As I have said in the past, this annual blog post is my very favorite to not only write, but also complete the required leg work for! I attempt to analyze and assess the movement skill of players across the league at enhanced depths every single year in preparation for this moment alone: to be able to confidently name the game’s most skillful and dexterous mover and then to most accurately depict what allows his problem solving processes to play out in the fashion that they do under the extreme constraints of a National Football League Sunday.
If you’ve been following along throughout the 2019 NFL season, you will know that my focus this year has been on investigating and explaining the information that is present in the problems players face, and then understanding how that information serves to guide and channel the movement solutions which are organized. To really get an ‘information-based’ idea of where I am coming from with my analysis below, I would implore you to read the following blog post on the topic that I wrote back at the beginning of this season.
As you should be able to take from today’s analysis, the Mover of the Year for 2019 is the epitome of possessing tightly coupled information-movement coupling processes between the environment and himself. Though I have gone about articulating this emphasis and attempting to raise my understanding of this concept of information-movement coupling more than ever in 2019, when it comes to our previously named Movers of the Year, we could certainly apply these concepts to those past winners, as well. Those exceptional players include:
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)
2018 – Saquon Barkley (Running Back, New York Giants)
But, that was then, and this is now. Our Mover of the Year from last year, Saquon Barkley, ended up missing 3 and ½ games due to sustaining a right ankle injury from contact and this injury pretty much put him out of contention for this year’s race. Thus, here are our top contenders for 2019:
Michael Thomas, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints
The NFL’s most productive WR isn’t always the NFL’s most skilled mover at the WR position. As we know, statistics don’t always tell the whole story. However, the Saint’s wide-out is the exception to this rule. Michael Thomas has become the hallmark of consistency and his steadfast performances were followed by catches, on catches, on catches…against all teams, and in all conditions. It simply didn’t matter how opposing teams elected to handle him; he produced anyway. Of course, anytime a player is able to do that, we must look deeper at his problem solving capabilities because adaptability is almost certainly responsible for the execution leading to those outcomes. Yes, there are a bunch of highly skillful wide receivers in the NFL today as it may be the deepest position in all of football (from a movement skill perspective), but Michael Thomas is currently the cream of that crop.
Christian McCaffrey, Running Back, Carolina Panthers
In any given season, the RB who is deemed the most dexterous problem solver has to be get serious consideration for the Mover of the Year. Individuals of the past such as LeSean McCoy in 2013, David Johnson in 2015, and Saquon Barkley in 2018, show how RB represent the cream of the crop more than any other position has. This is an even more powerful debate when the player who is the All-Movement First Team RB happens to do on-field what Christian McCaffrey did in 2019. McCaffrey has truly evolved into an all-around movement problem solver in his third year in the league. To add to that, to say he was the focus of every opposing team’s defensive unit would be an understatement. Yet, while in the midst of facing the constraints of those conditions, McCaffrey thrived and came out of the chaos as one of the most productive players in a single season in NFL history.
Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the entirety of 2019, you know why Lamar Jackson is listed here. The top moving signal caller in the NFL simply took the league by storm. At only 23 years old, Jackson doesn’t appear to have reached his ceiling by any stretch of the imagination. People may see the highlights and think he’s just a guy who is dangerous with the ball in his hands in the open field. However, to say this would simply not be doing justice to how proficiently he threw the football under nearly all situational demands this season as well. He is vastly improving in all areas and should continue to grow his style of movement skill for years to come.
Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, New England Patriots
If you watched any Patriot game in 2019 you probably noticed that the New England defense was an intimidating one for the majority of the season. This was certainly made possible by the game’s closest thing to a shutdown corner in this day and age of the NFL: Stephon Gilmore. Each week, Gilmore could be found taking out the other team’s most dangerous and/or effective receiving threat; often erasing them for the entirety of the game. Of course, in order to do that, many would think he would have to have “flawless technique” or some extreme compilation of physical characteristics. Instead, if we are being honest about it, I feel its clearly the vast and unrivaled abundance of his movement strategies and solutions that allowed him to execute in the fashion necessary to lock guys down play-to-play, week-to-week.
George Kittle, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
As I said last week when the All-Movement Team was released, based on what was shown in 2019, no conversation about who is the game’s most skillful mover would be complete without at least mentioning George Kittle. You don’t get the moniker of “Mr. YAC” (Yards After the Catch) for nothing. Instead, like our other finalists, you accomplish this by being able to solve a whole range of movement problems through a wide host of strategies too (you should see a trend there). Thing is, Kittle is far from a one trick pony. He’s presents as well-rounded of movement toolbox as any of the finalists in the running, and should now be considered one of the most complete movers in the entire league too.
