FedEx Field was closing in around the Texans last Sunday. Trailing by 17 with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter, Houston had a 24-yard completion to Andre Johnson negated, then saw Matt Schaub sacked on the next play to set up third-and-15 from its 44.
A stadium that shook with elation six days earlier during the Redskins' emotional season-opening win over rival Dallas now shimmied with the anticipation of a 2-0 start -- the franchise's first since 2007 -- under new coach Mike Shanahan. Schaub stood in the middle of the din unfazed. On consecutive plays he found running back Arian Foster for a 50-yard catch-and-run, then located Kevin Walter for a six-yard touchdown. That resuscitated the Texans' offense, which scored the final 20 points in a 30-27 overtime win.
Afterward, coach Gary Kubiak marveled at the his QB's composure, saying: "Playing that position is such a roller-coaster ride, so it's tough to win if your guy's emotions are all over the place. Our team is always looking to that player to lead us. If you get sacked and you're rolling around on the ground, or your head is down, they see that. And when you're upbeat they see that they're still in the ballgame."
Body language has been a hot topic the last couple of weeks because quarterbacks at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum were on display in back-to-back nationally televised Monday night games in Week 1. First was second-year Jets pro Mark Sanchez, who looked like someone had told him his puppy was missing while throwing for only 74 yards in a 10-9 loss to Baltimore. In the nightcap, Chargers Pro Bowler Philip Rivers, who was much more animated than Sanchez, jawed at teammates during a 21-14 loss to the Chiefs in hostile Arrowhead Stadium and even kicked away a football during a stop in play.
Both displays lit up talk-radio phone lines and created crowds around the water cooler. Beyond the discussion of whether one was a "baby" and the other a "jerk," there was the larger issue of whether a quarterback's body language can impact his ability to lead his teammates.
"There is something called isopraxism, which is an anthropological explanation of how we pull toward the same energy," says Patti Wood, a body language expert who taught a course in the subject at Florida State and has authored seven books on nonverbal communication. "It actually explains why when the person we're with steps off the curb, we follow him or her into the crosswalk; or why at the dance, nobody wants to go on the dance floor when there's nobody out there, but as soon as it gets crowded everybody wants to go. In team sports it explains how one person, especially the leader, if he gets discouraged or gets upset or feels defeated, the entire group is affected really quickly. In fact, the research says the more powerful the person in terms of status and admiration, the faster whatever they're doing nonverbally transfers to the rest of the group."
The Jets have been dealing with this issue with Sanchez since trading up to draft him fifth overall in 2009. As a rookie he would go into funks on the field when the offense bogged down or he failed to make plays. His mood swings were so noticeable that this summer the coaching staff showed him video cut-ups of moments in games when he had poor body language. Then it asked him if he would want to follow that guy. The answer came back, no.
During training camp this year, HBO's Hard Knocks captured a scene in which QB coach Matt Cavanaugh talked to Sanchez about displaying more of a take-care demeanor. However, Sanchez's body language appeared to be that of someone who had no interest in hearing what was being said. He fiddled with his equipment bag without ever appearing to make eye contact with the coach.
"Mark's performance on Hard Knocks did leave a lot to be desired," says CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, who started 173 games during his 14-year NFL career. "You did not see a kid who was ready to take the mantle and ready to fight for his meal at the table, so to speak. You saw a kid that shied away from the cameras, that didn't want to get involved. Unfortunately, the quarterback has always got to be involved. A quarterback can never, ever show a weakness, and you can never, ever show that you're beaten down [like he did against the Ravens]."
Sanchez rebounded Sunday with the best game of his career, setting personal highs for completions (21) and touchdowns (three) in a 28-14 victory over rival New England. Capitalizing on a more aggressive game plan, he was bolder and more engaged than in the previous game against the Ravens. He also heeded the words of the coaching staff that to get others to follow, you must lead them both in action and behavior. One person who took note after the game was Esiason, who said by text: "It was a terrific game for him against their biggest rival. People often rush to judgment. It takes time for these kids."
Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb echoed that point Sunday night while leaving FedEx Field. During conversations with veteran and retired quarterbacks early in his 12-year career, he often was told that positive body language is critical to a quarterback's ability to lead.
"Sometimes your body language speaks louder than your words," he said. "A lot of people want to be rah-rah guys, a lot of people want to bark out different things, but really guys watch how you respond to different [adverse] situations with your actions. That's something that I pay a lot of attention to. ...
"Quarterbacks come into the league so young now that it takes time for them to find their way. That team really doesn't even know Sanchez. A guy like him, second year in the league, when everything is going great, that's what they see. The excitement. But when things aren't going great, because he's young, he's going to take it hard and wear his emotions on his sleeve. As he gets older he'll learn not to do that and be able to bounce back out of it. You can even look at Jay Cutler. Everyone talked about him last year, and now all of a sudden things seem to be rolling and guys are responding well to him."
In his first season with the Bears last year, after being traded from Denver in a blockbuster deal, Cutler led the league in interceptions (26) and pouty faces. As he walked off the field after an interception against the 49ers in 2009, microphones caught him lamenting the fact that he was "snake-bitten." He appeared distant and down at times.
It would be foolish to suggest that quarterbacks should never become down or frustrated. The issue is how they handle it. The week before facing the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, Patriots defenders told SI that All-Pro quarterback Tom Brady would curse and throw his helmet in practice during the season when the defense dominated him in two-minute drills. But on the field that year -- and throughout his career -- there has been no cooler customer than Brady.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees had struggles early in his career while with San Diego. And even though he had to learn to control his emotions, you could always see that he was chomping to get back on the field after a bad play. Instead of donning a baseball cap and taking a seat on the bench away from teammates, with a distant look in his eyes, he would stand on the edge of the sideline, helmet on, waiting for his next opportunity.
"Body language is huge," says Schaub, who after throwing an interception on his third play from scrimmage Sunday rebounded to throw for 497 yards in the win at Washington. "It's one of those things that a lot of young players don't realize. Regardless of how the play ends up, as a leader and as the quarterback of the team, you can't let your guys see you defeated or too high. You've got to be on an even keel. There are times where you've got to fire up somebody, or you've got to show that competitive edge, like Philip Rivers does. But it's the negative things you have to eliminate -- the slumping of the shoulders, the look in your eyes that, Gosh, what do I do? You've got to be able to move on from that or you're not going to be able to lead your guys in the right direction."