Sports May 2006

Passing Grades

Scouting is state-of-the-art, yet judging which NFL players will pan out remains a gamble. Maybe they’re not the ones who should be studied

Yogi Berra, an athlete who won a record ten World Series rings without the apparent capacity for scoring high on any physical or intelligence tests, may have said it best: “Half this game is 90 percent mental.” According to Marv Levy, it’s the percentage of the game that’s mental that makes the difference between winners and losers at the professional level. “By the time a player reaches the NFL,” he explains, “it’s really no longer a question of talent. All the players have tremendous talent. If there’s one thing I want to know about a player, it’s how he will react under fire, what kind of decisions he’ll make in tough situations—if he has the ability to make reads on the fly.” But it’s precisely that ability that still can’t be predicted. In fact, some wonder whether the college game hasn’t become so regimented that it discourages the ability to perform with grace under pressure that’s so prized in the professional ranks.

“There’s never been more talented players in the game than now,” says Bart Starr, who quarterbacked Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers to five championships in the 1960s and was later a head coach himself for nine seasons. “I can’t help wondering, though, if it wasn’t more fun to play years ago, when it was more of a player’s game. Today, from high school on up, in nearly every situation there are so many substitutes, so many specialists, and so many coaches deciding plays that the players themselves might feel programmed. When I played, a quarterback called most of his own plays. Now decisions are made on the sideline by a committee of coaches. The time comes when every player has to make quick decisions in tight situations, but in many cases their training hasn’t prepared them for it. In fact, it may have prepared them against it.”

Talented players like Ryan Leaf and Rick Mirer might have succeeded in the pros if they had found the right coaches in the pros to bring out their best qualities. “I’m often surprised,” says three-time Super Bowl–winning coach Bill Walsh, “at how seldom a coach’s ability to motivate isn’t considered when analyzing a player’s success or failure. A lot of guys who you see go bust their first time around in the NFL do end up fulfilling their early expectations, but with different teams and different coaches. The trick for a really smart coach is to make his players see how smart he is without destroying their confidence in their own intelligence.”

The NFL may be focusing their efforts in the wrong place. Maybe tests should be designed to grade coaches—they’re the ones who have to mold a disparate group of young men into a team. One of the NFL’s great stories is how Vince Lombardi turned the Green Bay Packers into the first great football dynasty of the modern age. When Lombardi took over the Packers, in 1959, he inherited a team of high-round draft picks that had finished 1–10–1 the previous season. Working with almost the same roster, Lombardi finished 7–5 his first season, and the following year he had the Packers in the NFL championship game. He succeeded in large part by putting players into positions more suited to their talents. For instance, Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Paul Hornung was switched to running back, and running back Herb Adderly was remade into an All-Pro defensive back. Lombardi’s greatest talent, though, once he had matched the players with their proper roles in his system, was to convince them that they could win.

Is there a brief definition for this quality in a coach? “Yes,” says Walsh. “It’s called the ability to inspire.”

The Houston Texans, by virtue of their league-worst 214 record last season, have the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. By most accounts, they’ll select either USC’s Heisman Trophy–winning tailback Reggie Bush or quarterback Vince Young of the national champion Texas Longhorns. Both have been the subject of extensive state-of-the-art research, from computer analysis of the results of their physical and mental tests to frame-by-frame analysis of their game films. It might be a good idea for Bush and Young to devote a similar amount of time and effort to studying the coaching staffs of the teams they’ll be playing for before signing their pro contracts—no matter how lucrative those contracts are.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, is due out in paperback this fall.
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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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