A Follow Up on Tim Tebow’s Throwing Motion

April 21, 2009

Last week I put up a post about why people say Tim Tebow has a slow release. It used frame-by-frame analysis from the telecast of the national title game. I lamented the fact that I don’t have professional, high speed video equipment to make more precise judgments.

Little did I know, someone who was reading does.

I got an email from Bryan Conrad, an engineer at a biomechanics lab in Gainesville. Among many other things, his lab studies sports-related topics such as golf swings and quarterback throwing motions. He had some insights from that side of the business and graciously allowed me to reprint them here.

I am an engineer in a motion analysis lab at UF and one very small part of my job is to evaluate the throwing mechanics of QBs (most of the time we study orthopaedic diseases and injuries).

Our lab has the ability to film any type of motion with 14 high speed video cameras. This allows us to capture motion from a true 3D perspective and at a frame rate of up to 500 images/second. This is the same type of equipment that is used to measure Tiger Woods golf swing for video games or used to animate computer generated graphics in movies like The Matrix.

When I first started analyzing QB’s motion, one of the first questions that a QB coach asked me was, “could I measure the release time of QBs?”  From what I can tell this is a parameter that many people discuss but few people actually measure. I applaud your effort to quantify this measurement during game play using TV film.

Three years ago I established a protocol so that we could try do the same thing in our lab. What we came up with was a scenario where we have the QB stand in the lab in a ready position (both hands on the ball, similar to image1 from your sequences) and asked the athlete to throw the ball as soon as he heard an audible signal emitted from our computer.

Since we have a controlled environment and very good temporal resolution of our cameras, we were able to break down the motion into two components which we call Reaction Time and Release Time.  Reaction time is the time from when the sound goes off until the first movement from the QB (when the non-throwing hand separates from the ball).  Release time is from the first movement until the ball leaves the hand.  What we found surprised me a little.  The reaction time is typically around 500ms and often times longer than the actual release time!  Admittedly, our lab setting is not the same as the game environment and responding to an audible cue is quite different than decision making process required on the field.

I agree that Tebow has a less compact motion than Bradford (as your recent article on Mullen suggests, this might change under Loeffler). However, I believe that he might be capable of faster release time than what you have measured.

I then asked him about the issues that Rocky Top Talk‘s hooper brought up in regards to how differing throwing motions could affect the reaction times of defenders. Having grown up a John Elway fan, he’d seen how devastating a top shelf pump fake can be.

We weren’t quite sure how to go about measuring defenders’ reaction times. Bryan said the lab hadn’t tested that before, but he had some ideas on how to do it:

One of the things that we have considered studying is reaction time when the athlete must make a decision. I have always thought about it in terms of the passer. For instance instead of always throwing as soon as the signal is given, we could have two signals, one for ‘go’ one for ‘no go’. They would be triggered randomly and the passer would have to decide whether the ‘go’ signal was given and then begin the throwing motion.

Even better would be if we could use visual signals instead of audible signals, since that would be representative of a game situation. I suppose this kind of test could be applied to defensive players as well, perhaps have them run in one direction and then give the signal, depending on what signal is given, they would have to break to either the right or left.  We could then measure their reaction time and acceleration out of the break (maybe some guys have a slower reaction but compensate with quick acceleration and vice versa).

That sounds like a pretty good method to me, given the constraints that lab conditions enforce.

Big thanks to Bryan for providing some insight on how the pros take a look at quarterbacking mechanics. The bit about reaction time was particularly good. Hopefully this gives you an idea of the process and considerations that coaches and engineers alike go through when trying to improve their signal callers.


Orange and Blue Game Wrapup

April 20, 2009

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go to the Orange and Blue Game. That’s one of the few sucky things about living in Charlotte (besides all the ACC fans): I can’t just go to Gainesville whenever I want.

Anyway, my parents and brother did make the game. Rather than give a rundown of all the media coverage of the game, I’ll instead tell you what they told me.

My brother was very disappointed that Tim Tebow didn’t do any downfield throwing. He said Timmy mostly was tossing swing passes, though he did run around a bit. That is, of course, until he got tagged by a defender. Ultimately though, this day wasn’t really about him.

It was John Brantley’s day. Urban Meyer has raved about Brantley’s performance in recent weeks, and for the most part he came through. My parents said his favorite target was Frankie Hammond, who had no trouble getting behind the reserve DBs according to my brother.

