[Ed.---Advance warning, this entry is extremely long]
What is "Physical Genius"?
A concept of mine it is not, but I love it just the same. Rather, it belongs to one Malcolm Gladwell, one of the more interesting writers and thinkers around. Gladwell's the author of two much-hyped books: The Tipping Point and Blink. Both are concept-driven books, although the principles behind them are entirely organic. CFR loves concepts, so you had to know I'd sink my teeth into this topic.
***My advance apologies to Mr. Gladwell and anyone else with a better understanding of the concept if I butcher it along the way***
The best way for me introduce Physical Genius is to throw some of the athletic names out there Gladwell asribed to it: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tony Gwynn, Gred Rusedski and Jack Nicklaus. In other words, some of the very best to ever play their games. It applies to athletes and non-athletes alike (Gladwell joyfully documents the genius of musician Yo-Yo Ma and a particular neurosurgeon named Charlie Wilson), but for the sake of this discussion, we're narrowing the field to college football figures.
As is obvious above, one of those college football athletes is Vince Young. I'll add my own thoughts about him later on in support of BON's petition, but I'd also like to offer two other candidates for status as Physical Geniuses (PG's)---Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll.
January 4th and the Rose Bowl was a significant and particularly rare intersection of three unique PG's at work, college football's equivalent of Halley's comet, perhaps. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Gladwell begins with some intentional vagueness in attempting to describe Physical Genius:
[PG's] all have an affinity for translating thought into action. They're what we might call physical geniuses...
...The puzzling thing about physical genius, however, is that the closer you look at it the less it can be described by such cut-and-dried measures of athleticism.
He then enters a neurological dissection of why Tony Gwynn was so good at the impossible act of hitting a baseball. Here is our first good piece of meat to chew on:
"Very good hitters base their decisions on past experience with certain pitchers, with the count, with the probabilities of certain types of pitches, with their own skills, and use very early cues in the pitcher's delivery to begin the swing," Janet Starkes, a professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, says.
What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do--their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss. This is what we mean when we say that great athletes have a "feel" for the game, or that they "see" the court or the field or the ice in a special way.
Sounds simple, right? Enter Reggie Bush.
I remember watching recruiting highlights of his a few months before he committed to USC, and I was floored. I'd seen plenty of tapes of recruits scorching high school opposition; even the stars at D-I bottom feeder scools have great highlight tapes. However, this one was different. Bush's speed was something to behold, but what really got me was his vision. He was seeing things on the field better than all but a handful of players I've ever watched. He could effortlessly put the moves on a defender, but it was apparent he was more apt to set a guy up, anticipating someone's reaction to his own momentum and finding a way to get around that defender and everyone else who would try and stop him.
We college football fans saw plenty of that over the next three years. There were and are players faster than Bush, there are guys bigger than Bush, and guys with better moves and more elusiveness, but nobody is better than him at lining defenders up like chess pieces and navigating a course through all of them.
Think back to that famous run against Fresno State last November that probably won him the Heisman Trophy. It was a mirror-image of the one O.J. Simpson had running through the UCLA defense in 1967. Simpson's run has been replayed a million times over the years but never replicated---until Bush did the same exact thing.
his 8.7 yards/carry last year was no accident, but rather the sign of a rare player, one who could make common the most difficult of tasks for any back: the long run.
This is the hard part about understanding physical genius, because the source of that special skill--that "feel"--is still something of a mystery. "Sometimes during the course of an operation, there'll be several possible ways of doing something, and I'll size them up and, without having any conscious reason, I'll just do one of them," [neurosurgeon Charlie] Wilson told me...
...When he talks about his extraordinary success as a surgeon, he gives the impression that he is talking about some abstract trait that he is neither responsible for nor completely able to understand. "It's sort of an invisible hand," he went on. "It begins almost to seem mystical. Sometimes a resident asks, 'Why did you do that?' and I say "--here Wilson gave a little shrug--"Well, it juts seemed like the right thing."
When I read this passage, the first person I thought of was Michael Jordan. Specifically, his NBA Finals game against the Portland Trail Blazers when he made six three-point shots, and after the sixth one retreated from the line, turned towards the announcer's table and friend Magic Johnson and shrugged, palms out.
