Christine Michael epitomizes everything I’ve been discussing about talent for years.
- Ross Tucker and I on “talent.“
- Dan Hatman, Sigmund Bloom, Kyle Crabb and I on “talent.”
- A Game of Inches: The Talent Gap By the Numbers
- Bryce Brown and the Parable of the NFL Backup RB
Michael is a lot like Bryce Brown, an athlete with picture-perfect physical traits for a starting NFL running back and enough conceptual knowledge and feel for the position that he can make excellent and/or daring, but successful decisions at the highest level of football. He’s the classic definition of a great talent.
Great talents can join a team and generate big plays and valuable production immediately.
But talent isn’t everything. Look for Dallas to give Michael that opportunity to earn a career as the Cowboys’ starter, but the devil is in the details. Carrying the football is only a portion of playing the running back position. Most first-tier NFL backups have starter ability as ballcarriers.
Here’s a list of details that separate an “NFL-caliber ballcarrier” from a “NFL starter”
- Knowing when game context (down-and-distance, score, and quarter) determines whether a RB should risk veering from the intent of the blocking scheme.
- Consistent techniques that don’t matter as much when you’re one of the 3-5 best athletes on a playing field in college football, but that’s no longer the case in the NFL:
- Pad level
- Ball security
- Pressing holes with patience
- Drive phase at end of runs
- Diagnosing blitzes within the context of your offensive line’s adjustments and how you fit within it.
- Stand-up technique as a pass protector that goes beyond launching yourself into defenders already getting blocked by a lineman (chipping is good, but that can’t be all you do).
These skills require physical and mental preparation. Even the skills Michael flashes on the field that are fantastic require enough preparation for him to remain sharp. Otherwise, we’ll only ever see flashes. If a player cannot do the grunt work to prepare physically and mentally at the highest level, it’s rare that he has the dominant skills to consistently win in the NFL.
Even if Michael is talented enough to carry the ball well and force defenses to account for him with the same work ethic in Dallas that he displayed in Seattle, there’s a greater chance that the runner commits one too many errors per game that hurts his team. This is the crux of the argument against great physical talents like Michael who do not do the little things.
Sure, Dallas may have just got a player capable of rushing for 1300 yards and 10 touchdowns–if not more–but they also got a player who hasn’t shown the work ethic to avoid mental errors that cost his team first downs, turnovers, injuries to teammates based on missed assignments, and ultimately games.
Michael is 24-25 years old. He’s a third-year player and young men can mature. Michael could realize that he has to apply himself in ways he didn’t in Seattle. But that’s all up to Michael, especially when the Cowboys have invited him to a big meal at a Michelin rated restaurant with all of finer things.
We all know Michael can eat. If he learns those little details of etiquette, Dallas will never leave him hungry. If he doesn’t work at it, Michael will have some tasty meals and great memories, but he might not earn future reservations to the establishment.