Why NFL Combine Numbers 'Don't Matter'

I ran into an interesting article from SmartFootball.com that linked to a Wall Street Journal piece by Jonah Lehrer on the ineffectiveness of relying on the physical measurements taken at the NFL Combine to choose your players. It essentially talks about how well people will perform when they know they're being tested, but over the long term, those results won't necessarily be constant. 

In other words, just because a player will run hard, lift hard, jump high or whatever during the combine testing, it doesn't mean that he'll continue to do that once he's been paid. The story quotes a study by economists from the University of Louisville that concluded that there's no "consistent statistical relationship between the results of players at the Combine and subsequent NFL performance." According to the WSJ article, 

The NFL Scouting Combine requires players to perform various mental and physical tasks -- and seems to be a poor predictor of their performance on the field.

The reason maximal measures are such bad predictors is rooted in what these tests don't measure. It turns out that many of the most important factors for life success are character traits, such as grit and self-control, and these can't be measured quickly.

Consider grit, which reflects a person's commitment to a long-term goal. Levels of grit consistently predict levels of achievement, such as graduation from West Point and success in the National Spelling Bee.

The problem, of course, is that students don't reveal their levels of grit while taking a brief test... Grit can only be assessed by tracking typical performance for an extended period. Do people persevere, even in the face of difficulty? How do they act when no one else is watching? Such traits often matter more than raw talent. We hear about them in letters of recommendation, but hard numbers take priority.

The larger lesson is that we've built our society around tests of performance that fail to predict what really matters: what happens once the test is over.

I think this is an interesting article and one that is relevant as we talk about potential prospects for the NFL Draft. We spend a lot of time talking about a player's 'measurables' - which do matter despite the conclusion the economists came to in their study, but they are not the be-all and the end-all of how good a football player a person is going to be. We all know this of course, but the numbers from the Combine still get spit out over and over. So-and-so ran slower than expected; so-and-so got this on the Wonderlic; we'd be stupid to take so-and-so because of this or that.

These things can help a team make decisions on who to take, and can help you identify which bubble players might be worth looking at because you do need a certain type of athlete on an NFL field. But at the end of the day, teams had better be looking hard and long at the type of person that prospect is - how hard he works, how hard he's worked to get there, and what he'll do to succeed in the NFL.

Taking the best pure athlete at a position without taking into account his grit and determination can be a very dangerous proposition. At the other end of the spectrum, passing on a player based purely on his shortcomings from the physical or mental testing at the Combine or Pro-Day can be a very foolish thing to do as well. Players have their stock rise and fall precipitously based on these results and we see it every year - someone that tested extremely well will go early and most likely bust. Someone that everyone had forgotten about because of poor testing will catch on with a team and produce like crazy.

Here is that one guy Tom Brady's pre-draft scouting report:

Positives: Good height to see the field. Very poised and composed. Smart and alert. Can read coverages. Good accuracy and touch. Produces in big spots and in big games. Has some Brian Griese in him and is a gamer. Generally plays within himself. Team leader.

Negatives: Poor build. Very skinny and narrow. Ended the '99 season weighing 195 pounds and still looks like a rail at 211. Looks a little frail and lacks great physical stature and strength. Can get pushed down more easily than you'd like. Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm. Can't drive the ball down the field and does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if he must ad-lib and do things on his own.

Summary: Is not what you're looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength and mobility, but he has the intangibles and production and showed great Griese-like improvement as a senior. Could make it in the right system but will not be for everyone.

Note the physical negatives. Lacks mobility. Can't avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm. Does not throw a really tight spiral. Well - if teams had paid more attention to the key words "very poised and composed," "smart and alert," "can read coverages," "good accuracy and touch," and "produces in big spots and big games," things might have turned out differently for Brady and the NFL as a whole. He was instead taken in the 6th round on a hunch by Bill Bilichick. Some freaking hunch. Brady has made his career on the above-mentioned attributes and he's got the most key intangible that exists: he's clutch. His lack of physical prowess hasn't hurt him all that much.

Keep that in mind as we get close to the draft - only three short weeks away!

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