SPARQ a Fire: Measuring the type of athlete the Seahawks hunt for

USA TODAY Sports

Kicking off a series of articles focused on measuring the type of athletes the Seahawks are acquiring under Pete Carroll and John Schneider.

Outside of turnovers, the most telling statistic to the Seahawks' front office & coaching staff, in my opinion, is counting explosive plays. Limiting explosive plays is paramount to Pete Carroll on defense, and creating explosive plays is equally important to Carroll on offense and special teams.

GM John Schneider has hinted that based on their studies, a team that wins BOTH the explosive play AND turnover battle (hits a "daily double" as it's called at the VMAC) in a single game wins almost every time. How much? I don't know for sure, but I suspect a team that hits a "daily double" wins 85-90% of the time on Sunday, if not more.

This leads to the question. How does a team create explosive plays? Perhaps, by finding explosive players.

That's likely why the Seahawks sold the farm for Percy Harvin.

***

First - to back up: a couple of comments over the past few years triggered my thought process on this series. Most recently, after the Seahawks drafted TE Luke Willson, Schneider said that Luke was the "2nd best tester" among TEs in the 2013 Draft Class. That type of phrasing reminded me that, after the 2012 Draft concluded, Schneider referred to DE Greg Scruggs as the "9th best tester among the defensive lineman."

This made it clear that the Seahawks did rank Draft players in each position group by athleticism, but it made me wonder- HOW did they rank them? How much weight do the Seahawks give to speed in relation to upper body power, lower body power, or agility?

A couple of years ago I went to a WinForever event at the VMAC with Danny Kelly, and another WinForever event with Scott Enyeart. I have been to two or three of these events, and they are designed for high school coaches. I am not a high school football coach, and I can't remember all the details, but I do remember that Pete Carroll was promoting a tool, for coaches, used to measure athleticism amongst their football players.

Pete Carroll and his WinForever staff used the Nike SPARQ rating.

The Nike SPARQ Rating has been tweaked over the last ten years, and was developed inside Nike. I wonder if Peter Clay Carroll was involved in the development (and by this I mean, I think he was heavily involved in the development).

In the early days of SPARQ, Carroll was the highest profile coach in college football. Carroll was consumed with recruiting the best athletes and football players in America to USC, and he was very successful in that endevour.

The SPARQ team included Andy Bark, Peter Ruppe and Matt James. Per Scott Enyeart, Andy Bark developed the Elite 11 High School QB Camps, of which Carroll is highly involved. Peter Ruppe is a famous Nike sneaker marketer (including Brand Jordan), and Matt James is an athletic trainer, and all three of these men have ties to Pete Carroll and WinForever. I have seen Ruppe and James speak, in-person, at WinForever events.

Further, Seahawks Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Carlisle has had a big part in the development of the SPARQ program, - as Scott Enyeart put it - Carlisle is the "Master Trainer" for SPARQ, and likely works in conjunction with Nike to design Seattle's offseason program.

According to this Nike SPARQ Offseason Training Program Manual:

The Nike Football SPARQ Training Pre-Season Program was developed in conjunction with Chris Carlisle, the current Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Prior to coming to the Seahawks, Carlisle was an integral part of Pete Carroll's staff at USC and is credited with developing the explosive style of play that enabled the Trojans to become the most dominate program in college football over the past decade.

So, while I'm simply dot-connecting, it seems very likely that the Seahawks use some variation of the SPARQ system, not only for their 'testing' numbers, but also for their offseason training. It's a big part of their program, and likely a big reason they've seemed to focus so closely on the 'rare' types of athletes in the Draft.

This system works well for Seattle: Carroll and Carlisle are always looking for that explosive play, and are matched up with John Schneider and his Al Davis style of evaluation - both Schneider and Director of College Scouting Scot McCloughan are part of the Ron Wolf/Al Davis coaching tree that espouses the 'bigger, faster, stronger' philosophies.

