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The Art of Quarterbacking: Skills, Smarts, or Science?

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Football is a physical game, not a game of physics. Citing physical laws belies the causality of the game: football, especially as it is played by quarterbacks, is a game of decisions, and these decisions imply cause and effect.

This is not to say that the game is not influenced by physical laws. To the contrary, physics is very much involved:

Physics tells us that prolate spheroids--the shape of the football--are relatively unpredictable, save for one area: gyroscopic stability, which is a fancier way of saying "a spiral." A stable spirals will average ten revolutions per second. The more revolutions, the farther the distance. Gyroscopic stability also influences drag, which can vary from .15 pounds to 1.5 pounds depending on the spiral--or lack thereof.

Grip and release influence the spiral. When the ball is gripped near the back, the spiral will be tighter, and thus the ball will travel further. When released at a 10-degree angel from the ground, distance is maximized. Increasing this angle, sacrifices distance while causing the ball to hover--this is commonly referred to as a "touch" pass. Lowering it also negatively affects distance while positively affecting speed.

Velocity vectors help explain the speed and the direction of the ball, specifically as each pertains to the ball reaching its intended target at its intended time. Of course, the quarterback influences both of these factors with the speed of his release--typically 45-50 miles per hour.

That physics plays an integral role in a quarterbacks play cannot be disputed. But its involvement is an afterthought, a tool to explain what happened. This is not to discount the importance of mastering the physical aspects of the game. However, these are learned via practice and repetition, not by memorizing gravitational potential.

Joe Montana would agree, noting in Joe Montana's Art and Magic of Quarterbacking that "Extensive repetition is probably more important for a quarterback than for any other player."

Ken Anderson, whom Montana beat in Super Bowl XVI, breaks this down further in The Art of Quarterbacking:

"I know that sitting in the stands or watching a game on television doesn't really do justice to all the technical elements a quarterback must perfect in his passing game because everything happens so fast," Anderson explains. "But then, all of this is like walking or running: each muscle movement determines the next, and taken together, they produce an action that is so automatic [as to] allow him to deliver the ball from any different number of positions and under all kinds of circumstances."

Through practice, the requisite skill and control is developed. Great quarterbacks, as Anderson points out, "are self-made; they take what natural skills they possess and then develop them through a program of intensive and consistent work in and out of season." This requires a commitment to practice and repetition, not to the study of physical laws.

The greater attribute though is intelligence. Montana believed intelligence to comprise 75 percent of the position, where as Drew Brees believes that 90 percent is a more accurate number. Either way, the mind trumps the body.

Mike Holmgren explains this importance, noting that a quarterback must "know exactly what every player on your team is supposed to do on every play so that [he doesn't] run into somebody or some receiver doesn't run the wrong way."

The mind of a quarterback can completely alter a team's complexion, as Peyton Manning exemplifies. Manning has experienced unparalleled success despite a supporting cast that often included receivers like Austin Collie and Blair White.

"To understand why he hasn't struggled," Dungy explained, "you have to understand the way his mind works. It drives him every day that the offense will be better, not just as good as it was. The new guys will fit in. He'll make them fit in."

Though Manning's physical skills are obvious, it is his mental skill that sets him apart. An intelligent quarterback does not just learn the what and how of a given play; rather, they must understand the why. The best way to do this, according to Montana and Anderson, is through visualization.

"We'll visualize," Manning told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I'll say, 'Hey, here's what Tennessee is going to do; I want you to run this and make this adjustment.' And those three guys, they can see it in their head. Which I think is a real key to being a special player, [being] able to visualize it in your head."

Aaron Rodgers would agree. "I don't know whether other quarterbacks use it," Rodgers discussed with ESPN, "but visualization has been very important to me." Visualization allows Rodgers to see the play--for only a "millisecond"--as he breaks the huddle.

This brief picture guides a quarterback's play, as explained by Ken Anderson:

"I take my entire game plan and play the opposition even before I see them on the field, based on all of the information even before I see them on the field, based on all of the information at hand. When I am confronted with the real thing on Sunday, I can react to the situation that I have faced in my mind instead of trying to figure it out on the spot."

It would seem that part of the art of quarterbacking is not in actual play, but in preparation. Knowing your opponent and knowing how to react to what your opponent presents are paramount to a quarterback's success. This obviously requires intelligence to parse the information from film study and scouting reports. Yet some of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL are the least successful.

The Sporting News ranked the top 20 smartest athletes, four of which were quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick was No. 5; Alex Smith, No. 11; Peyton Manning, No. 14; and Greg McElroy, No. 20. Of these three, only one has enjoyed sustained NFL success. Meanwhile, quarterbacks without a high academic pedigree--Randall Cunningham, Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw--have all excelled.

This begs the question: did Montana and Brees overstate the importance of intelligence? That is, to successfully master the art of quarterbacking, is intelligence needed?

In addition to blogging on, Scott has been featured on Follow him on Twitter@ScottWarfe.