Understanding Perspective and Gravity in Football Evaluation

The proliferation of the evaluation of football players can be seen across the internet. Draft profilesrankings, and play breakdowns all critique players with incomplete information, but those evaluations can still be worthwhile despite the protests of some within the game. Sean Cottrell explains the importance of understanding perspective and gravity in football evaluation.

NFL and college football coverage has changed drastically in recent years. With independent sites and blogs acting as the dry kindling, the availability of All-22 game film and Draftbreakdown.com as the lighter fluid, and social media as the match, player evaluation and analysis has caught fire. Twitter specifically has provided a platform for anyone to provide analysis of the game or player evaluations –  good or bad –  and broadcast it to the world. Over time, this free flowing analysis has frustrated some of those being evaluated who believe the critics lack the standing and ability to judge. For the most part, players try not to focus or comment on these topics, but occasionally, critiques are made public that illustrate their frustration.

In early May, Pete Prisco authored an excellent article on CBSSports.com detailing an interview he conducted with four NFL offensive linemen (Chicago’s Kyle Long and Bobby Massie, Tennessee’s Chance Warmack, and Weston Richburg of the New York Giants). The article touched on several topics ranging from the adequacy of NFL coaching to great offensive lines from the past. There was one topic, however, that elicited responses from the group that were all too familiar to the community of football evaluators who do not currently have ties to the NFL: their opinion of the processes used by this community as well as their perception of its members. When asked if they paid attention to the persecution of the offensive lineman or if outsiders, such as Pro Football Focus (PFF), could possibly understand their assignments on each play, the responses all carried a similar tone. According to the players, those outside of NFL meeting rooms have no basis from which to evaluate NFL athletes based on one of two arguments. First, these evaluators don’t know the game plan or specific assignments of players within each game or second because they have never buckled a helmet or put their hand in the dirt of an NFL field. Let’s explore why this argument is a little short sighted.

To their credit, the notion that players cannot be evaluated without specific knowledge of the game plan is partly accurate.  For any position, there are specific elements of an assignment that are unique to the system that they play in or the opponent they are facing that week. For offensive linemen, that could mean purposely leaving a man unblocked, taking an elongated angle on a reach block (thereby exposing their inside) or several other techniques or assignment adjustments. If the unblocked player makes a play or the lineman gets beaten inside when he is stretching on a reach block, it may appear as if they didn’t do their job when they have actually done exactly what they were coached to do. As such, evaluators may never have 100% of the information to adequately process the play but does that mean that evaluations cannot be made using the information that is available?

On a daily basis, key decisions are made without all of the necessary information in the business, medical, military, and other fields. If these fields can make these decisions, why would the football evaluation space be any different? Further, NFL evaluators already do this each year, as they scout pro and college personnel in order to place grades on them without all pieces of information at their disposal. They may have the opportunity to talk to a college coach or a player about the specific assignments on a play but they certainly don’t have the time or resources to ask about every play. Yet, grades still must be established on those players and decisions must be made.

On a recent episode of the “Block Em Up” podcast (an excellent podcast for NFL & offensive line fans) hosts Geoff Schwartz and Duke Manyweather spoke with Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst, regarding that site’s process for grading offensive linemen. Manyweather posed a question asking Monson how PFF’s grading system accounts for specific assignments or techniques that offensive linemen may carry out in a given game that PFF may be unaware of. Monson responded by saying that Manyweather was correct in that PFF could not possibly understand every assignment on every play but that they work work hard at continually enhancing the X’s & O’s knowledge of their staff. He also mentioned that while there are unique techniques or assignments on certain plays, these may apply on roughly 5-10 snaps per year and by grading approximately 1,000 snaps over the course of the season, the natural error rate is vastly minimized. Monson’s primary point was that there definitely is an inherent error rate with PFF’s grading system (as there is with every grading system), but PFF continually strives to better its process and enhance the knowledge of its staff to reduce that error rate as much as possible. Regardless of the inherent flaws with PFF’s or any other grading system, the evaluations developed from those systems, can still be accurate and provide valuable analysis to the football community.

The other comments made by the four offensive linemen interviewed in the Prisco piece have a somewhat understandable derivation. NFL players are the subjects of constant analysis and often times find themselves being unfairly evaluated, and tarred and feathered on social media. Despite the financial benefits received for playing on the world’s largest stage, it’s difficult not to feel for these players. They may appear as heroes on Sundays but at their core, they are all human beings trying their best to do a job. As such, players’ takes on the evaluations of NFL outsiders, such as the ones shared by the four offensive linemen above, are understandable. Like all other people, however, their opinions are subject to biases and these biases steer them down the wrong path. These subliminal biases take their opinions of a group of unqualified evaluators and unfairly extrapolate them to all evaluators who don’t have a seat at the NFL table.

Perspective, defined as a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something, is gained through experience. From the moment we are born, every encountered event is building perspective. Parents, siblings, television, schools attended, and jobs held all contribute to how one views the world and understanding the individuality of your perspective is a key part of a maturation process that will allow you to look at the world in a completely different way. NFL players have excellent insight into the game of football but they only have one perspective. Every NFL evaluator – whether they are in the league, big media, or independent bloggers and Twitter users – each has their own unique view to contribute. Together, these different perspectives only enhance the overall product they are trying to promote: the game of football. This is what NFL players should attempt to understand before making sweeping statements, similar to those noted above, about evaluators that haven’t strapped it up in the NFL.

Gaining the respect of NFL players is not a one-way street, however. Different perspectives should be accepted but not all viewpoints are good or should be treated equally.  There is definitely a base level understanding of the game required to contribute positively to the evaluation space and, like having a child, you only know what it is like to have one, when you do. In addition to this understanding, evaluators must also be able to apply the appropriate context to what they see if they do not have direct knowledge of the situation. Dan Hatman, founder of the Scouting Academy, preaches that context should be applied to all situations and that evaluations should not be completed until all of the relevant information is gathered. This may require watching additional game film to fully understand the player’s abilities and taking into consideration information such as talent level of opponents, records, game situations, weather, field conditions, etc. to gain further clarity into whether a player wins or loses. Most importantly, however, becoming a quality evaluator requires knowing what you do not understand, being willing to admit it and attempt to understand it.

Lastly, those outside of the NFL cannot expect players to appreciate their perspective if they do not appropriately understand the gravity of their own role. Evaluators pass judgment on players. While this appraisal is theoretically only football related and not too serious in nature, the power of judgment should not be understated. At the end of the day, human beings are being examined and criticized. These people have emotions that are strongly tied to their careers, feelings that have been forged through decades of hard work, adversity and willpower. As such, player evaluation should not be taken lightly regardless of the platform it resides on and any judgments made on players’ abilities, should, at the very least, be made fairly. After all, aren’t evaluators expecting the same fairness from the players?

Follow Sean on Twitter @PhillyDraft.

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