***

Nike, seeking to extend their brand, and add value to athletes and coaches, designed the SPARQ rating to measure athleticism. Think of it as an SAT score for Football Players. This "SAT" score, or SPARQ rating, does not trump the evaluation of game tape, a person's character and competitiveness, interviews with coaches, and medicals. It is just another tool for coaches to use, and perhaps a tool for a player to measure his chances of becoming a "Division I" football player.

Every year, Nike holds SPARQ Combines across America in various cities, inviting high school athletes to come out and "get tested". About 1,000-1,500 athletes visit these events per city, and the highest rated athletes attend a final combine in Beaverton, Oregon (deep in Nike territory). The highest SPARQ scores per year, after tens of thousands of athletes are measured, are in the 130 to 150 range. At some camps, only a handful of players score above 100.

The SPARQ score is calculated using five inputs. There is no height or arm length component involved. The five components are:

(1) A Player's Weight (this "normalizes" the score, giving credit to a bigger player who displays similar movement skills to a smaller, quicker player)

(2) Forty Time

(3) 5-10-5 agility drill (some call this the 20 yard shuttle or short shuttle)

(4) Kneeling Powerball Toss (more on this later, but this replaces the bench press)

(5) Vertical Jump

SPARQ intends to blend an athlete's size, speed, explosive power, and agility into one metric.

***

Four of these five inputs are easily available for every NFL player as most of them attend the Combine and the ones that don't, typically hold a Pro Day. The one input that is not available is the Kneeling Powerball Toss. High School athletes have a hard time benching 225 pounds multiple times, so the SPARQ Combines use a Kneeling Powerball Toss as their measure of upper body explosiveness.

From perusing SPARQ scores for high school athletes, the average high school football player at these Combines throws a powerball 29 feet. I know for a fact that very few high school athletes can bench press 225 pounds 20 times. From studying this from afar, I think is fair to think that a football player that can bench 225 lbs 20 times, could toss a powerball 40 feet. I call this the "Add 20" bench/powerball adjustment. It is far from perfect, but this was the simplest and best conversion I could think of, and I talked to various football resources to land on this estimate so it's not like I just picked an arbitrary number.

So, to create the Adjusted-SPARQ rating, or SEA-SPARQ Rating, for players in this series of articles, I am adding 20 to the players' bench press repetitions, and entering that as their powerball toss distance.

***The Online SPARQ Calculator*** --- link to Nike's SPARQ calclator

In the last few weeks, I have been obtaining these five measurements for Draft players, and entering them into the above calculator, after making my "Add 20" adjustment to their bench press as a proxy for the powerball.

It's noteworthy that I think these scores are more telling for Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Pass Rushers, Linebackers and Defensive Backs. I am not sure these scores are as important for Offensive Lineman, Quarterbacks, and Interior Defensive Lineman. Before I delve into some of these findings, I wanted to give you my amateur sense of what I think these scores indicate, especially for non-Offensive Lineman and Interior-Defensive Lineman:

Score Below 100 - Likely below average for many NFL Athletes
Score Between 100-115 - Average for many NFL Athletes
Score between 116-130 - Very Good NFL Athlete
Score Above 130 - Elite NFL Athlete

***

I have attached my Adjusted SPARQ measurements for various Seahawks Running Backs, as well as the other Running Backs that were Drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2013 Draft. Check out how Christine Michael stacks up on an Adjusted-SPARQ basis to the other four running backs drafted in Round 2.

Screen_shot_2013-05-16_at_2

In fact, Michael is very likely the "highest tester" amongst the running backs in the 2013 Draft. I did not test this, but I would not be surprised if Christine Michael had the highest SPARQ score of ALL the players in the entire 2013 Draft.

An Adjusted-SPARQ over 150 is INSANE, and notice that Turbin's score over 130 is also quite impressive. Lynch's score was based on his combine and pro day numbers in 2007. All testing numbers are courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com.

Michael has a remarkable Adjusted SPARQ score, and Chris Harper and Luke Willson also posted impressive Adjusted SPARQ scores.

I will delve into SPARQ scores for Linebackers, Tight Ends, and Wide Receivers in some upcoming blogs as well but the main takeaway from this introduction is, simply:

Pete Carroll is seeking explosive players in an effort to create explosive plays.

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