plus yard rushing carries (the next closest RB had four) and 16 carries of over 20 yards (next closest had 11). For contextual purposes, only Chris Johnson in 2009 and Barry Sanders in 1997 had more than eight plays of 40 plus yards in a single season.
- Was second overall in the league in rushing (between All-Movement 3rd Team performer Zeke Elliott) at 1,307 yards while averaging 5.0 yards/carry
- Recorded an NFL rookie RB record 91 receptions
- Started all 16 games (didn’t hit the rookie wall)
- Not a single fumble in 350 touches (fundamental)
- Recorded a first down in only 19.2% of his carries (this was significantly LOWER than the other top five rushers in the league and is a cause of concern for improvement below)
- He led the league with 94 broken tackles between both rushing and receiving (the next closest had 62!)
As you will see from the stats above, Saquon did a ton of good, even remarkable, things in his first season (and that’s before we even get into the movement details). He also did this on a team that struggled at times offensively specifically early on from the perspective of the five guys operating in front of him (i.e. the offensive line) which had a number of changes throughout the season in attempts to find the best combination of the five guys who could work together the best. Additionally, fellow offensive stud on the Giants roster, Odell Beckham, Jr, missed four games which made it that much easier for opposing defenses to do what they were already doing; key in on 26. Saquon routinely faced eight and nine man boxes as defenses swarmed the line of scrimmage with a singular purpose to take Barkley out of the game and limit his production, specifically on early downs which were more predictably driven towards Barkley touching the football. Because of this emphasis, the Giants moved Eli Manning under center more frequently as the season progressed and began to use more heavy personnel packages (two tight ends). Due to these changes, Saquon found great success even against a stacked box (mostly because of his ability to make the first guy miss and his obvious capabilities of being able to run away from guys when they’re all in confined space).
Even still, on a number of times through the season, Giants Head Coach Pat Shurmur mentioned the need for Barkley to pick up more of the “dirty runs” which are considered the 4-6 yard type carries (which Saquon isn’t known for) that can get an offense ahead a bit in the downs and distances. The whole feast or famine, boom or bust mentality, likely will need to be balanced in order for Saquon to take the next step in his overall development as well as accumulate more consistent production. However, at the end of the day, just as he did in 2018, Saquon has the potential of creating an awful lot of things on his own (much more than any other player currently in the NFL) and he should be given permission to do that as he sees/feels fit.
Functional physical characteristics in bunches
Even though I initially started out in this profession wearing a more Strength & Conditioning-oriented hat (later to move more into the Movement Skill Acquisition realm of course), I am typically slow to recognize a player’s physical prowess as it’s often measured and/or discussed by people in the field with metrics which I feel as though don’t always translate to in-game, on-field performance. The reason is that some of these qualities are more general in their nature (think of 40 times, maximum strength values, shuttle times, etc) and not indicative of how that player will functionally put those qualities to use in more football-specific ways. Well, one watch of Saquon and you can see that not only does he possess one of the craziest packages of physical freakdom you will ever see but he also actually puts these qualities to great use in many of the manners in which he moves (again, this is not always the case!).
We see a guy in Saquon who can really pick em up and put em down in a hiccup as soon as he hits the open field. Surely this is made possible by sensory-perceptual qualities that we will discuss coming up, but his raw unbridled acceleration capability is world class (comparable to others like Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson here hitting high speeds by step three or four).
We see a guy in Saquon who can stop on a dime and can decelerate equally as well as he can accelerate. Of course, he also is capable of executing these deceleration patterns from multiple positions, one legged-dominant, on two legs in a parallel stance, and then also in his go-to, a sharp lunge position. Each of these strategies can also be controlled across a wide spectrum of biomechanical characteristics (various base of support, joint angles, trunk position, and overall depth of his center of gravity). These deceleration qualities allow him the positional and pattern platform for the extreme change of direction kinematics we see possible in his evasive, agility solutions (comparable to guys like Marshall Faulk).
