My Age Of Experience: Lessons Since Losing My Football Innocence

‘Losing Your Football Innocence’ was the first post at Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio site in 2011. Eight years later, Matt offers his advice on gaining perspective as an evaluator. 

We still love football. Whether or not we agree with matters surrounding the game and the direction it should take, what happens between the lines still thrills us.

When I launched the Rookie Scouting Portfolio site in 2011, I debuted with the article, Losing Your Football Innocence — How To Watch Football With A More Critical Eye. It remains one of the most read pieces on this site, finding a new audience every time I tweet a link to it.

This post features 10 things I’m continuously learning as an evaluator of football talent. Many of these items aren’t straight-forward lessons but reports from my own personal wilderness of ongoing education. Even so, I hope sharing them will be helpful to your journey to learn the game and enrich your perspective on NFL Draft season.

1. Technique Matters: We often separate athletic ability from technical ability. But at its core, football technique is little more than refined athletic movement. While great to see a prospect display several technical elements to his game, I’ve found that sometimes less is more.

Every year, I watch running backs do enough in pass protection to stop a defender from reaching a quarterback on Saturdays and earn credit in an evaluator’s charting of the player’s performance. However, the execution of the technique is not enough to earn the same result on Sundays.

The same can be said of receivers separating from a defender playing press coverage or catching a football with an opponent draped over him.

It’s why charting a player’s performance isn’t a fail-safe way of projecting his skills. It’s more important to see evidence that a player has mastered a smaller number of techniques rather than displaying a wide range of skills that aren’t refined enough to get the job done.

NFL coaches spend a lot more time on scheme than technique, which means the job of player development is left largely to the player and the resources that he cultivates. This includes teammates, consultants who are position experts, and offseason study with veterans around the league.

I’d rather see a player show mastery of what he knows. It often indicates that he’s detail-oriented about what he practices.

2. But Make Room For The Exceptional: It’s an easy (and common) trap for those evaluating the game to get so wrapped up in the technical aspects of playing the game that they don’t recognize the exceptional. Brett Favre’s release motion often dipped to his thigh — even late in his career.

LeVeon Bell’s patience at the line of scrimmage is so extreme that analysts and coaches have feared that other backs will copy it and fail. I remember when analysts projected Bell to struggle because he relied too much on his quickness.

If a player evaluator lacks a balanced approach with how he or she uses the data of production, physical metrics, and in-game performance (and the game film is data if the parameters are defined and captured to be used appropriately), the evaluator can become too receptive or closed off to the possibility of the exceptional.

The bigger question is how does one recognize the exceptional will work?

If the player’s performance earns results in the college game in situations that have a similar or greater difficulty level as the pro game, it’s a good sign. While I often emphasize that the differences in skill are vast between the college and NFL game, it doesn’t mean that you won’t see examples of NFL-caliber moments on Saturdays.

Insightful filtering of metrics data is also important. Concluding that Cooper Kupp was too slow to be a productive NFL receiver is a product of an analyst looking at one metric (the 40-yard dash) against a broad range of receivers and calculating an unfavorable success rate from it. However, examining Kupp’s 20-Shuttle and 3-Cone times against players with similar times and pairing that the data gained from film analysis revealed that Kupp would have far fewer issues earning separation than projected — especially in the role that made the most sense for him.

Favre’s arm motion didn’t interfere with his ability to get the ball out on time or his accuracy and Bell’s workout metrics as a 230-pound back were consistent with many of the quickest and productive backs 30-50 pounds lighter.

The exceptional player by definition is rare. Even so, closing oneself off to it completely until proven otherwise by the player is the mindset of the risk-averse. Nothing wrong if that’s your perspective, but it’s not the only way.

3. Scheme Provides Context: If you haven’t learned how blocking schemes work, how can you judge if a running back makes good decisions? If you don’t understand how a quarterback’s drops are tied to routes and the basic concepts of defensive coverages, how can you determine if a quarterback is making efficient and accurate decisions? If you don’t see how schemes can benefit from specific physical traits, how can you project where a player will fit best?

In football and life, it’s rarely one-size-fits-all. It’s why metrics and production-based analysis without analyzing the data of the game film is a valuable but incomplete process.

4. The Off-Field Component Is Huge: Fans often think of criminal or addictive behavior when player character enters a football discussion. It’s only a fraction of what falls under this catch-all term. Appearing to be a likable guy or a law-abiding citizen is not all there is to character evaluation. In fact, being likable is optional — and I agree that it should be optional. On the other hand, commanding respect is a must in my book.

Character includes a lot more than these basic things above:

  • Responding to adversity on and off the field:
    • Injuries
    • Bad plays
    • Exposed flaws
    • Bad years
    • Benchings
    • Early deficits and losses
    • Teammate, staff, family, and media drama
  • High standards for yourself and others (including coaches) in practice, meeting rooms, and games
  • Putting in extra work where you need it but the team can’t demand it from you
  • The capacity for emotional growth

The way we see character defined also dovetails with other skills, like a player’s ability to work smart, manage his time, and educate teammates so they can improve and help the team. Few, if any players have all of these traits and skills. Even the best have flaws. There were decades-long stars in this league who’ve had off-field issues that would have buried the careers of younger and less proven talents if not for the fact that these stars possessed so many of these traits and on-field production that others covered for them.

