How To Pick the Next John Elway

Imagine you own a pro sports team.

Let’s make it specific: You own a team in the National Football League. You’re sitting in your plush office chair in your mahogany-detailed office a few weeks after the last game; the halls are quiet. You’re thinking one thing:
Who should I add to my team to make sure we win next season?

The Stakes are High

There’s a lot at stake: a winning season makes it more attractive to free agents, allows you to sell more advertising, merchandise and luxury boxes so you bring in more money and can go get even better players.
A losing season is too painful to think about. The fans scream at you. The talk radio jocks badmouth you. Players from other teams see your franchise swirling down the drain and refuse to play for you.

What player will be a guarantee that we win?

Your scouts are filing reports every day about unknown players like rough-cut diamonds that just need a little direction, a little refining and they’ll be great.

There is a whole crop of new players waiting for their chance to break into the big leagues and make big money, their agents are already calling. All of them have video resumes, coaches and parents telling you how great they are.

You have stacks and stacks of statistics for every player for every game they’ve ever played since they were eight years old. Reports on mechanics. Interceptions per attempt. Completion percentages. Number of times they’ve come from behind and won the big game.

But you can’t compare them. Every player competed against different teams, some weak, some strong. Some players had no one to push them in their position and they may have eased through college with no motivation to work hard. There are great coaches and lousy offensive schemes. These are all numbers that tell what the player DID. You want something that tells you what the player is GOING TO DO.

Your head is spinning. It would be great to know which players are going to have breakout seasons and which players are going to flame out.

How do you know who to bet on?

The Draft is a Gamble

For a head coach, general manager, president or owner of a professional sports team, picking players is like playing roulette. You can only place so many bets and one of them had better pay off big or you spend the next year, maybe many years, trying to recover from mediocre seasons. But if you don’t take that big risk, push your chips onto that single player, that single number, you might miss out on the payoff of a lifetime.

Why was owning a team such a great idea?

Evaluating world-class talent today is based more on intuition than science. Of course, there is The Combine where the top college players come together for a weekend and jump as high as they can, run around cones, bench press, leap from a standing stop (didn’t we all do that in first grade?) and a written test, the Wonderlic, to show teams that they have what it takes to be the best. But it’s still a coin flip if that player picked high in the draft is going to be great.

Halfway through the off-season, we start to see quotes from football experts that tell us that they really don’t have a clear idea of who will make the transition to the NFL.

“There’s a lot of teams looking for the quarterback with the great NFL DNA… There are still some variables you just can’t measure.”
Jim Harbaugh, head coach San Francisco 49ers

“We place a lot more emphasis on the intangibles.”
Bill Polian, president, Indianapolis Colts

How Do You Test For Potential?

Intangibles. DNA. Character. Potential. Athletic. All these terms are vague efforts to quantify something that hasn’t yet been captured: the measure of future performance.

Research is starting to shed light on the brain of the elite athlete; it’s different from non-athletes. In fact, an elite athlete’s brain is significantly different from a really good athlete. It’s wired to more accurately and efficiently predict the future based on limited, chaotic information. It picks out the relevant information and ignores the rest.

In a 2008 study that included athletes and basketball experts, the athletes predicted the success of free shots in basketball based on just the pre-shot motion of the shooter; the video was stopped before the ball was released. The basketball experts’ predictions were much less accurate.

Then they hooked these athletes up to brain sensors as they watched the video; the brain activity was remarkable: it lit up in the part that controls motor activation. Just by watching, these athletes were taking the shot along with the shooter and successfully predicting the outcome.

They had taken so many successful free throws themselves, they could feel the result of another player’s shot by observing the preparation and pre-release. If the release matched the perfect model in their brains, they felt the ball would be good. If something felt “off” before the ball was shot, they predicted it would miss.

This could be the beginning of measuring the potential of an athlete.

The Potential of the Athletic Brain

We should be able, by extending this study from basketball to any sport we want, to test for any number of skills. We can identify the athletes with brain wiring most likely to be successful and separate the superstars from the busts. Or at least tip the odds in our favor.

It’s a dangerous idea.

Athletes who haven’t developed their skills could be steered away from the sport that they love because they didn’t score high enough for the coach. Olympic committees select only the highest scoring athletes to receive elite coaching.

There’s a place for this idea. Too much investment in sport depends on intuitive guessing.

I just wonder if it’s time.

“The single trait that separates great quarterbacks from good quarterbacks is the ability to make the great, spontaneous decision, especially at a crucial time. The clock is running down and your team is five points behind. The play that was called has broken down and 22 players are moving in almost unpredictable directions all over the field.

This is where the great quarterback uses his experience, vision, mobility and what we will call spontaneous genius.”

Bill Walsh, Hall of Fame head coach, San Francisco 49ers

2 comments On How To Pick the Next John Elway

  • Excellent, timely writing. Nice angle on the Draft process. Just posted a note on Cam Newton yesterday and basically my opinion is you gotta go with what you see…period. However, what if teams could reach deeper into an athlete’s make-up outside of the visuals?

    • That’s a great question. If we could reach deeper, what would we measure? And riffing off of Peter King’s Sports Illustrated article, with all the analysis on draft prospects, the success rate for quarterbacks is around 30%. Teams are not measuring the right things, if there is, indeed, something to measure.

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