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Yippee-kai-nooo!! The Iowa QB Confidence Debacle

Does James Vandenberg need a stiff drink, a(nother) quarterback coach, a shrink or an exorcism to get over his abysmal play?

Jonathan Daniel

In 1927 at The Shawnee Open, a golf tournament held outside Philadelphia, a professional golfer scored the first ever "Archaeopteryx" -- a score of 15 or more over par -- when he took 23 strokes to get his ball in the hole on a par 5. This still stands as the highest score on one hole in PGA history. Needing 18 strokes more than par is embarrassing enough for any golfer who plays the game for a living, but just any golfer did not achieve this dubious feat. The first ever Archaeopteryx was carded by one of the most decorated players of all-time, Scottish-American golfer and three-time major winner Tommy Armour. Now, Armour did not score his 23 late in his career during some ceremonial round in which he was an afterthought, nor was he injured or playing in a hurricane or even slightly adverse weather conditions. In fact, Tommy Armour's meltdown occurred in perfectly normal conditions and one-week after winning golf's most prestigious tournament, the U.S. Open.

Armour's career shortly thereafter began to deteriorate. He struggled to hit the golf ball in even the most mildly pressure filled situations, and ultimately his struggles settled into his putting stroke. Eight years later Tommy Armour was a teaching pro at a resort in Boca Raton, Florida. Armour is famous for having one of the finest swings in golf history, and for having coined one of golf's, and now all of sport's, most distinctive terms - the yips. In the early 1960s while describing the nervous affliction that he credited with short-circuiting his playing career by making short putts treacherous for him, he said simply that he developed "the yips." He said of the yips, "Once you've had 'em, you've got 'em."

In golf the yips are perceived as a combination of psychological and neuromuscular factors that emerge in the swing, most notably short putting situations under pressure. The condition is involuntary twitches of the hands or lower arms that cause golfers to shank very short, obviously makeable putts. The yips often occur right at the moment when the putter meets the ball, causing the putt to go to one side of the hole. However, the yips are now recognized in many other sports.

In basketball the yips have been ascribed to Shaquille O'Neil and other players who struggle to make free throws. In tennis, Elena Dementieva has been credited with the serving yips, especially her on her second serve. In baseball there are many famous players who've succumbed to the yips: two notable examples are Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch.

In some sports the casual viewer easily sees the yips. Take NBA player Chuck Hayes for example. The former Kentucky Wildcat is famous for his yips, which manifested as a hitch at the free throw line.

Tom Watson developed the putting yips in the middle part of his career and they plague him to this day. His yips were revealed in the form of a decelerated putting stroke. But in golf seeing the twitch that comes from the yips is much more subtle than in a basketball free throw motion, although the outcome of them is not.

Elena Dementieva was known for many years for her powerful first serves, one of the most feared in women's tennis, until she became unable to merely get the ball over the net on second serves.

As a Minnesota Twins second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch was an All-Star known for being among the most fundamentally sound players in the entire game. Announcers would refer to him as a sort of walking training video on how to play second base. However, shortly after signing with the legendary New York Yankees his throwing deteriorated to the point of farce. During one game in Yankee Stadium he overthrew first base so badly the baseball sailed into the crowd and hit sportscaster Keith Olbermann's mother in the face.

Consider the case of former Cardinal's outfielder Rick Ankiel. Ankiel began his career as a young phenom power pitcher, and even finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. In his second year in the majors the Cardinals made the playoffs and because of injury to others Ankiel was asked to carry the burden of being the number one starter into their first series. In his first playoff game he lasted two innings after throwing five wild pitches in one inning, tying a major league record. In his second start of the series he last 20 pitches, with a quarter of them going to the backstop. The Cardinals would send the beleaguered pitcher to the minors the following year to work on his command, which continued to deteriorate, and became so bad he abandoned the mound entirely. Fortunately for Ankiel, between starts he also served as his minor league team's designated hitter and ultimately would relocate his talent to the field, returning to the major leagues several years later as a starter in the outfield.

One sport that seems to avoid the term, although not the underlying performance issues associated with it, is football. Quarterbacks who are inaccurate are very often weeded out before ever making it to the college or professional level. Nevertheless there have been a few famous cases of established quarterbacks who in the middle of their careers found trouble consistently completing basic passes. Steve Grogan of the New England Patriots in the 1970s was a famous case. In 1979 he led the NFL with 28 passing TDs. Two years later he threw 16 interceptions in 7 games and was on his way to limited starts and frequent starting QB controversies. There is a famous case occurring right now.