We see a guy in Saquon who is routinely capable of flat out leaping, vertically and horizontally, over the pile of abnormally large bodies at the goal line (think of the world class force expression of guys like Walter Payton or LaDainian Tomlinson).
We see a guy in Saquon who displays extraordinary balance in multiple scenarios; whether it’s being displayed upon contact with another human being where he just bounces off of guys (think of the world class tackle-breaking ability of Marshawn Lynch) or whether we see it once he’s getting knocked off of his feet and he lands onto either one or two legs and is still prepared to move forward with another movement action piled on top of it.
Of course, if you don’t want to take my word for it, just take a peek at this guy’s highlights from his rookie campaign and you should see a vast array of all of the above and below on full exhibition.
Bruce Lee once called martial arts, “the art of honestly expressing one’s self.” Additionally, another masterful mover later added a layer of this idea with a football context when Barry Sanders stated that he “had to turn off his brain at certain times and just react.” Elaborating upon this idea, according to Barry himself, he wanted to simply “perfect the art of making people miss.” Of course, these anecdotes seem to characterize a mover who is in the zone while solving the movement problems placed in front of and/or around him. I am NOT necessarily comparing Saquon Barkley to Bruce Lee or Barry Sanders. Instead, I simply want to point out that, from the very start of watching the new movement skill torchbearer, he was maybe the first player since Barry where I could say that there seemed to be no other fundamental explanation for what he was doing out there in the midst of overly complex and chaotic problems. It appears as though he embodies an integrated, functional relationship between the problems he faces and himself.
Maybe he sees and feels the whole dynamic differently, but when I attempt to put myself into his problem solving processes as I study his movement behaviors, it feels as though there is no separation between the problem and the solver. Instead, one can almost feel that the innate, mutual connection between the two is intact, living, and breathing. So, if the problem changes, the solution will, as well. In this way, his emergent movement solutions organized is so rare in that there is always an artistic aura to them that overrides the often hyper-constrained, sometimes paralyzed more mechanical nature that many other players bring to similar problems. As I will elaborate upon below, wait till Saquon REALLY learns to connect to the reciprocal information exchange between what the problem contains and what his movement solutions consist of!
Saquon’s spices things up
Due to the artistic, expressive nature of Saquon’s integrated movement solutions, the movement actions themselves have a creative flair to them that differ from the mechanics displayed by all others. This creative nature can be harnessed as long as he doesn’t succumb to critics and some coaches who will try to encourage that he eliminate it from his craft (these people piss me off!). Even in college, I saw him frequently rely on this agility move where he would break down (some will misconstrue it as un-needed dancing but, of course, I disagree with that synopsis), widen his base and drop his hips, while slightly coiling to one side or another while also simultaneously giving the opponent a slight head nod to get that player over-committing and leaning in one direction. And then, without hesitation, once he had the adequate information he needed (on that player’s commitment and movement behaviors) Saquon would snap his outside foot sharply into the ground and disappear the opposite direction. The variability in both strategy and movement pattern selection connected with this was immense. I would see him utilize almost any cutting to reacceleration strategy here as he could combine a speed, power or jump cut, or even simple transition step.
Of course, part of what made Saquon a feature of our past discussions on his repertoire was that he has never been hesitant to find himself flying through the air over a defender if his perception picked up that the opponent was going low. It’s also routine for us to witness him spinning in any direction to maintain contact balance or simply make a guy miss. With each of the aforementioned movement actions (we can call them ‘tools’ if we like), he also exhibited tremendous controllability. This control can simply be thought of as the ability to parameterize or calibrate the exact execution of the action to meet the needs of the respective problem at that given moment in time.
