Monday, August 20, 2012

Musgrave Brings Into Question Ponder's Purported Intelligence

We've all been regaled by tales of Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder's purported intelligence.  The evidence to date has been that he graduated early from college with a business degree.  I'm not as certain as others that that accomplishment automatically makes Ponder intelligent.

However, for anyone doubting whether even Ponder might need some intellectual fine-tuning--or at least a lesson in independent thinking--Vikings' offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, should at least have stirred the thinking pot.

This week, after reportedly watching game film of other quarterbacks, Ponder concurred with Musgrave that it is safer to slide head first than to slide feet first.  As primary support for this conclusion, Musgrave showed Ponder clips of former Broncos' quarterback, John Elway, and current Packers' quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, sliding head first on numerous occasions, apparently never being hit in the head.

There are two issues involved in this analysis.  The first is whether a player is more protected by the rules when giving himself up one way versus another.  The second is whether, even with the protection of the rules, the player is afforded greater protection a way not envisioned by the rule.  Both rule and wisdom suggest head-first slides are far riskier than feet-first.

Anecdotally, I suspect that even Elway will offer that the head-first method led to some big hits that Musgrave may not have uncovered and Rodgers certainly can attest--though he might not divulge to a division rival who seems unaware--that head-first collisions led to his concussions.  This evidence notwithstanding, the league rule protecting defenseless players and simple physics suggests that a player is far more likely to take a hit to the head when "sliding" head first than when sliding feet first.

The NFL protects players who give themselves up.  To define whether a player has given himself up, the officials look for evidence that a player has conceded the play and is not pursuing additional gain.  Sliding feet-first means that the feet will begin the downing process.  Visually, this is easy for officials to see  Physically, because the feet are already on the ground, sliding feet-first is the quickest way of conceding.

Conversely, the head-first concession resembles in most circumstances any other attempt to gain forward progress and continue with the play, thus making it difficult for officials to identify as quickly as they would a feet-first slide.

Physically, dead-first concessions require that a player essentially make downing contact with their upper body or head.  That takes longer and leaves the player's full body in play until the contact is made.  By rule design and by natural physics, it thus makes little sense for a player concerned with protecting himself from harmful hits to make a head-first concession.

The only time that a head-first dive makes more sense than a feet-first slide, when considering, first and foremost, player safety, is when the player is in the open field and is able to make a concession, without any concern over getting hit.  In such cases, it is far more likely, however, that the player also has the option of continuing further and sliding feet first, gaining extra yardage and ensuring safety, or going out of bounds.  

If Musgrave really needs every inch of Ponder's forward lurch to produce results in his offense, his offense has far greater concerns than whether Ponder goes feet-first or head-first.  If Musgrave's conclusion and instruction to Ponder that he ought to make concessions head-first is based solely on "empirical" evidence, however, it probably would serve Musgrave, Ponder, and the Vikings simply not reinventing a tried and true wheel.

Up Next:  Casualties to the Rescue?

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