Embracing The Craft of Player Evaluation

Tony Romo is a perfect Rhorsach for football fans. Photo by Football Schedule.
Tony Romo is a perfect Rorschach for football fans. Photo by Football Schedule.

Player evaluation is an imperfect endeavor. Understanding one’s limitations is a huge step towards getting better at it.

The most compelling thing about the NFL Draft is that no matter how hard it tries, it cannot escape its humanity. It’s this human element that makes player evaluation – and evaluating what good evaluation is – so difficult. 

Evaluating human behavior is a craft. It’s not science. It’s not intuition. It’s not history. And it’s not life experience.

It’s all of these things layered with perspective and applied with doses of humility, pride, and appreciation of the perfection of imperfections. It’s limitations and imperfections that are the root of character.

Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice weren’t deemed big enough to carry the load. They are two of the toughest backs in football and proven bell cows.

Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Brandon Lloyd are too slow to play wide receiver if looking solely at the speed data. However, what they do to catch a football despite these limitations is like a gorgeous birthmark on a model’s face.

Frank Gore is a former physical freak-turned-mortal whose sight, decision-making, and patience make fans wonder “what could have been” if he didn’t suffer two knee injuries that took away his immortality. Tony Romo and Brett Favre have embodied the sum of human failings, but often supplied its most inspiring heights.

I joke that Romo and Favre are often the dividing line among fans who embrace humanity and fans who think we’re better off eliminating humanity and evolving into androids.

Self-loathing aside, it’s the humanity in these players’ games that shine the brightest to fans – the production despite imperfection and the feats that for a briefest moment stretch beyond limitation. Likewise, player analysis is a willingness to both embrace and stretch beyond the humanity inherent in the process.

Every human being has characteristics of their personality that, depending on the situation, will have positive or negative expression. If one looks hard enough, this is true of scouts, writers, and draftniks when they evaluate prospects.

We all have several of these traits, but there is often a few predominant traits that are easier to notice. One of mine is persistence-stubbornness.

A positive side of its expression in my work is that I’m often thorough and steadfast with my analysis. A negative side in my work appears when I’m stubborn about process to the point that I can miss the forest while examining the trees.

I am also drawn to the underdog or the troubled soul. It’s part of my personality imprint.

I’m less likely to judge players with checkered pasts. Before I developed more life experience and caution, I was more likely to give trouble a second or third chance to the detriment of my analysis.

I’m not alone. There are scouts, writers, and draftniks drawn to players that I call bright and shiny objects –  players who possess eye-popping physical skills, but lack the refined play of a consistent,  reliable starter.

These folks see potential and have the vision to see how it will blossom in a positive way. But they are sometimes to their detriment a slave to it the way Bill in Kill Bill had a thing for blondes.

Other people latch onto one thing about a player. It might be the overriding characteristic that makes a player successful despite flaws in his game that others nitpicked to death.

At the same time, these people are also famous for spotting a potential flaw that is not the overriding factor for success or failure and it derails their analysis. They turn into the nitpicker.

Then there are the data guys who often generate insights, who at their best, provide a fresh, clear-eyed perspective of players and the game that re-frame the questions we should be asking.  At their worst, they think any process that involves data is objective while dismissing information that they cannot yet figure out how to analyze with their tools.

I’m not talking about best analytics practitioners that I know who are working behind the scenes in the NFL. These individuals are often the first to tell you that the intuitive and the “subjective” have a place in analysis. These individuals studying the film as much as they study the data.

We all want a silver bullet – an attribute, a stat, or a measurement that will override the imperfection of craft. But player analysis is a craft.

You may not like it. I may not like it. It doesn’t matter.

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