The thing is, the more comfortable he got over the course of the weeks this season, the more the cap on his movement creativity became unhinged. The limits were continually removed. Greater exposure to problems led to exploitation of their (the problem’s) weaknesses. He trusted his movement toolbox even more so. And as this happened, we saw the emergence of a more evolved yet authentic type of movement style being used at times others simply couldn’t. Movements that shouldn’t typically be combined with one another or, those that shouldn’t be utilized at certain times (according to established mere mortal standards), were no longer off limits.
The power cuts took place with lower center of gravity and wider base of support.
The spins took place at higher speeds or in the midst of operating with differing amounts of space.
The hurdles took place with more variation in jumping style, flight path, or with more comfort regarding what he was going to do upon landing.
And also, low and behold, out of this was born a new deceptiveness in certain situations, especially in the open field, where he could be found utilizing things like changes in speed and tempo in order to deceive along with a complete change in coordination pattern as well all while he included his best Walter Payton high-step impersonations into the mix.
Finally, of course, the spicy thing that makes Saquon the NFL’s most must-see attraction today is that, like his movement skill predecessors such as Barry Sanders and LeSean McCoy (our 1st ever Mover of the Year in 2013), he has the ability to make an otherwise negative run look like something spectacular you don’t want to miss.
This abundance in his movement solutions, particularly at the motor action dimensions as we talked about above, allowed adaptability to flow from the very beginning for him and this quality only continued to grow. But even then, we know that the very make-up of any performer’s movement solutions cannot be reduced to an isolation of the component parts of the entirety of the system. Meaning, it wasn’t just about the motor actions. Instead, it was about his perception, intention, and action, coupled together to his relationship to the problem in front of him which allowed the adaptability to shine. This characteristic of his movement skill-set is likely the most impressive of all and where he could be considered a new-age Barry Sanders. Thing is, though Barry was also impressive from the very start of his NFL career, the adaptability (and controllability of patterns that we are talking about here) that Barry is so widely known for, took a bit more time for him to acquire across his seasons in the league.
His affordances for action
In what seemed to be a weekly occurrence on my Twitter account, I found myself writing the words (or something along the lines of) “his affordances” to be tweeted along with Saquon’s highlights from the game the day before. The reason for this is simple: Barkley’s affordances for action are, quite simply, much different than every other player’s. Now, if you are an ecological dynamics content junkie, you could quickly point-out the fact that every individual’s affordances for action are different from every other athlete’s (aka these affordances are individual and frame dependent). This would certainly be true but it would also be somewhat semantic as we could still make ‘close enough’ comparisons between players in regards to how they approach the solving of similarly-behaving problems; that is, in most cases outside of Saquon Barkley. But if you were to put Saquon in those same movement problems, he would connect to the opportunities which exist in the information present detailing the problem in VASTLY different ways from all others. We don’t have to look any further than his hurdle to hurdle play in traffic versus the Philadelphia Eagles that I featured as our Movement Play of the Week in week 6 of this season to illustrate this very point.
Ironically, one of the major ways that I feel as though Saquon can still improve dramatically is through the development of a deeper understanding (granted, this could be completely subconscious and not explicitly ‘understood’ by him at all) of what openings and opportunities in problems mean to the movement he should be organizing in an optimal world. Even in a few instances where he broke off big plays, I found that there were some trends in the affordances he seemed to be discouraged to interact with. Now, for whatever reason, he’s not accepting those invitations (i.e. those affordances) and acting upon them. This may be for very good reason; so it’s always only speculative on my part to assess it without speaking directly to the player about his problem solving processes and then finally diving into these types of problems with him to see if there are particular instances where he may be more willing to explore and accept the opportunities.
Which affordances he chooses to explore and potentially exploit (meaning, which invitations within the problem he accepts versus those that he elects to reject), should be a very personal matter. Thus, though I can attempt to get into Saquon’s shoes (and more appropriately, his perception-intention-action processes) and attempt to see/feel things from his perspective, these affordances and his personal connection to them are both individual and frame-dependent. Meaning, individual-dependent in the sense that they are only defined based on the performer in question and the action capabilities that performer possesses. Additionally, frame-dependent in that it truly matters when the performer is viewing them (i.e. the state that the performer is currently in) and from point of view (i.e. such as what intentions they had at that moment in time); affordances come and go, they appear and disappear.
