Steelers Training Camp for Fans, Part Three: Why Drafts Will Never Be Perfect
by Ivan Cole
One of the big goals I had in the early years of my life was to attend and graduate from college. Running parallel with my ambition was the fear that somehow I might not be good enough.
So many seemingly capable people were flunking or dropping out of school that it gave me reason to wonder if I had what it took to survive and thrive in that sort of environment.
After years of successful undergraduate and graduate study, as well as working as a college administrator I am always struck with how different my belief as an outsider of how and why students failed was so at odds with what was actually the case. Yes, for some the depth and complexity of the curriculum was too much for their best efforts. But just as often, perhaps more so, failure might come because they would not haul themselves out of bed and go to class.
Contemplating the Limitations of the Player Selection Process
I think about that often when contemplating the imperfections of the NLF draft. In both cases, academic and sports, the best efforts of scouts (recruiters), admission counselors and player personnel professionals attempt to predict the unpredictable—how unique human beings will respond to a novel challenge. The task is difficult, if not impossible and distorted even further by the biases brought to bear by the limited tools at the disposal of the evaluators.
So, for example, 40 yard dash times and SATs may be given greater weight because we can measure these things even though (as Dri Archer and those who swooned over him because of that have discovered) there are few situations in football where the ability to sprint halfway down a football field in a straight line faster than anyone else is particularly advantageous.
Similarly the SAT is not an intelligence test, and some schools don’t even use it as part of their evaluations anymore, but it measured something which for some of us is good enough. On the other hand, factors that are harder to quantify such as maturity or resilience are given less emphasis, not because we don’t recognize their value (though so many of us clearly don’t have a clue) but because even the individuals that possess these qualities are unaware of their capacity until AFTER they have been placed in circumstances that require them to come to the fore.
Who can say in advance how someone will handle marriage, combat, becoming a parent, leaving home for the first time to go to college or becoming a professional football player? And the average fan, much like I was before I first set foot on a college campus, is even further out to sea on these issues. So, what follows are some factors that makes the talent acquisition process more art thanscience.
The Tyranny and Soft Bigotry of ‘Measurables’
I’m sitting in Randy Grossman’s office in the Aspinwall section ofPittsburgh (Grossman’s picture heads the article,) conducting an interview and reminiscing a bit. It had been about 40 years since we played together at Temple University, but the rhythm of his conversation is familiar. He has a finely honed sense of irony and deftly uses a scalpel to assess situations where others might resort to ameat cleaver. At once both confident and self-deprecating, he describes his disappointment at not being drafted and his realization at his first practice with the Steelers that he would have to step it up if he was to survive at that level of the game.
I understood his disappointment but was not the least bit surprised it occurred. Randy is 6’2” and at his heaviest in the NFL weighed a whopping 215 pounds. In spite of great hands and blocking ability well beyond what might be expected given his size, he simply didn’t fit the profile of a typical tight end.
And just so you don’t assume that Grossman earned his four Super Bowl rings as some sort of bit player, it is worth noting he scored the first Steelers touchdown in Super Bowl X, and was a starter in what is still believed to be one of the greatest Super Bowls ever (XIII). Yet it is also true that teams such as Dallas or Kansas City wouldn’t have given him the time of day.
I tease Bill Steinbach because he has to live with stating a couple of years ago that he didn’t think that Antonio Brown could be a number one receiver in this league. But the truth of the matter is that I didn’t exactly disagree with him at the time, and that the sentiment reflects the common wisdom. Top wide receivers are supposed to have the physical attributes of a Calvin Johnson or a Dez Bryant, but not an Antonio Brown.
The exception that proves the rule? Maybe. But after a while you begin to notice that there sure are a lot of exceptions. Players like a Russell Wilson or a James Harrison don’t fit the profile so they are drafted later or not at all. But the correlation between certain measurable qualities and the ability to play football at a high level may not be as strong as some would like to think. Otherwise, why not camp out at the Olympic Games and sign every sprinter, weight lifter and high jumper you can get your hands on?
Can we go out on a limb and embrace the possibility that a player like Archer will neither succeed because of his speed nor fail because of his size? He will rise or fall based on his ability to maximize his strengths and adapt his weaknesses to the demands of the game.
Shrinkage and Growing Beyond Being a Talent Bully
One of the more interesting challenges facing those blessed with a history of great talent and consistent success is when they reach the level where just relying on displaying your gifts isn’t enough to prevail. Prior to that point they have essentially bullied their way through life. They were always the smartest in the class, the biggest, strongest or fastest on the playing fields, the most attractive person in the club. Success appeared to be a birthright. Then you find yourself in a situation where that isn’t true. There are others around who just as good or, God forbid, even better.
Failure has its benefits. It acquaints us with our limits and forces a response. This often requires finding and developing resources that might otherwise lie dormant. We work harder, become more focused, more aware of shortcomings. I learned in college that there were some rather daunting challenges to being a football walk on, but also some benefits as well. One was that I knew before the first practice, before I had even stepped foot on campus that if I had any hope of being successful I would have to find a level of achievement that was beyond what had been my experience to that point. This was actually true for all of us except for a fortunate few, but I found that I enjoyed an advantage over those whose life experience to that point never required them to search for another gear.
Tragically, for some, to do so was either beyond their imagination or their capacity to respond psychologically. To them the only path to success was to be better (bigger, stronger, faster, smarter). But what if you’re not? Then what?
This is where we begin to address the issue of shrinkage. The term has been used to describe what happens to new players when the pads come on and their response to violence of the game. But there are a number of ways in this game and other areas of life that people get smacked in the mouth. Interestingly, at this point things can get counter-intuitive. Those things that we normally would associate with being flaws can actually be an advantage.
