TERRE HAUTE — Peyton Manning only seems like Spock with an $80-million arm.
He stands behind a row of teammates, scanning the alignment and movements of 11 rival defenders. He points and hollers instructions to his fellow Indianapolis Colts. He may change a blocker’s assignment, or alter a receiver’s route. He may see a gap in the opponents’ formation, and call an “audible” — a completely different play, drawn from hundreds in the Colts’ complex playbook — seconds before center Jeff Saturday snaps the ball.
Back in the pocket, with four violently huge guys trying to claw through his blockers, Manning glances at each of his receivers, one by one. Then, with a snarling defensive end closing in, Manning sees Reggie Wayne slip past the safety and zips a pass into Wayne’s outstretched arms for a 14-yard first down. Manning had all of 3.5 seconds to make that decision.
The logical choice? Perhaps. Some form of critical-thinking skill is apparent when Manning tries to see through the decoy moves of linebackers threatening to blitz. Critical thinkers are a highly sought-after commodity in the 21st-century business world. They are skeptical by nature, explained Kevin Christ, who teaches critical thinking skills as an economics professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
To critical thinkers, knowledge is always provisional (or temporary).
Manning is skeptical of his foes, and aware that his understanding of their motives must evolve with each game.
But successful NFL quarterbacks such as the two pitted in today’s Super Bowl — Manning and New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees — also employ attributes Spock would find illogical. Gut instinct, and useful fear. (Of course, the $80-million arms help, too.)
Those qualities separate Manning, Brees, Joe Montana and Tom Brady from other pro QBs with perhaps even more athletic talent and intelligence. Trying to decide which receiver to throw to, those quarterbacks may feel slight tinges of fear — the fear of throwing an interception — as they check off those covered too closely. When Manning finds the open man, the sensation is positive, instead of fearful, and the pass is thrown.
Such gut instinct, and the taming of fear, can’t be controlled without lots of repetition.
“The ability to make decisions based on those slight bits of information in a split second takes years and years of practice,” Jonah Lehrer, author of the book, “How We Decide,” said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Mind, gut combine
No other team sport, as Lehrer — a neuroscientist and journalist — points out in “How We Decide,” depends more on the judgment of a single player than NFL football. Still, though Manning’s “football IQ” is often trumpeted, his decision-making prowess involves more than sheer intellect. The standard intelligence test given to all incoming NFL players, the Wonderlic, reveals why IQs don’t predict success for a QB.
The average score for quarterbacks is 24, according to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Manning scored an impressive 28. His brother, Eli, got a 39. Recent first-round draft pick quarterbacks Alex Smith and Matt Leinart received 40 and 35, respectively. Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Dan Marino got 15 and 14, respectively.
Obviously, the ability to accurately hurl a 60-yard pass and master calculus aren’t enough. You also must be able to solve the problem of rushing defensive linemen and predatory defensive backs while implementing a game plan (critical thinking), and then find the open receiver and hit him with a pass (controlled fear and gut instinct).
Clearly, with four NFL MVP Awards, Manning does that well.
“I don’t know if that’s critical thinking, or analytic decisions finely honed over time,” said Christ, who teaches critical-thinking skills.
“Within the small domain of decision-making — on the football field — [Manning] probably is a critical thinker,” Christ said.
One classic definition of critical thinking, by early 1900s Yale professor William Graham Sumner and relayed by Christ, defines it as “the examination and test of propositions of any kind, which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power.”
For those of us with a Terry Bradshaw vocabulary, in a nutshell, critical thinkers have good B.S. detectors.
“They’re skeptics,” Christ said. “They don’t believe in absolute answers. They don’t see the world in blacks and whites, but the shades of gray they see don’t scare them.”
How does that apply to Manning, who will see black and gold on the other side of the line today?
Well, as Sumner wrote, critical thinking is man’s “only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances.” And, as Christ explained, NFL “defenses are continually trying to delude and deceive quarterbacks, and Manning is obviously one of the best at seeing through the deceptions of defenses, and creating a few of his own.”
Even among the NFL’s elite critical thinkers and gut-instinct quarterbacks, Manning stands out.
“I do think Peyton Manning’s relatively unique as QBs go, in terms of his decision-making,” Lehrer said.
That sheer intelligence portion of that skill should not be over-emphasized, though. Brilliance happens at practice sessions. Instinct locates the right receiver late in the fourth quarter. “Critical decision-makers aren’t purely rational thinkers,” Christ said.
Rationality won’t stop a 300-pound defensive tackle. “If you’re a QB in the pocket, you don’t want to be thinking too much,” Lehrer said. “Even Peyton Manning doesn’t want to think too much, or he’s going to get sacked.
“I think Peyton Manning’s a little bit more aware than other QBs,” he added, “but he’s still relying on the ability to read pass patterns and defenses, and that’s developed over years.”
Learning to think
Such people aren’t freaks of nature, but they’re not in the majority.
“In absolute numbers, sure, there are plenty of them” in America, Christ said. “But there are 300 million of us, so in relative terms, there’s not that many.”
Those numbers can grow, said Aaron Preston, chairman of the philosophy department at Valparaiso University, where a Logic and Critical Thinking course is taught. “What we can say, with some confidence, I think, is that most of us have room for improvement as critical thinkers. How many of us regularly perform at the ‘Peyton Manning level’ in the critical thinking activities relevant to our jobs, our finances, our parenting, and so on?”
Training is necessary.
“I think our colleges need to do a better job of teaching our young people how to think, rather than training them for their first job,” Christ said.
Manning got an early start in his critical thinking education. “I don’t know whether the University of Tennessee [Peyton’s alma mater] taught him that, or if he learned it in his upbringing,” Christ said. “It’s probably in his DNA. I mean, he practically grew up in the New Orleans Saints’ huddle, with Archie Manning.” Archie, a former Saints quarterback and Peyton’s dad, is one of that long-suffering franchise’s few legends.
Archie got sacked 396 times in his career, playing for some really bad teams from 1971 to ’84. Only nine QBs in the history of the NFL have suffered more sacks. Apparently, young Peyton took good mental notes of his dad’s situation.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
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