How he’s currently connecting to problems (information-movement coupling)
My movement science hero, Nikolai Bernstein, once stated (1996): “A movement is correct when it perfectly fits a motor (movement) problem just as a key easily opens a lock.” But the practical reality is that every problem likely contains several different potential locks that are up to the performer to find which one lock is best for them (as which they have a key for). We don’t need the athlete to unlock them all…each of locks could potentially be responsible for the performer being able to open the door and allow one to be able to get through it.
I mentioned above of an example of extraordinary information-movement coupling which repeated itself almost weekly in the college game for Barkley (with the head nod to power, jump, or speed cut).
When in 1v1 situations with defenders in the NFL, he showed similar movement qualities and at times, in certain scenarios, was almost impossible to tackle by the first guy there. In these problems, Saquon is a master manipulator of time and space where he shows patience with allowing the guy to come to him and hang on a string, while he optimally times his movement action to routinely make guys look silly by utilizing various solutions. Of course, his visual perception (perceptual degrees of freedom; scanning of his gaze, his gaze fixation) is guiding the majority of information detection comfortably in these situations, as we can often see him, ‘eyes wide open,’ stuck on perceptual variables which paint the picture about the appropriate specifying information (which highlights aspects of his opponent’s current movement capabilities and future movement possibilities). In many of these scenarios, the more masterful movers will very often fixate at the hips and belly-button region whenever it’s possible (as opposed to at the chest, shoulders, or head).
However, when he gets in more confined space, I do certainly see some room to grow in this regards. We still see his visual gaze fixated, typically on some aspect of the first/next defender, but the perception appears to begin to become overloaded (fancy way of saying he can’t completely understand it). Thus, it sometimes appears as though as a result he’s guessing or over-anticipating with an almost haphazard movement solution that isn’t overly fit to meet the needs of the problem. Again, this may happen even on situations that he does something positive so we cannot just utilize the outcome to determine how effective the process of execution really is! He often doesn’t display the level to level problem solving to look beyond the local, microstructure of the problem that is immediately in front of him.
Meaning, he fixates on the opponent directly in front of him and the immediate space to deal appropriately deal with that first problem. Though I am not suggesting he ‘get ahead of himself’ without ensuring he beats the first guy, he will need to find perceptual strategies to connect to information on other levels of the problem (particularly, opponents behind and/or around the one directly in front of him). This is a quality that should also come from additional experiential learning.
Additionally, when the problem begins to contain more complexity, such as more guys in confined spaces, or he starts to run out of either time or space, I believe this is where we really begin to see his perception and decision making capabilities falter a bit. Though he’s still in that eyes wide open state, it should be recognized or asked, ‘even if his eyes are there, are they seeing what they need to?’ There’s a difference between accessing and experiencing information.
Though I should also be quick to add that when problems get more novel (different from other problems) he thrives in these contexts due to his adaptability which we have already mentioned. However, for whatever reason, that adaptive mindset (and overriding intention) isn’t always in play driving the execution bus.
All in all, I do think that it’s due to some of these gaps in his movement skill-set and the associated growth that needs to happen here, that he still doesn’t pick up some of the ‘dirty’ yards or ‘surer’ plays that many football coaches or analysts want to see from him. Let’s face it; he wants to get into open space where he can best utilize his movement strengths as well as feel most comfortable. Often times this also involves bouncing plays outside to be able to find and use a width of green grass along the sideline for his advantage). As he does this (bouncing outside), he sometimes misses or avoids large gaps or windows of space (or subpar opponents to be faced) which are contained in the middle of the field. Now, the whole thing with authentic movement solutions are that they are emergent for the performer doing the executing, but I do believe that over time, he’s going to have to figure out the proper perceptual feel (vision and other senses) for when it’s right to bounce it versus where another lock to open exists.
