Nature or Nurture?
Or—How Much of a Player’s Success is Tied to Which Team Drafts Them?
I’ll tell you up front that I don’t have the answer to this age-old question, any more than anyone can tell you definitively how your child would have turned out had they grown up in a different family. But we’re into the silly season, and it’s interesting to speculate.
I’ve pondered this question off and on for several years, but a couple of things put it in the forefront of my mind. The first was a segment on 93.7 The Fan in which Chris Mueller and Joe Starkey were asked by their producer to contemplate the possible results had the Cleveland Browns listened to the advice of Todd McShay and/or Mel Kiper.
The list of players they could have drafted in the past six or seven years was pretty interesting. Players like Julio Jones, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sammy Watkins were being mocked by the above-mentioned pundits to the Browns. The real question, and the one Starkey and Mueller didn’t really address, was not just whether the Browns would be better for it, but whether Julio Jones, for instance, would have been Julio Jones had he gone to the Browns. We won’t even talk about Teddy Bridgewater going to the Quarterbacks Graveyard that is (or at least has been) the Browns franchise since about 2003.
And this of course raises the question of what Ben Roethlisberger would have been like had the Browns drafted him. In Roethlisberger’s case I can see how his sandlot style of play might have been successful in Cleveland, perhaps giving Butch Davis, the head coach at the time, some breathing room.How long it would have lasted is anybody’s guess.
The second item which brought this line of thought to the fore was the fact, mentioned a couple of times on the Super Bowl broadcast, that Tayler Gabriel, one of Matt Ryan’s stable of receivers, was picked up by Atlanta after being cut by the Browns. I had a quick look at his stats. Gabriel spent two years with the Browns after being picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2014. During the 2016 season (with Atlanta) Gabriel had six receiving touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. This is six more touchdowns than his total output with the Browns.
So was the talent always there and the Browns just didn’t know how to use him? Was it a matter of having a good enough quarterback throwing to him? That wouldn’t account for the rushing touchdown, at any rate, although I suppose it’s easier to run when the passing game is a serious threat. Did he just figure it out in his third year? The latter may be so, but in fact he was considerably more productive in Cleveland during his rookie year than in his second year.
One of the things we’ve heard said ad nauseum in recent weeks and days is that in Tom Brady Bill Belichick found the perfect quarterback for his system—that this was some sort of Harmonic Convergence in which an unregarded sixth round pick and a not particularly successful head coach were a perfect fit. There is probably something to that. The questions remain, though. Would Belichick have been as successful with a different quarterback—say, Chad Pennington or Marc Bulgar? Or even Tee Martin, whom the Steelers drafted that year?
Many thousands of words—possibly millions at this point—have been written to indicate, basically, how dumb everyone who didn’t draft Tom Brady was. The Browns, naturally, are one of the other 31 teams, and could have drafted him, or almost anyone else, as they had the top pick in the draft that year. Instead, they took a number of unheralded players that season, including QB Spergon Wynn. They took him in the sixth round, well before the Patriots chose Brady with a compensatory pick.
The Browns, in fact, had 13 picks in that draft, partially due to some horse trading. Which goes to show that some things never change. They did not pick a single player out of those 13 who ever went to a Pro Bowl. The total Career Approximate Value for all 13 players, according to Pro Football Reference, was 119. The total number of years they played in the NFL was 44. This averages out to 3+ years per player (which in fact is the NFL average, supposedly,) and a CAV of just over 9 per player. But it gets worse—of those 44 NFL years, 13 of them were played for other teams, and some of the CAV was also accumulated there. So the total CAV earned on the Browns was 85, which comes to about 6.5 per player on average. The best player they took was their top-of-the-second-round pick, WR Dennis Northcutt. Next best was the overall No. 1 pick, DE Courtney Brown.
It’s interesting to compare that total CAV to the score for Tom Brady, so far. Not fair, but interesting. Thus far Brady has amassed a CAV of 236.
