In my previous article, I analyzed the economics of the NFL draft and Ted Thompson’s preferences during the offseason. In summary I concluded that yes, Ted Thompson has it right and that his method of approaching the offseason, with little attention paid to free agency and focusing on the draft is one of the most efficient and consistent methods of making a NFL team better. Furthermore, by stressing the mid rounds where the surplus between talent and salary is at its maximum (I’ve done some more research and in terms of value, the best pick is in the middle of the second-round and the worst pick is the first overall pick), Thompson is gaining the most talent while minimizing the money needed to draft them, which can then be used to secure other players or minimize the damage in the event that the pick is a bust. In this article I will be focusing on the psychological aspects of the draft and how Ted Thompson fares in that regard.
Recently much rukus was raised when Ted Thompson was quoted by Bob McGinn of JSOline.com (available here: http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/85748082.html , Jersey Al Bracco wrote an article about it here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/355633-nfl-combines-effect-on-the-green-bay-packers-apparently-not-much ), and I’ve inserted the relevant part here:
After spending a week in Indianapolis, decision-makers across the NFL will return to their draft rooms Wednesday and begin factoring in the measurements, testing results and medical data they collected at the combine. General Manager Ted Thompson said he and John Dorsey, the Packers' director of college scouting, will move players up and players down based on the new information. Over the next four weeks, scouts will fan out testing prospects on their college campuses. In the two weeks leading up to the draft, Thompson, Dorsey and others will make their final adjustments, and guess what? Their stack of players won't look much different than it was before Indy. "By the time you get to the draft, those names go back to the original place they were before we came to the combine I swear it happens. You go back and watch the tape and say, 'You know what? We're nuts.' So, as much as we can, we try to lean on the football stuff and say, 'Is he a good player? Does he like to play the game?’ If he can do those things, he has a chance to be a Packer."
Some fans saw this as a personal affront; here we are, scrutinizing every inch and second that these players show in the combine and here is Ted Thompson saying that it doesn’t have much use. Is he right again on this? Again going back to “The Loser’s Curse: Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft” (available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=697121 ) we find that yes; Ted Thompson has it right after all, again.
The publication states a couple of psychological aspects of the draft and why they affect the decision making during the NFL draft. Again, while I am no economist, I definitely am not a psychologist (If you want to talk about medicine, I’m all ears), so again I claim complete ignorance in the finer details of this field.
• Non-regressive predictions: This means that intuitive predictions are more extreme and varied than the actual empirical evidence suggests. This is the “intangibles” argument. The example of the moment is Tim Tebow, who most teams agree is not a quarterback from a mechanics perspective. But some NFL teams swear that his intangibles, such as his ability to win and his leadership are good enough for him to be selected in the first-round. Other NFL teams are just as quick to point out that he doesn’t have experience under center and that playing in a spread offense will not translate well to the NFL. In either situation, NFL teams are grossly over or underestimating his value based on intuitive predictions on his future. Only time will tell what his true value is, but chances are some team is going to make a huge reach to select him.
• Overconfidence: NFL GMs, head coaches and scouts are paid large sums of money for the perceived ability to see potential talent. As such, scouting personnel are quick to defend their views. A scout who is adamant and vocal about a player is more likely to be heard (for a homegrown example, Stroh has almost single-handedly put Jerry Hughes on the map of most Packer mock drafts on bleacher report and we shall see how good Stroh is at evaluating talent :D), and if the pick is successful the scout has more of a chance to be promoted or get a bonus etc. Thus scouting departments are often very obstinate and very overconfident about their analysis. Teams also have different perspectives on players, and NFL scouting personnel, who are overconfident in their analysis, are sometimes unaware that other teams may view players differently and thus will reach and overpay for a player. Such as with Darrius Heyward Bey, who the Raiders selected with the seventh overall pick in 2009. Al Davis undoubtedly thought very highly of him (mostly because of a 4.3 second 40-yard dash) and assumed that others would want him at well. Most predicted that Bey would be around for the Raiders in the second-round, but since Al Davis had to have him, he overspent and used his first selection to grab him.
• The “winner’s curse”: NFL teams who are sold on a certain player are often more willing to overspend or over-pick a player, because the thought of losing out on that player would be psychologically devastating. Hence the “winner” i.e. the team that selects the highly coveted player is often cursed because of how much they had to overpay to get that player. The classic example is when Mike Ditka traded all of the Saints’ draft picks, plus the 2000 first and third-round picks to be allowed to select Ricky Williams fifth overall in 1999. Regardless of the talent that Ricky Williams possessed or the success that he could have theoretically achieved, no player is worth that many picks; but to Mike Ditka the thought of not having Ricky Williams on the team, or even worse playing against Ricky Williams was so unbearable that Ditka was willing to risk his own coaching career to obtain him. Of course, while Ricky Williams has had a fairly decent career, Mike Ditka was subsequently fired, in part due to the Williams trade.