Two years ago, Philip Rivers heroically carried the San Diego Chargers football team. In 2010 Rivers completed passes to 17 different receivers, some of who were complete unknowns the Chargers were forced to sign because of a slew of injuries. Rivers nevertheless finished with a career-high 4,710 yards and miraculously lead the team to a 9-7 finish in one of the most underappreciated quarterbacking efforts in recent history.

But since then things have gone south for Rivers. Since then, Philip Rivers has unraveled. It began last season when he threw a career-worst 20 interceptions and added seven fumbles, including a famous one at the end of a game against Kansas City. In that game Rivers botched a snap as he tried to kill the clock for a game-winning field goal.

The field goal never happened, and neither did the victory.

Until last year, Rivers had never thrown three interceptions in a game. Then he did it against Green Bay. Until last Monday night, he had never thrown four in a game. Then he did it against Denver, blowing a 24-point lead. Rivers now appears to have the dreaded yips.

For quarterbacks the yips is more complicated than it is for a baseball or basketball player, golfer or tennis player. Football is a much faster paced game of instinct and reaction. When the yips are discussed in football they are almost exclusively assigned to the kicker, mainly because he is perceived to have greater control over the planning and execution of his football task. But, quarterbacks can certainly have a case of the yips too and when they do, it manifests most obviously as a loss of accuracy. But as in all cases of the yips, in all sports, the issue is perceived as a sort of mental injury that ultimately infests whatever technical skill the athlete might possess. In some cases researchers who have looked into the phenomenon have seen where the mental scar tissue actually develops into physical scar tissue thanks to physical efforts to improve outcomes.

All of which brings us to young James Vandenberg.

Over his last 11 games James Vandenberg is completing passes at a woeful 54%. What's worse, his performance over this span has yielded four games in which he completed fewer than 50% of his attempts. As has been noted on Hawkeye Nation, Vandenberg is now performing, in this season, through seven games...slightly worse than Jake Christensen did in 2007, a season that stands as the standard bearer for poor Iowa quarterback play.

What's concerning to me is the manner in which Vandenberg is managing his slump. On numerous occasions his passing technique, especially in very stressful moments in the game, defaults to throwing passes with increasingly greater velocity. In the Penn State game on Saturday on a crucial third down in the first half, Keenan Davis cut inside on a slant pattern and Vandenberg threw the ball so hard and with such unneeded velocity that the replay showed Davis's arms rising up to catch the pass well after the ball had whizzed by his head. The pass not only went incomplete but also landed some 20 yards beyond Davis, the defenders, and indeed anyone anywhere near the field of play. The BTN announcers suggested the pass might have been catchable merely because it was theoretically within reach of Davis, but the outcome of the play spoke volumes. It was never seriously a threat to be caught, which is the fundamental objective on any and all pass plays.

Compare and contrast Vandy's passing repertoire to that of Matt McGloin, who repeatedly "lofted" passes to his receivers who then were able to leverage their positioning against the defender to gobble up the pass. On a critical fourth down in the first half McGloin smartly lobbed a pass, while sliding away from the Hawkeyes pass rush, to his tight end who high pointed the ball against a shorter linebacker and then was off to the races for a long gain (0:18 second mark of video below). It showed situational awareness (giving the taller tight end every opportunity to use his skill advantage to make a play) and intelligence (it was 4th down, there was no downside to attempting the riskier lob throw) all of which Vandenberg seems to have lost in a haze of the throwing yips.

Claiming any athlete to have the yips, especially any athlete who himself or herself is unwilling to cop to the affliction, is purely subjective speculation. Tom Watson has never admitted to the yips, yet no serious golf analyst would tell you he's not in its grip. While Shaquille O'Neil has admitted to them, claiming that in practice he is an 80% shooter from the charity stripe.

But, I am certain Philip Rivers and James Vandenberg would never, ever admit to such a straightforward explanation for the drop-off in their play. Athletes who make it to the level of Rivers and Vandenberg rely as much on their single-mindedness, concentration, and confidence as they do their physical ability, honed through hours and hours of practice. But that is the point. As an athlete rises to the top of his or her sport their technical abilities are very often maxed out thanks to the endless hours of technical coaching and practice. What's left of their full potential is dependent upon their mental fitness. This is why the biggest growth in the coaching ranks over the past 20 years has been in the field of sports psychology, and most sports openly embrace the profession, especially golf for many years and now, tennis, baseball, and even basketball.

But, there is one sport that in comparison is woefully laggard: Football. The Iowa Hawkeyes might have a sports psychologist on staff for all their other sports, and it's unclear if that expertise is allowed in the football complex or not. It would be a waste of resources if they are not welcome though, because one not need a degree in psychology or any degree at all to see what's going on here. James Vandenberg has lost his schwerve and in doing so he might be hurting the potential of this Iowa football team. It can be hard to watch and even harder to understand. But I think young Vandenberg just might have the yips.