They also said that Tebow was conversing with Meyer the whole time while Brantley was playing, almost as though he was an assistant coach. That wouldn’t surprise me at all, and there’s precendent for it. Meyer made Chris Leak a big part of game planning in 2006, even letting Leak script the first 10 or 15 plays of the national title game himself.

My brother said one thing that stood out to him that few of the media reports mentioned was that there were some issues with shotgun snaps. Redshirt freshman Sam Robey is said to have won the starting center role not so much because he outplayed Maurkice Pouncey (because he didn’t), but because he played well enough to move Maurkice back to guard where the coaches want him. Robey apparently had issues with snapping it right into Tebow’s hands, but theoretically an off season’s worth of practice ought to straighten that out by the fall.

Walk on RB Christopher Scott ran hard and was productive, they said. Whether he’ll play much in the fall remains to be seen, but think about this for a second. The Gators now have a walk on who is behind three or four (depending on incoming freshman Mike Gillislee) other guys who is able to be a productive back against the defense. Compare that to the situation in 2005-06 (run it Wynnside!) and be grateful. Oh, and Chris Rainey still has the best moves on the team.

With all of the defensive starters injured or taking the day off, the offense was able to move nicely. Even so, there were still starter-caliber guys like Dorian Munroe available and playing. My guess is the backups are probably still a top-50 defense in the country, so it does at least give an indication that the offense progressed through the spring.

My parents are going to Meyer’s upcoming speaking engagement in Orlando, so if he says anything interesting I’ll pass it along.


The Speed of Tebow’s Release

April 17, 2009

One of the major complaints about Tim Tebow by those who say he won’t make it in the NFL is that he has a slow release. This critique is related to the charge that he has poor mechanics.

I am not a trained coach, but I believe I can show you at least what armchair NFL GMs see in him that causes the real scouts to fret. I will compare him to Sam Bradford, a guy who was said to be a surefire top-five pick in the draft if he had come out.

All times that I quote here came from studying the national title game frame-by-frame in Avidemux. It’s not as precise as professional video gear, but it’s close enough for these purposes and any error will be consistent throughout.

Here is a sequence showing Bradford’s throwing motion. Pay close attention to the second frame, as that is where the biggest difference between the two guys comes from.

bradford1bradford2bradford3bradford4

Bradford has a compact throwing motion, which is what NFL scouts are looking for.

In the first frame, he is holding the ball in the classic quarterback stance. Frame two shows the farthest out his arm goes in his windup. You can see that the ball is close to his body and his arm is about at a right angle.

The final two frames finish out his motion. This throw, which is representative of his standard throws, takes about 467 milliseconds to complete.

Here is a sequence of Tebow’s motion.

tebow1tebow2tebow3tebow4

In the first frame, Tebow is in the same starting position as Bradford was in. The second frame shows a very different story however. The ball is far away from his body, and his arm is almost fully extended.

The final two frames finish out his motion. This was the most extreme example of Tebow’s long windup I could find, and it took 734 milliseconds to complete. That time is 267 milliseconds longer than Bradford’s throw.

Not every one of Tebow’s throws take this long, but it illustrates the perils of having a longer motion. Even moreso in the NFL than in college, a fraction of a second can be the difference between a catch and a tipped ball, and a tipped ball and an interception. The throw above was Tebow’s first interception of the national title game, a pass that was picked off by a safety reading his eyes and jumping in front of a receiver.

As I said though, this was the longest delivery I could find for him. I chose it because it makes for the clearest pictures. To find out a rough approximation of how much longer Tebow’s motion is than Bradford’s is, I took a sample of ten normal passes apiece and timed their motions. I did not include passes where the players were being hit, throwing on the run, or shovel passes.

I found that Tebow’s average time across the ten passes was 557 milliseconds, with all but one pass taking a half second or more. Bradford’s average release was 487 milliseconds, with the most common time being 467 milliseconds. The difference in average was not great at just 70 milliseconds.

As I said though, my ability to time their motions is not exact, and certainly Bradford’s motion looks a lot quicker than Tebow’s does. Tebow has a habit of bringing the ball down near his waist during his windup, while Bradford generally brings the ball straight back from his neutral stance.