When my daughter was being pursued to play college basketball, recruiters got excited by something that I naively thought a weakness, that she was somewhat raw, a late bloomer. They saw a resilient player with lots of upside. Someone who might not be flummoxed when smacked in the mouth.
What we are talking about is the ability to take failure and the threat of failure and turn it into fuel as opposed to ‘shrinking’ in the face of it. Think of how many times James Harrison had been cut. Or the fact that in addition to his other challenges, Antonio Brown was the loser in the two dogs, one bone competition with Emmanuel Sanders. Outcomes that would discourage or shatter others become the cherished ‘chip on the shoulder’ that propels certain players to greatness and the avoidance of complacency.
How do you measure this at the Combine? What do the Mel Kipers have to say about such things?
A man is selling a rug at a bazaar.
“Who will give me $100 for this fine rug?” he asks.
“Why are you just charging $100 dollars?” a friend inquires, “The rug is priceless!”
The dealer replies “Is there any number higher than 100?”
This little parable speaks to some of the pitfalls associated with motivation. How often have fans made the bottom line statement of “They’re paying them enough money”? Perhaps understandable in the general sense given that in this society money is God in the considerations of many.
But there comes a point of diminishing returns. To those who can’t conceptualize beyond a hundred, what meaning or value can there be for a thousand? It is here that the idea of money and more money serving as a consistently reliable motivator begins to fail. If the basic needs are being met, the desires are modest, the vision weak and there is neither greed nor the pathology to keep score with dollars as part of the equation, then what’s the point?
Some become mystified when a Worilds or a Borland walks away after ‘only’ pocketing nine million dollars. We wonder after the signing of that first contract why some don’t kill themselves in dedicated behavior. They’re paying them enough money. Absolutely. For some, once the belly is full, there is a roof over the head that does not leak and a car in the driveway that reliably starts everything else is gravy.
I’m sure teams try to get a handle on what drives a player during the interview process, but it isn’t cynical to suggest that prospective players and their handlers have an idea of what an interviewer wants to hear. Even more importantly, what may actually motivate a player may be a mystery to the player himself. He may believe that he has the ambition to become a Hall of Fame caliber player, but may ease his foot off the accelerator as soon as he’s issued a helmet.
One Person’s Trash…
…is another person’s treasure. It is hard to imagine a bigger error in judgment than to assume that there is one size fits all philosophy of player personnel. A large number of fans as well as a depressing number of teams have no governing standard as to the kind of players who fit a franchise.
Pittsburgh is one of the best in this regard. We know, for example, that the Steelers play a particularly physical brand of football, so whether or not a player shrinks from the violence of the game may carry more weight in Western Pennsylvania than other places. The Steelers prefer to grow their own with minimum contributions from players cultivated elsewhere. This is a point of contention for many fans who get frustrated with the relative indifference of the team to get heavily involved in free agency. Players are expected to assist with the development of their teammates even if they may put their own future at risk by doing so.
As mentioned earlier, atypical players such as Grossman and Brown, Bettis and Lambert seem to at least get a shot to prove themselves where other teams might not let them in the door. Other organization idiosyncrasies include Tomlin’s preference for young, smart talent such as Lawrence Timmons and Stephon Tuitt. Or the organization’s bias toward those with Pennsylvania roots for both staff (Kevin Colbert, Danny Smith, Jerry Olsavsky, Richard Mann, Mike Munchak, Joey Porter, Todd Haley) and players (Bruce Gradkowski—and before him Charlie Batch, Ross Ventrone, Jesse James, Mike Adams, Cameron Heyward).
Recently, we have seen Pittsburgh receive a player in trade (Brandon Boykin) whom the Philadelphia Eagles essentially gave away. Last year LeGarrette Blount clearly had the talent, but was just as clearly not a fit. In this case the onus was on the player, but in Washington for example, more blame could be directed at coaches and their mishandling of talent. In Philly, who can say?
When you take into account how a player may fit in with a particular set of teammates, an assistant coach, how they integrate within the larger community then it is not an exaggeration to say the ability of many draft choices to succeed in the league may be dependent to a great extent to who drafts them.
When the Light Comes On
I feel comfortable saying that over estimating the early impact of a first year player is endemic among fans who pride themselves in being knowledgeable. With Pittsburgh in particular, the player who comes in and immediately contributes at a high level is fairly rare. Part of it may stem from the fact that while not always an elite team, it can be argued that the Steelers have rarely been abysmal since Richard Nixon was President. This means two things—they don’t get access to top ten draft choices very often, and the players they have been brought in to supplant aren’t necessarily terrible.
Players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Jack Lambert rose quickly because of injuries to the incumbents. Maurkice Pouncey got in the starting lineup more quickly than Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson, two Hall of Famers, because of the quality of the player he replaced.
Would Le’Veon Bell had gotten as many touches his first season if Rashard Mendenhall had still been on the roster? It would seem, in fact, that Pittsburgh’s niche may very well be to focus on players who need a season or two to get fully up to speed. Being consistently good provides the kind of stability and job security that would allow for that type of strategy.
However, someone needs to clue in certain factions of the Steeler fan base. Timmons, Heyward, Kelvin Beachum, Pouncey, William Gay, Cortez Allen, Vince Williams and Mike Adams have all been declared busts in their time. James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Spence have been declared finished. And the vultures are circling around Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas, Ryan Shazier, Dri Archer and (My God!) Senquez Golson.
The full impact of a draft probably can’t be known for years. Some want to bring in the jury in a matter of months. Imagine if all the players who have been judged busts had been cut based upon fan sentiment?