It is impossible to calculate which position in sport is the most mentally taxing.
How do you compare the mental acuity and natural agility of a top-level hockey goalie to the complex mapping required for a golfer to read the speed and undulation of a green? Or how do you compare the precision and fortitude it takes to step into a boxing ring to the skills of a biathlete, someone who must traverse snow-clad terrain, navigate a course, and then shoot at targets with world-class precision, steadying their nerves and focusing their breathing, all against the clock?
Claiming one is more mentally taxing than the other is like the local coffee shop near the train station that claims to have the best java in the world. Sure, it’s good – but the best in the world? Who did the research? What were the qualifications?
It certainly feels like an NFL quarterback has the most taxing job in sports. Nothing else approaches the scope and pressure of the position. QBs must have complete command of every detail of the playbook in order to orchestrate a top offense, while understanding the nuances of their system, their teammates and their opponents (and, of course, doing so while avoiding 280lb linemen trying to crush them into the turf).
And then there is the scrutiny from the media and fans, which has few parallels in the sports world. They are the team in many ways, even more so as the game and its rules swerve towards the offense. There is no separation of church and state – as the quarterback goes, so does the team.
Digesting the information on a quarterback’s plate is borderline impossible, and it’s what separates the very talented from the great.
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Tom Brady spoke about that difficulty last week. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback (that still sounds weird) is learning a new system and verbiage – a football language – as he prepares for the upcoming season.
“It’s been different having the opportunity over this time to move and to, for example, study my playbook – I mean I really haven’t had to do that in 19 years, so you forget, ‘Man, that’s really tough,’ like all of the different terminologies,” Brady told ESPN. “You’re going back a very long time in my career to really have to put the mental energy in like I did.”
It’s a curious decision for the Bucs to ask Brady, a greatest-of-all-time candidate, to conform to their playbook as opposed to asking him to install his own system, the one he spent two decades perfecting with the New England Patriots and helped bring his former team six Super Bowls.
When Peyton Manning opted to make Denver his home during his free-agent frenzy of 2012, part of his reasoning was that the organization committed to running things his way. Practice habits changed – Manning took every snap. The coaching staff adopted his system rather than vice versa. Players who didn’t fit the Manning Way were booted in favor of some of his trusty lieutenants.
Brady and the Bucs are going the other way. The veteran has had to learn a whole new language. And it is a language unto itself.
There are typically thousands of plays in an NFL playbook. The Rams’ famed 2001 playbook, that of the Greatest Show on Turf fame, had upwards of 3,000 individual calls. Yet only a fraction of a team’s playbook makes it onto the week-to-week playsheets, based on the tendencies of opponents, what has been working for the team, and the personnel available.
All that time, effort, and energy committed to a host of plays you may never use.
The language of playbooks has evolved, though.
In the vast majority of pre-2008 NFL offenses, every player on the offense was tasked with digesting every responsibility in every play in the playbook.
It was, and remains, a remarkably inefficient strategy. As plays become more advanced, the calls become even wordier. In a traditional “west coast” system, the system of choice from the 1980s to the 2000s and still a mainstay today, each individual’s role is detailed. A quarterback barking out “Jet Dart 368 Y-Flat Train” in the huddle is detailing to each of his 10 teammates the job of the offensive line, the receivers, tight ends, and running backs, plus any kind of pre-snap movement.
“‘Gun’ near RT Jet 2 Snag x Dragon”
“ZIP King Slot 21 ‘X’ Spot RB Sway”
“Zoom Change Right Flop 20 ‘X’ Spot FB Sway”
On and on they go. Snap after snap. When players say learning a new playbook is like learning a new language, they mean it.
But in New England, Bill Belichick installed a system around what are known as Erhardt-Perkins principles that put all of the mental strain on his quarterback. Brady was responsible for everything. He was given complete autonomy to adjust his team’s play based on how the opponent’s defence lined up on every down.
And rather than have Brady regurgitate full sentences every time they entered the huddle, the Patriots trimmed it to a word. The title of concept. Each player was told to worry only about their job within that title name, Brady would take care of the rest. If you’re on the field and Brady calls “Circus”, you should know where to be and what to do, but Brady would make sure the other nine roles all fit together.
Suddenly the playbook was trimmed from a splurge of sentences to one-word buzzwords: Romeo; Baltimore; Clown. All of the detail was in Brady’s head.
Think about that: the most detail-oriented team in US sports put the entire playbook in the head of one player, allowing his teammates to focus on themselves. It’s hard to come up with any kind of equivalent in team sport – at least in terms of so much being placed on the mental efforts of one individual.
Brady will now shift back to a word-dense system. After 20 years of stripping away the fat and crafting his own language, at 43 he must now learn a new one entirely. And the success or failure of his team will depend on him getting it right.
Maybe the initial question isn’t so difficult after all.