Binary Thinking, Inherent Bias, And Inertia: The Issues Plaguing NFL Talent Evaluators
Blake Bortles, Scott Tolzien, Tom Savage, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer and Mike Glennon. These are the names of quarterbacks that will be starting NFL games during the 2017 season. If you root for any of the teams that employ these players, good luck. Given their proven play — or lack thereof — the chances any one of them helps your team compete or contend is highly unlikely.
In all of sports, there is no bigger drop off in play and expected outcome from starter to second string than NFL quarterback. This is the scarcest talent position in all of sports. Is it really that hard to play quarterback in the NFL?
The rules are designed to favor offenses and make completing passes easier. Maybe the question isn’t why it’s so hard to play quarterback, but rather, why are the people in the NFL tasked with finding quarterbacks so bad at talent evaluation? Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning won’t play forever.
According to MMQB’s Albert Breer, 15 of the 32 starting quarterbacks will be 30 or older by Thanksgiving. What’s up with the young guys coming in?
As a professional sports league, only MLB rivals the NFL in conservatism (read: old and slow to change). The league is full of talent evaluators that operate from a paradigm of system quarterbacks, and I mean that in the worst possible way.
When these talent evaluators look at college quarterbacks, they use antiquated terms like “spread offense” and “pro style.” I say antiquated because that’s exactly what those terms are. As humans we are prone to binary modes of thought and analysis, either/or, good/bad, right/wrong. We place things into categories so they are easily explained. On the whole that isn’t in its entirety a bad thing. But it is when it leads to polarization and prevents deeper analysis.
Dak Prescott and Derek Carr played their college ball in spread offenses. The former completed 67.8 percent of his passes last year and threw 22 touchdowns and had only four interceptions. The latter had similar numbers and is the highest paid player in the league. “Pro style” quarterbacks like Cody Kessler, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook were all drafted before both Prescott and Carr.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but why are NFL talent evaluators stuck in an outdated mode of quarterback evaluation? Why does “spread” have a negative connotation and “pro style” a positive one?
We’ve seen “spread” or read option quarterbacks have success in this league. Before they were run out of the league, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III had success. Kap was in the Super Bowl and one play away from going to another. RGIII set rookie quarterback records, and he, not Andrew Luck, was offensive rookie of the year in 2012. Cam Newton was the league MVP in 2015 and took the 15-win Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl and has been to another.
All of them quarterbacks whom you wouldn’t refer to as “pro style.” They are quarterbacks who talent evaluators thought could approximate to some level of success in the NFL if placed in the right situation and given the opportunity to succeed.
Surely what matters for quarterbacks and whether or not they can play and perform up to reasonable expectations given the talent around them is a bit more nuanced than whether they played a spread or pro offense in college.
First, the quarterback must have the physical tools to make the necessary throws. Talent evaluators often get way too enamored with this piece of the puzzle. Just because a player “looks the part” doesn’t mean everything else is less relevant.
Second, what is the quarterback’s responsibility in the offense? Whether you run, “spread,” “pro” or “air raid,” what is the quarterback’s job? When he gets to the line of scrimmage, does he have command and the authority to audible based on what defense he sees, switch the protections, etc? Or is he looking to the sideline every play for a call. Can he tell you why he switched out of a certain play when presented with the defense?
The final area is what NFL people like to call “intangibles.” How did he perform in the biggest games of the season? Does he inspire leadership? Is he a winner? These three factors should determine whether or not a person has the potential to play quarterback in the NFL. The prospect should grade out well above average in all of these areas.
Is it a foolproof system of evaluating quarterback talent? Of course not, there are no guarantees. Tom Brady was a sixth round pick and didn’t grade out great in these categories. There will always be outliers, but looking at this position in binary terms is not conducive to long-term success. The truth of the matter is, evaluating “spread” quarterbacks requires more work than looking at “pro style” quarterbacks.
The plays you see on tape in the “spread” are not what you run in the NFL. But that shouldn’t matter. With the countless hours of game film and people whose sole responsibility is to identify talent, this shouldn’t be too difficult a task. Identify quarterbacks that meet the criteria and have a chance to perform at the next level and then place them in a position to succeed. Apparently easier said than done.