In this blog post, I want to look at the importance of a player's surroundings as relates to their success. Too often, we look at a player's success or failure as a final statement on their capabilities. However, any coach worth his salt will tell you that a player being win the right system and right teammates can succeed, and even good players who lack that situation can fail. As Winston Churchill enlightened us, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."
Let's start with Mark Sanchez. I was never Sanchez's biggest fan, all the way back to when he was drafted by the Jets who traded up to get him. However, how quickly we have all forgotten that he was a part of back-to-back AFC Championship game visits, and in many of those games or games leading up to, he wasn't just a "system" quarterback. He made game winning plays, and in the process became the Jets record holder for post-season touchdowns and is 2nd in post-season passing yards. He was in the right situation; solid defense, good defense, experienced receivers.
Let's point out that he's not the first to benefit from that combination. When Ben Roethlisberger stepped into the starting role, he had the same basic template - a good defense, a good running game, and experienced receivers. In Sanchez's situation, when he lost those assets he ended up with a new offensive coordinator and less than ideal weapons. The media claimed he had regressed. I would put it more on the system and situation. I don't think he got worse.
The same goes for Kurt Warner. He was a star in St. Louis, then moved on to the New York Giants, where he faltered. He went from a good situation to a bad one. Then, his career revived when he went to Arizona and made another trip to a Super Bowl. The situation makes all the difference. There are countless high draft picks who failed for reasons other than their own personal vices (see Jamarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf). Guys like David Carr and Joey Harrington are players who by all indications had great work ethic, leadership qualities, arm talent, toughness, etc. However, a bad situation led to little success, and eventually backup duties.
Let's apply the same tenant to high school quarterbacks: does situation play a large role in success? The answer would have to be a resounding yes. Quarterbacks who end up playing for bad teams with smaller team rosters have less guys to help them be successful and football is, in the end, a team sport. But, beyond the obvious lack of surrounding talent issue, there is also a more prevalent system issue. In the NFL, offenses require largely the same skill set, and while there is some diversity, it doesn't nearly compare to that which we see in high school offenses. From the Wing-T, to the spread option, to a pro-style, to triple option, to traditional, to spread passing games, high schools have a vast diversity in what they ask a quarterback to do. How does this affect a high school quarterback?
My first concern would be the skill set they learn. A quarterback who asked to learn an offense that doesn't teach the requisite skill set for the next level of play may see his future options severely depleted. If a quarterback never learns basic throwing mechanics, footwork, and passing concepts because his team runs exclusively an option offense, what are his chances to learn what he needs to be successful long term?
My second concern would be recruiting. College coaches look primarily at tape for their evaluations of high school prospects, and if that tape doesn't show the skills they need for their offense, they aren't going to waste their time on that prospect. And, as combines and camps become a bigger part of recruiting and gaining national recognition, lacking the skill set most of the combines try to showcase will become even more evident. A lack of throwing mechanics and accuracy, rough footwork, and patchy fundamentals will be exposed.
My third and most important concern would be for the quarterback's experience. How much fun would it be for a player to play his entire career wondering what he could be while trapped running an offense that doesn't suit him? It would be terrible to have to look back on what could have been without a true answer.
So, what can we do about these issues? Both coaches and players have to consider the situation. High school football coaches, notoriously some of the most stubborn on the planet (myself included), need to do a good job of adapting their offense to the skill set of the players they have, most notably the quarterback. And players need to look at their opportunities and see which one puts them in the best situation to reach their goals, whether that be having a positive high school experience or getting prepared to play at the next level. The truth is, there are always additional options and opportunities if you look. Instead of walking into a program, thinking it's all you have and trying to make the best of it, search out other opportunities which might give a better chance at success.
It is amazing the difference the right situation can make. Here's to hoping as many players as possible find a good one for them.
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.
With off-season fundamental work and passing leagues becoming a much more normal part of a quarterback’s development, we have begun to see an increase in overuse injuries. Generally, if the throwing motion is done correctly, the quarterback won’t feel any pain, but so few quarterbacks throw the ball with great mechanics that injuries do occur. Adding to this issue are some issues in training – so many quarterbacks do the same workouts as their teammates, which is potentially a problem for two reasons: who’s to say their teammates have a good workout written by their coach in the first place? And a quarterback needs a different workout because of the extreme specificity of their position.