Aaron Donald, Defensive Line, Los Angeles Rams
The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year is also arguably still the game’s very best all-around player. And, his proficient movement skill is a big reason as to why. After the seasons that Aaron Donald has posted over the last few years, offensive coordinators have continually gone to work on ways to throw the kitchen sink and then some at him. Yet, due to the highly adaptable ways he operates, Donald simply continues to find ways to match all schemes and all other opposing players.
So who’s the best and why?
Just to be clear, as I have stated in previous seasons but want to offer the reminder again; 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).
I know I am somewhat redundant in saying it every single year at this point, but its never an easy endeavor to compare, apples to oranges and position-to-position, the movement skills which emerge from each player’s movement toolbox to match the problems that they face (when the problem disposition varies considerably across positions). But, let me say this now, I feel as though this is the deepest group of movement skill I’ve investigated and then assessed in any given NFL season. Each player mentioned above (and maybe even a couple of others that I left off that finalist list) were truly special in their own right and deserving, at some level, of being considered the NFL’s most dexterously skilled mover.
BUT, all that being said, there’s still only one right answer here and if you’ve been following along throughout this NFL season, it should be obvious which direction we are going to head. The recipient of the 2019 Mover of the Year in the NFL is none other than…
LAMAR JACKSON, Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
Why is this the only right answer and the very obvious choice? Well, quite simply, we have NEVER seen any player at this position, in the history of the NFL, with this type of depth and breadth of movement skill.
In the seven year history, Lamar Jackson is the very first quarterback to be awarded our end of the year recognition. There were seasons in the past that it looked like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers may seize it in their hands. Then, last year, Patrick Mahomes came onto the scene with his creative, adaptive, gun-slinging nature, and I thought that he may be the first to grasp onto it (if you would’ve asked me at the beginning of the season who would win it in 2019, I may have said Mahomes). Thus, I knew it was only a matter of time till it happened, but it took a player like Jackson to force my hand on this decision. But, one look at what makes Lamar Jackson’s movement skill tick, and you will realize that my hand was far from forced…Lamar’s movement behaviors are marvelous!
SWOT Analysis Summary:
- Backyard ball play-maker creativity; he is who he is and he’s his best when he stays true to that authentic self
- Perceptual radar; when we talk about perceptual attunement (i.e. sensitivity to the specifying informational variables within the problem), we can see the living and breathing example of this characteristic manifested in Jackson
- Lots of tools in the toolbox! Has loads of options available to him (various coordination patterns to drive the respective movement strategy) and phenomenal control in parameterizing movement variables (i.e. degrees of freedom) to meet the needs of the problems too. This is not just the case in agility actions but it’s in his throwing platforms and arm slots, as well.
- Ownership of his acceleration; able to act decisively to hit the gas pedal and when he does he’s able to hit high speeds in a hurry. On this note, he may actually be a more functional movement problem solver when he’s operating at ownership speeds of maximum controllable velocities as opposed to maximum speeds.
- There are some situations (mostly speaking to as it unfolds downfield as he’s exceptional with it during designed runs and early in the play, near the LOS) where he could stand to do more to pick-up/detect (i.e. perceive) information from his teammates and how they may behave that could assist him more effectively (i.e. shared affordances)
- Sometimes appears to get so excited about what’s unfolding in front of him and around him that he gets a little ahead of himself and then rushes to get to the event (this could be why we may sometimes see him lose his footing and slip in the open field when approaching a local movement problem that he is anticipating to occur)
- Only 23 years old; lots of time to grow and further expand the movement toolbox
- The already present creativity and flair within his movement solutions clearly sets the tone for more nuances of deceptiveness as well as new solutions to be added to the skill-set heading forward
- Can a style such as this be sustainable over the long haul? What will it take to make it more sustainable?
- Future coaches potentially trying to change him; doesn’t seem to be the case now, but he obviously won’t have these coaches forever and we all know how some coaches will be with a player the style of Jackson
- Though opposing coaches haven’t come up with the right formula as of yet, they will. Probably one of the steps that they will take in this is being as physical as possible with him when they do get their chance to get their licks in. Fortunately for Jackson, you can’t hurt what you can’t catch…
Let me present you with some evidence
Though we will continue to peel back the layers a bit on Lamar’s movement problem solving processes and his Form of Life, I think the best place to start is to offer some evidence as to why he is undoubtedly the best of the best in 2019. But, any analytics, in the form of statistical data, aren’t going to be the way to appreciate what Lamar Jackson has done and more importantly, how he does it. Instead, the best way to really ‘try to understand’ who he is, is to just watch him do what he does for yourself.
