We had the NFL Draft last weekend. Grades are already awarded for teams that haven’t had a down of football with their new players, because everything must be graded instantaneously. They’ve also, in effect, graded players who have yet to step on the field professionally on their professional value.
If we can learn anything from real life, it’s that we should stop writing guys off as busts or as bad picks so soon. Not just because it’s embarrassing when you get things wrong, but because it’s ridiculous to declare someone’s career over after a year or two in a situation that may not play to their strengths.
My first job coming out of college was as a communications specialist (mostly doing social media communications) for an Ivy League school. I couldn’t believe my luck – I’d done a decent job of producing quality content in my internship and while writing for my college newspaper, but to get to work at a prestigious university?
After a few months, I felt like I didn’t belong and had ruined my career before it began. There were a LOT of restrictions on what I could use as content; everything had to be vetted. I was discouraged from talking to faculty and department heads because they were so busy. I pushed to have an opportunity to produce things and engage with someone, anyone, when I probably shouldn’t have pushed; I ended up leaving the position after little more than a year without really feeling like I’d accomplished anything, because I felt like I would never have an opportunity to achieve anything there.
My career in the NFL would likely be over at that point; I’d be an obvious bust.
Who stays at their first job, though? The average younger baby-boomer (sorry, this is the most recent generation the Bureau of Labor Statistics is citing) held 11.7 different jobs from ages 18-48, and that number is only going up. That tells me that there’s a lot of people searching for a place to fit in. People develop at different times and learn at different rates; they function better in different environments.
Let’s take these two high-profile cases from the NFL:
- Cameron Wake was drafted as a linebacker, then cut by the Giants in 2005. The Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions turned him into a defensive end and he immediately became a beast, ending up the CFL’s Defensive Player of the Year twice and eventually as a four-time NFL Pro-Bowler (as of this article).
- Kurt Warner famously went undrafted and couldn’t beat out tough competition in Packers camp (Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, and Heisman winner/GB draft pick Ty Detmer). He gets a shot in the Arena Football League and, because NFL Europe existed, Warner had the opportunity to show his value outdoors again and eventually catch on with the Rams. And even after all that, without a Trent Green injury, we probably never know who he is.
Do we accept the narrative that Wake wasn’t good enough when he played with the Giants and improved when he went to the Lions and then to the Dolphins? Or that Warner simply wasn’t good enough to play until after his time in NFL Europe?
Do we pretend that these two are proof that the system works, that the top talent always gets through, even if it’s only an eventual thing?
Or do we acknowledge that the personnel evaluation process, like every other industry’s hiring process, isn’t perfect? That dozens, if not hundreds, of players who could make an impact in the league are denied an opportunity by management/coaching staffs that aren’t particularly interested in developing talent or figuring out ways to make players succeed (unless it’s their way)?*
That Wake and Warner got another chance is amazing enough.
If the CFL hadn’t been there to figure out to play Wake at DE, he’d have just been another guy who “wasn’t good enough” to play in the NFL. Without the AFL and NFL Europe, Kurt Warner may be managing a Hy-Vee in Iowa right now.
Sadly, things are worse than they’ve ever been for football players on the outside looking in.
The AFL is a shadow of what it was in the late 1990s when Warner played. NFL Europe is gone; killed in a grab at short-term profits and in pursuit of Goodell’s dream of exporting an NFL team to London for some reason. The CFL remains, but with NFL rookie salaries being much, much lower than what they were, NFL teams opt for youth and potential over present ability.
Jamar Howard, the currently injured Portland Thunder receiver, said in an article with the Portland Tribune that he has an email from an NFL team that told him that he was better than the guy they signed instead of him, but they were higher on the other guy anyway.
The typical opportunity for a player beyond his draft year is “here’s an invitation for a day to work out.” With a full roster already in place, guys they’re paying anyway, there isn’t much incentive to hire the new guy. It’s like getting an interview with a place that isn’t hiring – sure, you can put everything out there and be just as good as (or even slightly better than) the guys they already have, but all things considered, it’s much easier on them to just keep the same person.
A former NFL and CFL scout once told me that 10-20 percent of guys in the NFL are guys who would be great on any team. The rest of the league is full of guys that need the right situation in order to stay in the league. That’s pretty similar to the rest of us. There are a few star performers who really shine and set the goal for everyone to aspire to; the rest of us are scrambling to find a situation that will allow us to shine in our own way.
So why is it always the player that we call a failure? Would we want this standard applied to our own lives?
The Lions in the mid-2000s drafted Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, and Mike Williams. Were those guys all bad picks that doomed the Lions? Or were the Lions a bad organization that led to their careers being cut short?
The Browns and Bears have acquired quarterback after quarterback after quarterback after quarterback over the past decade (and really, throughout their teams’ histories in the Super Bowl era). Is it likely that everyone they got was just awful? Or that the organization failed to put a team together that would help them be successful? Is it the chicken or the egg?
After all, you don’t get top picks in the draft over and over again by being well-run, having made great personnel decisions.
The guys who got drafted this weekend are in their early 20s. Even with great college internships that landed them a (seemingly) great position coming out of school, a lot of them are going to end up in a place that isn’t right for them. It doesn’t mean they aren’t great players, great athletes, or great people. It means that they’ll have to work harder to find somewhere that they’ll be able to succeed.
And honestly, aren’t most of us just looking for somewhere we can succeed?
*Alternatively, problems can arise, like in the Wake and Warner cases, when the team that they sign with is flush with talent at the player’s position. There obviously isn’t any incentive for teams to help players out and recommend them to other teams who need help at a position.