And just so I’m not picking on the Browns, here’s how the Steelers did in the 2000 draft. (YIL represents how many total years the player was in the NFL, with years with the Steelers in [brackets.] CAV is obviously the total Career Approximate Value, with CAV on the Steelers also in brackets):
- 1/8: Plaxico Burress, WR; YIL: 11 ; CAV: 83 
- 2/38: Marvel Smith, OT; YIL: 9; CAV: 57
- 3/72: Kendrick Clancy, DT; YIL: 10 ; CAV: 25 
- 3/77: Hank Poteat, CB; YIL: 10 ; CAV: 18 
- 4/103: Danny Farmer, WR; YIL: 3 ; CAV: 5 
- 5/137: Clark Haggans, LB; YIL: 13 ; CAV: 58 
- 5/163: Tee Martin, QB; YIL: 2 ; CAV: 0
- 6/193: Chris Combs, DE; YIL: 3 ; CAV: 1 
- 6/204: Jason Gavedza, TE; YIL: 0
That’s nine picks. Total years in the league, 61, an average of six and 3/4 years. 34 of those years were with the Steelers. The total CAV is 247, or 11 more than Tom Brady has by himself. Of course, none of the Steelers picks are still playing. And if you eliminate the CAV earned on other teams it takes it down to 144, or about 16 per player on average.
And while we’re running this exercise, let’s see what the rest of the Patriots’ draft for 2000 looked like. They didn’t have a first-round pick due to the settlement which the Patriots made with the Jets. (Belichick had signed a contract to be the Jets’ head coach the day before the Patriots came calling.) As part of the agreement, the Patriots sent their first-round pick as well as fourth and seventh-round picks for the following year to the Jets.
The Patriots still somehow managed to have 10 picks in that draft, something they’ve been good at ever since. The rest of their draft was nothing to write home about. Their best pick other than Brady was an offensive tackle, Greg Randall, who they picked up in the fourth round. If, for the purposes of comparison, we eliminate Tom Brady from the discussion, the remaining nine players had a total of 31 years in the NFL (about the same average as the Browns’ draft). 23 of those years were accumulated on the Patriots. The total CAV was was 56 (about 9 per player, once again the same as the Browns,) and 41 of that was earned on the Patriots’ squad (about 4.5 per player, or substantially worse than the Browns.) But if you picked Tom Brady, all is forgiven.
What I would love to know, but would certainly not get a straight answer to even if I could ask him, is whether Bill Belichick saw he could run the system he envisioned with Brady at the helm, or saw something in Brady that prompted the development of his system. And of course there’s a possible third answer—that at least the early genesis of the system and the drafting of the perfect QB to run it were in essence lucky flukes. What’s clear is that Belichick’s housecleaning of the staff and team he inherited from fired Head Coach Pete Carroll wasn’t immediately successful, as the team went 5-11 that season. Brady was also not the starting quarterback—in fact, he was No. 3 on the depth chart. The following year an injury to Drew Bledsoe thrust him into the starting role, one he has never relinquished.
It may seem I’ve strayed rather far from the topic of Nature vs. Nurture, but I don’t think so. What I’m trying to tease out is whether, say, Julio Jones, since he came up early in the discussion, would have still been the awesome receiver he is had the Browns drafted him. Or, for that matter, Antonio Brown. If we eliminate the fantasy football aspects and just look at how well they would have played with what they were given, the question isn’t quite so obvious.
After all, Josh Gordon, the much-suspended WR for the Browns, managed to be pretty amazing, even with a rotating cast of not-particularly-accomplished quarterbacks throwing the ball to him. Would he have fared better on a team with a different culture, in terms of his personal life? It’s tempting to think so, but Steeler fans can scarcely throw the first stone, or even one well down in the pile. Despite what is generally regarded as a healthy locker room and a supportive and caring coaching staff, we have our own talented problem child, who may or may not ever play any significant amount more in the NFL—namely, Martavis Bryant.