I've compared Bush to Michael Jordan before, but for different reasons. However, the traits of Physical Genius probably vary little from one PG to another. Wayne Gretzky's an original, but he probably varies little from Jordan in his performance capabilities. The same holds for Bush, Young and Carroll. All are cut from the same cloth.
Another trait Gladwell sees in PG's: compulsiveness.
To better explain this compulsiveness, he describes another neurosurgeon who was also a carrier-based pilot in the Vietnam war. He was successful as a pilot, and as a neurosurgeon, because of his habitual ability to be a stickler.
[Neurosurgeon Don] Quest talked about what it was like to repair a particularly tricky aneurysm compared to what it was like to land at night in rough seas and a heavy fog when you are running out of fuel and the lights are off on the carrier's landing strip, because the skies are full of enemy aircraft. "I think they are similar," he said, after some thought, and what he meant was that they were both exercises in a certain kind of exhaustive and meticulous preparation.
In other words, PG's often have compulsive personalities---they want to get things right and prepare diligently. By all accounts, Bush is very much a practice warrior, and the man leading his practices runs one of the most unusual practices in all of D-I, coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll's practices are high-paced and concept-driven. Guys aren't merely repeating drills but playing through to their purpose: there are competition Tuesdays and turnover Wednesdays. The energy and commotion is legendary, but it also creates a chaos that demands a certain mental discipline to thrive in. Because he can think quickly through a variety of situations, he demands the same of his players.
Vince Young fits in here as well. Although I've never gotten the vibe that he's big on practice, his attention to the game and to details has sharpened immensely in the last year and a half. When Texas began tinkering its offense to more adequately fit his physical gifts, he began to really hit the playbook and meet regularly with the offensive coaches.
He carried those habits into the offseason and up to this very day. The proof is in the pudding: last year he completed oone of the greatest seasons by a passer/runner in college football history, led of one of the greatest offenses in college football history and won a stunning national championship victory over a team among the all time greats in college football and featuring two PG's of its own.
More on the personality traits-
Charles Bosk, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania... concluded that, far more than technical skills or intelligence, what was necessary for success [as a surgeon] was the sort of attitude that Quest has--a practical-minded obsession with the possibility and the consequences of failure...
...What this attitude drives you to do is practice over and over again, until even the smallest imperfections are ironed out.
This is where I'm a little more cautious about Young. The Texas people will have to make a case for Young in their replies to this entry. I said above he's improved his preparation habits, but I don't get the vibe that he's necessarily obsessive about them.
That is not a fear of mine with Bush or Carroll. During the Heisman Trophy ceremony last year, there was a feature about Bush's training with NFL back LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson's among the NFL's best, and is also a practice nut. He took Bush under his wings and worked the kid to exhaustion. What that did was open Bush's eyes to a different level of preparation than he had known, one that a great back like Tomlinson had dedicated himself to.
It also built Bush's stamina and strength and transferred upon him a certain mental sharpness that elevated his play as evidenced by his remarkable improvement between his sophomore and junior seasons. Bush couldn't have survived long in those workouts had he not also been dedicated to his own vigorous workout habits. In that sense, his attitude is an internal one. He's learned a different level of preparation, but he was already a guy similarly programmed to Tomlinson, who himself is similarly programmed like a Gretzky or Jordan.
As for Carroll, he is obessive about one thing above all else: the ball. That's one of USC's silly slogans---"it's all about the ball". Thing is, Carroll lives that reality. He has created an entire program in that image, taking care of the football and more importantly, taking it away from his foes. Not once has his team deviated from a superior brand of ball management. His turnover margin numbers in his five seasons at Troy have been the following:
Consistent, and remarkable. No other coach or program is within several area codes of those numbers. If there's one thing about turnover numbers it's that they tend to jump around. There's even a section in the great Phil Steele preseason preview magazines titled "Turnovers=Turnaround" in which Steele documents how teams that are either +10 or greater or -10 or greater in turnover margin tend to rebound the next season with a reverse number that corrolates to that team's record swinging violently upward or downward. Steele makes himself and a lot of followers a lot of money with that concept. But Carroll's found a way to break that cycle and nobody else has.