Check out this highlight reel from his game in Week 14 against the NFC’s best team and the team which would eventually be named the ‘Most Masterfully Moving Team’ for 2019:
Hopefully that highlight video started to wet your whistle a bit. But, let’s not stop there. Of course, he was featured in our Movement Play of the Week analysis breakdowns on three separate occasions over 2019. In case you missed those, I would selfishly recommend that you check them out now.
As you can see from those video highlights as well as the breakdowns of the specific movement play execution, the emergent movement behaviors of Lamar Jackson are a special sight to behold and try to put yourself in the processes of (of perception, cognition, and action).
Is he really that much different from all others before?
In a word, YES.
Of course, as soon as Lamar Jackson started coming on, and then even more when he began to break records, people were quick to point to another great running quarterback who displayed rare and proficient characteristics within his movement skill, Michael Vick. I get it; that’s what people do in the NFL and its easy (though very lazy) to do this. Any RB who sticks a juke: “gotta be the next Barry Sanders.” Any DB who can lock a WR down for any period of time: “gotta be the next Deion Sanders.” Any QB who slings it around the field: “gotta be the next Brett Favre.” Of course, though I may mention the greats of yesteryear and the best that the NFL has ever seen, I prefer to let the movement skill-set of each respective player live independently and authentically as it is – a special creation from the individual player himself – coming from who he is and what his movement skill is made up of, and connected to, in the moment, to that peculiar problem that he is facing.
And, even if we were in the business of comparing, these two individuals, Jackson and Vick, are NOT two in the same just because they are both African American quarterbacks who can run at a high level and make others look silly in the process. It’s simply not that simple!
Yes; they are the only two quarterbacks in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. And yes; they are both gifted with the kind of athleticism that makes others envious and makes highlight reels be action-packed. But, that’s where the comparisons begin to fizzle and break down. In fact, I would say that they actually solve problems in vastly different ways and when we begin to look at the nuances of what makes up their problem solving processes.
For starters, let’s respect the movement problems that each is presented with facing and solving. NFL problems are not what they were when Michael Vick played. I get that this wasn’t that long ago, only a decade and change, but Vick played in an era where the West Coast offense ran rampant across the NFL and he found himself entrenched within it. This likely somewhat handcuffed him actually and kept him for maybe developing the type of perceptual skill or wide ranging affordances for action that Jackson already possesses.
As a by-product of that system and what his movement skills were, turn on any Michael Vick highlight video and the majority of the clips are not designed runs, they are improvisational scrambles after plays broke down. He often had a ton of open space to work with. And those highlights are also made possible by Michael Vick’s extraordinary world class for American football linear speed.
Contrary to popular belief, Vick did NOT consistently make people miss in the same manners like Lamar Jackson does across situational constraints (tight or open spaces, with guys small-sided situations, etc). Jackson’s game is built on agility and elusiveness driving his movement skill. And, of course, he’s in a system which is designed around him, to allow him to flourish in doing just that in the running game, and he executes through highly integrated perception, cognition, and actions for those problems.
So, though its impossible to speculate how Michael Vick would have behaved in a system such as Lamar Jackson, let’s stop directly comparing them, because they were expected to solve vastly different problems. To add to that, though I am far from a quarterback guru by any means, but in my humble opinion, Jackson has also already proven himself to be a bigger threat in the passing game than Vick ever was. However, I would say that it’s important to bring up Vick when talking about Jackson for a different reason…because Vick (his style and his success) almost certainly influenced Jackson’s intentions of playing QB for the long haul.
“Not bad for a Running Back”
After a game versus the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, Jackson uttered those famous words as a passive aggressive rebuttal to the doubters and the haters who prognosticated inaccurately and foretold his future with great limitation.
As Lamar Jackson is about to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award, after leading his team to the NFL’s best record and a record-setting season of his own, its laughable to think that there were some individuals across the league, including a few pretty reputable ones, who believed that Jackson would turn out to be nothing more than a gimmick player in the NFL and that maybe he was more suited to play a different skill position such as running back or wide receiver…or maybe even defensive back..or maybe only return kicks. Truth is, one look at his film and the reality is that he probably could play any one of those positions in the NFL if he wanted to. But, to limit him there to those positions begins to show the great ineptitude and uncertainty with talent identification within the NFL talent evaluation process.
Acknowledging the realities of the chip that rightfully remains on his shoulder probably also starts to give us insight as to what makes Lamar Jackson tick and where his movement behaviors emerge from. Though we could never even begin to scratch the surface on the richness of a highly skilled performer’s movement toolbox over the course a few thousand word blog, we must always continue speculate as to the answer to these questions, “how did it (the movement skill) get like this?!” Furthermore, “where can it (the movement skill) go from here?” And finally, “how can we more effectively lead it (the movement skill) to that point (of further evolution)?”
