The Fruits of Experiment in the NFL

Lyell MarksCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2007 has a love affair with status—an affair that, at times, can lead to troubling investments.

In sports we see the same relationship: Coaches and organizations put so much stock in one player that failure is not fathomable.

Arthur Blank thought he had found the cornerstone of a franchise when he drafted Michael Vick. The Chargers were certain the Ryan Leaf would transform their franchise. The 49ers thought that Alex Smith...wait, let's not jump to conclusions.

The fact of the matter is, when a team puts so much stock in one individual they are building a very unsteady foundation. Some athletes respond to such a responsibility, but others wither under the blistering pressure. Everyone drafted high in the first round shares similar physical gifts, but it is the character and work ethic of the individual that separates potential from stardom.

Unfortunately, the 49ers followed the wrong blueprint when drafting Alex Smith. They rested the weight of the franchise on his ailing shoulders and are now in as much disarray as ever. They had no Plan B—it had to work or the whole building was going to fall down.

Picking up the ruins is never easy, but often experiment will help you find gems that surface in times of adversity. The most shining example is Tom Brady, who went from sixth round nobody to the face of the NFL. Why? Because Bill Belichick said "Lets give this a try." It wasn't the obvious choice, and it wasn't the popular one either. If Belichick doesn't insert Brady, the entire history of the NFL has to be re-written.

Last weekend when the 49ers were embarrassed by the surging Vikings 27-7, Mike Nolan was put in a similar situation. Both Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer had suffered injuries, and the only quarterback left on the roster was journeyman Shaun Hill. Nolan bit down hard and put him in. It is almost as if fate flourishes in the NFL, because Hill of all people made the 49ers look almost "threatening" offensively—something no quarterback has done for them this year.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. I'm not saying Hill is the next Brady, or Smith the next Leaf, but what I am saying is that fate has an interesting way of making an appearance in sports.

Certain individuals embrace opportunity, and they are usually the ones opportunity visits the least. So when players like Brady, Hill, or even the most recent example, Derek Anderson get a chance to shine, they take the task at hand more seriously because they may never get another opportunity.

Just because someone is buried on a depth chart, runs a slower 40 time, or doesn't exactly match up physically, doesn't mean they won't be successful. Athletic competence is measured on a practice field, but doesn't reflect the intangibles qualities that the greats like Montana, Marino, and Manning have. Only when a player is exposed to the reality of opportunity will they have the chance to show how good they truly are.

So Mike Nolan, you might want to give this kid Hill a chance. What do you have to lose? You never know, it might save your job.