How baseball is building better NFL quarterbacks
By Jeff Beckham, WIRED
The two clues that foretold Tom House's future as a quarterback specialist emerged way back in the late 1980s. The first came with the footballs that he used as pitching coach of the Texas Rangers, pointing out in his quiet voice that throwing with proper mechanics was the only way to produce a tight spiral.
Then came the cameras that could capture high-speed video of pitchers—and fly fishermen, golfers, and quarterbacks. House was curious about all of them. He sent footage to a lab to be digitized for 3-D motion analysis, which led to an aha moment: From a biomechanical standpoint, the throwing motion for quarterbacks and pitchers is pretty much identical. House was no longer just a baseball coach; he became a professor of throwing.
Granted, the throws in baseball and football differ in a few ways. Quarterbacks often throw on the move, so they don't a have a consistent lower-body position like pitchers do. Quarterbacks also need to deliver the ball more quickly. Passers have about half a second to plant their front foot, shift their weight, and throw, while pitchers can take nearly three times as long to go through the same sequence. But, House says, when distilled to the basics of how power is transferred from the lower body through the torso and to the arm, one delivery looks just like the other.
"Sequencing, mechanical variables, ground-force torque, and functional strength—it's exactly the same," he says. "To a point where you can overlay a kinematic sequence from Drew Brees and Greg Maddux, and, except for the time it takes to weight-shift, it's the same sequence exactly."
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House's football pupils include Super Bowl winners Tom Brady and Drew Brees, Pro Bowlers Carson Palmer and Alex Smith, along with another 20 or so NFL quarterbacks. Growing numbers of college and high school quarterbacks, along with the traditional stream of baseball and softball players, make their way to House's training center, the National Pitching Association/3DQB Health & Performance Center, on the campus of the University of Southern California.
Each client is filmed with cameras that capture his throwing motion at 1,000 frames per second, and then the footage is digitized for analysis. Athletes can see a computerized model of their individual delivery and even compare it with years of footage of everyone from Joe Montana to Dan Marino to Tim Tebow.
House said the 3-D motion analysis was the catalyst that got baseball teams to slowly adopt his teachings. He expects the same to happen in football over the next 2-3 years.
"We're the new kids on the block. We've only been out there two and a half years," House said. "My guess is that it's a three- to five-year process before something new permeates the league."
Word of mouth is spreading, however, as teammates spread the word of what they learned. At one point this summer, all four quarterbacks on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster had worked with House. Starter Andy Dalton first visited in 2014 and made a return trip to California for a few weeks of training this year.
"I was farther along with everything when I went back," Dalton said. "I'm able to do a lot of the more advanced stuff they have because I have a good understanding of what we are doing. Just working core, shoulders, and getting everything working for you so you get everything into the throw."
But while most may come to adjust their throwing mechanics, they also get a whole suite of assessments from House and his partner at 3DQB, Adam Dedeaux. They talk about the four legs of their "performance table" as a comprehensive approach to improvement. Along with the throwing motion analysis, 3DQB offers position-specific strength and conditioning workouts, insight into nutrition and sleep for optimum recovery, and mental and emotional assessment to uncover how they deal with the stress and anxiety that come with performing at a high level.
“The truth is when you dive in to try to help somebody really get better you realize that there really is more to it than just mechanics,” Dedeaux said. “We're basically trying to cover all our bases to make sure that we know everything that's going on with them.”
They make for an odd pair of sports savants: a pair of former pitchers nearly 40 years apart. House, 68, looks a decade younger and has a pair of master’s degrees along with a Ph.D. in psychology. They connected when House coached Dedeaux at USC, where House had played in the 1960s for Dedeaux’s grandfather, Rod. Adam Dedeaux, 29, began to soak up House's teachings when they were together in college and stayed in touch as he spent time in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system.
They went into business together, as House remembers it, after he pulled Dedeaux away from a baseball clinic in 2011 to catch passes from Tebow as House worked on the much-hyped quarterback's throwing motion. Since then, Dedeaux has managed the day-to-day activities of 3DQB and been the main contact for their football clients as House continues to travel and work with athletes in several sports. They added a third member of their instructional team, John Beck, to boost their football business. Beck played quarterback at BYU and currently plays for the British Columbia Lions in the CFL.
The 3DQB team believes that we haven't seen the best of quarterbacks yet and there are still gains to be made for with strength and accuracy. And even incremental gains from players at the top level give them a significant edge, House said. Quarterbacks have become much more accurate over the past two decades; the next 50 years will see even more advances as throwing motions and other parts of the game are refined.
"The more football embraces science-based technology, the more gains they're going to make," he said. "It could be biomechanics one year, it could be physical preparation another year, it could be physical recovery a third year. But in combination, there's always room for improvement."
Back when House was filming Nolan Ryan’s delivery and having his pitchers toss footballs, he told the Los Angeles Times, “Right now I'm thought of as Weird Science," he says. "The payoff is probably not going to come with me, but with someone of my type further down the road." As with most things, it turned out that he was ahead of his time.