Getting better

Speaking of young footballers, this from Joe Posnanski is a must read.

In this, Joe looks at top quarterback selections in the NFL draft and points out that these players almost never make it to the levels expected of them.   In case you’re not aware, the system in the NFL is that each season the worst team gets to choose first from a pool of all the nation’s young talent, and so on and so forth.  It’s a way of levelling the playing field.

Anyway, these teams have top scouts on the case and don’t take these decisions lightly.   What Posnanski does then is ask what it is that Aaron Rodgers, the recent Super Bowl winner, has that nobody noticed when he was drafted (he wasn’t a high selection) and what he has that others thought better than him did not.

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

That is a lot tougher trait to scout than arm strength and how much a player can bench press.

There’s more along these lines.  The quotes that he gathers about Rodgers essentially say nothing, which is to suggest that nobody really knows what it is that makes him so good.

Posnanski thinks he knows:  what Rodgers seems to have is a gift for hard work, for self-improvement.  The triumph isn’t against adversity, it’s against stagnation and against comfort.   Most of us cruise when we get to a certain point; some keep on going (we see this among the great batsmen of course).   Is this what football scouting should be focusing on?   Finding the talented players, but placing greater emphasis on character than is (presumably) now the case?  All the old pros talk about a lack of discipline amongst young footballers (Roy Keane is particularly good on these things*); maybe they’re right.   But as they also say, where’s the incentive for young footballers, who can be inhumanely wealthy without ever achieving anything?

Have a read of the article anyway.

*”According to one authoritative account of his final days at Sunderland, his relationship with senior players unravelled to the point where Keane only really appeared to derive any pleasure from escorting promising young schoolboy footballers round the club. When they approached the first-team changing areas, the manager routinely cautioned: “Be careful not to trip over the hair-gel containers.” It did not need a psychologist to spot the disillusion in his voice.”

7 thoughts on “Getting better

  1. I love Joe’s writing and yours, but have to disagree with about everything written here.

    For starters, it might help to read this:

    specifically, these paragraphs from malcolm gladwell:


    What we’re talking about is what are called capitalization rates, which refers to how efficiently any group makes use of its talent. So, for example, sub-Saharan Africa is radically undercapitalized when it comes to, say, physics: There are a large number of people who live there who have the ability to be physicists but never get the chance to develop that talent. Canada, by contrast, is highly capitalized when it comes to hockey players: If you can play hockey in Canada, trust me, we will find you. One of my favorite psychologists, James Flynn, has looked at capitalization rates in the U.S. for various occupations: For example, what percentage of American men who are intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting a job like that. The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so. That suggests we have a lot of room for improvement.

    What you’re saying with the NBA is that over the past decade, it has become more and more highly capitalized: There isn’t more talent than before, but there is — for a variety of reasons — a more efficient use of talent. But I suspect that in sports, as in the rest of society, there’s still an awful lot of room for improvement.

    Case in point: Everyone always says what an incredible advantage it has been for Peyton Manning to have had the same offensive coordinator and the same offensive system his entire career. Football offenses are so complex now that they take years to master properly, and having one system in place from the beginning has allowed Manning to capitalize on every inch of his talent. On the other hand, someone like Jason Campbell has had a different offensive coordinator in virtually every season of his pro and college career (and I’m guessing he’ll get another this offseason). I’m not convinced that it’s possible to say, with certainty, that Campbell has less ability than Manning. I’m only sure we can say that Campbell has not been in a situation that has allowed him to exploit his talent the way Manning has. We just don’t know how good he is capable of being — and we may never know.

    i will explain what this all means, and the parallells to football momentarily

    1. ah, thanks. I can see that. ‘Arry was trying to sell Gareth Bale not long ago; Andy Carroll was available for £1m a year or so ago. Since then they’ve had opportunity. This is my biggest bugbear about youth football – players never get the chance.

