MINNEAPOLIS -- Everson Griffen’s right cleat toes an orange line, as the two-time Pro Bowler coils his spine in preparation for attack. The man standing opposite Griffen, meeting his eye level from 10 yards away, is equal parts ball carrier, enigma and kinesiologist.
Shawn Myszka dances toward Griffen, chopping his feet twice and stabbing his right foot into the ground as Griffen closes in pursuit. Myszka turns to his left, lowering his eyes in time to study Griffen's footwork as he pivots to match his target. The prey, at this point, has become the coach.
"Yes!" Myszka shouts as the two slow to a jog. "There's the inside foot -- now we're talking."
The search for more efficient motion, for something approaching balletic grace in the midst of mechanized mayhem, is what consumes Myszka's days. The self-styled "Movement Miyagi" works as a different kind of personal trainer: a movement coach for 10 NFL players across four different teams, including Griffen, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr and New York Giants tight end Rhett Ellison. He's worked with Adrian Peterson, John Carlson and Antoine Winfield in the past. And while some trainers have their clients hoisting free weights or stepping through agility ladders during the final weeks before NFL camps open, Myszka is with his players each day on a field in Edina, Minnesota, honing more explosive and flexible movement in ways a regular-season game might demand.
With Griffen, it's a set of drills designed to help him close on ball carriers in space and achieve a lower center of gravity on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as the Vikings contemplate the possibility of moving the 29-year-old to different spots in their defense this season.
Ellison -- used mainly as a blocking tight end with the Vikings before signing a four-year deal with the Giants this spring -- prepares for a larger role in the offense by cutting away from former Kent State safety Nate Holley as Myszka offers last-second directions to one of three sets of colored cones. One particular instance, when Ellison cuts toward a fluorescent yellow cone that might have passed for green, prompts an objection from the tight end that the cones' colors were too similar. Myszka replies, "Attention to detail helps create order in the chaos."
That act, of finding repose in the frenzy of an NFL game, constitutes something of a life goal for the 37-year-old Myszka, who seasons his off-the-cuff diatribes about biomechanics with playful taunts toward his players. His shaved head and barrel-chested figure evoke his past as a powerlifter and bodybuilder, and there was a time in his career when Myszka's aim was simply to help his players bulk up.
"My very first NFL player that came to me back in '08 -- and I won't mention him by name -- I tested him, and his numbers were drastically down from what they were three years earlier at the NFL combine," Myszka said. "We increased his vertical by 7 1/2 inches, we increased his broad [jump] by 14 or 15 inches. We were still doing movement-oriented drills, or what I thought were movement-oriented drills, that decreased his 40 times and things like that. So I saw the fruits of that labor, until I went to watch him on the field at training camp. I realized all that work we did wasn't going to show itself [on the field]."
These days, he sees himself as a partner for players looking to reap the benefits of more precise movement on a football field, whether it's an extra sack, two additional yards per catch or a reduced risk of the soft-tissue injuries that can truncate a career. He plans to enter a doctoral program at the University of Medical Sciences Arizona, and talks in terms of math and science, treating game situations as stimuli and on-field tasks as problems to be solved. He incorporates aspects of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance and acrobatics where two combatants never actually make contact.
He spends each day of training camp watching his clients, jotting down notes from the stands and discussing his observations with them that evening, but speaks of the day when they're so in tune with their own mechanics that they don't need him. He structures his sessions on the principle of "repetition without repetition" to prepare them for the reality that no two NFL plays are the same. Picking up an opponent's tells through film study can be an invaluable advantage; jumping to conclusions is not. Rather, Myszka wants his players in such thorough command of their own movement that they can slow their brains down on the field and trust they'll be able to react fluidly enough to make plays.
His methods, though, remain somewhat rare in NFL circles. So why aren't more coaches doing it his way?
"Because it takes a lot," Griffen said. "It takes a lot of studying, a lot of hard work to be able to diagnose a player and tell them exactly what they're doing wrong. He can break down your film, he can break down movement. If you're running too high, he knows what you've got to do to be able to get the right angles and excel in the right areas."
Ellison said Giants strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman shares some philosophies with Myszka -- "They're doing position-specific stuff; linemen aren't running gassers with the skill position [guys]," he said. Ellison, whose great-uncle Thomas was the first captain of New Zealand's famous All Blacks rugby team, also added Myszka's type of training is commonplace around the world.
"It's new for the United States, [but] if you look at any rugby team, any soccer team, they've been training like this for a long time. The United States has a pool of athletic ability where you don't need to focus on it. You see such good compensators that it doesn't matter; they can just move however they want to move. As opposed to like, a New Zealand, with the All Blacks. They only have four million people in the country, and somehow they're the most dominant rugby team in the history of the sport. They have to focus more on the skills, the details and the efficiency-of-movement-type stuff."
In the NFL, Myszka is working with players who are so preternaturally talented, they're able to get away with inefficient movement. He's got two of them in Griffen and Barr, whose blend of speed, length and strength made him the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft.
No matter. If a game celebrated for its manic violence can be played in a state of fluid efficiency, Myszka is looking for a way to do it.
"My vision for this whole thing is to understand movement on a football field on a much deeper level," he said. "If we start with the movement first, the skills of the sport will actually take care of themselves."