About this time every year, everyone begins buzzing about combine training, obviously due the NFL Combine's television coverage. The top collegiate players, looking to improve their draft stock, begin working out at facilities across the country to try and gain that small edge that they didn't have before. This trickles down to the high school level, as combines and select camps have grown into a powerful recruiting tool and all participants want to be at their best as they go through testing and position drills in front of scouts and selection committees.
It seems only natural that when something is on the line, people get focused. What has bothered me about the process is that athletes start training harder and more often leading up to a combine, and they train for the combine's specific events. First, if you truly want to be better at your craft, shouldn't you always be training hard? If you feel the need to pick up your training regimen leading up to a camp or combine, then how hard were training beforehand?
Second, when players begin training for a specific event at a combine, they lose sight of what the sport is really about. For example, take the NFL's Bench Press test, where players try to press 225lbs as many times as they can. Some players reach as high as 50 repetitions, which is truly a feat in and of itself, but how well does that translate to football? How often are we on our backs pushing objects off of ourselves 50 times? High repetitions on the Bench Press becomes strength endurance, not maximal strength. In football, we utilize maximal strength more than strength endurance.
The same principle is in place for most tests, like the 40 time, the most highly scrutinized test of them all. We change a linebacker's "stock" based on a fast or slow 40 time, but more often than not, linebackers are moving laterally, backpedaling, changing direction, flipping their hips, etc. All that time spent towards improving a 40 yard dash may help their draft stock, but work on change of direction and mutli-directional speed would have made them a better football player.
My end point is that while combines and camps are an integral part of our game, and a great scouting tool, don't lose sight of the game in favor of the combines. Work hard all year, not just in the weeks leading up to the event. And, train to become a better football player as opposed to just training to be better at a particular test. If your limiting factor happens to overlap with a test, then it's a happy coincidence. Train hard, train right, all year!
The Model for Quarterback Play
Many young quarterbacks turn on the TV today to watch their favorite NFL players and try to emulate what it is they do. They focus on the furiously-quick pattering feet of Peyton Manning; they see the cannon arm of Matthew Stafford dropping in sidearm; they see Mike Vick launch the ball downfield with a flick of the wrist. In all this, sometimes we lose perspective. The guys on TV do some great things, but just because they can do it doesn't make them the model. Many quarterbacks succeed because of superior athleticism, not because of superior fundamentals. Let's identify who's worth copying, and who's not.
Poor Model: Matthew Stafford - The Lions quarterback has some of the best tools in the game, and perhaps the strongest arm of any NFL quarterback. However, his footwork and ability to go match his feet to his progressions is awful, which leads to very inconsistent performance, lots of turnovers, and poor accuracy. The throwing motion derives power from the ground (as does every athletic movement). When you're feet are out of position, the rest of the body has to compensate. While we do need to make throws under pressure from different foot positions and arm angles, these unique cases should be the exception, not the norm, and when the pocket is good, we should have good mechanics from the ground up. Failing in this area can decrease performance and potentially create a bad habit that leads to an injury. This is Matt Stafford's issue; his feet are often open and his stride doesn't work towards his target, forcing his lower body to over rotate, giving him open shoulders at the release point, which causes his arm to drop low and wide. This makes the ball float downfield and have a flatter trajectory, i.e. an inaccurate ball thrown straight to the safety.
Copy Instead: Andrew Luck - The heir apparent to Brady and Manning, Andrew Luck may have the best footwork in the NFL. His feet match his reads whenever possible, maintaining a throwing-ready base and setting him up to be able to stride properly to his target. This gives him consistency and a discipline to his progressions. He's accurate and on time with his throws. When the pocket does break down, and he's forced to make throws from unusual positions, he still somehow manages to get his arm into the right slot despite his misaligned feet, which speaks to Luck's incredible strength and athleticism. Copy Andrew Luck's feet and aim to be as physically capable as him.
Poor Model: Michael Vick - Ever since Mike Vick entered the league, an increasing number of young quarterbacks have been trying to play with the "wing and flick," as I call it. That is to mean that they wing their elbow above the ball, then release the ball with a bent arm and strong wrist flick. Not only is this inaccurate, it's also bad for the shoulder (any throwing mechanics expert will tell you that "wing" is a bad thing). Vick might be able to pull it off at a high level sometimes, but he has been prone to inconsistency and has never been thought of as a great passer of the ball despite his incredible arm strength. I am actually surprised that he has not needed to have shoulder surgery to this point.
Copy Instead: Aaron Rodgers - Perhaps the best throwing motion in the game, Aaron Rodgers does a great job throwing with minimal wing (having zero is very rare), proper extension through the power channel, and turning the wrist down and pronating. This allows the axis of the spiral to follow the path of the ball's natural trajectory, making downfield throws turn down properly (the nose of the football should point down towards the receiver when it begins it's descent). Aaron Rodgers is thought of as the most accurate downfield passer in the game; Michael Vick is known for having a loose cannon when the throws the ball downfield. That's the difference copying the right model makes.
It is true that all NFL quarterbacks do some things extremely well - they have made it to the highest level. What we must decipher is whether they play at that level because of their fundamentals, or in spite of their fundamentals. When we figure that out, we know who to copy, and who not to copy.
SPU's Alex Drayson writes the SPU Football Performance Blog.