It was a story told many years ago. So many years ago, in fact, that Duke coach David Cutcliffe can’t even remember when, but it had such an impact on him that he re-told it in the immediate aftermath of the Blue Devils’ win at Georgia Tech.
“I heard a story once about fighter pilots,” Cutcliffe said. “And it affected me as a quarterbacks coach.”
The teller of the tale was the brother of Dick Bumpas, now the TCU defensive coordinator. Bumpas coached with Cutcliffe at Tennessee from 1985-88. His brother, meanwhile, instructed fighter pilots at Top Gun, the Navy Fighter Weapons School.
“And he said everything is just so instrument-oriented, what they’re doing is almost like this super-duper video game,” Cutcliffe said. “And the young pilots they are getting in there are incredible at it. But what they forget, sometimes, is that they’re flying an airplane.
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“And that hit home with me. We have been pretty cerebral at quarterback, and I’m talking back to Peyton (Manning). Don’t forget that you’re playing quarterback. Don’t forget that you’re flying a plane.”
In other words, don’t overthink it. Trust yourself and your preparation and just react.
That was the message to Duke quarterback Anthony Boone in between one of the worst performances of his career at Miami – 22-of-51 (43.1 percent) for 179 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions – and his best game of the season in the upset win of the Yellow Jackets (16-of-26 for 131 yards and a touchdown, in addition to 49 rushing yards on 10 carries).
For Boone, it comes down to the difference between thinking and knowing.
“You can definitely overthink it. That’s definitely something that I’ve experienced, just trying to do too much and overthink too much,” he said. “When you’re out there thinking is when you’re playing slow. You might not make the nice passes that you need to. But if you’re knowing, everything takes over for itself; it’s muscle memory. It’s exactly what you practice. That’s a huge difference I’ve found, for myself.”
Searching for the flow
While football success, at first glance, is predicated upon primal strength and violent combat, a quarterback needs the mental acumen to process offensive and defensive schemes in a matter of seconds.
Duke doesn’t huddle between plays, so as soon as one play ends, Boone quickly relays the play call to the other 10 men and turns his attention toward the line of scrimmage.
“The first thing you have to focus on, just initially, is to make sure your formation is right,” Cutcliffe said, walking through a quarterback’s pre-snap routine. “The strength people are on or off the ball that should be either on or off the ball. We have slots and tight ends that move. So, you kind of just feel that, you’re not really looking at it.
“The same time, you’re multitasking, you’re looking at the (defensive) front, trying to see what front, whether it’s three down linemen, four down linemen, getting a feel for that. And quarterbacks, at the same time, are thinking about the secondary. There are tips you see on tape that he has taken in. At that point and time, that’s where you can go play football. Or, sometimes you start thinking, should I change a play? If you’re asking yourself, you just don’t need to do it.”
When working properly, there is a rhythm to Duke’s offense, one that Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery can feel without any type of timing instrument – or not feel, if the timing isn’t right.
“Once you’re starting to be set in a formation, the rhythm needs to be pretty quick,” Cutcliffe said.
Take a key third-and-26 play in the second quarter against the Yellow Jackets. On the play before, Georgia Tech defensive back Domonique Noble ran through the line untouched, batting Boone’s pass. Boone caught it and threw the ball again – an illegal forward pass that cost Duke 21 yards and a down.
Boone was able to quickly settle himself, as the Blue Devils lined up with three wide receivers to Boone’s left, nobody moving in motion. Boone took a three-step drop, stepped into the pocket, gave the play a second to develop and fired a strike down the left sideline to Max McCaffrey for a 30-yard gain (in a nod to his feel for the game, Boone released the ball right before he was tackled from behind by defensive end Kyle Travis). That drive ended with a touchdown, which gave the Blue Devils a 14-6 lead they would never relinquish.
The other offensive players can feel when Boone is in rhythm, knowing instead of thinking. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder calls it “flow.”
“He threw the ball to Max down the sideline instead of just checking and being conservative. He took a shot,” Crowder said, pointing to that play unprompted. “The Georgia Tech game, he just let things flow.
“A lot of times Boone is overthinking when we get to the line and he tries to adjust things a little too much when he should just let them flow sometimes. Sometimes that kind of gets us out of rhythm. Sometimes that kind of gets us out of rhythm or causes the line or the running backs to get off the page with him. He’s a lot more relaxed when he just lets things flow.”
Knowledge leads to production
Knowledge can be a double-edged sword. To run Cutcliffe’s system correctly, a quarterback has to understand it inside and out. Boone certainly has achieved that. Now that he has, it’s time to trust himself and those around him and just let the game come to him.
“That’s where I’m at right now,” Boone said. “I know everything. I know what I’m going to get. I know every look under the moon that I may get. Now it’s just like, don’t overcomplicate it; whatever I call, just know the answers to it and do it instead of trying to fix it to be the perfect play.
“It’s not like you’re playing a guessing game. Instead, it’s like, I’m going to answer this, let’s just go, let’s just go.”