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Thinly Sliced Bush

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I recently read blink, Malcolm Gladwell's exploration of the value of instant cognition. The book presents the case that the "task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis."

blink got me thinking about football, specifically the series of instantaneous judgments that occur during each play that determine whether it will be a success or failure. (In 2006, ESPN Magazine wrote an interesting break-down of the rapid cognitions that occurred during the deciding play of this game--ironically, an in-depth analysis of instant judgment.) Before and during every play of every game, each player makes a series of rapid observations that allow them to properly execute their assignment. Players can prepare themselves to make these observations--Michael Strahan will line up a certain way when he intends to bullrush; knowing how to spot this will help opposing tackles neutralize him on that play.

It got me thinking about ballcarriers in the open field.

I grew up watching Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk, two players to whom Reggie Bush often draws comparisons.* Both were known for their vision and shiftiness: their ability to sense tacklers in the open field, and to make those tacklers look foolish. In fact, when breaking down the skills of great running backs, the most common talent seems to be "vision," a back's ability to evaluate a situation--Gladwell calls it "thin slicing"--and make judgments off of those evaluations.

In one sense, Reggie is already an accomplished thin slicer. He has a once-in-a-generation ability to avoid defenders whom he must only see as brief flashes. To be sure, he possesses breathtaking athleticism. But his snap judgments--spin, juke, or stop, for example--are often on point.

Yet in another sense, his thin slicing fails more often than not. Something that Reggie struggles with--by no means is he unique in these struggles--is his ability to find a hole and hit it, to thin slice the play and react properly to it. Bush's considerable athleticism often conceals his poor decisions, but when (if) he learns to properly thin slice a play he will be that much more dangerous. When Bush is in the open field, and forced to evaluate fewer defenders, his decisions seem much more sound. This is to be expected. After all, he was a rookie last season. Assuming Bush remains healthy (knock on wood), his ability to properly thin slice plays will probably be the difference between him maximizing his potential (like Sanders or Faulk) or not. It could be the difference between him scoring 10 and 20 touchdowns per season.

In the meantime, it's a whole helluva lot of fun to watch Reggie thin slice.

*This both exciting and terrifying for me, a blogger entrusted with chronicling Reggie's career. Exciting because I get to watch him create all of this excitement, to exercise an improvisational skill on par with that of John Coltrane. Terrifying because I have to translate it into words. I may just do it stream of consciousness.