Simple physics says it takes more time to move an object along a longer path, so Tebow’s release is labeled “slow.” It is not a huge difference, but just think back to Michael Crabtree’s catch that beat Texas. If the ball came a tenth of a second later, the defensive back coming to help may have gotten a finger on it.

Florida’s new quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler has been working with Tebow this spring to shorten up the motion. He is also working on getting Tebow to have a “10 o’clock release point,” as opposed to the sidearm-like delivery you can kind of see in his fourth frame. Bradford’s fourth frame shows what I would assume to be a 2 o’clock release point (since he’s right handed and Tebow’s a southpaw).

Tim Tebow is one of the most driven people I’ve ever seen though, so the effort will be there. He has almost a full year from today to prove to the Mel Kipers of the world that he can be something other than an H-back in the pros. Shortening up his delivery and fixing his release point will go a long way to that end.


Clarifying What a “Spread Offense” Entails

April 15, 2009

While reading the excellent interview Bruins Nation had with Rick Neuheisel, I came upon the final question of part one. It basically was, “Hey Rick, what do you think of the spread offense?”

Neuheisel ends up giving a fairly long and winding explanation of why he chooses a pro style offense rather than a spread scheme. I’m going to chop it up into mincemeat for a second to illustrate a point:

“The key to the spread offense, and the reason why its successful, is that it adds an extra player. It diminishes the need for great offensive linemen, because you’ve got a little longer because you are always in the gun…

“The problem at UCLA is that you have to beat the Trojans. And it’s also the benefit at UCLA, because when you beat them, you’re going to be among the nation’s elite. So you have to be a physical offense...

“I was the benefactor of a type of spread offense, even though it was an option offense, it’s the same math in terms of the quarterback’s [being] a runner…

There were some components of the spread offense in what we did last year. We got into the old wildcat stuff…”

The picture of the spread offense that Neuheisel paints is one that involves a running quarterback, the shotgun as the exclusive setup, an offense that isn’t physical, and the wildcat formation.

Basically what he described is the Rich Rodriguez/Urban Meyer style offense (except for the part about the spread not being physical). However, that’s not necessarily what a spread offense is.

I know Neuheisel is a bright guy, and I wasn’t there when the interview was conducted. Maybe something about the session led him to think of the spread in those terms. However, that’s an awfully narrow definition of a very broad concept.

The term “spread” dates back at least to 1952, and I’m sure it’s been around longer than that. The spread isn’t an offense; it’s a formation and a philosophy.

For the record, this is a spread formation:

Spread_medium

This is not:

Notspread_medium

That’s all there is to it. There is no other distinction between spread and non-spread. A spread formation uses most of the horizontal space on the field and a non-spread formation does not. Nearly every offense uses some spread formations, and many spread-based offenses use some non-spread formations.

The idea behind a spread-based offense is to make the defense cover the entire field. Contrary to what Neuheisel may have made it sound like, a spread formation is an excellent choice for physical running up the middle. That’s because with the defense spread out, there are fewer guys in the middle of the field to try to stop the ball carrier.

That fact is also why many spread teams prefer to have a mobile quarterback. Fewer guys near the line of scrimmage makes for fewer people hanging around to stop a runner behind center. Having a running triggerman is not a requirement though.

For instance, the first neo-spread team in the SEC was Hal Mumme’s Kentucky, and we never saw Tim Couch take off and run much. That branch of spread offense is continued today by Mumme’s former assistant Mike Leach at Texas Tech. You also have teams like Ohio State’s 2006 team which ran a fair bit of spread with Troy Smith rarely participating in designed runs.

The shotgun isn’t even a requirement as Neuheisel made it sound like. Sam Bradford operated from under center a fair bit in Oklahoma’s spread last season. In addition, Paul Johnson’s offense keeps the quarterback under center almost exclusively even though his base flexbone set is is a spread formation.

Finally, the wildcat is a formation and offensive package but it doesn’t have to be run from a spread set or spread offense. Not all spread teams use it either.

No two teams run the exact same spread offense, as every coach has his own take on it. It also must be tailored to personnel. If you want details, there’s a wealth of information on many spread topics at the blog Smart Football (start here, here, and here).

If I wasn’t clear before, let me be so now: I don’t think Rick Neuheisel is unaware of all this. He knows far more about offensive football than I do and he could probably explain it a lot better than I can.

