It's (Almost) All About The Myelin

Matt Steel is back with perhaps his best advice yet for Kevin Colbert and the rebuilding Pittsburgh Steelers.

It clicked inside of me immediately after the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl as football analysts mentioned how they were the youngest team in the league.

It clicked because I remember the same analysis was made about the Cowboys in 1992 and the Bears in 1985.

So I re-read a book of mine in which Bill Walsh talks about drafting three defensive backs in the first three rounds of the 1981 draft (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Charlton Williamson) and how they all started for his first championship team in 1981. It motivated me to look up the age of the Seahawks' back seven. I noticed of those starters were between their second and fourth years in the league. I then thought about the Steel Curtain of the '70s and how their best defensive seasons were from 1974-76.

While still great in '78 and '79, the Curtain was not as dominant as the earlier years of the dynasty.

These thoughts all led me back to what I've learned in my professional studies about the brain and the importance of myelin development.

Myelin is the white sheath that wraps around a nerve ending. It's responsible for developing anything from our motor skills to memory. The more myelin we develop, the more efficient we become at whatever we are applying repetition.

Think of myelin as a roll of paper towels: The tube on the inside is the nerve and the towels are the myelin. With repetition, we develop more myelin. The more myelin we develop around the nerve, the fewer electrical impulses escape, and therefore the more efficient the movement or memory.

If you golf, you know that every now and then you nail that perfect swing. You try to recreate it and become frustrated with your inconsistency. But because you haven't put in the hours of practice like a pro, your myelin development is the equivalent of a paper towel roll in which your towels are almost gone from the tube. Your development is very thin and therefore your signals escape more frequently, causing more inconsistency. A pro's myelin is like a new paper towel roll, heavily wrapped, allowing little to escape. That's why they don't shank and flub like amateurs. Their motor mistakes are minor.

But this is the key part: As we get older, myelin becomes more and more difficult to develop. That's why a young child can learn several languages while as adults we would struggle to learn one. It's also why an elderly person often can't remember what they talked to you about or details of recent events. Therefore, you hear the same things/stories from them. By the same token, an aging athlete doesn't lose speed and athleticism because of a loss of strength – (some of you weightlifters might actually be stronger than when you were younger) – they lose their athleticism because of the deterioration of myelin.

So, what exactly does this have to do with football? Well if you're smart and relate this science to the history of the game, it has plenty to with football.

On championship teams, the youngest players tend to play the most reactionary positions. Certain positions such as wide receiver, for example, can be easier to play into latter ages because the receiver knows where he's going. He'll be able to set up his routes and minimize the loss of quick-twitch reaction. Offensive linemen don't require incredible agility at high speeds, so therefore they can be successful as they age. Although a defensive end needs explosion, he often knows where he's going. He can use technique to help minimize the loss of myelin. It's why greats like Reggie White, Michael Strahan and James Harrison were productive into their mid 30s.

So, based on all of the aforementioned, I took a look back at teams that either had dynasties or had legendary defenses. Specifically, I looked at the age of their back seven.

Why the back seven? Well, those are the positions that are most reactionary in football. In other words, the offense dictates and the defender must react. Quick reactions are heavily dependent on myelin for more rapid movement. And more specifically, I focused on the starting cornerbacks.

Of the 1972-73 Dolphins, the 1974-75 and 1978-79 Steelers, the 1981, 1984, 1990 and 1994 49ers, the 1985 Bears, the 1992-93 Cowboys, the 2000 Ravens, and the 2002 Buccaneers, only Deion Sanders, Mel Blount, and Rhonde Barber were starters at the age of 27 or older. Barber in 2002 was 27.

Some of these defenses had instinctive middlemen on the back end – Gary Plummer at age 34 for the 49ers and Rod Woodson at 35 for the Ravens. But those teams with an aging player on the back end only had one.

The myelin theory could be applied to running backs, too. It's the position on offense that most requires the player to react to the movement of another player. It's probably not a coincidence then that we see a substantial drop in production at the position by age 30.

Someone suggested they had hoped Kevin Colbert was "listening" to one of my recent posts about the off-season. I appreciated the kind words, but disagree because Colbert and the rest of the organization will evaluate and have much more access to information than I.

With this piece, though, I believe this edge in understanding the nature of the brain, combined with the research of the history of the game, could give Colbert what I believe to be a vital edge in building a team. It shouldn't be an end-all/be-all, but it no doubt should be a useful tool in trying to eliminate as much subjectivity as possible in the process of building another champion.

History suggests this Steelers team can still be highly successful with an older player in the back end such as Troy Polamalu. However, history also suggests that if you plan to play Troy with an aging Ike Taylor and Will Allen, you have no shot.


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