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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Gregg Easterbrook and "Glory Boys"

I've been reading Tuesday Morning Quarterback for years now, Gregg Easterbrook's weekly analysis of football and whatever else catches his fancy. Some people don't like him.

Drew Magary of Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin can't stand him and eviscerates him to hilarious effect every week. Others are of the opinion that when he talks about science he doesn't always have all the facts or misrepresents them.
I'm not here to defend his science acumen. He's not a scientist, just a passive observer who sounds like he knows what he's talking about, even if he doesn't. I'm also not going to defend his reuse of certain cliches, because they can get annoying. When he sticks to football strategy, though, he's usually pretty solid, except for one major thing that bothers me.

One of Drew Magary's main complaints (aside from Easterbrook having far too many "g"s in his first name) is Easterbrook's glorification of "hard-working" players as opposed to "glory boys" who are generally drafted high. Easterbrook believes that if a team has lots of undrafted players, those teams generally play harder. Teams that have lots of highly-paid high draft picks don't. When a team bows to one player, whether that player is Michael Crabtree, T.O. or Chad Ochocinco, the whole team suffers.

For example, here's a quote from today's column:
In other football news, TMQ loves all-unwanted players -- those who were undrafted, or waived, or both. Sunday, the cost-no-object Philadelphia Heat, with their profusion of high draft choices and big bonuses, faced off against the low-rent Buffalo Bills. The host team started 12 players who were undrafted, or waived, or both. Undrafted George Wilson had 11 tackles and an interception: the Bills' defense appeared to be fielding several players wearing Wilson's number. When undrafted wide receiver Donald Jones left injured, undrafted wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt came in to relieve him and had five catches. The Bills start two offensive linemen who were undrafted or waived or both, and have allowed the fewest sacks in the league. The best player on the field for either team was undrafted Fred Jackson out of Division III Coe College, who gained 196 yards rushing and receiving.
The undrafted Jackson is just shy of a pace to break Chris Johnson's NFL record for yards from scrimmage. The undrafted Wes Welker of the New England Patriots is on a pace to break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record. The undrafted Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys is on a pace to break Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. The defending champion Green Bay Packers start four undrafted players. On Sunday night, Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons -- one of the most expensive players in NFL annals, obtained by the Falcons for two first-round choices, a second-rounder and two fourth-round selections -- went deep and saw the pass broken up by the undrafted Sam Shields.

Across the league, undrafted players are outperforming megabucks high draft choices. Perhaps the undrafted players excel because they are undrafted -- spending their time and energy on performing, rather than on me-first whining.

In this case, Easterbrook is right and wrong. Yes, it certainly appears that teams with lots of highly-paid high draft picks don't play as hard, while undrafted and low-round players do. However, he's looking at the symptom and ignoring the cause.

If you have a lot of top-ten draft picks on your team, what is that a sign of? How do you get top-ten draft picks? By having a bad year. It's one thing for a team to have one bad season and get a high draft pick. It's another entirely for a team to have several bad seasons in a row, and that's when you see several top-ten draft picks on the roster.

Alex Smith: What might have been?
If a team has several bad seasons in a row, what does that mean? They're poorly run teams. Either ownership isn't very good, they have a bad general manager or poor coaching. Take a look at the Bengals, Dolphins, 49ers, Raiders, the Millen-run Lions, and others and you'll usually see some sort of chaotic situation. Either they're swapping out coaches like some players change their spikes or they're making bad personnel decisions.

Now, let's go another step. If you're a badly run team, you're more likely to make a poor choice with a high draft pick than a good choice, correct? You're more likely to spend a top-ten choice on a guy like JaMarcus Russell, and once you have that bad player you can't cover up his badness with good coaching, being as how there's too much organizational chaos for a coach to make his mark.

Plus, even if you select a good player, organizational dysfunction may stunt the player's growth. Worse yet, the player may be surrounded with 52 tackling dummies every game, making the good player look much worse and destroying his psyche.

Consider the case of Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. It's easy to say that Aaron Rodgers is the better quarterback now. He's a Super Bowl MVP, and a surefire MVP candidate this year. But what if the two players' situations were switched? What if Rodgers would have went 1st overall to the 49ers and Smith would have plummeted to 25th?

This could have actually happened. Rodgers was almost the first overall pick before the Niners talked themselves out of it. Remember, there was a major knock on Rodgers before the draft. He was a Jeff Tedford-coached quarterback from Cal. Tedford QBs (such as Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Boller) don't have a very high success rate in the NFL. Alex Smith had a major knock on him too: He came from a shotgun spread offense, so he wasn't used to taking snaps under center and reading defenses pre-snap.

