What is it that really separates the good players from the bad ones?
Probably the single best quote I’ve ever heard about football—the one that did the most to help me understand the game—was this: “Football is about the ability to bend at the knees and deliver a blow.” I don’t even know who said it. But it goes a long way toward explaining why some players with great “measurables” never pan out, while others who are branded as too slow, too small, too whatever, go on to have productive careers in the NFL.
The quote came up a few years ago, I think it was in the old Green Bay News Chronicle forum, during a discussion about Donnell Washington, a defensive lineman drafted by Mike Sherman in the 3rd round in 2004. Washington never made an impact and was cut after just two seasons. At 6’6” and 330 pounds, he was an imposing physical specimen, but he played too high. He was not particularly good at bending at the knees and delivering a blow. And because that’s what matters most in football, his career was over before it really began.
All football players, with the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, must excel at hand-to-hand combat. Even receivers and defensive backs need to deliver blows, though with these players, hand-to-hand combat usually takes the form of the quick move or the ability not to be fooled by it. For the most part, plays are won or lost in the first 2-3 seconds. Even plays that drag on for 8-10 seconds are heavily influenced by what happens immediately after the ball is snapped. Did the blockers successfully engage the defenders? Did the receivers get that first step on the DB’s, allowing them to set up their downfield moves?
This is why we should all be skeptical of the “measurables” that are such a hot topic during the scouting combine. Bench presses and 40-yard dash times do not tell us much about football skills. Remember Ahmad Carroll? He was drafted in the first round largely because of his blazing speed. The idea was that if he got beaten, he would be able to catch up with the receiver again. The problem is that if a DB needs to use his closing speed very often, he is in trouble. The back of Ahmad Carroll’s #28 jersey soon became an all-too-familiar sight for Packer fans, as he chased opposing receivers downfield, desperately grabbing at them for all he was worth.
Meanwhile, Al Harris, who everyone knows is slower than molasses, almost never gets beaten deep. This is because Harris usually wins those first 2-3 seconds of a play, or at least battles to a draw, due to his exceptional toughness and savvy.
We’ve also seen how this plays out on the offensive side of the ball. Bill Schroeder was the fastest player on the team but was only an average receiver because of his lack of physical presence and quickness. James Jones was widely panned when he was drafted because he was “too slow,” but he had a great rookie season and could be a special player if he can get past the injuries that ruined his second season.
I’m not totally discounting measurable skills. They play a legitimate role in the evaluation of talent. Their advantage is that they allow for unbiased evaluation. A forty time is a forty time, and no amount of wishful thinking about a player’s speed can change that number. But football is a sport where the intangibles are more vital than the so-called measurables.
Watching games is still the best way to judge talent, and based on these observations, we do our best to describe football skills by using terms like “explosion” and “he plays with a mean streak.” They may not be scientific, but if the source is reliable, they do tell us something about a player’s ability to succeed in hand-to-hand combat during those crucial moments immediately after the ball is snapped.