The Potter(s) and the Clay: Developing the Steelers’ Draft Picks

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By the time the draft comes, at least the players projected to go in the top end of the draft have been poked, prodded, and questioned practically to death, because every team is afraid of making a mistake. And yet all that poking and prodding is probably not going to get to the heart of the matter.

As Kevin Colbert said recently:

When we’ve missed on picks, it’s usually not a physical talent. We talk about hearts and smarts all the time and those have been the areas. If we trace ourselves back to where we’ve made mistakes, it’s been in those two areas. And they’re the two hardest areas to evaluate, because I can’t put a clock to it.

In the introductory post to the series evaluating the Steelers’ 2016 draft picks, I talked about the “intersection of ability, opportunity, and the coaches you work with” as part of the equation determining whether a player succeeds in the NFL. But of course there are more factors than that—by orders of magnitude, most likely. Evaluation of almost anything is simple in comparison to even the most elementary attempts to evaluate human beings.

Part of the problem is illustrated in the original Star Trek series. Mr. Spock, the Vulcan, based all his decisions upon logic, in theory, anyhow, and was confounded by the highly trained and intelligent humans with whom he worked basing their decisions upon feelings, hunches, or what have you, rather than what a logical progression of thought would dictate.

The creators of the series instinctively knew what experiments have subsequently proven—that our decision-making is very often (perhaps almost always) at least partially influenced by factors which would seem not only illogical but actually counter to our self-interest. I could cite any number of such studies, but two will suffice.

The first was a study done in Germany to find out how much people were willing to pay for a cup of coffee. As detailed in this article in Der Spiegelthe Starbucks in Munich is actually charging less for coffee than a brain wave analysis of people seems to indicate is the ideal price. Crazy stuff, but who among us has not fallen into the trap of thinking something more expensive is necessarily of better quality? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but the price is not the determining factor of quality. It would naturally be much more advantageous to pay less if the difference in quality doesn’t warrant the difference in price, but this seems hard for us to see.

Another example is the classic study of delayed gratification. In this paper published by the American Psychological Association, the original experiment and the subsequent follow-ups are summarized. In brief, some people are able to delay gratification in order to gain a bigger prize later, and this seems to be a trait fixed in early childhood.

The original studies were done in the early 80s with preschoolers, and follow-ups of the subjects as teenagers and in their early 40s demonstrated that, in general:

…children who were less successful at resisting the marshmallow all those years ago performed more poorly on the self-control task as adults. An individual’s sensitivity to so-called hot stimuli, it seems, may persist throughout his or her lifetime. Additionally, Casey and colleagues examined brain activity in some subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging. When presented with tempting stimuli, individuals with low self-control showed brain patterns that differed from those with high self-control. The researchers found that the prefrontal cortex (a region that controls executive functions, such as making choices) was more active in subjects with higher self-control. And the ventral striatum (a region thought to process desires and rewards) showed boosted activity in those with lower self-control.

Of course, there are many factors which go into how well a child is prepared for decision-making at that age. But whatever the case, if a child’s early decision-making processes tend to persist through adulthood, maybe scouts and coaches are asking the wrong questions at the interviews, or talking to the wrong people.

I’ve written about the balance between talent and effort on numerous occasions, as it is a subject which interests me greatly. I don’t agree with the “talent doesn’t exist—the secret is 10,000 hours of practice” crowd, but there is no doubt that even prodigious talent cannot sustain a player without sufficient effort being expended by the time they get to the NFL.

I use “prodigious” in the classic sense of “remarkably or impressively great in degree.” Anyone who makes it to the NFL has more than a modicum of talent, no matter how lowly their draft (or undrafted) status. The question is, how can this modicum (or more) of talent be best developed? And how can the elements which are lacking in a players’ game be worked around?

For instance, the old chestnut “you can’t teach speed” is certainly true. But quickness can be learned. And perhaps part of the heart of the enigma of developing players lays in those two words. Because in many ways you can’t “teach” anyone anything, but they can learn from you if they want to and are capable of doing so. A player who believes the way he does something is the best way can’t be taught (or learn) a different way. He may even appear to make an effort to change the aspect of his game his coach doesn’t like, but as long as he is convinced (even subconsciously) that his way works, he isn’t really going to change.

It makes me wonder if at least sometimes players who are thought to be “late bloomers” just take a while to really buy into the idea that what they are doing worked in college but won’t work, or at least work as well, in the pros.

And the difficulty for a late round pick in particular is that the team’s investment in them is, relatively speaking, rather small. Mike Tomlin says (and I expect actually believes) that the playing field is level and everyone has the same opportunity. And to a certain extent that’s true. That’s why Antonio Brown eventually won the WR1 job, even though two more highly drafted players were ahead of him in line. Still, it’s just easier to move on from a player who isn’t “getting it” and find one who is more coachable when the team’s investment is small.

When the team investment (and for that matter the personal stakes) are much higher, a player is going to be given a lot more opportunities. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert put their reputations on the line when they selected a player most people considered to be a huge reach in the first round. You can bet Artie Burns is going to be given every possible opportunity to show he was worthy of it. You can cut a Gerod Holliman at the end of camp, and if Tampa Bay, who picked him up, can make something of him, so be it. A first-round pick is essentially never cut, although he might not be offered a second contract. It does occasionally happen (the last time it happened with the Steelers was 1996, and Cowher waited three years to do it) but for most teams it’s a rare event.