So what if we switch places? Let's send Rodgers to San Francisco, where he has two different head coaches in his first three years and three different offensive coordinators, including Mike Martz. Then, let's put Alex Smith in Green Bay, where he sits on the bench, learns for three years behind Brett Favre in one of the most stable franchises in the NFL, and then finally gets his chance with a great supporting cast and a supportive fan environment.

Geez, they even kind of LOOK similar.
Now let's see who's more successful. Could Rodgers still have flourished in San Fran? Maybe. Would Alex Smith have flopped in Green Bay? Maybe. But you can't deny that the organizational stability and unique situations helped push it one way or the other.

Therefore, a team full of "highly paid glory boys" might not be a bad team because of said glory boys. They may be a bad team because they're poorly coached and trained on how to do their jobs. If you take a low draft pick or undrafted player and put them on the good team, they won't magically be any better than the high draft picks.

However, you could also make the argument that players change teams. A team with several first-round draft pick players and high bonuses may not necessarily be a team that earned those players through bad play, but rather paid for them through free agency.

That may be true, but let's look at that reasoning. Do players who were high draft picks generally change teams if they're really good players? No. Peyton Manning hasn't changed teams. Andre Johnson hasn't changed teams. Larry Fitzgerald hasn't changed teams. Mario Williams hasn't changed teams. Calvin Johnson hasn't changed teams. Joe Thomas hasn't changed teams.

What type of players switch teams? Players who were either drafted too high, like Ted Ginn Jr., or who weren't as good as advertised, like Reggie Bush. So essentially, a team that's stacked with first-round players is a team that's paying for players that aren't as good as that "first-round" designation would imply, and quite possibly overpaying to get them. Of course, overpaying for a bad player means that you have less money and resources to get a good player, and the cycle continues.

Now, in some cases, game-changing players like Nnamdi Asomugha do indeed change teams. But generally, these cases are the exception rather than the norm. They get so much ink precisely because it's very rare for an impact player to be on the market in general, and they usually don't end up on the market unless their skills are declining (Donovan McNabb) or there's some major personality issue (Randy Moss circa 2005).

Going back to the above examples of Ted Ginn and Reggie Bush, you'll notice something: Ginn was drafted by Miami and left. Bush was drafted by New Orleans and went to... Miami. Miami had a 1-15 season a few years ago and has hovered around incompetence for years, ever since Don Shula retired. Since then, the organization as a whole has been in flux.

That's what we're talking about: Teams that have lots of "glory boys" aren't losers on the basis of those players, but are losers because they're bad teams, which allows them to pick up the "glory boy" type of player. Since the team is bad, they'll either overreach to get a player that isn't that good, or they'll ruin that player's career through mismanagement.

What about undrafted players? Is it just that they work harder to earn their place on the team, as opposed to players who don't have to try?

Look, undrafted players are usually undrafted for a reason. There's usually a fundamental flaw in their game. Maybe they're too small. Maybe they didn't stack up against good competition so it's hard to say how good they actually are. Maybe they're not that strong, or have had injuries that raise major question marks.

So what kind of teams end up with really good undrafted players? This may come as a bit of a shock, but they're usually teams with good coaches. Take New England. They have Danny Woodhead, who's was undrafted because he's very undersized. He's not used very much (in fact, this year barely at all) but he plays hard. Since the Patriots have good coaching, they're able to hide this notable deficiency or minimize it, using him only situationally.

Take the Packers of last year. They ended up trotting out undrafted player after undrafted player and continued to win. Yet the players were picked by Ted Thompson, one of the most even-keeled (some would say comatose) GMs around. They were coached on offense by Mike McCarthy, who has proved his worth in that department, and on defense by Dom Capers, one of the best defensive coordinators ever.

Remember: There are a lot of players throughout the league who are low draft picks or undrafted players. Almost every player in the NFL is a professional who wants to play hard and realizes that working hard is the only way to stay on a roster. There are very few players who just decide to coast on "natural ability," and if they do, they're out of the league in a few short years. Everyone in the NFL has natural ability. If they didn't, they wouldn't have gotten this far.

A good team, however, will identify players that will be able to fill a role inside their system whether or not they were drafted. A team that succeeds with lots of undrafted players doesn't succeed because of them, but rather in spite of them. They succeed because they're a well-run organization with good coaching that knows how to hide their players' weaknesses and play to their strengths. They know how to balance the "highly paid glory boys" and the low-round-draft-pick players.

So "glory boys" aren't the death of teams. Undrafted or "unwanted" players aren't their salvation. A lot of high draft picks are the sign of a poorly-run team, not the other way around. A lot of "unwanted" players who succeed are the sign of a well-run team and nothing more.