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
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Six years ago I asked a pro football scout why, despite the enormous amounts of time and money devoted to it by NFL think tanks, the annual college draft produces such erratic results. Nobody, I noted, had been anxious to select Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr or Joe Montana—by my measure the three greatest quarterbacks of the last fifty years, winners of eleven NFL championships between them. By NFL standards they weren’t very big, and didn’t have great arms. (Unitas was the 102nd player drafted in 1955, Starr was the 200th in 1956, and Montana the 82nd in 1979.)

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Yes, he replied, but that was in the Stone Age. Scouting had become so sophisticated in the two decades since Montana was drafted that a mistake like that was much less likely. Later that month, Tom Brady was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots, the 199th player selected overall. Brady would lead his team to three Super Bowls before he was twenty-eight. Though he measured high on intelligence tests, most scouts had been unimpressed with his skills. It was Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (now the Notre Dame head coach) who was adamant about drafting Brady. When I asked Weis what it was that he saw in the young quarterback, he told me, “Call it a gut feeling, but to me he had the look of a bulldog.”

Bear Bryant was fond of saying, “It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Nowadays, computer analysis gives teams instant comparisons of hundreds of ballplayers, most of whom also take the Wonderlic test (see sidebar, page 154) for determining intelligence. But, for all the information available to scouts and teams about a player’s physical attributes and mental makeup, the evaluation of NFL hopefuls remains a maddeningly inexact science. “Intelligence, attitude, and character have so much to do with success,” says Marv Levy, the former Buffalo Bills head coach and current president and general manager. “You can’t just look at a player and his achievements in college and say that he’ll be successful in the NFL. You don’t know how he’ll adapt to the speed of NFL football. You don’t know how he’ll react to playing against a higher level of competition.” And even if one knew these things, Levy points out, there’s another major stumbling block: “You have to match him up with the right system and the right coach.”

The most spectacular crash-and-burn in NFL draft history was Ryan Leaf. In 1998, there were two fabulous quarterback prospects who were thought by nearly everyone to have it all—size, smarts, and arm strength: Washington State’s Leaf and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning. Not before or since have there been two quarterbacks whose pro potential was more hotly argued going into the draft. Indianapolis had the first pick and Arizona had No. 2. The San Diego Chargers were so convinced that Leaf was a blue-chipper that they traded three top draft picks and two players to acquire the second pick, chose Leaf, and then gave him an unprecedented $11.25 million bonus. Leaf played two horrendous seasons for San Diego before being released, then bounced from Tampa Bay to Dallas and, finally, Seattle. He played his last professional football game at age twenty-five. Manning, by contrast, has been the most productive passer in the league over the last seven years.

Observers are pretty much in agreement that Leaf’s failure was due to lack of maturity, but that does little to explain another legendary quarterback flameout: Rick Mirer. After a sensational college career at Notre Dame, Mirer was chosen by the Seattle Seahawks with the second pick of the 1993 draft. But he never caught on in Seattle, and after four years had thrown fifteen more interceptions than touchdown passes. (NFL quarterbacks typically average the same number of touchdowns as interceptions early in their careers; Manning, however, threw thirty more touchdown passes than interceptions in his first four seasons.) Mirer played nine seasons with five teams before his career ended in 2004.

Steve Silverman, who followed both of their careers as a reporter for Pro Football Weekly, offers this assessment: “Leaf had gotten by for a long time on sheer ability. By the time he got to the pros, he thought he knew it all and wouldn’t take instruction. He failed to develop. He was arrogant. Mirer was just the opposite. He was used to winning, and when he didn’t win in the pros, he lost his confidence in his own judgment and listened to everyone’s criticism of him. After his first couple of seasons, he was shell-shocked. Leaf blamed everyone else when he lost, while Mirer put all the blame on himself.” Such attributes can’t be measured by tests of physical ability (where both Leaf and Mirer ranked nearly even with Manning) or intelligence (Leaf’s Wonderlic score was reportedly just a point below Manning’s, and Mirer’s was slightly higher).

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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