His Form of Life
Sometimes, to get an idea as to where a player is going, we have to try to understand where they have been and what led them to this point. I am not saying that players cannot and should not change their movement behavior identity (their Form of Life), as they obviously should continue to grow and evolve, but we can speculate as we watch the movement skill evolution path he’s been on already, as to who he is as he approaches given movement problems on a football field.
So, let’s take a look back a bit and see the movement fingerprint put down by Jackson’s own individual style and authenticity.
Below, we see a short high school highlight reel.
Next, let’s look at some college highlights from Louisville (certainly there were way more than this being that he won the Heisman as a sophomore to then play more after that)
Then, finally, here are highlights from his rookie season in the NFL last year in 2018.
Certainly players change, their movement skill-set grows, and their movement solutions theoretically become more of their own and fit to meet the needs of their environment. From the start though, we can see that his intentions and aims to act stem around him thriving when he is having fun playing his own stylistic brand of football that looks and feels a whole lot like he’s in the backyard just creating. And of course, over the years, not a lot has changed in this regard. Surely, I think we could speculate that his intentions have gotten more skilled (and they should continue to grow in this fashion too)…this is highly evident if we look at the growth displayed even in 2018 from his first start to the end of the season, and now as we sit here a year later too.
But, the reason is feel all of this is important is because its those intentions (his cognitive thought processes which drive his aims to act) which intertwine with his perception and action processes too. And it’s all played out in what we have seen over the course of 16 weeks of his own special sauce; a swagger and style that cannot be faked or imitated. If he’s in this zone, we can speculate that every movement solution which emerges is that of an honest, creative, authentic expression.
But, we came here for the jukes
I get it, I get it…and I’m all-in on it, as well. The very entity that catches the eyes and captivates all viewers is Jackson’s ability to organize a movement solution to meet the needs of agility problems in head-turning, jaw-dropping, bewildering ways.
Just take a peek at the following video which is just a short compilation of some of the jukes that #8 laid down for our entertainment purposes in just the first half of the 2019 NFL season.
If you could turn on that video and watch it just once, you should probably stop reading this blog post now because you just aren’t appreciating it to the degree it deserves. Let me remind you that the players in the opposite colored jerseys of Jackson in that video above are also elite American football players who play professionally in the NFL! Also, he is making them look absolutely silly way too routinely in fashions that should only be believable if they were done video games.
So, how are these dynamic and wicked movement problems so frequently solved in the moment by emerging and functional movement solutions from Lamar?
He’s a highly perceptual creature
For starters, and coincidentally enough in-line with our information-based theme for 2019, Lamar is highly sensitive to the information present across various problem situations and he can quickly, but also accurately, determine what that problem has to offer him (i.e. affordances which exist).
For starters, Jackson is constantly scanning the landscape of the environment to pick-up and detect the necessary information for channeling his movement on-line. We will see his head in an almost continuous state of turning and if you ever get to a camera view on his eyes, they are almost constantly darting across various information sources (as opposed to being fixed or anchored like is more often recommended in sports which contain tasks which require more fixed/predictable/limited informational sources). Knowing the wide variety of problems he has the capability of solving, means that his perceptual strategies and the way that his perceptual degrees of freedom are being organized to gather the necessary specifying information, are also not limited.
There will be times that he is using the aforementioned strategy of continuous scanning, likely utilizing visual pivot points where his head/eyes move as the events unfold.
Then there will be instances, usually with a defender in closer quarters, where his eyes do become more still and anchored on the individual in front of him, as the movement behaviors of the immediate defender will inform him (pun intended) of his opportunities for action so they need higher resolution.
Finally, there are times that its’ so apparent that he is using his eyes as a strategy to deceive an opponent, such as looking somewhere else while still likely taking in the necessary information about the immediate defender(s), maybe in his peripheral vision, while attending to what’s specifying while manipulating the defender in given ways.
Finally, the way he picks up information is also multi-dimensional; meaning, he is not reliant just on one sensory sub-system (such as vision) for this detection. There were numerous situations where we see him stick his hand out to gather haptic/touch information about what is out there in the world for him to connect to and guide his movement from.
Adaptability within adaptability
The not-so-distant cousin of attunement which underpins the very essence of movement skill is the all-important characteristic of adaptability. Part of this adaptability is driven by abundance in his movement solutions. Or, as I always say, degeneracy precedes dexterity. In other words, the ability to solve any emerging movement problem in any situation and in any condition (i.e. dexterity per Bernstein) is made possible by having more ways to solve the problem (i.e. degeneracy/abundance).