And so although it is almost impossible to predict how well a player is going to do in the NFL, it seems to me that a lot more study of what you might call character issues and less focus on so-called measurables would have something to be said for it.

Let’s go back to that “intersection of ability, opportunity, and the coaches you work with.” Part of the difficulty in the coaching part of the equation is that even given a so-called “coachable” player, no one is capable of being an equally good coach for everyone. Each player has his own needs in terms of how things are presented. I’ve found that a great many teachers are inclined to just say something louder if the student didn’t get it in the first place. But if the teacher hasn’t presented the material in a way the student can comprehend it (and I’m talking about learning styles, not intelligence per se) than the coach has just wasted his breath.

One of the things which impressed me about Carnell Lake when he took over the secondary room back in 2011 was Tunch Ilkin’s description of his coaching style. Tunch claimed he was really good at connecting with players in a way they could understand, no matter what their learning style. Perhaps that’s why Keenan Lewis flourished under Lake when he had not gotten very far with the staff prior to Lake’s arrival.

This may sound ironic in light of the rather underwhelming performance of the secondary in the past few years, but even with the best will in the world on both sides you come back to the question of innate qualities, which we generally define as “talent.” A 5’9″ guy can learn how to “play bigger than his size,” but he probably won’t ever be able to play like Richard Sherman, because Sherman is always going to have six inches on him, not to mention the refs on his side. (The latter was a joke, sort of…) Perhaps even more importantly, a guy who isn’t particularly smart or instinctual can be taught a certain amount, but his effectiveness is going to be limited at a position which requires a high degree of strategic thinking and “vision.”

Perhaps another thing the scouts should be considering is personalities—both of the player and of his position coach. The truth is, no matter how hard you try, you are going to like some of your players better than others, and consequently be more favorably disposed towards them.

It may be largely the fault of the player that you don’t care for him—he may have a sulky or defiant attitude, show insufficient work ethic, or what have you. It’s fair enough to downgrade a player for traits which are going to limit your ability to work with him.

But the fault may actually be on your side—there may be things about the player that push your buttons. Perhaps he reminds you in some way of the class bully who made your life miserable in second grade. Perhaps his tone of voice grates on your nerves. Most teachers, and I would suspect coaches, try hard to eliminate such bias from our evaluations when they don’t belong there, but most such prejudices are subconscious and as such we are prevented from seeing them by their very nature. Many teams (perhaps all, now, although I suspect they don’t advertise it) carry a psychologist on staff. Perhaps the psychologist should be covertly studying the coaches as well as the players, and relaying any pertinent information to the scouting staff.

It will be very interesting to watch how the players develop (or don’t). Right now we’re still in the speculation portion of the off-season, but I want to hit the ground running at training camp. Do feel free to chime in!







  • I ind it very interesting that people who sustain damage to the emotion generating area of their brain struggle to make any decisions at all. Without knowledge of the future, every decision is a gamble, and we make those decisions, in the end based on what feels right. Informed by information, but made by emotion.

    Those of us humans who are decisive, the Football Coaches, Business Executives, Political leaders, etc. are more emotional.
    They are more decisive because they require less information and logic to make their decisions. People have written stories about how the Steelers fell in love with Artie Burns and ended up picking him in the first round, and it is emotional. They watched his tape, saw him work out, but it was when they talked to him and got to know him that they decided to draft him..

    Like Colbert says, Hearts and Smarts can’t be timed or measured. You have to get a feel for the person, you have to relate to them and get a feeling that you actually know them, so you can gauge whether you think they will put in the work, fight through adversity and keep focused on the field.

    Even those decisions, to work out when no one is watching, to keep going until your in-cut is perfect, those decisions are emotional. Antonio Brown is a diva, Hines Ward was driven by this feeling that he was constantly not measuring up. It was their emotions that drive them to greatness. We love the super smart guys like Myron Rolle and often we get a little confused when “but is his heart in it?” is used as a character concern. But really, a person that intelligent, with so many options, are they going to want football success as much as Antonio Brown?

    It also makes sense when you look at how hard it is to cut a high draft pick, you have invested hope in this person, you have invested your passion in them, that is a big factor in any decision you make involving them.

    In the end, all Tomlin and Colbert really want is to find some young men who are in touch with their feelings.


    • There is so much to work with in this piece. But to go to your point about emotions, let’s flip it a little. Is it just a coincidence that the top three draft picks also happen to have grown up being fans of the team?

      This is an aspect of the one-size-fits-all mindset that we don’t focus upon much. Unlike free agents of all stripes, draft picks don’t really have a choice as to where they go, Of course they will say that they were absolutely delighted to be selected by whomever, or to be selected at all. What else are the supposed to say? What else can they say? John Elway and the Manning family (Eli) are still feeling the repercussions of letting it slip that there were places where they would rather not work. During the Vietnam era, many young men enlisted in the Air Force, Coast Guard or Marines, not because they were gung ho about a military career, but to avoid being drafted into the Army against their will.

      Add to the other factors that Rebecca has laid out is that Burns, Davis and Hargrove come with a certain buy in to the system and culture of the organization, much like players like Cam Heyward, Le’Veon Bell and Jesse James. That has to help a little, maybe a whole lot. I imagine that Sean Davis’ dad’s feet haven’t hit the floor in the month of May. Pittsburgh is where these players and their families want to be. That is at least one element in a good fit.

      Liked by 1 person

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Players are like clay and the coaches are the potters? Since no one is perfect it isn’t surprising we end up with the odd crackpot every once in a while.

    Liked by 1 person

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