I’m not saying this is a good thing, it’s what’s allegedly true based on my conversations with those whom I trust. There are also a lot of teams that are ill-equipped to evaluate character without over- or under-reacting to specific factors. Even when they make prudent calls, the prospect can eventually prove them wrong despite the process being right.

It’s why I pick my spots to discuss character and I often limit it to football-related behaviors or leadership and maturity.

5. The Pressure In The NFL Is Greater Than College Football: Despite college football having rabid fan bases, national broadcasts, and intense media scrutiny, players aren’t paid. Okay, we have reasonable suspicion —if not actual past proof — that many of them are paid in some form or fashion under the table,  but they still aren’t getting paid remotely like professionals in the NFL.

There are also limits on how much college teams can practice and studies are supposed to be the primary focus of the college experience. While we can point to numerous examples of players who are accomplished students in challenging majors, some athletic programs regard studies as an obstacle that must be worked around, if not gamed to the program’s advantage.

There self-induced pressure of high salaries is much higher in the NFL. So is competing with teammates and opponents who are performing at the highest echelon of football skill. Players also have more time, money, and resources available to them to get better at their craft. Combine all of that and the power of mistakes become magnified.

Pressure is a killer of performance and ultimately confidence. How to cope with pressure is a talent in its own right.

6.  Scheme Fit Is A Real Variable: Sure, I’m explaining point number three in greater detail, but the previous point discusses the evaluation of the player’s talent. This point is focused on the player’s transition to the professional ranks.

Do the player’s talents immediately fit the scheme or has the player been wedged into a less compatible system? Jared Goff joined a professional team operating a west coast offense and Dak Prescott landed with a squad heavily influenced by the Erhardt-Perkins scheme.

The first is the most difficult to memorize due to its dense play-calling jargon and varieties of routes per play. The second has an easier onboarding experience because of more efficient jargon and variations of plays that, from a quarterback’s eyes, can be seen as the same play.

Learning the West Coast Scheme straight from a college Air-Raid system can feel like learning a complex language. By comparison, absorbing the Erhardt-Perkins feels more like learning a dialect of a familiar language.

The context of the scheme doesn’t explain away the talent of a player but it can influence how fast that player can express his talent to positive ends. After all, the best performances come from players who can react to complex situations at the speed of instinct.

Adding layers of complexity that create longer-term obstacles to regain that speed of instinct and force a player to think rather than react. When this happens it represses the player’s ceiling of potential until his transition is complete.

7. Surrounding Talent Also Has Contextual Importance: Prescott had a top offensive line and a productive receiving corps filled with veterans and a true professional in the quarterback room with Pro Bowl talent. Goff had an offensive line that lacked talent in key spots, receivers with questionable track records as performers, and an offensive coordinator whose gameplans were deemed too basic and predictable for opponents. This is why…

8. One Year Does Not Make A Career: When it comes to projected outcomes versus performance, analysts often take victory laps or walks of shame too soon. There can be a lot of positive and negative supporting factors contributing to a player’s early success or struggles (see above). I may be proven wrong one day but if I were to give advice to new analysts in the draft game it’s that being right sells subscriptions for your product, searching for the truth — even when unsuccessful at times — generates loyalty.

9. Production Is A Limited, And Often Inaccurate, Measure Of Success Or Failure When Judging Talent Evaluation: This goes against the conventional media analysis of football because statistics are marketed to be unerring data points. Watch, read, or listen to any analysis and if one stat isn’t accurate, there’s always another that does a better job of getting to the truth of the matter.

There is some truth to this notion, but unfavorable data can also be the product of factors that aren’t directly tied to the player — even when it is presented like it should be. Was Adrian Peterson too old to perform as an NFL starter two years ago because of his individual stats or was his offensive line lacking in talent? Watch the film and collected data on his behaviors and performance as a runner and the answer was ‘absolutely not.’

However, look at 2016 and 2017 stats and most analysts will say he’s done, and if he isn’t, he’s too old. Study Peterson when his line and quarterback was healthy last year and he exhibited everything he did in his prime with the exception of game-breaking speed. The ‘he’s too old’ argument will win out because teams won’t bet on Peterson as its future, but if they were to include him in its immediate present, he still has the talent to perform at a high level.

This is especially true for younger players who haven’t earned extensive opportunities to develop on the field — in games or practices — and starters who aren’t earning the same quality of support as their peers who have an easier starting point on any given play.

10. The Hidden Advantage of Being A High NFL Draft Pick: I learned this from Ryan Riddle’s terrific piece on the subject. It’s a must-read of “must-reads” if you want clarity about the barriers to true camp competition that the draft can inherently create.

A quick summarization:

NFL teams invest a lot more money in high draft picks. Those investments are bets that owners, front offices, and coaches don’t want to lose.

This investment of resources creates bias in the form of greater patience for mistakes, more practice reps, and more on-field training. Likewise, late-round picks and UDFAs are given far fewer reps and attention. When late-round picks make mistakes they are often unfairly magnified. When they experience success, it often takes a fair bit of lobbying to give them a fair shot of earning playing time against a higher pick.

We often see arguments that round dictates talent based on results, but those ideas don’t consider the dynamics of risk management involved with salary investment and the political weight those early picks carry at the beginning of camp compared to their late-round and free agent counterparts.

The common thread with many of these points is the need for teams, analysts, and fans to look deeper and exhibit greater patience. Do both and the game becomes a richer experience.

When that happens, almost every game has fantastic entertainment value.

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