The cliche in sports is that athletes have to quickly forget. Make a mistake? Move on, wipe the slate clean. Make the highlight reel? Don’t dwell too long; set your sights on the next play.
The irony is that athletes and coaches have eerily good recollection skills.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, for instance, is still haunted by three poor play-calls from 2015 when he ran the Cleveland Browns offense. Head coach Mike Zimmer spent time at Monday’s press conference recalling a specific Aaron Rodgers throw from the 2006 preseason, then went on to explain why he remembered that the play happened in Cincinnati versus a 2008 preseason game held in Green Bay.
A recent ESPN feature on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald highlighted the veteran’s incredible long-term memory. He claims to remember each of his 100-plus touchdowns and many of his 1,000-plus catches.
“It’s funny because most guys in our business are that way,” tight end Kyle Rudolph told Zone Coverage. “You won’t remember what you had for dinner yesterday, but I could tell you about a third and six from the game. Why all that stuff just sticks in our mind I don’t know.”
Rudolph embraced the challenge of listing off his eight touchdown receptions from last season with almost no help.
“First one was Monday night against the Saints. It was a corner route versus Cover 2.”
“Chicago, scramble drill with Case. The play kind of broke down … two-tight-end set. There was a timeout for some reason right before the play, and I know either I was catching a touchdown or the guy in the slot (Blake Bell). We knew we were scoring a touchdown on that play, and it ended up working out.”
In London versus the Browns? “Back line, high ball, another late in the progression throw. Everything was to the front side.”
In Detroit on Thanksgiving? “Two-minute drive, corner route where they in-and-outed us, and the linebacker on the outside ran with the running back, so I had the linebacker on the inside chasing me on a corner route.”
In Atlanta late in the season? “Ran a little double move on an outside leverage corner.”
Rudolph’s uncanny memory applies to the negatives, as well. Fortunately for him, he only had one drop to recall from last season, a seam pass against Carolina.
“We got the perfect look for like a 40-yard completion, and I just straight dropped it,” he said. “It was the only ball I dropped last year. But you honestly remember those much clearer than you remember the touchdowns. Hopefully there’s fewer, so you remember them. Those are the ones that kind of stick with you and remind you that you have to focus.”
Wide receiver Adam Thielen prefers being a little more selective with his memory. He told Zone Coverage he tries to repress some of his bad plays, to which an eavesdropping Kirk Cousins chimed in, “He remembers the good plays; I remember the bad ones.”
After some memory-jogging, Thielen facetiously defended one of his five drops last season — a wide receiver screen against Cleveland where he was closely covered. “It was two-minute, and it was a good thing I didn’t catch it. I knocked it down. It was intentional.”
He also was frustrated by a play that was not registered as an official drop — a contested opportunity in the back of the end zone against the Rams’ LaMarcus Joyner in Week 11. “I should’ve had that one,” he said.
So how can these guys harness their memories and apply them to their craft?
“Number one, you can play every position, and if you have a memorization like that they can move you around, they can do so many things if you know the whole playbook,” said Thielen, who had 102 yards receiving against San Francisco in Week 1. “And then on top of that you also have an opportunity to go back and put some confidence in your head. If you remember all these crazy-good plays, it kind of just gives you confidence going into the game.”
Quarterback Trevor Siemian remembers the good and the bad equally. His three-interception game against Miami last year sticks with him, but so does his four-touchdown performance against the Cowboys.
He remembers his “nod route” to Emmanuel Sanders, his play-action to Virgil Green, a “pivot route” to Sanders again and an “angle route to C.J. Anderson on third down, like third and 15 or something.”
Actually, it was third and 9, but close enough.
Siemian was awestruck his rookie year by the memory of teammate Peyton Manning, who won a Super Bowl with Denver in 2015.
“He could recall plays from years before against certain teams from certain games, which was pretty impressive,” Siemian told Zone Coverage. “He’s the only guy I’ve been with — that was his 18th year.”
It’s safe to say that the cliched ‘short-term memory’ athletes allegedly must have is misconstrued. They don’t necessarily forget, nor should they. Rather, their goal is to mimic their good memories and learn from their bad ones.
“From a situational football standpoint,” said Rudolph, “when you’ve been in those situations before and you remember it, when it arises again in a game, you’ve already been there before, and you know exactly what happened and you can replay it.”