Finally, on a similar note, when crossing the field from east to west or more diagonally, in these cases I believe he can be more assertive in keeping on the gas pedal. As was displayed in a few scenarios (either in the TV version or the All-22 film), I thought he could’ve trusted his speed capabilities and beat guys to and around the corner to get up-field on a few particular instances (once versus the Eagles in our Movement POW and another in week 14 versus the Redskins). But, in both cases, he slowed down and then tried to combine a different type of movement solution instead. This could potentially be due to acute fatigue from the long run that came before that point or maybe he just isn’t sensing/perceiving the same information as I feel is potentially available there (or maybe I am wrong completely).
Now, everybody and their brother will tell Saquon that he should take certain plays and do something different with them. Remember, the ways he solves movement problems didn’t just come about randomly; they emerged over time under a myriad of factors. Thus, the real questions for me here are: 1). How does he view himself and his relationship with the problem under various situations and conditions? 2). How’s his intention playing into what he does, and does not, choose to perceive, decide and act? Thus, I am not saying that these intentions, which surely underpin the movement solutions he organizes, are even a bad thing or in a dysfunctional state. Instead, we just have to try to understand where they (the intentions and other cognitive processes) stand while he is in the midst of solving problems in various situations as it’s here that he could even more fully understand what he’s capable of versus what he’s not and thus, impact how he could/should aim to act each time he has a ball in his hands. Ultimately, even at times that he currently “fails” to solve a problem (the idea of fail depends on the context we are placing it under), he’s still Saquon Barkley and that’s exactly what the Giants and everyone should want him to be.
The problems are only going to be getting more complex
With a full offseason ahead and film from 350 touches of the ball in 2018, defensive coordinators across the league now have the time and energy to devote to scheming versus his unique style even more. Additionally, due to exposure, opposing team defenders will also start understanding more about his affordances for action and how tracking and tackling him is different from that of others. But here’s the thing: could these factors actually work in his favor? If so, how can he exploit it further?
I know, I know; it somehow seems to sound more impressive every time we see Saquon poster-up a highlight and we get to hear people make the obvious statement, “That’s a 233lb man doing that!” In contrast, each time I see one of these highlights, I seem to think to myself, “What else could he be capable of if he wasn’t quite 233lb?” Or, more importantly, when he isn’t making a highlight and instead has a failure in the movement solution organized, “Did him being 233lb impose a structural constraint that turned itself into a functional constraint there?” Of course, there are a whole host of factors which could contribute to a movement problem not being solved but there were definitely times where I felt strongly that the weight was hampering him both in his process of execution as well as the movement outputs possible.
Based on how he currently views his movement problem solving process (he behaves more dynamically with speed & agility-based solutions and less with imposing his will in ways with strength & power solutions). Obviously, this is not to imply that this is an issue of Saquon being too fat; just simply too heavy. I would love to see a case study of him at 220lb on an NFL football field in the same problems he found himself in 2018 just to see what would happen to his effectivities. I am a firm believer that the weight change would be worth it in the increases he would see in even more movement fluidity and freedom as well as immediate improvements in acceleration and speeds that he is able to hit. Arguably, losing the weight could also dramatically help his longevity based on ease of movement over the longer term. I have played the weight game with NFL players before, especially RBs, and it’s almost always a fruitless one for them. Meaning, more bodyweight carried (even in the form of muscle) typically equates to less movement possibilities. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, college coaches (and even sometimes NFL coaches too) proclaim that a heavier bodyweight is better and this dogma negatively affects the player over the longer haul.
If we partnered up
During the Movement Plays of the Week blog posts throughout this season, I’ve gone out of my way to include more extensive practical application sections at the end of each write-up; attempting to implore other Movement Professionals to think about what I personally would do (whether it was right, wrong, or indifferent) to guide and facilitate similar behaviors in my own players, to that movement behavior which was witnessed during the respective POW. In this same manner, I want to briefly explore what my approach may begin to look like for Saquon, at least on the surface, to expand upon what I would do if we would ever partner together.
