The Mannings, the Longs and the Nature-Nurture Discussion

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 20, 2013

NEW YORK - JUNE 14:  (L-R) Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Archie Manning and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning attends the NERF Father's Day Football Throwdown on June 14, 2008 at Chelsea Piers in New York City.  (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

When you think of football families nowadays, the Mannings and Matthewses come to mind, and now you can add the Longs to that list. Howie's son, Chris, is already a dominant defensive end (just like papa), and now his second son, Kyle, is getting ready to make his debut at guard for the Chicago Bears.

Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning were all Top Five draft picks and became franchise-caliber NFL quarterbacks, while the Matthews family has produced six pro football players from three separate generations (with more to come from the college ranks), all of whom have combined to make 22 Pro Bowls. 

The Manning, Long and Matthews families would seem to be defying all the odds. And while they're definitely special, there's no doubt that being the son of a pro football player dramatically increases your chances of becoming one. 

It's hard to believe, but at some point early this season, we'll reach the 200 mark in terms of all-time NFL father-son duos. That total is at 197 right now, according to Pro Football Hall of Fame records, but eight players drafted this year—Long, Robert Woods, Jon Bostic, Brennan Williams, T.J. McDonald, Ace Sanders, Kenny Stills and Michael Mauti—had fathers who played in the National Football League.

In addition to Archie Manning (Peyton and Eli), Howie Long (Chris and Kyle), Clay Matthews Sr. (Clay Jr. and Bruce) and Clay Matthews Jr. (Clay III and Casey), three other pro football players—Don Hasselbeck (Matt and Tim), Mel Farr (Mel Jr. and Mike) and Craig Colquitt (Dustin and Britton)—have managed to produce not one but two pro-football-playing sons.

However, of the 197 father-son duos (or trios, or grandfather-father-son trios) the league has seen, only 64 (or 32 percent) shared common positions. And to arrive at that number, we combined all offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Thus, if a safety "gave birth" to a cornerback, that counted. 

That begs the question: Are great athletes born or bred? Unfortunately, this is a debate that is anything but finite. Genetic inheritance has to be a factor when you consider these families and the odds each kid overcame, but environmental factors get a lot more credit in the media.

Consider, for example, Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule. In his best-selling book, "Outliers," Gladwell concludes, based on a series of case studies, that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft. He cited The Beatles, as well as Bill Gates. 

That supports the notion that nurture trumps nature when it comes to creating NFL players or pro athletes in general. And it's true that the vast majority of players were still born to fathers who in fact were not NFL players. 

Or take Daniel Coyle, who wrote "The Talent Code," which claims that "greatness isn't born, it's grown." He's one of many in the industry who believe genes are essentially overrated in the world of sports. 

"For every anecdote of a Howie Long or a Manning, you've got a number of ones that are exactly the opposite," Coyle told Bleacher Report, "and I think both of these anecdotes show just how complicated it is to produce a great performer."

The brunt of the nature-nurture debate many of us were exposed to in high school and/or college pertains to mental and social development. This isn't quite the same. Obviously, some of us are born with more natural ability than others. The body as a whole certainly isn't born with the same blank slate—or "tabula rasa"—that John Locke suggested the brain starts off with.

But how much of a role did Archie Manning and Howie Long play, other than reproducing? Consider the many successful athletes who grew up without father figures, including Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Demetress Bell, who didn't meet his dad—NBA legend Karl Maloneuntil he was 18.

"Genes are a factor," said Coyle, "but the science is showing increasingly that genes matter less than we would instinctively think. No matter who you are, you have to put in a continual investment of thousands of hours."

Coyle cites the NFL Scouting Combine, which he calls "a perfect measure of our so-called natural athletic ability and a terrible predictor of success in the NFL." His favorite example? Tom Brady, of course:

This is a great unknown in the sports world. Many of our best athletes came from great athletes, others came from great teachers (Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods) and others just came out of nowhere.

Thus, somewhat predictably but to the chagrin of those who prefer to avoid gray area, it seems that both nature and nurture have to come into play in the vast majority of cases. That's what Sports Illustrated's David Epstein found in his new book, "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance."

Epstein studies great athletes worldwide in order to determine how much weight to give the two conflicting forces. His conclusion regarding Finnish Olympic gold-medal skier Eero Mantyranta tells the story.

From The Globe and Mail

Epstein eventually concludes that the secret of Mantyranta’s success is “100 per cent nature and 100 per cent nurture”–an equivocal answer that surely made his literary agent blanch, but should earn cheers from the rest of us.

We're all so unique, and yet the 200-plus father-son NFL legacies have carved out patterns within the pro-sports spectrum. I wonder what would happen if a child of average physical ability were born to Archie Manning or Howie Long, and I also wonder what would happen if Peyton, Eli, Chris and Kyle never had their fathers in their lives growing up. Would the kids have made it in either case? Or neither?

Coyle notes that "it's sort of the never-ending barroom topic," but it does look as though we're beginning to gain some clarity.