What is the overlying reason behind all these very highly paid and very intelligent people making such egregious decisions? Emotion. Emotion has the ability to override conscious decision, reasonable thought and rational analysis. Some of the worst GMs/owners in the NFL are very emotional, Al Davis and Dan Synder to name the most famous. For instance, if you see a red Ferrari out on the street, you think “man what a beautiful car, I would love to have that car.” You then fantasize about driving it around at ridiculous speeds with a beautiful woman by your side (because obviously such a beautiful car would attract beautiful women). What you don’t initially think of is the cost of the Ferrari, the maintenance and insurance costs of a Ferrari and the fact that since a Ferrari is a supercar, it’s built for performance and not reliability so sometimes the car will crap out on you, sometimes a lot. You also probably won’t realize that having a beautiful car might help you attract beautiful women, but then again it might not as women might think you are pretentious or compensating, or you might have just as much luck without a Ferrari.
Going back to the Ferrari analogy the combine and pro day are the equivalent of a TV ad. A Ferrari ad is not going to tell you that the insurance is going to bankrupt you, or that seats and brakes don’t come standard. It’s going to show you what you want to see: A beautiful car with tons of horsepower roaring through a racetrack. Players are the same; they are trying to showcase their skills without showing any “baggage”. The extreme case of this are the “work-out warriors”, who excel at the combine and pro day to the point that they can hide other deficiencies, such as college tape or a rocky personality; Vernon Gholston from Ohio State was one such work-out warrior; while not incredibly touted coming into the draft, he turned in spectacular results at the combine/pro day with a 4.5 second 40-yard dash and a record 37 repetitions on the bench press and rocketed up draft boards. The Jets fell in love with him and he subsequently was drafted 6th overall in 2007; he currently has a total of 17 solo and 13 assisted tackles with no sacks in three years, and its been rumored that the scouting department has “amnesia” about drafting him.
The point is that teams often put too much emotion into their decisions and the prime candidate for fueling those emotions is the combine and the pro day. Teams are quick to misinterpret the data or fit data into what they think will happen with a player; the combine shows what the theoretical maximum of a player is but not the most likely outcome of a player. Yes, it’s nice to see a quarterback be able to throw the route tree at the combine. But it’s in a quiet stadium, without distraction, without pads, without receivers (as most scouts apparently don’t care if the ball is caught), and most importantly without an opposing team. Can the same QB throw the route tree when running for his life with Lawrence Taylor or Deacon Jones trying to kill him? Obviously, if you can’t throw the route tree at the combine you don’t stand a chance of doing it in the real world without a lot of help, but even if you can doesn’t mean that you will be able to during an actual game.
So what does this all mean for Ted Thompson? Ted Thompson is boring. Thompson takes emotion out of the combine by disregarding the results; by avoiding players with fantastic combine results but not college production to back it up, Thompson avoids the workout warriors. This is reflected in his drafting history; as the draft progresses, less players are NFL ready and more are prospects, so consider Thompson’s first selections, which are the most financially dangerous. If you look at the first selections that Thompson has made (Rodgers, Hawk, Harrell, Nelson, Raji), none have had fantastic combine results to qualify them as a work out warrior, but they however have had very successful college careers, and were considered “NFL ready” or “safe prospects”. This shows that Thompson tries to avoid making intuitive decisions based on projections. Thompson is also boring by actively avoiding being overconfident in his drafting; in a recent article Thompson states: “It's just if you make reaches outside what you think is valued, then I think mistakes are made.” (available here: http://www.packers.com/news/releases/2010/04/16/3/) This shows that he isn’t going to be so assured of a player’s assessment that he feels the need to overdraft just to get a player. Finally, Thompson’s long history of being boring and trading down shows that he isn’t one who is going to be bitten by the “winner’s curse”; by constantly trading down for more value, Thompson will usually lose out on the big name players, but gains value in the process. Also, just from a personal standpoint, the guy is positively boring. If you’ve watched him do a press release, he speaks in a very monotone and thought out manner, rarely expressing emotion while at the podium. And I think that’s not just a show, but truly, Thompson is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve.
So does Ted Thompson have it right after all, again? I believe yes he does. Thompson actively tries not to get caught in the moment and let his emotions dictate his actions; instead he relies on data from the real world and will typically choose “safe” players who will man a position with consistency instead of a prospect with huge potential but not production. In a word, Thompson drafts like he truly is, which is boring.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images