Does Character Actually Count in the NFL?

via New York Magazine, George Gojkovich photo

by Rebecca Rollett

As you can perhaps tell from my Character (Ac)Counts series, I am extremely interested in what sort of person inhabits the public shells of the Steelers players.

Just as in real life, there is bound to be a mix of the good, the bad, and the indifferent. It does appear, though, the Steelers make a genuine effort to filter the players they draft through a character check.

They don’t always get it right, of course. And how could they? Who among us really knows the things which go on in the heart of hearts of even our nearest and dearest? But each public action a person makes adds to a sort of resumé which can be read, at least in part, by those paying attention.

The ultimate job of the Steelers scouting staff, General Manager, and coaching staff is to put a winning product on the field. The question is, does having a preponderance of “high-character” guys on your roster help or hinder this eventual goal?

I ran across an interesting article on Bucs Dugout, the Pittsburgh Pirates SBN site, two summers ago. David Manel, perhaps my favorite author on a generally excellent site, was pondering this very thing:

…Baseball Prospectus’ Ben Lindbergh said that one of the black holes in modern baseball research is the effect that clubhouse character has on player performance. However, he observed that if you look around the league it is hard to ignore the fact that teams are making some roster decisions based on this seemingly unquantifiable quality.

The situation amounts to this: major league front offices value something that baseball researchers who work from the outside are unable, as of yet, to get a handle on. Indeed, what is likely going on is that teams are ahead of the rest of us and have developed analytics that factor in things like player character, and are already examining its relationship to on-field performance.

Manel detailed an interview with Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle in which he asked Hurdle about this issue. Hurdle stated that back when he was with the Colorado Rockies they had begun to try to quantify character in players and assess how it affected performance on the field.

The Pirates are becoming noticed for overcoming a lack of cash, something which matters very much in Major League Baseball where the monetary inequities are huge. For example, it was recently pointed out during a particular game that the 2015 salary for the opposing pitcher was only slightly less than that of the entire five-man starting rotation for the Pirates. And, unlike football, you don’t have to make this up elsewhere—you can spend pretty much what you have, or like, which isn’t always the same thing.

Here is the estimated payroll for the top-spending team this season, and the least (it’s estimated because trades during the season can increase or decrease the final total). For the full list click the link.

Los Angeles Dodgers: $273,440,830

Miami Marlins:             $60,375,000

There is no decimal point missing, in case you’re wondering. Also in case you’re wondering, the Pirates are projected to spend $84,312,499.  (I like the “499” at the end. It give a comforting feel of greater precision.)

So naturally the Pirates and other so-called small market teams are on the lookout for ways to maximize their investment and beat the odds, whether it is defensive shifts or Korean acquisitions or fixing broken pitchers they picked up at fire-sale prices.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Pirates sabermetrics staff are holed up in some hack-proof location, desperately trying to find a formula to quantify the effects of character on a player’s performance.  If they manage it, hopefully Clint Hurdle will share the essence of it on the down-low with Mike Tomlin, since the two have become good friends during their time in Pittsburgh.

Not that this is entirely why I think character matters. I think it matters very much at a personal level, whatever it means to the teams I follow. Whether everyone would agree with that or not, I think most people, all other factors being equal, would rather root for a “good” guy than a bad one. But I believe the importance of character goes much deeper than fans just being able to feel good about the guys on their team.

Yesterday I posted an article about the 2013 AFC North second round draft picks. The pick for the Cleveland Browns was conspicuous by its absence. In 2012 the Browns had given up their 2013 second round pick to take Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft.

Despite his immense talent, Gordon has potentially flamed out because of character problems. The Browns knew about these and took a chance. I’m a big fan of second chances, and I think it is great to give people the opportunity to redeem themselves. But you have to count the cost.

Obviously these sorts of risks can pay off. The Cincinnati Bengals took a chance on Vontaze Burfict, and it seems to have worked out extremely well. Burfict was passed over in the draft by the rest of the league, and this seemed to be almost entirely because of these character concerns. As a result, the Bengals got what has turned out to be a bargain for a very minimal investment. The Browns’ risk was much larger. A second-round pick is not a minimal investment.

And given the coaching philosophy of head coach Mike Tomlin, I would say the Steelers organization is not the best place for young men with serious character concerns. Not because Tomlin is indifferent—far from it. It seems as if Coach Tomlin will do everything he can to help someone who asks for it. But he has also expressed on numerous occasions his feeling that these are men, not boys. He refuses to hover over them like a helicopter parent.

In this sort of environment the character question becomes much more important. For now it isn’t about what you do while someone is standing over you. It’s about what you do because you are committed to being the best you can be. No one is going to check your homework and fill in the right answers before you get to school—you stand or fall on what you do for yourself, whether it is out of ambition, a sense of duty, a desire to please, or any of the manifold motivations we use to get done what we need to do.

As Ivan Cole pointed out, there will never be a perfect draft, because you can never get all the information you need to make a truly informed choice. But there are indicators out there which can be used to make a more educated guess. 

So yes, I do think character counts, and perhaps more so on the Steelers than most teams. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination trying to imply the Steelers players are some special breed of morally superior beings. Like the rest of us, even the best of them do dumb stuff, and sometimes worse than dumb stuff.

But I do think it is important in the context of the way the organization is run that the team draft men who can stand up and say “I messed up, I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.”

I was less than thrilled by Le’Veon Bell’s DUI conviction last year, and it is going to hurt the team to some degree to have him off the field for the first two games. But I was very heartened that he owned up to it, said he had learned from it, and prepared to move on. Only time will tell whether he really did learn from it, of course, but that is how character is forged—through adversity, whether from external sources or, as is so often the case, from our own foolish actions.

And of course if they can learn from the mistakes of others, even better, both for them and for the team. This is why I’m so thrilled to have men of courage, valor, and heart on the team. What they are really like inside, only they know. But the resumé they are building for the world to see is inspiring, and I hope the team continues to look for this sort of young man.

Ironically, after I thought I had finished this article, I discovered that the Steelers have actually hired someone to help them dip their toes into the unknown waters of football analytics. But even here, they didn’t just look for a statistician.

I will be writing a good bit more about this new hire in a few days, but for now I will just say the new Analytics and Football Research Coordinator will be tasked with the job of trying to figure out what makes guys successful, breaking it down across the various positions. I am incredibly excited about this hire, on several levels. One of them is that there may be some actual numbers put to the question of how character impacts both the player and the team.

Because I believe that in the end you can only help someone, both as a player and a man, to the limits of the capacity of his character. This is why I think it matters so much.

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