So here’s where it gets interesting. After Antonio Brown’s live broadcast of Mike Tomlin’s post-game speech after the Divisional Round, it was noted by Julian Edelman that such behavior would never occur in the Patriots’ locker room. And this is almost undoubtedly true. As evidenced by the mid-season trade of quite an accomplished linebacker, Jamie Collins, who nonetheless didn’t suit Bill Belichick for some reason, it’s clear that nothing other than complete compliance to the system and culture is tolerated.
Interestingly, according to players, Belichick is not a martinet but someone they enjoy working with. But nonetheless, no coloring outside the lines appears to be allowed. It is interesting to compare this to the approach of the Steelers. Mike Tomlin, when asked about his control (or lack thereof) of the players’ social media usage, commented to the effect that if he tries to control these aspects of the players’ lives they never learn how to handle things for themselves. The implication is, it is more important to Tomlin to let them make their own mistakes and learn from them than it is to exert absolute control over their lives.
This is all of a piece with Tomlin’s interest during his college years in sociology. His main purpose was to try to discover how he could help young black men to make better choices in their lives. One asks oneself whether this is also a goal of the Steelers’ ownership. After all, the stated goal of all concerned is to win the Super Bowl every year. This is, even for the Patriots, not a particularly achievable goal. Too many things can go wrong in the interim. But it makes one wonder if the very worthy goal of helping young men of whatever stripe to develop to their fullest potential (and to allow them to make some mistakes along the way) is the most efficient path to the “Super Bowl or bust” end point.
And then the question is, are the goals mutually exclusive? I assume Art Rooney II doesn’t think so. He is pretty upfront in his end-of-the-season address, and, unlike the season where he noted that Ben’s game needed to be “tweaked”, and the offensive coordinator was gone a week later, he expressed himself satisfied with the job Mike Tomlin did in 2016.
So let’s flip the script and think for a moment how a given player on the Patriots’ squad would fare in Cleveland, since we actually have one to look at. I looked up the AV (Approximate Value) for Jamie Collins this past season, in NE and in CLE. He played eight games with the Browns and seven with the Patriots. Despite having significantly more sacks and tackles in eight games with CLE than in seven games with NE, he earned a higher AV (5) with NE than with CLE (4). This was because in NE he had two interceptions, and he had none with CLE.
Interceptions can be streaky and fluky, and of course the likelihood of your getting one also depends on how you are used in the scheme. If you never drop back in coverage you’re probably not going to get many opportunities. And this is an amazingly small sample size, although I did note he had at least one INT each season except his rookie year—2016 was his fourth year in the league. Nature or nurture? We should be better able to judge in a year or two.
Let’s go back to this statement—”the likelihood of your getting [an interception] also depends on how you are used in the scheme. If you never drop back in coverage you’re probably not going to get many opportunities.” Right here we have a bit of evidence for the Nurture aspect of the case. This seems fairly obvious, but you would think that when drafting a player the team would look for a good fit between the player and how they plan to use him. (Assuming, of course, that the person/people making the decisions aren’t obsessed with speed as such, a la Al Davis, or some other trait which may or may not be particularly helpful.) Naturally, if you change your coaching staff, and consequently your scheme, every few years, you are always going to have a backlog of players who may or may not be best suited to your system.
I think it is also reasonable to assume that most players, unless they are singularly driven, like an Antonio Brown, are going to work harder or less hard depending on the culture around them. I think about the effect James Harrison has had on some of the young defensive players, for instance. These things surely matter. A culture of winning (or losing) probably also matters. The question is how much?
A final question which is interesting to contemplate is, how would Ben Roethlisberger have fared as a Patriot? Would he have locked horns with Belichick and been traded within a few years? Would Belichick have come up with the perfect system to exploit his talents and protect him, as he did with Tom Brady? It would sure be interesting to know.
I don’t expect this is the last time I’ll ponder these questions. As the off-season grinds on I will probably have a look at players such as Kurt Warner, who played in a few different systems, with differing results. I’ll also try to find some players who left the Patriots, and for that matter the Steelers, and look at a before-and-after snapshot. But as I warned at the beginning of the post, there is no way to know for sure. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could, though?