If college football coaches are obsessive/compulsive (most are), than Carroll is king of the compulsives.
If the preceding helped to hash out some of the more nuanced physical attributes of Physical Genius, what follows dives headlong into the mental aspect.
Without further interruption, take it away Mr. Gladwell:
This kind of obsessive preparation does two things. It creates consistency...more important, practice changes the way a task is perceived.
That perception involves the athlete breaking down the game situations before him into bite-sized pieces. Gladwell borrows a psychological term to define that process: "chunking".
Our athlete example this time is hockey player Wayne Gretzky, the sport's greatest offensive force.
Like master chess players, he wasn't seeing all eleven other players individually; he was seeing only chunks.
From Peter Gzowski's "The Game of Our Lives" a book about the 1980-1981 Edmonton Oilers team:
What Gretzky perceives on a hockey rink is, in a curious way, more simple than what a less accomplished player perceives. He sees not so much a set of moving players as a number of situations...
...Moving in on the Montreal blueline, as he was able to recall while he watched a videotape of himself, he was aware of the position of all the other players on the ice. The pattern they formed was, to him, one fact, and he reacted to that fact.
When he sends a pass to what the rest of us appears an empty space on the ice, and when a teammate magically appears in that space to collect the puck, he has in reality simply summoned up from his bank account of knowledge the fact that in a particular situation, someone is likely to be in a particular spot, and if he is not there now he will be there presently.
Are alarms going off in your head right now recalling Vince Young's superb option run and pitch to Ramonce Taylor that turned into a Texas touchdown in this year's Rose Bowl?
I could provide many more examples but I'll save the bulk of the discussion for the last, most important part---the creative element of physical genius.
Towards the end of his essay, Gladwell returns to genius surgeon Charlie Wilson. Wilson had added tennis to his list of interests at one point in his life, and worked hard to become good at it. By Gladwell's account he was a quality player and put in the necessary effort, but couldn't beat some of his neurosurgery colleagues. It frustrated him to no end.
And yet, for all his focus and determination, he could not respond effectively to an old man shuffling toward the ball twenty feet across the net from him. "A good player knows where the ball is going," Wilson says. "He anticipates it. He is there. I just wasn't." What Wilson is describing is a failure not of skill or of resolve but of the least understood element of physical genius--imagination. For some reason, he could not make the game come alive in his head.
Kind of like SEC football, lacking in imagination. Kidding, kidding. Alright back to Gladwell:
When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imagination in a very particular and sophisticated way. Jack Nicklaus, for instance, has said that he has never taken a swing that he didn't first mentally rehearse, frame by frame. Yo-Yo Ma told me that he remembers riding on a bus, at the age of seven, and solving a difficult musical problem by visualizing himself playing the piece on the cello.
You get the idea. These Physical Genius types are superb at visualizing---they can create outcomes in their mind and then replicate them or recognize them when they occur in real life---and then react forcefully to them.
If you think of physical genius as a pyramid, with, at the bottom, the raw components of coordination, and, above that, the practice that perfects those particular movements, then this faculty of imagination is the top player. This is what separates the physical genius from those who are merely very good.
Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, his longtime rival, differ not so much in their athletic ability or in how obessively they practiced. The difference between them is that Jordan could always generate a million different scenarios by which his team could win, some of which were chunks stored in long-term memory, others of which were flights of fancy that came to him, figuratively and literally, in midair. Jordan twice won championships in the face of unexpected adversity: once, a case of the flu, and, the second time, a back injury to his teammate Scottie Pippen, and he seemed to thrive on these obstacles, in a way Karl Malone never could.
There's a lot to take from this last part, so let's break it into smaller chunks.
1)Although Gladwell harps at the propensity for bullheaded practice and repetition among PG's, they also have the capacity and willingness to deviate and create.