Quarterbacks overuse a relatively unstable joint with a lot of force, which can lead to many overuse injuries. Quarterbacks are also dissimilar to pitchers in that a football is much heavier than a baseball and forces the arm to externally rotate, putting a lot more stress on the arm. The task of coaching a quarterback to be both effective and healthy is a difficult one, and not one that should be undertaken by an under-qualified coach. So many head coaches want to be the ones to coach their quarterbacks, which makes sense, however, if their knowledge on biomechanics and fundamentals is lacking in any way, they put their quarterback at a much higher risk of overuse and chronic injuries.
Let’s start by taking a look at kinetic sequencing, which is how the body transfers power into the throw. All of our power starts from the ground; as we push and twist into our feet we use the force the ground returns to us to power our throw (as you Isaac Newton followers will remember, for every force, there is an equal and opposite force, so when we push and twist into the ground, the ground returns that same force). From there, we twist our hips out in front of our shoulders, then shoulders out in front of our arm, then eventually the arm catches up, the elbow extends, the arm pronates down and we release the ball. Each segment of the body goes a bit behind the one before it, which creates power and torque. This is the same effect as a whip or a trebuchet (see: ancient but brilliant catapult system). This kinetic chain is extremely effective for creative power, but if one part of this chain doesn’t work right, all the successive parts of the chain are forced to compensate, which can lead to poor throws and injuries, particularly when done for hundreds and thousands of repetitions.
The first thing we must do to prevent throwing injuries is check biomechanical integrity. For those of you who have been with us for a while or regularly read our blogs, you know that biomechanical integrity is essentially the body’s ability to move correctly. A quarterback must have good thoracic spine mobility (which allows the hips to go in front of the shoulders in the chain), good external rotation in the shoulder (which allows the shoulders to lead before the ball), and a stable scapula (to stop the shoulder from leaving the back too soon, helping to support the smaller muscles inside the shoulder complex). While biomechanical is by far the most important part of preventing throwing injuries, it has been discussed in other posts and this entry will focus on some other items. Just keep in mind that all I’m about to write is a moot point without biomechanical integrity.
The common injuries we’re going to examine today are rotator cuff/labrum issues, biceps tendinitis, and UCL strains. These are what I feel are the three most common and easily preventable injuries in quarterbacks. Often times, these are brought on more from bad training habits and throwing mechanic issues.
The rotator cuff and labrum are fairly small items in the shoulder that require the support of the scapula in order really maintain any stability. When a quarterbacks tells me he has pain or injuries in the rotator cuff or labrum (which would really have to be a doctor’s diagnosis), the first thing to look at is the scapula. If the scapula doesn’t stabilize to the back well, it will put extra pressure into the cuff and labrum. This is what some physical therapists refer to as winging – as the hands move up, the scapula comes quickly away from the spine. To fix this, do exercises such as Y, T, W’s, pillow presses, wall sits with scapula mobility, or anything that creates scapula retraction. This should help train the scapula to hold onto the back better, and begin to save the shoulder.
Biceps tendinitis is a very painful injury, and is particularly damaging to a quarterback as the rotator cuff and biceps are two links of the same chain. A quarterback with biceps tendinitis often times causes the injury through his training regimen. By doing straight-bar bench presses and curls, we tighten the complex of muscles and tissue around the connection of the shoulder, chest, and arm. In doing so, we inwardly rotate the shoulders, creating a slightly hunched look, and put extra pressure into the rotator cuff and biceps. Because of this, I highly suggest all quarterbacks remove curls and bench press from their training regimens. Instead of curls and barbell bench press, increase pulling exercises such as chins up and inverted rows, and use dumbbells instead of a barbell (this allows a free movement of the shoulder because dumbbells can rotate, as opposed to being locked into position by a barbell which stops the shoulder from being able to rotate). Chin ups and inverted rows will help the quarterback open up their posture and still strengthen the smaller muscles in the arm without tightening the front of the shoulder, biceps, and chest.