It just disappointed me about the way he used “spread” to mean a lot fo specific things when it doesn’t necessarily. It’s like saying that having a quarterback under center in the I-formation means you’re in a pro style offense, except that the heyday of the Nebraska option was largely done from the I.

In short, just remember that there is no one “spread offense.” There are as many spread offenses as there are teams that run them, and every one has something that makes it unique.


Gator Football Spring Practice Week 1 Wrapup

March 30, 2009

The Offense

Florida is experimenting with a fast-paced, uptempo offense. It is partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Oklahoma offense in the national title game and partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Northwestern offense in 2001.

I took a look at pace earlier this offseason, and I projected that the Gators would have scored about 55 a game last year if they played at Oklahoma’s pace. Urban Meyer may or may not have seen a similar figure from his stats guys, but he seems most interested in the way that an uptempo offense disrupts defenses.

The other big difference is that Tim Tebow will be taking some snaps under center. Tebow says it’s happening because it’s the way Scot Loeffler is influencing the offense, while Meyer says it’s happening to get Tebow more comfortable with it since he’ll have to do that in the NFL. It’s not that one is wrong and one is right, since the offense has always been a team effort under Meyer.

Many have pointed out that packages with the quarterback under center existed in Meyer’s offense in 2005 and 2006 when Chris Leak was running the show. That is true, and the I-formation is also coming back if they can find a fullback.

Behind Tebow, redshirt sophomore QB John Brantley is looking sharp.

Receivers

The question on everyone’s mind comes down to this: who will replace Percy Harvin? Meyer said around national signing day that he sees incoming freshman Andre Debose in that role. So far, that appears likely because no one has stepped up to take control of that role so far. Deonte Thompson, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps are the other candidates for that position.

Carl Moore was the invisible man for a lot of last season, which was odd for someone touted as a five-star guy from junior college. He’s been looking a lot better this year, now that

David Nelson and Aaron Hernandez have also looked good catching passes. Justin Williams has been practicing with the first team offense along with Thompson and Nelson. Riley Cooper is playing baseball and is not participating in spring football practice.

Personally, I’m thinking that the 2008 receiving corps is not going to be the best analogue for the 2009 corps in terms of fitting guys into roles. To me right now, 2006 seems like a better comparison given the personnel and likely ball distribution. Having Nelson as Dallas Baker, Thompson as Bubba Caldwell, Debose as Harvin, Moore as Jemaille Cornelius and so on feels a little more right. We’ll see.

Running Backs and Offensive Line

With Rainey rehabbing from surgery and Demps running track, Emmanuel Moody is the only scholarship running back at practice. Fortunately, he’s been playing very well so far though the defense has been stuffing him in goal line scenarios.

A probable cause for that is the fact that the offensive line has not been great. Partially that is because both Pouncey brothers are sidelined with injury right now, and the only other returning starter (Carl Johnson) is at a new position.

The younger guys who haven’t played much haven’t stepped up a whole lot. Things will get better when the Pounceys come back, but they alone won’t solve all the problems. It took half the season for last year’s line to gel, but hopefully this year’s crew will work themselves out a little sooner.

Defense

The defense has been dominating so far, but Meyer says that’s “usually” the case at this early stage of spring practice. It makes sense considering the offense is working through a lot of issues with new schemes and personnel while the defense is enjoying complete continuity.

The defense won the first scrimmage.

Defensive Line

Things are great at defensive end. They are so good and so deep that redshirt freshman Earl Okine has been moved to the inside.

With Torrey Davis kicked off the team and John Brown deciding to transfer, depth is again an issue at defensive tackle. Even the vaunted 2006 line needed Ray McDonald to move from the outside to the inside for depth.

As it turns out, things at tackle have been fine so far. Jaye Howard is bigger than ever and looking like a solid backup to starters Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders. Okine has been adjusting well so far. Omar Hunter, the guy Meyer called the Tim Tebow of the 2008 recruiting class, is finally in shape, healthy, and contributing.

Linebackers and Secondary

Brandon Spikes is happy to be back, and the Gators are happy to have him. He will be the unquestioned leader of what should be one of the top defenses in the country. This position is one of the best and deepest on the team, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Spikes, Stamper, and Jones are the first teamers right now, while Doe, Lorenzo Edwards, and Lerentree McCray are the second teamers.