It isn't that [Yo-Yo] Ma doesn't achieve perfection; it's that he finds striving for perfection to be banal. He says that he sometimes welcomes it when he breaks a string, because that is precisely the kind of thing (like illness or an injury to a teammate) that you cannot prepare for--that you haven't chunked and, like some robot, stored neatly in long-term memory. The most successful performers improvise. They create, in Ma's words, "something living."
2)Creativity is often revealed in how one compensates for adversity, how one adjusts and overcomes when things break down. It is one's ability to "tap dance" that is a significant measure of Physical Genius, in other words.
Several Reggie Bush plays stick out in my mind as evidence of his ability to improvise.
1)In just his third college game, USC was playing Hawai'i at home. Bush took a screen pass and darted to his right, only to encounter about five Hawai'i players. I cannot begin to accurately describe what happened next, but it went something like this...
Bush jukes one defender into the sidelines, cutting inside and then hop-stops, facing one defender to the right, another to the left, another immediately to his left side and another a few feet back to his left backside. He was literally boxed in. In the next moment, he lunges forward. The defender to his immediate left lunged to tackle him and he hops backwards nearly into the arms of a defender he'd just run by, watching the two men in front of him tangle themselves up. Suddenly he's out of the box and completely reverses himself to the opposite side of the field to plenty of open space.
The Highlight [scan down the list to "2003 POY #10-Matt Leinart Block" It's a terrible replay angle but that's all I can find]
2)In a game USC nearly lost, Bush returns a punt against Stanford with USC down 28-24 in the 4th quarter. Again, hard to describe. Watch the replay below, it involved a lot of spinning and creative cuts. The return had a hint of desperation given USC's predicament and was a sign to me that he was a guy who could improvise when things got tense a la Michael Jordan.
The Highlight [scan down the list to Reggie Bush-Stanford 2004]
3)Reggie Bush's first touchdown run against Notre Dame this year. Bush took a carry, paused for a moment, then ran through a gaping hole to his left. Suddenly, as he cuts upfield, a defender stands in wait a few feet in front of him. Bush didn't juke him, he didn't try and outrun him...he simply hurdled him. Four seconds later and Bush has a touchdown.
I've TiVo'd that play a million times and still do not understand why or how it came upon him to hurdle the defender. I don't know why the defender went to the ground, or how Bush knew he'd do that. But he did... he did.
For proof of his creativity (if those highlights didn't already do it for you), we turn again to the ubiquitous Heisman ceremony presentation. In one of the segments about Bush, ESPN compared him to PG candidate Gale Sayers. At one point his coach, Pete Carroll, said they had to find video of Sayers to show to the freshman Bush, and said something to the effect of "the thing that stands out about Reggie is his creativity, he's a creative runner like Gale".
One can't help but wonder if 1)Gladwell watched that Heisman ceremony and if he did 2)had a knowing smile while watching it.
As far as his reactions to adversity, Bush clearly passes with flying colors. He carried USC to several wins each of the last two seasons, and as noted before on here, played himself into literal exhaustion several times this season.
Enough about Bush though, let's take a look at Vince Young's creative side. His brilliant option pitch in the Rose Bowl is an obvious highlight, but what's not so obvious is the genius of his throwing motion.
Please, pick your jaw back up from the floor, and let me explain.
Everyone and their uncle has mocked Young's throwing motion, and for good reason---it's not a traditional motion and comes across more as a flick than as a throw. If you've seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite his motion is almost a mirror-image of the way Napoleon's annoying Uncle Rico throws a slab of steak.
But so what, it works! Not only does it work, Young's nearly perfected throwing that way. It allows for a stunningly quick and powerful release, yet one that's also unexplainably accurate.
The one concern would be that the ball's trajectory out of his arm will be cause for a lot of batted balls, but we simply have not seen that at the college level. Don't forget Young's played behind some very tall linemen in his time at Texas, so if that were to be a problem it would have surfaced by now.
So why is the motion genius? Because it's supremely effective and 100% original. Nobody throws like that. It's a creation of his own mind on to best throw the football. Once again, Gladwell:
Ma says he spends ninety per cent of his time "looking at the score, figuring it out--who's saying this, who wrote this and why," letting his mind wander, and only ten per cent on the instrument itself. Like Jordan, his genius originates principally in his imagination. If he spent less time dreaming and more time playing, he would be Karl Malone.
