All professional teams want to get better, if not from week to week, certainly from one year to the next. Basically, there are three ways of improving a team (other than “coaching ‘em up”) – 1) free agency, 2) trades and 3) the draft. For the fan on the street, more information is divulged about the third method than either of the others, thus creating more interest in the draft.
Prior to it, the fans are inundated with NFL draft information. Next follows the NFL combine as well as individual “pro days” at various universities, some of which are televised. Personal interviews are held for higher selections – and, much to the fans’ dismay, those are never televised. What viewers can see on TV or read in magazines, newspapers and online, are mock drafts. Finally, of course, the draft itself is a three-day TV affair.
One mock draft for 2015 I saw had six NFL analysts selecting their first round picks. One of them, Charles Davis, was a frequent visitor in my office at the University of Tennessee in the early 1980s as, although he was a defensive back for Johnny Majors at that time, he was a close friend of our point guard who, along with Charles, hailed from Buffalo. In addition Charles’ dad was a high school basketball coach and the younger Davis loved coming by and talking hoops strategy. While Charles was a very good DB on some terrific Vols teams (led by Reggie White, as genuine a person as I’ve ever met), he’s made quite a nice living for himself on the air. He was always bright, personable and articulate so it’s not surprised me at the tremendous success he’s had as a football analyst – both in-game and in studio.
Enough (or maybe too much) name-dropping. What follows is a (somewhat edited) blog I posted many, many years ago that I believe still applies. Football, possibly more than any other, is a copycat sport meaning, for this topic, the manner in which teams draft hasn’t changed significantly throughout the years. There are mounds of vital stats gleaned from the combine – Wonderlict scores, 40 times, vertical jump, how many times a guy could bench press 220 pounds (I think there’s an offensive lineman out there who might still be going) and standing long jump.
That last one absolutely slayed me – the quarterback who had the longest standing long jump. How in the world could a team pass up a quarterback who possesses such an important skill? Think of all the games that are lost because the losing team’s QB couldn’t long jump from a standing position! Undoubtedly, some helmet head out there will read this (or have it read to him) and say, “Huh, the general public – what the hell do they know about how to put together a winning football team?”
And he’s right. Football people know infinitely more than I, a casual fan, do. Here, from years gone by, is (with a few changes) what I wrote. Read it and tell me how much improvement has been made in the evaluating and drafting process.
Forever and ever, we’ve heard that draft day is so difficult for football teams. That’s probably a true statement due to the fact that no one is sure which list is longer – first rounders who became busts or low draft picks (and free agents) who became All-Pros.
Each year, greater technology is used (and vast amounts of money spent) yet it never ceases to amaze us how wrong certain picks can be. This has to be due to the human element – or, maybe, a player might be a bad fit for the club who drafted him (begging the question, “Why did they draft him?”). Way back when, guys were selected because of what the decision-makers, e.g. owners, general managers, coaches, player personnel directors heard about the players from their friends, other coaches, confidants and, who knows, maybe even fans or sportswriters close to the guys writing the checks. Now, we have combines (I thought that’s how wheat was harvested, not players) and tests, both psychological and written.
It would seem that watching a player play would be a better indicator than how fast he runs a 40, i.e. if a guy has a great 40 time, you’ll want him in the game in case the other team has someone really fast who breaks away and needs to be caught – except when that happens, it’s too late to sub, or how many times he can bench press 220 lbs (“Boy, he looks awful on video but how can we pass on somebody so strong?”), or how high he can jump (jumping doesn’t seem to be in the top 5 talents needed to play football), or how well he scored on a test (remember, many of these guys haven’t taken a test without the help of a tutor in years).
Coaches always say, “The film doesn’t lie,” yet film be damned when it comes to evaluating talent (“Just let me see him at the combine or, especially, at one of our individual workouts”) – where there are no screaming fans, there’s no “team” scoreboard lit up and the only competition is the stop watch, free weights and sticks coming out of a pole.
Call me old-fashioned (because I probably am), but watching a player in person or on film if being there isn’t possible, has to be a more reliable test of how he’ll perform for your team. Naturally, who the opponent is has to be taken into account, as well as getting in touch with people you can trust (the relationships made throughout a long career – guys who wouldn’t lie to you because they know bad advice could cost you your job). Even with a plethora of knowledge, there remain some guys who are magnificent performers “until the lights go on.” That’s why, with the money being invested, you want to be as certain as possible. A mistake can destroy a franchise’s future (and place you among the unemployed).
In today’s world, one-on-one interviews are a must, but, even then, some people can fool you. Using all the modern methods of information gathering isn’t a waste, but the greater variety of these tools used, the increased number of egos become involved. Older coaches and scouts (“football guys”) clash with computer geeks who lean on analytics. A psychologist has tons of empirical data from a test (s)he’s developed, along with accuracy of prediction of success – but no one’s rate is 100%. Not yet anyway. Having things you can trust (a pair of eyes which have watched thousands of hours of video) and an experienced mind (comparing him to somebody from years past) and the opinions of people you would select to be in a bunker with you if a war broke out, used to make the decision-makers more comfortable than a new breed of “experts.” That’s mostly because the newer evaluation techniques are conducted in much more sterile environments than a true football player has to deal with. Unless the decision-maker is from today’s generation, then he’ll put more stock in the “advanced” methods of evaluation.
Still and all, the truest measure of whether a draft was a success or not remains the same:
“Check back in about five years.”