Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Analysis paralysis

The NFL Draft is upon us ("Quick! Close the window!"), and this morning I am thinking about quarterbacks.

Not just any quarterbacks, mind you. One specific quarterback.

This quarterback is a trifle undersized (6-foot-2, 212 pounds), and he doesn't have that howitzer you like to see, and he thinks the Wonderlic is an ice cream cone with sprinkles. His 40 speed is average. He may or may not be able to put the ball in those tight windows (See again: No howitzer) the way a quarterback in today's NFL has to. And he didn't wow anyone on his pro day, on account of the NFL scouts all got lost on the way to the tiny Division III school in Illinois where he played his college ball.

The name of that school is Augustana College.

The name of the quarterback who played there is Ken Anderson.

Who still holds Cincinnati Bengals career records for completions, passing yards and touchdowns. Whose 2,200 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns as a quarterback are also club records. Who, when he retired, held NFL records for consecutive pass completions (20), completion percentage for a game (90.9), completion percentage for a season (70.6) and Super Bowl records for completion percentage (73.5) and completions (25).

Of those records, the one for completion percentage for a season stood for 27 years.

And yet ... if he came along today, the draft gurus would see nothing but problems with Ken Anderson. Seriously, Augustana College? Only 6-2 and 212? Who's this kid think he's, well, kidding?

"Doesn't fit the profile of the prototypical NFL quarterback," Mel Kiper Jr. would say, dismissively.

"Maybe a practice squad player. Maybe," he'd add.

And Todd McShay, the other half of ESPN's draftnik Gold Dust Twins?

"If he were a tree, what kind of tree would he be? Why, the kid didn't even answer that question!"  McShay would cry, aghast at such a horrific breach of draft etiquette.

After which he'd say something along the lines of  "Well, maybe the Montreal Alouettes could use him," while Mel nodded sagely from beneath his El Capitan hair and then moved on to his 237th mock draft, which has the Lions picking a circus acrobat in the fifth round.

This is the problem with the NFL Draft: It's analysis to the point of paralysis, and also to the point of absurdity. And it's all for nothing. Mel and Todd and the rest can talk until they're blue in the face (and will), and in the end, no one knows whether a specific player is going to wind up on the road to Canton or the road to selling insurance. Not even the teams for whom draft picks -- especially first round draft picks -- represent a major investment really know.

Despite the combine. Despite the Wonderlics. Despite the 40 times, and the shuttle times, and the pro days, and all those weird questions they ask in the interview process, some of which reveal a lot more about the people asking the questions than the people answering them.

In a sport that is itself an industry, draft analysis has become an industry itself -- and yet, at bottom, it's still just a lot of flip-a-coin guesswork. No matter what depths teams are willing to plumb to predict the future, it's still the future. Which means it's always going to be essentially unreadable, no matter how many times a guy runs the 40 or answers questions about his tree preferences.

This is not to say you can't occasionally see trouble coming; witness the entirely predictable demise of Johnny Manziel. But who saw such a swift unraveling for Ryan Leaf? Who saw Jamarcus Russell not just fail to live up to expectations, but completely wash out of the league? And on the other side of the ledger, who saw Tom Brady coming? Or Jeff Saturday, an undrafted free agent who went on to play in six Pro Bowls? Or, for that matter, Ken Anderson, a third-round pick who wound up with Hall of Fame credentials despite starting out at tiny Augustana?

And yet, teams will continue to try to see the un-seeable and un-knowable, because they are all deathly afraid of making the big mistake. It's why players sink like a stone at the first hint of an unpaid parking ticket. Get caught acting like a normal college student? Wind up on a police blotter at some point? Do something, anything, that teams believe makes you a character risk?

See you in the third round. Or fourth. Or fifth.

It's a game for either madmen or neurotics, or both, and tomorrow it begins again. The Rams have the first pick. The Eagles have the second. They both like the same two guys: A pair of quarterbacks, one from Cal (Jared Goff) and one from North Dakota State (Carson Wentz).

The Mels and Todds love both of them. They say they have all the tools: Size, arm, athleticism, work ethic, smarts. They say either one could go No. 1. They say the only upside Goff has is he played big-time college ball while Wentz did not.

Kinda like, you know, Ken Anderson from Augustana College.

Let the guesswork begin. Or continue, as the case may be.

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