      Tony G and I have opposing views on this: his is that Hughes (or whoever) sees Wayne Brown (or whoever) in training every day and knows how good they are. This is undoubtedly true. However, what this doesn’t factor in is how good a player might become if put in the right environment to thrive. If Wayne Brown was picked for 30 games would he be demonstrably poor? We don’t know, because it never happens. Look at what Fergie does at Man Utd; players like Jonny Evans keep getting games despite being really ordinary. Darren Fletcher too. If Darren Fletcher had come through Fulham’s system there is no way, no way at all he’d be in the Premiership now. He wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

      It’s a chicken and egg thing of course, but at no point are young players given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to develop and make mistakes. I understand why this is, but if we’re to avoid pouring £4m down a plug hole in the vague belief that having an academy will one day “pay off” then we might as well be a bit bolder in our selection.

      1. I absolutely agree!

        I would take this one step further, and really what i was trying to get at (and sort of failed)

        The NFL, which has probably the best amateur scouting system in the WORLD (i would argue superior to the other american sports), struggles to answer correctly who might make a great player.

        But this also happens at the Pro Level. There aren’t really any transfers in the NFL, most players go the Bosman route.even with watching a player against professional competition, where the talent evaluators probably know the system each professional team runs, still make multi million dollar mistakes routinely and select the wrong person.

        The average top flight team faces the same issue in the transfer market as well. Why was Javier Mascherano useless at West Ham, when at nearly every other stop in his career he has been brilliant?

        Is it possible that any player at west ham in that era, if forced to play as a defensive midefielder would have failed in front of THAT back line and the sideshow of coaching changes and ownership?

        So if that’s the case, instead of making million pound investments in players that have a good chance of not being great, why not take a freebie on a youth player that might have a slightly higher chance of washing out, but costs you very little.

        Even better still, at the risk of seeming like a feeder club, you could run a moneyball trick. Say you had a system that made wingers look good by inverting them often and they score alot of goals. You invest heavily in developing wingers and move the most promising kids there in that position. You now have 17 year old ENGLISH wunderkid “so and so” as a right footed left winger who scores 5 goals at 17, and 9 at 18, and has 6 in january at the age of 19.

        Along comes big club X, and offers 20 million pounds?

        What do you do: sell!

        Your system of inverting wingers frequently yields more goal scoring opportunities for them inflating their statistics. Meanwhile you repeat the stunt with your new 17 year old wunderkid… Meanwhile the player you sold may or may not turn out great, but that top team needed their quota of english players.

        Just a crazy idea i guess.

        1. and on that note, I think thats what Roy did with Smalling. We had a good keeper, a great defensive partner (hughes or hangeland), a midfield that never overcommitted, and as a result we had a good defensive profile, very few ropey situations to deal with.

          So of course he looked the part. Alex Ferguson offered alot of money, and the only sensible thing to do was to accept.

          1. I really agree with this too. The easy thing would be to play a really open system and attack lots, get involved in a load of six goal shootouts, then sell your fulcrum. Blackpool almost pulled this off with Charlie Adam, who, while undoubtedly a decent player, may well have been very humdrum if playing a disciplined, more conventional role.

            The Smalling trick is probably best: set up very defensively and offer a great deal of support to your defenders, then slot in youngster and watch him get attention. This wouldn’t definitely work, but if I was running a football club it’s what I’d be trying to do. Smalling’s a good player, and may go on to be even better, but circumstances went his way (qualification for the Europa League did so many of our players huge favours; how would Zoltan Gera be perceived without it? 2 goals last season in the league…)

  2. OK, now back to Joe’s article.

    For starters the draft is fickle. The average NFL career is 3 years, but if remember there are 55 people on a roster (well 53, but there are injuries and such). 45 dress for a given game. So let’s say there are 50 legitimate players on a roster on a given week.

    if you expect your first rounder to play 15 years (generous!), your 2nd rounder to play 10 years, and your 3rd to 7 round picks to all play 5 years each, you would have an entire roster about evenly represented. (these numbers arent totally accurate, and obviously there are a large number of fringy players that dont get drafted that play as high-energy players for a year or two before injury ends their career).

