Jan 17, 2008
As promised, here’s an early look at one of the lessons I learned from 2007. I’ll collect all of these and include it in my usual day-after-the-Super-Bowl “Lessons Learned” article.
As I was watching Packer RB Ryan Grant rush 22 times for 104 yards (4.7 yards per carry) back in Week Eight, something occurred to me.
I greatly respect NFL scouts and people who study and analyze players on film. In fact, I spent an afternoon last week at NFL Films watching coach’s tape with Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell (will write thoughts on that soon), and I learned a ton just watching tape with those guys for 4-5 hours. For the most part, the tape clearly shows a player’s skill set. It’s an excellent way to determine whether or not a player has the skills and the talent to excel in the NFL, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Grant was undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2005. He spent 2005 on the Giants’ practice squad, and missed all of 2006 with a non-football injury. He was, incredibly, 5th on the depth chart in New York in the preseason this year (behind Brandon Jacobs, Reuben Droughns, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw). Before his Week Eight coming out party, he had 6 career carries, and those had come only a few weeks before.
When he was traded to Green Bay for a late pick (6th rounder), he was described as “Non-descript” by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A Personnel Director for another NFC East team offered the following nugget on Grant when the deal was made: “The Packers must have seen something they liked in the guy. You’re not talking about a guy who will hit you with the ‘wow’ factor. I think you’re talking about a stopgap more than anything.”
The Giants probably felt the same way, or at least had similar feelings. I understand that stories like Grant are rare – but not as rare this past season – so scouts and personnel people who are at best lukewarm on a player will likely be correct more often than not, but I think I know why Grant was undervalued. Yes, he fit nicely into the Packer system, and he was coached up well by their RBs coach Edgar Bennett. But Grant excelled this year because, quite simply, he’s a football player.
Of course, even Ashley Lelie is technically a football player. But is he really a football player? The word “football” of course being italicized for impact and emphasis. No, he’s not. Compared to guys like Grant and Maurice Jones-Drew, Lelie might as well be wearing a skirt while on the gridiron. I asked Jones-Drew this past month about that hit he laid out on Charger LB Shawn Merriman and he shrugged it off, saying it was “just football.” Football players can easily dismiss a big play or a big hit like that because, as Chris Rock says, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
The amazing thing about football, and I really can’t say the same about any other popular sport, is that it matters little what level you’re looking at; individuals can excel over more skilled and qualified athletes simply because they have more chutzpah, or balls if you will. This holds true for eight year old Pee Wee players (I’ve seen very agile and athletic kids go down like a sack of potatoes), and also players at the highest level, in the NFL.
I can give example after example of players who fit this description. How about Warrick Dunn? How the heck has this diminutive back lasted so long and enjoyed so much success? He’s a football player. How did Earnest Graham go from languishing on the bench for three years in Tampa before this past year to accounting for 1200 yards of offense and 10 TDs for a playoff team? He’s a football player (and I suspect that’s why the Bucs let him hang around for so long). How the hell does Steve Smith dominate at only 5-foot-9? You know the answer. Brown QB Derek Anderson was an undrafted free agent almost cut this summer, yet he’s coming off a season in which he accounted for 32 TDs. At the end of the day, I attribute the fact that Anderson’s clearly a very good football player to his success. And, of course, the greatest example of all: a former 6th round pick who nobody wanted is on the precipice of being widely accepted as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.
On the other hand, is RB Kevin Jones a football player? He’s shown signs, but I’m not sure the former track star truly is, and maybe that’s one of the main reasons he hasn’t exactly lived up to his draft status. Willis McGahee, another #1 pick, can look like a serious football player at times, and yet sometimes he doesn’t. He’s been inconsistent with his production, and that’s probably why. Matt Jones was a #1 pick, but he’s about as far from a football player as one in the NFL can be, and he’s lucky to even have a job at this point. While Anderson was undrafted and almost cut, Joey Harrington is a former #1 pick, yet he’s never maintained a high level of play for more than 2-3 games. Bottom line, while he’s got a lot of talent, he’s just not a very good football player.
I’ve long talked about a player’s desire to be great and all that, and that element is a factor in terms of being a “football player,” but NFL scouts usually live in a world of measurables, and I think they, along with all of us, need to rethink how we analyze these players and put more weight into whether or not they are simply good football players.
At the very least, I think it’s safe to say that players who have proven themselves to be true football players have less downside than others. That is why I will have no qualms making a very strong Marshawn Lynch recommendation (a very safe #1 pick, maybe even well within the top-10) this year. Lynch is a guy who didn’t wow scouts with his skills and abilities, but he did prove to be an extremely effective football player. Unless things completely unravel around him, that guy has absolutely no downside.