Though someone may be quick to say, “If he’s gotten to the point where he’s already the most skillful mover in the league, shouldn’t he just stick to whatever training methods got him to this place?” This is a valid question that on a superficial level would seem to have some logic. However, it’s completely flawed. Most of you have probably seen the videos of Saquon squatting or cleaning heavy loads at Penn State or you’ve at least heard about these feats of weight room prowess. Additionally, others may have come across videos of Saquon working out with other NFL players like OBJ and Todd Gurley to work alongside the game’s best in hopes of pushing each other to higher echelons. This is all fine and dandy and impressive on social media and the like. Thing is, though Saquon should train with methods that he enjoys (as should every player), he also is in need of a much more focused approach as he moves up in level of mastery and skill (as does every player). Meaning, doing what he’s always done, won’t get him more of what he’s already gotten (high level of movement skill and the subsequent further evolution of it). This greater focus should trend, at all times, towards training means and methods that target specific weaknesses that he possesses while on the field (many of the gaps which we’ve discussed earlier in this blog). And thus, these training methods probably have to look, act, and feel a whole lot more like the problems he faces on an NFL Sunday (i.e. they must be more representative).
If you will remember back to last season during our Mover the Year analysis, I implored Antonio Brown to ditch the agility ladders and some of the other gimmicky training modalities he was known for doing and instead, have a primary aim to go problem solving day-to-day. Well, unfortunately, that didn’t happen (of course). But, if I were working with Saquon, a similar recommendation that I had for AB84 would be passed onto him as I feel as though Barkley is in a similar place of being on the verge of a creation of his own movement style. Thus, the approach I would take with him would be one that was driven with the sole expectation of making him an even more masterful, dexterous, and authentic movement problem solver.
To accomplish this goal, I would implore him to stand in the midst of problematic, yet contextual, chaos more frequently which would surely stretch his current grip on what problems he has solutions to. I would design a learning environment where he was expected to go solve even more problems; and a wider variety of problems repetition to repetition while also (maybe most importantly) facing a wider variety of live opponents (who each would have their own unique movement capabilities for Saquon to deal with). Really, driving up the complexity of the problem placed in front of him would be the means to do this; this would require him to constantly perceive the deep and rich information which highlights the disposition of the problem more than he ever has and allow him to explore his connection to the affordances that information contains.
In this way, he would get an opportunity to search what was in his movement repertoire and make adjustments to the solutions based on the peculiar problems he is facing (again, across a wide range of complex problems; this piece is key!). What I am certain would emerge from this would be simple: an expanded movement toolbox, with more controllability of those movement patterns and, most importantly, enhanced perceptual attunement (sensitivity to the specifying information of the problem and the affordances/openings which exist within that problem for him) to allow for more accurate information-movement coupling all-around. In an ecological dynamics framework, I feel as though he would be offered the opportunity to educate both his attention (perception) and his intention (his thought processes, the decisions he makes, how he’s motivated to act, etc) to organize the most effective solution imaginable given the context of the place he stands at that moment in time of his expertise.
What can we say about Saquon that hasn’t already been said? Well, as you can probably imagine, I have a lot more swirling around my mind when it comes to the analysis of his movement skills than I’ve even typed here on this post. Overall, luckily for us, I think we are far from seeing the last of Saquon Barkley being analyzed on this blog. He IS the new breed of movement skill, after all. The best part for us all now is that he was only a rookie. Thus, not only is the sky the only limit, but time is on his side for this rare, glorified air of the NFL to be grasped by him. As a Sport Movement Specialist who studies football, I am as excited as can be about watching the emergence of this case study of Saquon Barkley to live and breathe organically in front of our very eyes for years to come.