This article by Axon Sports originally appeared at our partner National Football Post, the leader in football news and analysis.
Whenever Peyton Manning takes the field, the superlatives come fast and furious from football commentators. As well they should, the future Hall of Fame QB has proven his superior cognitive and physical skills repeatedly over his 15 seasons. However, back in week 2 of the NFL season when the Broncos met the Falcons for a Monday Night Football game, the importance of a well designed and disguised defense was on display. The Atlanta defense highlighted the importance of cognitive skills in football, as the ability to force bad decisions was shown to be able to beat even an all-time great, like Manning.
With three interceptions and a 58.5 passer rating, Manning was humbled by Atlanta’s Cover 3 scheme. As pointed out by Matt Bowen on NFP, Atlanta was able to disguise their pre-snap look and bait Manning into his third pick of the night. Even at the highest level of the game, one of the league’s most cerebral quarterbacks misdirected his attention to the wrong cues.
Fast forward to Week 8 with the Broncos facing Drew Brees and a recovering New Orleans Saints team. Manning passed for over 300 yards for the fifth straight game with three scores and a passer rating of 138.9 in a convincing 34-14 victory. What could account for such a drastic learning curve improvement, even for an experienced QB? According to cognitive researchers, it all starts in the head.
Whether it’s a QB reading a defense or a running back trying to anticipate a blitz, players have to combine what they see with what they’ve learned through repeated drills and practice.
If we could look inside Peyton’s brain when he walks up to the line, we would be impressed by the amount of information that is being processed. There is a combination of both overt and covert attention being paid to different targets on the defensive side of the ball. A quarterback’s overt eye movements dart from one defender to the next identifying the player and his pre-snap position on the field. Covert attention happens while staring at one defender or point on the field even though Manning’s attention might be focused on other cues such as subtle changes in a players position or the angle of their shoulders.
This ongoing comparison of what is being seen live and a prediction of what will happen next is the competitive edge that great players possess. Recently, neuroscience researchers at MIT shed some more light on how our brains accomplish selective attention, or the ability to focus on the cues important to the task and ignore the noise.
In their study, it was shown there are actually two different types of attention, bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up attention highlights the objects in our visual field that pop out at us because of their movement or size or even color. They try to demand our attention and distract us from our top-down attention which is seeking out specific targets that we intentionally want to find to complete our task.
“It’s as if the brain is using two different stops on the FM radio dial for different types of attention,” said study co-author Earl K. Miller, Professor of Neuroscience at MIT.
By training a player’s focus skills, they are able to improve their ability to rely on top-down attention to make better decisions on the field, and to make them faster. As was discussed in a previous NFP article, this ability allows System 1 thinking to capture the right information to make the best decision. Simulation-based cognitive training apps are now available to younger players to increase the number of reps they can experience off the field.
After the Falcons game, the Broncos’ QB said it had nothing to do with his physical condition, but rather, “three really poor decisions.” After the historic, Week 7 second half comeback against the San Diego Chargers, receiver Demaryius Thomas summed up Manning’s magic, “Peyton started clicking and seeing everything. It was like clockwork.” Apparently, the cognitive process of seeing, analyzing and acting remain critical to any player’s game, even a future Hall of Famer.