I’m a fan of American professional football. Last year I was following my home team when the team experienced a huge shift in their scoring late in the season due to the sudden emergence of a very talented young player. And suddenly I was looking at the type of controversy I normally only see associated with the paranormal. Things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Expectations had been shattered. And the kind of reactions I witnessed were all too familiar to me.
So here’s what you need to know in order to understand the controversy. (I’m addressing a very specific time frame here, up to game thirteen out of 17 games in a season) of 2023.
A Controversy is born
Brock Purdy plays quarterback. If you don’t know the game, all that matters here is that at the professional level this position requires not just an athletically gifted player, but also someone who remains calm in the face of intense pressure. Teams spend an enormous amount of effort and money to get the very best players for this position. It’s the difference between success and failure in this game. Either they pay millions of dollars for someone who has proven themselves or they take a risk with young, untested players. Elite quarterbacks are highly prized.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Once a year, after the college sport season is done, the 32 professional teams line up to select 262 players out of all the college players that want to play professionally. In 2022, Brock Purdy was the 262nd selection. He was picked dead last. Every single team had a chance to review him and no one thought he had much of a future in the NFL.
A Forgotten Player Gets His Chance
Neither did the team that selected him, the San Francisco 49’ers, but he did win the 2nd backup position in the preseason. He was the third in line and not really expected to play, but the starting quarterback and the back up quarterback got injured very badly and in the 13th game of the season (out of 17), they had no choice but to put him in a game that was already underway. Normally when this happens, the whole team performs noticeably worse. And now, late in the season, with everyone else in top form, on a talented and winning team against another equally talented and winning team, this young, inexperienced rookie stepped in to play.
Although I rarely watch the games anymore, I was at a friend’s house watching this one. Brock Purdy looked . . . calm. This was his big moment. Everything about the situation he was in screamed for him to be wound up tighter than a cocaine addict out of money. The opposing coach, Mike McDaniels, tried to take advantage of his inexperience, hoping to rattle the young man. Nope, nope and nope. Nothing seemed to bother him.
For a rookie backup player suddenly thrown into his very first professional game at the most difficult position in an important situation against a very good team, his calmness was . . . disorienting to me. In all the 40 years I have been watching the game, I had never seen anything like that. My gut feeling was that I was watching a future hall of fame player.
He did a pretty good job and his team won. From a statistical point of view, he did ok. But if you took his performance completely in context, it was nothing short of mind blowing.
His team did not lose another game until he was injured in the semi finals, after having won his first two playoff games.
Now, in the 2023 season, he is healthy and as I write this, his team is dominating and has lost three games out of thirteen, which is very good. He is pretty much the same person, but now with additional practice time and training, he has improved quite a bit. He appears to be very good at his job.
That’s the backstory, but this is not about American football. It’s about how polarizing this young man was.
The Boggle Threshold
There has been a ridiculous level of disagreement over whether he is actually that good. What I think has happened is that his zero to hero story hit the boggle threshold for some people. This is a term used in parapsychology (the scientific field studying psychic ability) which describes when someone encounters a situation so far outside of their expectations that they refuse to accept it, regardless of the evidence.
I’ve seen this time and again with the paranormal and this particular situation appeared to be no different to me. There are people who shut down when things become unpredictable and their expectations are blown out the window. They dig in their heels and simply insist that the rest of us have been looking at it all wrong.
What Brock Purdy has done is mind-boggling to be sure. To go from very last in the draft to not only successfully starting for an elite team, but doing it extremely well is unprecedented in the sport. It seems like after about 100 years of the sport that someone would have recognized this level of elite talent. What happened?
His background did not suggest that he was, or could be, elite. He’s 6’1”, which while tall, isn’t as tall as most elite quarterbacks. He can throw well enough, but doesn’t have an elite arm. He is very accurate, but not a lot more so than many other quarterbacks. He can run well enough, but again, he’s not elite in that category either. If you were to only look at his physical abilities, he doesn’t look like anything special.
What he does have is mind-bending for calmness under duress and a nearly preternatural level of rapid decision making. He is off the charts elite with those two qualities. And it turns out that these two fuzzy things -that are harder to track- are far more important to his job than purely physical skills.
It’s Not All About What You Can Measure
And this is where the controversy comes in. If you’re obsessed with the things you can easily measure, then he can’t possibly be that good. Those people derisively call him a “system quarterback.” It’s a term that’s meant to imply that the players around him are so good that he can’t help but succeed. And they point to the games he lost as proof.
But if you watch how he plays, his body language and his demeanor suggests someone who is playing with more maturity and confidence than his youth would suggest. He looks elite when he plays. As with the paranormal, if you start digging into the more obscure details, the naysayers are exposed as being overly superficial. This is, by the way, exactly what happens with the paranormal.
This is a textbook example of how holistic thinking is different than linear, logical thinking.
The linear thinking goes something like this:
- If he were that good, someone would have seen it.
- He isn’t big enough or athletic enough.
- He isn’t the reason for his team’s success. There must be other reasons.
- Any half decent player would succeed in his position.
Now compare this to the reaction of the head coach of his team, Kyle Shanahan. He’s the type of person who readily admits to using his instincts with players. Arguably the person closest to the problem, he made Purdy his starting quarterback and traded away his previous starter and the back up. He had no problem assigning very high value to Purdy’s state of mind and a lower value to his overall physical skills. Purdy’s teammates, the people most affected by his abilities, think that the controversy is stupid.
This happens with the paranormal as well. It is full of fuzzy data with no clear cut answers and it often requires looking at a particular event very closely to come to any conclusions. With a few exceptions, you can chart opinions based on how familiar people are with the subject.
Using your instincts is a holistic skill. It’s combining information in novel, unconscious ways to reach a conclusion.
The Paranormal has similar problems
The similarities don’t stop there. If, like Purdy’s detractors, all you look for is a certain set of easily identifiable and measurable data and ignore the things that are harder to measure, you’re going to reach one type of conclusion and you won’t trust things that are novel and outside of those factors.
But for those who are good with their instincts, there is more data to be had, but it won’t necessarily be as easy to quantify. This ability to rate evidence that is more difficult to quantify is at the heart of this controversy and many others, the paranormal included.
It’s entirely possible that Purdy endures an entire career of having detractors who never attribute his success to his personal skills, pointing to every failure he has as proof of his mediocrity and his success to having good players around him. There will always be reasons to doubt because he will have bad days or even bad seasons.
Like investigations into the paranormal, he won’t be perfect and mistake free; he will have times when he struggles and those looking for a reason to doubt will find their ammunition. Through no fault of his own, he is challenging people’s beliefs.
And this is where the similarities end. The paranormal will always leave a lot more room for doubt, while Purdy’s detractors will eventually look ridiculous. He’s now in the running for most valuable player in the league, so enough people have seen his abilities to take him seriously.
The fact that there is a controversy at all is a lesson in how people react to their expectations. The evidence isn’t always easy to quantify; isn’t easy to measure and often depends on uncontrollable variables that can never be fully accounted for. That doesn’t mean though, that there isn’t enough evidence.