We see this characteristic very apparent in his cutting strategies. Like Movers of the Year that have come before him such as last year’s winner, Saquon Barkley, and our first ever Mover of the Year, LeSean McCoy, Jackson’s action strategies are not limited to a certain range/bandwidth of patterns. He’s not picky or biased; if it works to fit the movement problem in front of him, he will use it.
Inside foot, crossover cutting…yup.
Outside foot, power cutting…mmm hmm.
Wide or narrow…low or high…you bet.
In and out, breaking em down…of course (it’s his signature).
Spinning to leave them grasping…you got it.
Staying on the throttle and leaning hard to corner and slash through the open field…obviously.
Leaving his feet and finding a way over defenders…why not?
Even stopping on a dime and letting them run on by…yes, nothing is off-limits.
Usually when a guy shows this level of agile, make others miss, darting and juking type movement style, they are also known as guys that once an opponent does get their hands on him, they are easy to go down and/or they aren’t able to run with power when the problem dictates an affordance for this is there. However, this is not the case with Jackson as the abundance within his movement strategies allows him to go there if need be.
Now, by no means is Jackson out-searching for a more strength-power oriented solution strategy such as lowering his shoulder or throwing out of stiff-arm to put a guy down on the ground, he also isn’t one to shy away from it if it means the difference between the play being extended or him being stopped. If it (the strength-power solution) is the path to him staying upright and eating up more yards, he’s not only willing to do it but he also has a strategy for doing so too.
To add, as I said above in the SWOT analysis, this adaptability isn’t just present in his locomotion and agility strategies. Instead, it’s also in the throwing platforms that he finds himself in and the arm slots utilized to deliver balls where he wants them to be thrown, when he wants them to be thrown, and how he wants them to be thrown. Or more specifically, as the unfolding problem disposition requires/dictates it be thrown.
This, of course, is one of the magic questions which will be and should be asked about Lamar Jackson and his movement skill. Is this style actually sustainable? Not just over the short-term (as he has proven for the most part over the last year and a half), but, more importantly, over the long haul for him to not only continue on the path he’s on but also be the franchise quarterback at the Baltimore Ravens believe they have.
Part of the reason often given, as to why the type of veer option, heavy run offense (especially with the quarterback himself) that the Ravens have uniquely operated with in 2019, which was designed solely around Lamar Jackson’s special movement skill-set, was simply not possible to employ in the NFL is that it has always been proposed that it puts the QB in harm’s way too much; exposing the QB to frequent damage from hits and body blows, which could increase the likelihood of possibly sustaining a major injury or, at bare minimum, accumulate into significant damage over the course of the season that would bring a deterioration of that player’s performance over time.
Of course, only Lamar Jackson himself knows what his body is like right now as well as how he feels (or what’s going on in his head) as he approaches the intensity of overly complex movement problems especially those of the ‘riskier’ disposition. That all said though, he certainly has NOT gotten shy towards running the ball under any of these problem situations as the season as progressed; in fact, quite the opposite. He actually seems to be more eager to do what is being asked of him. I think most of this is because if you watch closely, Jackson actually takes less significant strikes than his peers at the position who are less accustomed to running with the ball in their hands. Instead, he is more adept at contorting his body slightly, which allows strikes from defenders, that would typically come close to decapitating an unsuspecting QB, to now being relegated to just glancing blows on Jackson.
Of course, all it takes is just one wrong hit. But, this is football…for every player, at every position, all it takes is just that one wrong hit! So, that’s simply not an excuse to not allow Jackson to be who he is comfortable being and who his movement skill allows him to be. Plus, it’s not like he’s some small, frail, fragile player either. He’s 6’2” and 215ish pounds.
However, it would still be naive to say that this sustainability factor may be the only thing that keeps this style from continuing to have the success (and maybe more too) as time passes on.
As you can hopefully see, we are dealing with a completely different animal here in Lamar Jackson. With few true weakness and gaps in his movement skill-set, his attuned and adaptable movement system seems to be ripe for resetting this new movement behavior standard for quarterbacks over and over. He’s already standing here on the pinnacle of movement skill and if history continues to repeat itself, his movement toolbox will keep growing exponentially while offering sport movement specialists with a tremendous case study to investigate.
Did this breakdown intrigue you and you want to understand sport movement skill and behavior more deeply? Well, you’re in luck! I am part of an exciting new movement education project entitled EMERGENCE which will aim to uncover how many of the concepts, theories and principles live and breathe within movement behavior in sport. Check us out at http://www.emergentmvmt.com and get involved!