    With that said, Aaron Rodgers was taken in the first round. I’d say if you’re in the first round youre elite. He was taken about 2/3rds of the way through the first round, And generally speaking he did fall somewhat, but probably not for any character reasons (Alex Smith, as Joe didnt quite mention also had character off the charts and had an extremely high IQ). These NFL teams take scouting to levels that you cant, largely because as a monopoly, they can bring all the top prospects into one city (happening shortly), and put each player through a battery of physical, psychological, and intelligence tests that are extremely grueling (and mostly televised!)

    Aaron Rodgers may have not been picked first, but again you hope that your starting quarterback plays for a long time. (for non gridiron fans your quarterback is probably the single most important position on the field, and they get paid as such, and if you dont have a top tier guy your odds of winning the superbowl are dramatically reduced for a variety of reasons more than any other position)

    As a result, after team 1 (the 49ers who really rather needed a quarterback), most of the next teams were locked into their guy. If you take a quarterback so highly, you either expect him to start, or if you expect him to backup, your starter must be both REALLY GOOD (so there is no internal conflict), as well as old enough that the rookie will get his shot when he is still under the age of 26 or so. So Rodgers dropped, but it was more a matter of the needs of teams rather than his talent.

    If i just think of the conference I watch closely, the Eagles just ended an 11 year run with McNabb (mentioned in Joe’s article).

    They were set to start a multi year run with the guy they had been grooming ala Aaron Rodgers when they had an interesting development fall in their lap (wiki Mike Vick sometime for an interesting read im guessing)

    The Giants have Eli Manning, who has been in the league already a half dozen+ years, and will be with the giants for a few more surely. I don’t rate him highly but the Giants are very committed to him.

    The Cowboys have Tony Romo, who was drafted to be a backup, but by sheer force of will was better than the incumbent. He gets alot of bad press, but even as a cowboy hater I can acknowledge is is really rather good, in spite of some tragic moments in his career. He will be their player for a long run.

    The redskins are a fiasco. They are owned by Dan Snyder, who if you’ve read this column you will see why that is a farce. They gave up good compensation to the eagles to take McNabb, who immediately played worse than their prior incumbent (jason campbell), who played ok but wasn’t seen as worth the super-long term committment, even though Campbell was the victim himself of differetn systems, different coaches, and a completely dysfunctional team. It would be the equivalent of being 20 years old, and told you’re the new starting center midfielder for Newcastle circa 2008, and you have to make it all happen and you play ok but not amazing, and the owner decides you’re terrible and ships you off to a similarly dysfunctional franchise.

    There’s no real football equivalent because you can start playing professionally at 16 and such, but if you took every player in the league under the age of 23, and ranked them on future promise, the 13th most promising player would probably be highly rated. (i am guessing that’s Rodwell maybe?)

    Still, there is a non-zero chance Rodwell’s career doesn’t amount to much.

    On a tangential note, it would be interesting to have a draft and try to predict the careers of players under the age of 22, i bet we would all look stupid.

    So the fact is that Aaron Rodgers was highly regarded, and there was a mountain of data available to suggest that in the right environment (read: non-dysfunctional, which eliminates about 6 of the franchises that constantly churn through future stars and spit them out as washouts), that he would succeed.

  3. A big story about Rodgers that I think a lot of people are overlooking is that right after he was drafted, Brett Favre, before he retired/came back/retired/came back/died and was texting photos of his penis everywhere, stated that he had no responsibility to help him out and teach him the ropes per se. For a Fulham comparison, it would basically be the same as Schwarzer telling Stockdale to go to hell.

    I think that really stuck in Rodgers’ mind and compelled him to work harder than most draftees in his class or QB’s in the league. As Simmons often says, don’t ever discount the “nobody believed in us/me!” factor; and here is but another example.

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