Nature versus nurture.
Once a concept relegated to Dr. Spock books and remedial psychology classes, the debate between natural ability and development is a conundrum for NFL teams as well. This crossroads between what a player is and what he can be has never more important, as it has become since the ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement.
In a league where snaps are rationed and offseason contact is nearly non-existent, there's simply no time for projects.
One hears the platitude all the time during draft season: The sky is the limit with this guy; some coach is going to turn him into a superstar! Better yet: Sure he's raw now, but a couple of years in the NFL and he'll be great.
When? Where? How?
When is a coach going to be able to spend one-on-one time with a draft prospect that isn't earning playing time? Moreover, when is he going to even find snaps on the second or third string? Where is this player going to find this polish in a league worried infinitely more about winning on any given Sunday than it is a year or two from now when said player might be ready? How can a player acquire more talent in a system built around "what have you done for me lately?"
It's nature versus nurture, but the NFL is not only leaning toward nature; nurture fell off the scales a while ago, and no one even noticed.
Is There Still Room for Any Projects in the League?
The common ways many of us think about projects are either the Al Davis-esque speed demon out on the perimeter at receiver or defensive back, or the strong-armed/naturally gifted quarterback who didn't play in, or excel at, a pro-style offense.
For the former group, my mind immediately wanders to athletes like New York Jets receiver Stephen Hill or former Oakland Raiders safety Michael Huff. It didn't take a genius to figure out why league prognosticators got excited by those prospects and those like them, but the leash on this type of prospect usually lasts about as long as the current team regime and its patience.
Of course, those athletic freaks don't always bust, nor is that what I'm implying.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Dontari Poe, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith and Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams are all athletic freaks who have found their way in the league and become Pro Bowl-caliber players in spite of league trends another way.
The problem is, players need to find roles early on. For athletic wunderkinds, that's possible by using brute strength, speed or size to win certain matchups. In the NFL, however, those easily won matchups are few and far between. Talk to any draft prospect, and the smart ones know that it's what's between the ears that counts toward sticking in the league.
There is no "secret" 2 separating a cluster of similarly graded players like this draft has. Secret is what u do w/them after u have them.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) April 8, 2014
All prospects are graded on both natural talent and acquired (or coachable) ability. While prospects who only have the latter may never even have a shot in the league, prospects who have only the former will get chances, but need to find their way eventually or they'll end up pushed off of the roster.
For the second type of project player—the quarterbacks with the golden arms and plenty of rust—things get even dicier.
The NFL is a quarterback league, and as tough as reps are to come by for linemen, linebackers and skill position players, quarterbacks get even less.
The typical breakdown of quarterback reps from organized team activities, training camp and into the regular season is always skewed heavily toward the starter. True quarterback battles where two players have equal chances of starting might be split a little more evenly, but the reps can't be given to a player who might start in year two or three down the road.
No, by then, the coach and general manager may not have jobs to worry about. The NFL is about winning now, and that means having the quarterback ready.
So, the starter gets the vast majority of the reps. The backup is given a few reps here and there—less if he's a veteran who already knows the system. Meanwhile, the third quarterback (usually where our project is relegated) gets scant reps or practice team reps that won't help him in the offense he's supposed to be learning.
Think back to your favorite team's history. When's the last time a quarterback drafted outside the first couple of rounds was given a legitimate path to the top of the depth chart? More to the point: When's the last time a raw, physically gifted quarterback ended up making good on all that promise he showed?
Worse yet, the best example from 2013—Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon—was supplanted this offseason by Josh McCown. The new regime put Glennon on a short leash even though he showed a lot of potential.
Meanwhile, many of us are left wondering if other raw quarterbacks like the New York Jets' Geno Smith (now battling with Mike Vick) and the Buffalo Bills' EJ Manuel will face similar quick hooks.
Clearly, there is room for some projects in the league, but not nearly as many as are projected to some teams throughout the drafting process.
Sometimes, It's Not About Who You Know, It's About Who's Next to You
One of the weirdest memes of draft season is: so-and-so coached with so-and-so, so of course he's going to draft that player.
Sure, once in a while those player connections help, but in the NFL, the bond of trust between player and coach usually begins and ends with: Can this player help me win football games?
Failing that, it doesn't matter who coached with who, whose daddy played with who or who went to whose alma mater.
Therefore, when we're looking at projects, it's not about who one knows; it's more about the situation around the player when he enters the league.
Not to get too in-depth into the psychobabble this column started with, but the oft-overlooked component in nature vs. nurture is that "nurture" isn't just the job of the parents, but also the atmosphere. For a child's development, that might include living situation, siblings, schooling and friends. For an NFL prospect, it's his teammates (both on and off the field) as well all the other nonsense that goes along with being a professional athlete.
Some projects fail for off-the-field reasons—red flags come true. Setting those aside for now, as that has little to do with coaching, it is at least noteworthy to wonder if red flags brought to full mast in some cities may have been kept in check elsewhere.
Food for thought if nothing else.
While we praise the drafting acumen of certain front offices that always seem to field playoff teams—the Ted Thompsons, Ozzie Newsomes and Bill Belichicks of the world. Part of the dynamic that makes those teams successful is the players they already have in place.
