Playing quarterback in the NFL isn’t rocket science or neurosurgery, or like a chess match or solving a Rubik’s cube. But it is its own uniquely challenging mind-game, laden with infinite split-second decisions and a language all its own.
“Only a handful of people in the world can really, truly say they understand it,” said Chase Daniel, the Chiefs’ No. 2 quarterback.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
It’s almost incalculable how much the mental aspect means to an NFL quarterback, who within a span of seconds is absorbing and interpreting massive and shifting data and is adjusting all the while with gridiron gridlock not an option.
“If while you’re walking up to the line you’re paralyzed, that’s not good stuff,” said Daniel, in his first year with the Chiefs after spending 2009-12 backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans.
The job, he added, repeatedly snapping his fingers for emphasis, “is built on people who can react.”
While restricted from referring to specific plays, or even how many there are in Andy Reid’s West Coast offense and such details as how frequently he can audible, Daniel talked through the scope of what a quarterback has to scan for and process in precious seconds.
Nothing can happen at the line of scrimmage or in the huddle, of course, without proper preparation.
“The game is all about situations, and if you practice (properly) to make it second nature to you in games, you won’t be stressed out,” said Daniel, a self-described “film rat” who recalled being drawn to quarterbacking because of the element of “mentally being able to defeat the other team before we even played the game.”
By game time, his goal is to have memorized “every single formation that goes with the play and vice versa,” said Daniel, thus referring to dozens of potential combinations. “So if you give me a play, I can give you a formation; if you give me a formation, I can give you a play. And some formations, there are obviously two or three plays out of it.”
Geometric combinations are ingrained in him by the time he steps on the field, where every word and every second counts.
“The clock is always first and foremost,” he said. “The clock is always, always on my mind.”
A glance at a generic scenario with an approximation of the clock ticking down:
:40 A few feet from the huddle, Daniel will stand by himself to gather his thoughts and be ready to lock in solely on the next play. He’ll look to the bench for potential direct exchanges with coaches and glance to the huddle as he waits for the call on his headset.
“I’m looking into the huddle for personnel: what personnel do we have on the field, so I get a better feel for what Coach is thinking before he calls the play,” he said.
Once the play call is transmitted, he’ll head into the circular huddle as he listens for confirmation. It takes about two seconds, he said, to get the play properly in his mind and be ready to relay it.
:33 In the huddle, he’ll twice call the formation, protection scheme and play.
:28 In the first two or three steps toward the line after breaking the huddle, Daniel will glimpse at the clock and look left and right to make sure all are lined up correctly. That takes less than a second, he said, unless there is something misaligned. Best-case scenario, he’ll be at the line with 20-25 seconds left on the play clock.
:25 At the line, Daniel first will peer across for a crude initial assessment of what the offense is up against.
“The first thing that comes to mind for me is the defensive front: are they in base defense, or are they in nickel defense? How are they playing us?” he said. “Big picture, do they have a front seven or do they have six in front with a nickel back? That’s the very first thing, because that changes a lot with the play and with protection.
“Based on their front, I can probably `X’ out 50 percent of what they can possibly do. So that sort of helps with what I would think that they’re going to be doing. Now, some teams are all sorts of fronts and things like that, but most teams there are four or five fronts that they could possibly run.”
:20 Now Daniel studies the alignment of the linebackers, and in quarterback-ese says, “Are they bossed (scooted) over one side? Are they bossed over on another? Are they equal depending on our formation strength?”
It’s good data, but not necessarily anything that in and of itself would make for a counter-move as dramatic as changing the play.
“They might be giving away a certain pressure or a certain blitz,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say you’d change anything just based on that.”
:18 Then his eyes turn to the secondary as he tries to get a sense of the coverage, which, of course, defenses seek to disguise.
Then he has a complete picture, or at least as complete as he can get to that point, as he prepares for final computations.
“Once you look at all three of the groups, you look at the defense as a whole and see how they’re aligned and see if it’s something that you studied or if it’s something that’s new,” he said.
:14 Daniel begins calling signals, hoping that the offensive formation or motions and shifts “gets the defense to show (its) hand sooner, so we can get a better feel for what we’re doing pre-snap,” he said, broadly rhetorically asking, “ ‘Is this good against this coverage?’
“They’re paid very well, too, over on that side of the football, so they’re going to make plays, but we have to be able to react to something that we might not have thought would happen pre-snap. Or post-snap, for that matter.”
:10 Timing of the snap, of course, can vary.
“Some plays we’ll get up and go, some plays there will be audibles we’ll check to, some plays there won’t be, some plays there all sorts of different stuff,” he said, cutting himself off over apparent concern about saying too much.
Naturally, defenses try to change up late in his cadence, hoping to maximize the element of surprise after any option to audible has passed.
“They can do this and, then, now this,” Daniel said.
:5 Now comes a whole new set of decisions to be made, particularly in the passing game.
“Obviously, every play has ‘if they do this, then we have to do that,’ even from a protection standpoint with the offensive line,” he said. “There’s some plays they’re going to blitz us, and we’re not going to have a protection for them and we’re going to have to get the ball out fast.”
The passing game, of course, hinges not only on Daniel’s ability to read defenses but also that his receivers are equally adept at it since their patterns can be predicated on that.
“Receivers these days, especially at the pro level, are expected to read defenses just as well as the quarterbacks are,” said Daniel, who declined to go into any detail on specific progressions in the passing game.
In the end, it all comes down to a misleadingly simple-sounding notion:
“I just take what the defense gives me,” he said.
“You immediately drop that play: if it’s a good play, bad play, no matter what,” he said. “I’m immediately looking at that coach, and I’m looking at personnel for us and waiting for the play.
“And it restarts.”