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Joe Montana, Nietzsche and the domains of learning: A day in QB school with Mario Verduzco

March 24, 2019

Mario Verduzco is standing at the end of a long conference table in Nebraska’s offensive meeting room and his shoes are off.

He’s arranged them perpendicular on the table in front of him, the left heel centered with the right arch. To make a long story short — or at least shorter — this is the mechanical problem the Husker quarterbacks coach has been working to correct with freshman Luke McCaffrey.

Imagine an arrow, Verduzco explains, extending from the right arch — the back foot of a right-handed quarterback — directly to the intended target. (Many coaches teach that the lead foot directs where the ball goes. Verduzco refers to them in a term not fit for print.) The left foot must never come down on that imaginary guide line as the quarterback strides, just as a golfer never steps on the line of a putt.

The explanation includes the following terms: “Translational rotational power,” “schema exaggeration,” “maximal optimal thrust,” “lateral bending of the spine,” along with formulas for power, force, torque and more.

The simplest way to describe the problem is if McCaffrey’s lead (left) foot comes down on the stance arrow, he will be off balance because the force of a throw naturally carries a righty to his left. If Verduzco can train McCaffrey’s lead foot to come down just to the outside of his right heel, the young signal-caller will remain more balanced and will direct the full force behind his throw more optimally toward his target.

This is only one of a few mechanical adjustments McCaffrey is making as he also adjusts to college life, learns a playbook, hits the weight room and gets up to speed on everything else.

This part, though, is easy.

“If you’ve got him seven days a week and you could work out three times a day, you can get that program changed within seven days,” Verudzco insists. “And then he’s a new guy.”

Walsh and Schmidt

This meeting between reporter and coach, over 2½ hours on a Friday afternoon when most everybody else at NU was eager to start spring break, came about because of a simple question: “What are the five phases of the throwing motion?” Responded Verduzco, “We’ll talk until your eyes bleed if you want.”

The more Verduzco lays out his process and the longer he’s around Nebraska, the more a couple of central figures to his four-plus decades of coaching emerge. One is legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Verduzco is a California native and cut his teeth in the Bay Area. Another is Richard A. Schmidt, described in a 2015 memorial as a “leading scientist and researcher at the intersection of the fields of psychology, physical education and kinesiology.” Verduzco’s master’s degree from San Jose State is in biomechanics and exercise physiology.

Walsh provides the blueprint for what quarterback play should look like and Schmidt the road map for teaching it.

Sprinkle in some Friedrich Nietzsche, some Plato, a little Vincenzo Bellini and Joe Montana, and the picture starts to form.

Between the X’s and O’s and axis points and formulas scribbled on the white board in Verduzco’s office, there’s a line attributed to the 13th century Islamic thinker Rumi, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

That’s how the “cubes,” as Verduzco calls his pupils, learn in Lincoln these days. It’s broad-based yet laser-focused.

Four domains

Even in brief interactions with reporters, glimpses of Verduzco’s teaching methods show up regularly. The most common: the four domains of learning.

They are Affective, Psychomotor, Cognitive and Physical. The first three are found throughout literature and research. Verduzco, with help from a colleague at San Jose State, added the fourth to help house quarterback-specific traits.

The affective domain is essentially leadership and approach, taught primarily through philosophy and theology. The psychomotor domain is motor learning and biomechanics — the movements that make great quarterback play and how they’re harnessed. The cognitive domain is everything playbook-related. The physical domain is weight training, drill work, etc.

“As a quarterbacks coach, what you are is a physician,” Verduzco said. “You have to have the expertise to analyze the problem, diagnose it and then prescribe the quote-unquote medication to fix the (expletive) problem.”

Verduzco groups mistakes loosely into these categories when he grades performance.

“Psychological, because you’re selfish and you’re going to throw it (even though you know you shouldn’t),” he said. “Cognitive, because you have no idea what the play is or where your eyes belong. Mechanical, because you’re throwing the ball backside but your stance arrow is pointed elsewhere and the ball goes inside and the cornerback jumps it.” There are also coaching errors and the occasional, uncontrollable “act of God.”

The gold standard

Grainy practice footage of Joe Montana lights up a projection screen in the meeting room. This must be what it’s like listening to a rare Jerry Garcia bootleg with a Deadhead. Montana is in sweats, working through drop-backs and throws as several coaches watch.

Everybody follows the ball flight except Walsh, eyes trained at Montana’s feet.

“Moses,” Verduzco mutters in admiration.

Footwork is everything because it’s learned, not innate. From the waist up, anybody can throw a ball. The lower half is all about practice and work. Walsh, in a documentary about his career, says of Montana, “He’s the most graceful, quick-footed, mobile quarterback we’ve seen in many years. It’s almost sensual, his movement.”

Adrian Martinez and the other NU quarterbacks are certainly not at that level, but they’re learning. A reporter posits that Martinez’s light feet and his balance conjures a bit of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Not a spitting image but a familiar feel.

“All the stuff we’re talking about doesn’t mean that Joe Montana is going to look like Steve Young or Steve Young is going to look like Aaron Rodgers or Aaron Rodgers is going to look like any of the other guys from the Bill Walsh tree,” Verduzco says. “But they’re going to demonstrate the same sort of qualities.”

The comparison today, of a college freshman to three Hall of Famers, is only that the training process is similar. It is a little eerie, though. As Verduzco, still shoeless, demonstrates a point, his own fluid, whippy motion looks like all four quarterbacks listed above and like none of them, all at the same time.

Montana’s feet, meanwhile, are mesmerizing. He sets and resets without effort. He is always balanced, feet always hip-width.

“He understands where he is in space and time,” Verduzco marvels.

This explains why so much of the early focus on McCaffrey is about footwork. Throwing a football is “ballistic,” Verduzco explains. Once you start the motion, it ain’t stopping.

“If that’s the case and I can begin right in balance and I can end right in balance, then I’m probably pretty (expletive) sure that what happens in 150 milliseconds in between is going to be pretty close to what we want,” he said.

Lessons learned

Martinez’s first “wow” moment as Nebraska’s quarterback came against Colorado, when he kept the ball on an option, beat an extra defender one-on-one and raced 41 yards for a touchdown.

“The guy he was reading made him pull it and they had us out-leveraged, but he said, ‘(Forget) it, I’m going,’” Verduzco said.

It’s easy to say that Martinez was just faster and that’s why he scored. In a way, that’s true, but the freshman’s training in the four domains of learning can all be seen in one fell swoop.

There’s the affective domain in that Martinez knew he could win without being selfish or operating outside of his role as “one cog in the wheel of success or failure,” as Verduzco calls it. Psychomotor: his mechanics to lead him to the right decision. Cognitive: He understood the play’s leverage and anticipated the extra man he had to beat. Physical: He’d done the work to prepare himself to win the matchup.

Play out the string, and you realize that each domain is at play every time the synapses fire on the field or at practice or in the meeting room. It’s wildly complicated and also taught in a way designed to make it perfectly natural, carried out literally without consideration to all the different disciplines and moving parts at play.

“That’s how all this stuff got started,” Verduzco said. “You get to the point where you figure out that it has a cascading effect. You just kind of all of a sudden see it all at once after you hear a guy like Bill Walsh talk.”