How many young offensive players would fail without Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers? In Baltimore, how many young defensive players were allowed to learn next to a Ray Lewis or Ed Reed to cover up for their mistakes?
We talk about development and project players too often, as if coaching is the only thing that can apply the pressure needed to turn a lump of coal into a diamond. In reality, sometimes it's the other players on the field—veterans to teach and fellow young players to push—that provide the biggest catalysts for growth.
As Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley mentioned (in reference to his time with the Seahawks), one such instance of this involved a rookie Russell Wilson and veteran quarterback Matt Flynn, per Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:
In Seattle, I know Matt Flynn was the quarterback and he was the guy and Russell Wilson was drafted, came in and there weren't any expectations on him coming in to be the starter. That allowed him to put all of his energy into competing and you saw him progress very nicely. That's one example of how it can work. If it takes a year, then it takes a year. That's why we signed Chad Henne.
Along those same lines, while coaching, mentorship and competition may provide the spark, the flames of true NFL talent need the right atmosphere to grow.
Think a young quarterback is ever going to find his way behind subpar blocking with no one to throw to? Add in a weak locker room and an inept coaching staff and a player with all the promise in the world suddenly doesn't have a chance.
Consider former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell. From an athletic (God-given talent) perspective, he had one of the most impressive skill sets anyone in NFL circles has ever seen. Talk to a scout about Russell's pro day and it starts to take on a Paul Bunyan-esque quality as one hears about how Russell threw "1,000 yards from his knees" and "built the transcontinental railroad in an afternoon." (OK, maybe that's a little hyperbole.)
I'm not here to make excuses for Russell. The man clearly made poor choices, eating and drugging himself out of the league. Yet he also played on a team bereft of both talent and leadership—on the field, on the sidelines and up in the front office.
Part of me will always wonder what might have happened had Russell been a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Maybe nothing would've been different except for the color of his tight-fitting jersey. Then again, maybe Russell would've had a better chance with more quality talent and leadership around him. Maybe a less-toxic locker room would've reined him in. Maybe a winning football team would've kept him on the straight and narrow.
The opposite side of the coin, of course, is Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. While I'm not going to compare Roethlisberger's off-the-field antics with Russell's, he had his share of negative narratives early on, from motorcycles to barroom bathrooms. However, Big Ben also certainly benefited from having a great team around him early in his career as he matured from raw MAC prospect to NFL quarterback.
It's impossible to say what might have been if Russell and Roethlisberger's dynasties had been switched, and even I'm not willing to say that their careers would've been entirely reversed, but it's certainly interesting to think about in the light of what a player could have been versus what a player has become.
Even if the blame for a bust falls almost entirely on the player himself, it's silly to think that there weren't other factors.
The NFL Needs To Re-focus on Development
In short, the NFL does a crappy job at developing players, and that trend is getting worse.
Part of this phenomenon is the way in which NFL coaching staffs are put together—usually almost entirely through favoritism and nepotism.
Need proof? This week Marvin Lewis' son Marcus was hired as a coach for the Bengals. Earlier this offseason, Jay Gruden was hired as the head coach in Washington and filled out his staff almost entirely with people he worked with at Florida...that's the Florida Tuskers of the UFL.
If hiring coaches is as simple as finding someone with a familiar last name, similar previous coaching history or merely going a few rungs over on the same incestuous coaching tree, it ceases to be about finding men to teach NFL players how to be better at what they do.
One step further down the rabbit hole: As NFL coaching becomes more and more about scheme and system, and thus coaching hires must have already bought into the system, players who don't immediately fall in to, or understand, the system aren't given a whole lot of opportunity, because the staff was put together to fit the system, not fit the system to some fourth-round project.
Let's go another rung up the ladder, though, as the decision-makers aren't the only ones at fault here. Earlier, I called the NFL a "what have you done for me lately" sort of league where the longest tenured coaches are still only given a couple of years before the proverbial seat starts heating up.
Owners—pressured by fans and media, as well as profits—don't have the time to sit around and wait for projects. That trickles down to their easily fireable and replaceable coaches and front office personnel. So, while it still may be expedient to draft "what may be" sort of players in the later rounds of the draft, the team is still essentially built around (and depends upon) "what is."
This changes how teams are built and also how the building blocks are cared for once in place.
Former NFL personnel man Ted Sundquist explains it this way, as he calls for a complete overhaul in the way teams (and the league) operate:
The intentions of the League are great, but once the season gets started things tend to get lost at the club level. Coaches and GM’s focus on the task at hand – Winning football games. Little is done to keep the player on course in areas that are of concern to all of us outside of football.
When a player changes teams or support personnel change within his current team, nothing from a records point of view is there to pick up where the last help or assistance left off. If the League truly cares about Player Development, it will implement a system that keeps track of EVERYTHING, not just medical records.
The question, then, is if the league truly cares about player development, and if coaches and decision-makers truly believe in making the most out of the players they have, or if said players are just the means to an end.
For prospects in this draft class who aren't plug-and-play, those decision-makers and coaching could mean the difference between a player reaching his true potential and one who ends up going pro in something other than sports.