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Chess Master Murray

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

“The great ones always listen,” former NBA coach Hubie Brown claims.

At a Nike basketball coaching clinic back in the 1980s, Hubie Brown regaled the coaches in the stands with his story of how his first NBA coaching assignment as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks was to mentor perennial 1st NBA All-Star center, Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

“So here I was this skinny 6’2” Jewish kid from Elizabeth, New Jersey—-a total nobody—-and on my first day of practice I am teaching the footwork fundamentals of post play to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.”

“I was prepared for him to laugh at me—-yet—-much to my surprise, Kareem was all ears and was eager to focus on the fundamentals with me and his fellow big men. It was during my first practice as an NBA coach that I learned—-the great ones always listen.”

Such was the case in grade school for the Cardinals’ 2nd year QB Kyler Murray.

One of his teachers pulled him aside and suggested that he should try to get keenly interested in some things other than sports.

Murray heeded his teacher’s sage advice and started playing chess.

The results were extraordinary.

Murray won his school’s chess championship—-with back-to-back titles as a 4th and 5th grader.

As we know, Kyler Murray went on to become one of the most iconic high school football players in the lore of Texas’ “Friday Night Lights” extravaganza.

Murray’s prowess in chess was brought to the limelight this week when a photographer captured Kyler playing a heated match on the rug of the clubhouse floor with Larry Fitzgerald.

As one would fully expect, Larry Fitzgerald, a chess aficionado himself, put up a valiant fight. In the end, with only a handful of pieces left on the board, Kyler was able to secure the checkmate.

If there is one board game that can help develop the mind of an NFL QB—-chess has to be at the top of the list, for a myriad of reasons:

  1. Seeing the entire board = seeing the entire football field.
  2. Navigating among and around 32 chess pieces = navigating among and around 22 players.
  3. Knowing when to be aggressive = taking shots downfield.
  4. Knowing when to pull back = throwing the ball away.
  5. Playing vertical, horizontal and diagonal moves = seeing and hitting receivers on their route trees.
  6. Baiting the opponent = getting a CB, S or LB to bite on a fake.
  7. Patiently navigating the board = taking what the defense gives you.
  8. Avoiding rash, over-aggressive moves = avoiding turnovers.
  9. Making expert use of the queen = taking full advantage of the team’s best skill player.
  10. Making the right counter moves = reading and adjusting to what the defense is trying to take away.
  11. Staying two to three moves ahead of the game = anticipating how the opponent will react.*
  • Note—-the most important skill of all is #11. The ability for coaches and QBs to stay 2-3 plays ahead of the game is often the difference between winning and losing.

Cases in Point:

One of the greatest coaching lessons I ever learned was from studying the tapes of my Rivers School football games versus MA Hall of Fame football coach Bob Souza at St. Sebastian’s School.

What I learned in watching the tapes was that Coach Souza would go into the game with one basic play that he believed would work versus our 52 monster defense. The first time we played them it was an off-tackle running play in which he would double down on our DT, pull the play side guard to kick out our DE and lead the FB through the hole to block the LB.

They always ran the play away from our monster man (SS) and we had a very difficult time defending it.

By the way, when I met John Madden he told me that the weak side off tackle play was his favorite bread and butter play when he was coaching the Raiders.

What Coach Souza would do is run that play from a variety of different looks (formations) to one side or the other until we could devise a way to stop it.

When we finally made an adjustment by pulling the FS up to sit in the off-tackle hole—-Souza had his QB ready to audible into one of their two favorite “counter” plays: (1) running a “counter trey” to their lead RB; (2) going play action and throwing the deep post to the vacated middle.

Over the course of playing Souza’s team for 4 years, they scored 4 times on those two counter plays.

It was a classic game of cat and mouse.

The only somewhat successful counter move that I had to defending Coach Souza’s bread and butter plays was when we abandoned our 5-2 monster to run a version of the 44—-and when they started to figure that out—-we threw a “gap 8” at them to create as much chaos on the snap as we could.

In applying this to Kyler Murray when he played at Oklahoma in Lincoln Riley’s version of the Air Raid offense—-I clearly remember one drive during Murray’s Heisman season that I will never forget. I watched in utter fascination when Murray patiently and perfectly connected on five 7-yard “out” passes in a row—-because the opponents’ CBs were playing a 10-12 yard cushion. With each out pass, I could see the CBs starting to inch up a little more each time—-and sure enough, Murray got the LCB to bite on a pump fake and hit Lee Morris on an “out and up” for the TD.

Now—-you might not think that is hugely impressive—-but let me put this in greater perspective. Some of Murray’s out pass throws were thrown from the far hashmark—-and all 5 of his throws were thrown in the same exact motion—- all 5 were perfectly timed—-and all 5 were frozen ropes thrown with picture-perfect accuracy.

I have rarely seen a QB duplicate this kind of patient precision. Heck, when you watch the “out pass” drills at the NFL Combine, even the best of the QBs have trouble duplicating the same throwing motion and same precision two or three times in a row, let alone 5. And that is without a defense and not throwing from a far hash mark.

This kind of exemplary patience and precision is where playing chess helped Kyler Murray to win the Heisman Trophy.

If you have been listening to Kyler this off-season, he has spent a great deal of time poring over last year’s game tapes—-and what he was most frustrated about was seeing on so many occasions that he missed out on taking what the defense was giving him.

He admitted that during the first half of the season he was often “winging it.” But, during the second half he began to read the defenses more clearly and it started paying dividends.

When Kyler Murray can put his full chess mastery to use in the NFL, the results could be phenomenal.

The two QBs of this modern era who were the best chess players on the field were Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Their success was/is (Brady’s case) largely due to their ability to read defenses on the pre-snap and have a “Omaha, Omaha” or “Rita, Rita” signal to their teammates to then audible into the best possible play to exploit the defense with.

It’s very exciting to envision Manning and Brady-esque types of pre-snap chess maneuverings from Kyler Murray.

As the saying goes: “Mind over matter.”

As in—”if you don’t mind, it don’t matter!”

Look at Murray’s patience and precise ball placements on this clutch TD drive:

And just think—-that was just in his first ever NFL game.

Marvel at Murray’s poise and accuracy during this drive versus the Seahawks:

Take a good look at Murray’s setups and how clean and swift the ball comes out of his hand in this NFL Offensive Player of the Week performance:

It was checkmate for Murray in this one!

Just imagine the ones to come!