Young's clearly spent some time daydreaming and not just playing and it's clearly to his betterment.
Think Vince Young is the only PG with a completely unorthodox throwing motion? Think again. We don't even have to leave Vince's home state of Texas because PG candidate and Houston Astro pitcher Roy Oswalt has caught similar flak for his funky delivery. From last week's ESPN the Magazine feature on Oswalt titled "The Simple Life" by Buster Olney:
Young Roy had seen enough to know that most pitchers start their delivery with one foot parallel to the rubber. This made no sense to him. He was trying to drive himself toward the batter, like a sprinter breaking out of the blocks. Sprinters, he thought, don't plant their feet parallel to the starting line; their feet are pointed forward.
So that's how Oswalt designed his pitching mechanics, with his back foot, his right foot, angled slightly forward. He raises his left foot, pauses slightly, then hurls his body at the batter, more like a javelin-tosser than a sprinter in the end. Nobody else in the majors uses mechanics like these, and no pitching coach would teach them unless he was considering a change of profession.
But batters have confessed that Oswalt's motion can be unnerving, this wiry six-footer leaping at them like a mugger. He throws 95, and the ball ambushes them. "I can't think of anyone who can keep the ball on a low-line trajectory as well as Roy does," says Roger Clemens. "Good plane with late life. Nice combo."
Not everything's by the book in the path to genius.
The other aspect of Young's PG candidacy is his demeanor. Other than Joe Montana, I have never seen a player more calm or at peace on the playing field than Young. When I see him in the pocket, he's never rushed. When he's running in the open field, it looks like he's about to take a gentle yawn in the middle of his runs he's so effortless and nonchalant. That calm is the mark of a player who is ready for plays to break down, forcing him to improvise and become unfettered from the "chunks" that dictate conventional play.
I remember watching the Texas/Ohio State game last year, and there was a play where Ohio State had swarmed the Texas pocket. The Buckeye defensive line forced Young to step forward, but he kept looking for a receiver until a linebacker was literally on top of him, trying to drag him down. I thought to myself "this guy is in absolutely no hurry... this is amazing" before he finally got rid of the ball.
Their entry boiled down to an impressive introduction to Gladwell's concept, and then analyzing his two factors for PG---physical and mental. They heavily sidestepped the mental aspect, other than to criticize the NFL's Wonderlic test. BON also somewhat sidesteps the NFL quarterback issue, but makes a superb case for their thesis of Young as a PG runner.
Anyone who has seen both Michael Vick run the football, then, might wonder why this is so. He is clearly the quickest and fastest runner at the quarterback position. Why does Vince Young excel at running, despite being, by all accounts, not quite as quick and not quite as fast?
This is where the experience of Texas fans can kick in. We have seen him make these runs for three years. He has an inexplicable knack for avoiding defenders, making cuts, and finding holes to run through. He does not just run fast and move quickly. He makes head-shakingly great runs, the success of which go far beyond any physical greatness he has. There is something more going on. It may be that Vince Young is a physical genius as a runner. Pete Carroll might think so, for one.
I've spoken before on here about how both Young and Bush are can't-miss NFL players. They're simply too gifted, too much budding PG's to do anything but thrive in that league once they get acclimated.
However, I also view them as "transition players". Neither player fits a conventional mold.
Bush's closest comparison is Marshall Faulk, but Faulk isn't as athletic and the league took a long time to figure out how to make great use of his skills. Young has no comparison. HP has called Young the true revolution and the more I think about it the more I agree. But Bush is also a revolution. He's going to make a case for nimble, lighter guys to play all over the offense, and colleges are already using his skill set as a way to recruit, telling players they'll be used like Reggie Bush. Soon that kind of player may saturate the backfields of upcoming NFL drafts the way future DE's and rangy receivers may start taking snaps at quarterback instead of being converted to other positions early in their career as next generation Young-type quarterbacks.
Transition players can be considered ones that mark the beginning of a new era---think Magic Johnson and the oversized point guard, or Michael Jordan and the oversized combo guard/forward lineups created when he teamed up with Scottie Pippen. Just the same I expect Bush and Young to mark a new era within the NFL, or at least become highly regarded players at the tops of their respective positions.