The secondary is very crowded, especially at safety. Starters Ahmad Black and Major Wright are back, and both are playing well. Fifth year senior Dorian Munroe, injured all of 2008, wants his starting role back. Will Hill has been making plays. Dee Finley is finally on campus, and he’s looking athletic. It’s crowded back there.

Not much has been reported about the corners, other than that Janoris Jenkins has been taking some reps as a punt returner thanks to Brandon James being out. Freshman Adrian Bushell intercepted Tebow as well, and that’s about it.

I would expect that the position will be just fine with Joe Haden and Jenkins locking things down as the starters. The depth at secondary is something any other team in the country would be envious of.


The Florida-Era Steve Spurrier is Officially Gone

March 24, 2009

The Florida-era Steve Spurrier is completely gone.

I don’t say that lightly, especially because of how big a part of my childhood he was. My first time at the Swamp was the ’89 Florida-Kentucky game when I was four. I’ve been to at least one game there every year since.

On fall Sundays while I was growing up, my family had a custom of eating lunch while watching the Steve Spurrier Show with lunch after church. It was jarring to go from that to Ron Zook’s show, and it never did quite feel right.

I inherited a lot of my attitudes about football from that Steve Spurrier: it’s okay to throw for the endzone late in a blowout if it’s the backup doing it, there’s a certain elegance about getting receivers wide open over and over, he who’s on top gets to talk, etc.

When I saw that he is going to implement a Wildcat formation, I realized that the Spurrier I once knew is gone. I should have known this moment was coming given the state of the South Carolina offense the past couple years, but I figured it was what would happen if he got stuck with only quarterbacks at Noah Brindise-level and below.

I simply cannot fathom the Florida-era Spurrier ever deciding to run many plays without a quarterback on the field. He was a quarterback, loved to teach quarterbacks, and acted like a quarterback from the sideline as he still could read defenses better than most collegiate signal callers. That Spurrier would never have considered the Wildcat because he could get just as many yards on a fade route.

What started in Washington has completed in South Carolina. I am with those who think he thought he could walk into Columbia and win almost as quickly as he did at Florida. It worked before, why can’t it work now?

For one thing, the situations are completely different. Bear Bryant famously called Florida a sleeping giant of a program. Charley Pell and Galen Hall built it up to the point where it could take off, and they brought on the same probation that other big time programs had in the ‘80s while doing it. The cupboards were stocked, and Spurrier was the right guy in the right place at the right time for UF.

The talent level at South Carolina in 2005 was not comparable to that of Florida in 1990. It was comparable to that of Florida in 2005 though, and the Gamecocks’ win that year (in a game that Spurrier outcoached Urban Meyer, no less) showed it.

Three seasons later, the gap between Spurrier’s old program and his current one seems like it could scarcely be wider. Florida has added two more SEC and national titles, and it handed him his worst defeat ever last season to the tune of 56-6. Whatever he’s doing has caused him to fall behind the conference leaders, the opposite direction he wants to go.

Now to help catch up, Spurrier, a guy with six SEC titles, is essentially taking a page out of the playbook of Houston Nutt, a guy with no SEC titles. I can tell you that I would never have expected to see that happen when he took the job four years ago.

I have no doubt that his competitive fire is still burning; I doubt anything will ever extinguish that. The witticisms will still come, as they have periodically through his time in Columbia.

The trend-setting Spurrier though is gone, replaced by a more pragmatic and, yes, trend-following Spurrier. It’s time for all of us to stop expecting to see anything different.


Looks Like Phillips Will Be Back

March 10, 2009

In a case of the rich getting richer, it looks like Florida’s place kicker Jonathan Phillips will be back for another year.

The SEC granted him a medical hardship for missing nearly all of the 2007 season, clearing the way for his return for a sixth season. He wasn’t even going to return for last year if it wasn’t for Urban Meyer convincing him to postpone law school. It looks like the head coach is getting two years for his efforts.

Phillips was 12-of-13 on field goals last season, though his longest was just 40 yards. He made all of his 79 extra point attempts except the fateful one that was blocked against Ole Miss (and the Swiss cheese line was at fault for that one).

I would expect to see him work on his range to become a threat from beyond 40 yards. His backup is true sophomore Caleb Sturgis, a guy with a big leg who at least last season didn’t have adequate accuracy yet.