UCL injuries (the ligament that runs along the inside of the elbow and associated with Tommy John surgery) generally arise from throwing mechanic issues (which generally arise from physical limitations or poor coaching). To prevent these elbow injuries, first make sure the shoulder and scapula are functioning properly. As we discussed before, when one part of the kinetic chain doesn’t work, the successive ones are forced to compensate. So, if the shoulder isn’t working right, the elbow compensates. Next, look at the mechanics involved. During the time in which the arm is moving forward into the throw, does the elbow ever move below the level of the shoulder? Or, does the angle between the forearm and upper arm ever go below 90? If either of these things are true, it is probably contributing to the pain in the elbow. To put in a few bench marks, the elbow should have approximately a 90 degree angle when it is cocked back, ready to begin moving forwards. At release, the elbow shoulder be at about ear height, still with a slight bend.
When designing a training program, make sure to include plenty of work on scapula stability and mobility, helping consistently prep the shoulder to be properly functional during activity. Also work on thoracic rotation, as that will help the parts of the chain coming before the shoulder and elbow to work properly. This would include stretches that help separate the hips and shoulders, like a half kneeling twist. Avoid pressing exercises with the exception of push-ups and dumbbell presses (nothing that locks the hand and shoulders, preventing them from rotating), and increase the amount of pulling exercises like chin ups, inverted rows, and dumbbell rows, etc. Also avoid overhead pressing, as this puts the shoulder in a fairly compromising position and generally isn’t done properly (most athletes over-extend their spine to save the shoulder, which ends up just hurting the back).
A couple red flags in the throwing motion that can lead to injuries:
-A low elbow through the release: make sure the elbow is about ear height at the release.
-A straight elbow at release: this tends to lead to AC joint pain in the shoulder. Full extension in the arm shoulder only be reached after the release, not before.
-An elbow that rises above the height of the ball: the elbow should never be higher than the ball at any point in the throwing motion, even while we are just cocking the arm back to throw. This creates wing, which in both quarterbacks and pitchers is a huge red flag. This will lead to both rotator cuff and UCL issues, as well as potentially erratic accuracy.
-A long strider: quarterbacks who over-stride lock their hips into place early, instead of allowing rotation. This decreases hip to shoulder separation, which causes the release point to be further in front of the body, which causes the rotator cuff to be overstressed AND the elbow to drop at release, which sends the ball high (see: Mark Sanchez). The proper stride length is approximately the athlete’s tibial tuberosity X 1.5, or about 26-30 inches in most quarterbacks.
Finally, even if a quarterback does all over the throwing mechanic and training items correctly, they still need to take care of their shoulder. Ice properly, warm-up properly, and tell your coach if your arm is feeling overly fatigued. Repetitions are not a problem; bad repetitions with an uncared-for shoulder are a problem.
If you have any questions, please feel free to write me at adrayson@SportPerformanceU.com.
There is no doubt that mechanics and fundamentals are crucial to any quarterback (or athlete), and constant dedication to that end is an enormous contributor to individual success. However, in some cases, working on throwing mechanics or fundamentals without first testing for biomechanical integrity can hinder the results an athlete gets out of hours of work on mechanics.
Let’s take, for example, a young man who works hours on end on his throwing mechanics, and pretend his shoulder is somewhat inflexible and won’t move into the correct positions during the throw. Since he can’t get his arm into the right position, all those hours of work are being put towards a compensated throwing motion, one that is not the most efficient or effective, and could quite possibly be causing injury to both his shoulder and whatever joints are bearing the excess pressure created by the incorrect throwing mechanics. In this case, the young man is actually hurting himself, which is unfortunate because he wants to work hard to achieve his goals. But, without the proper analysis done on his body beforehand, no matter how much work he does, he will not reach his goals; as we said, his shoulder lacks mobility, and he cannot yet throw the football properly, and will not be able to, despite his efforts.
What is the lesson to be learned from that scenario (which, by the way, is a real scenario I encountered a few years ago with a young quarterback)? The take-away is that quarterbacks need to do a biomechanical analysis before doing serious throwing mechanic work; in fact, this is true for every position, but we’ll focus on quarterbacks. If, prior to working on his mechanics, a quarterback were to find out how his body functioned, address areas that were of concern, get his body moving with biomechanical integrity, and only then begin throwing mechanic work, he would put himself in a far greater position to succeed. He would have a reduced risk of injury and a greater capacity to learn and execute the skill correctly.
So, whether you are a coach or player, remember – mechanics are not the foundation for success. They are a big part of success, but there is a layer of physical capabilities underneath mechanics that serve as the foundation – biomechanical integrity comes first. Once that foundation is solid, good mechanics and fundamentals can be built.
SPU's Alex Drayson writes the SPU Football Performance Blog.