Onward to Pete Carroll.
Because he's not an athlete, I won't bother to show highlights documenting his physical gifts. That's alright, because his mental gifts make a strong case for his status as a physical genius.
I've already discussed his practice demands, but there's more to the man than the practice field. Carroll has a very active imagination. Few football fans realize that he helped develop the modern Tampa/cover-two defense while serving as Monte Kiffin's defensive coordinator at North Carolina State from 1980-1982. It is now one of the NFL's two most prolific and dominant defenses, making a home most notably in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.
His defensive creativity has been on full display at USC in recent years. Playing in the pass-happy Pac-10, he's employed a matador style, suckering opponents into unloading their playbooks and tossing the ball across the soft middle of the field. His defense is designed to take away the deep zones and keep everything in front to control long gains. It has the effect of keeping his defense on the field for a long time and surrendering many passing yards. However, like a shark Carroll has set a trap in his defense.
With each passing play, with each passing possession, his defense sees more and more plays, letting his players connect the dots and start reacting to the chunks of data in their heads on how to prepare for opponents. Eventually, they start jumping routes, batting down passes or intercepting the ball. Carroll also uses math to his advantage. He's recognized that so long as he has more talent on his defense than his opponent has on offense, he will win a lot of the short field battles.
The result is that opponents find it exceedingly difficult to score from about the 30 yard line in against his defense. A shorter field means less room to operate an offense, and that's when his attack springs to life, taking risks despite having their backs to the goal line.
No coach willingly surrenders any field position if he has to, but let's just say Carroll has a backup plan for when things break down thanks to the creative scheme he's helped develop. In other words, his defense is at its best when it faces adversity, when they are most threatened.
The best recent example of his defense facing adversity was the aforementioned Rose Bowl. Vince Young's performance is well-documented, but what few people realize is that Carroll's defense had nearly done the miraculous that game.
The Trojan defense had limped into the Rose Bowl, missing a handful of starters with season-ending injuries and having several players suit up for the first time in several games. Most weren't truly ready but went out there anyway (two of them had surgery immediately after the season ended). Young managed a lot of yards that night, but with 5:00 left in the game, USC had held Texas' great offense to just 26 points. I don't know how they did it. Those last 5:00 they couldn't hold Young back any longer, but the miracle was keeping Texas' scoring machine at bay for that long with what little they had to offer that game.
It's not exactly Michael Jordan with the flu, but USC's defense really had one of those great efforts when things weren't going their way type days. And all the credit in the world for that goes to Carroll.
My final Carroll anecdote relates to improvisation, and the world of possibilities. I remember after this year's USC/Notre Dame game, someone had asked Carroll either on television or in one of the papers about what he was thinking about towards the end of the game when USC was on the ropes, its winning streak hanging in the balance. He said he wasn't worried or anxious, his mind was only thinking about the possibilities, trying to figure out what his players would do to win the game. In that sense, Carroll is much like Ma, looking as a coach to create "something living". He's done so by recruiting players like Bush and creating an environment for his players to do great things with games on the line.
In concluding this marathon of a blog entry, I'll deviate a bit from Gladwell for my own football thoughts. This entry was about Gladwell's Physical Genius, but it was also about the unique talents of Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll and Vince Young. We were all a little fortunate as college football fans to see those three collide on January 4th in Pasadena's Rose Bowl for this year's BCS national championship.
A casual observer reading this entry before the game would probably have chosen USC as the game's winner. They had the PG numbers advantage over Texas, 2-to-1. The game was a home game for all intents and purposes. They were the team with the 34-game winning streak. They were the defending champs.
And they lost.
Here's a simple guess as to why: Vince Young had the ball in his hands on every offensive snap for Texas. Pete Carroll could control who got the ball, but he was not on that field. Reggie Bush would total 24 touches of his own, but yet he could not influence the game the way Young could simply because of his position. So at the end of the day, two great Physical Geniuses had their fate handed to them by one single Physical Genius. He had the ball the most often... he had it last.