The Science of Coaching: Building a Better Draft

Ken SloanContributor IFebruary 17, 2011

PITTSBURGH - FEBRUARY 03: Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau of the Pittsburgh Steelers pumps his fists during a parade to celebrate winning Super Bowl XLIII on February 3, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This week on Jeopardy!, millions of viewers who tuned in were treated to a modern version of “Man vs. Machine.” 

IBM’s supercomputer, dubbed “Watson,” was pitted against two Jeopardy! champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. If you follow current events, you are already aware that the two champions were felled by the processing power of the machine.

Watson is built upon IBM’s POWER7 system, albeit a very beefed up configuration.  In short, Watson is made up of over 2,500 processor cores and accesses a database containing the text of more than 200 million scanned pages.

So the computer won, right?

Not so fast.

Watson is programmed by human beings. He could not add “1 + 1” without human intervention. Consider this short Jeopardy! match:

Answer: “The world’s most powerful supercomputer sitting upon a desk with every line of its programming code removed.”

Question: “What is a paperweight?”

Alex: “That is correct.”


Answer: "Devoid of its human-written analytical software, Watson, the silicon celebrity, will do this on national television."

Question: “What is, 'sink?'”

Alex: “Correct.”

Now imagine that Watson is your favorite team’s new first-round draft pick this April.  He has the speed. He has the power. He has countless hours logged in the weight room and on the practice fields. He has the raw talent to run circles around the best of the best—right?

Again—not so fast.

You see, the coaches and coordinators on each NFL team are very much like “Watson’s” programmers. Their job is to take that speed, that strength, all of those tangibles that make a draft choice “SUPER,” and program them.

They add the technique and “football smarts.” They instill into that player the ability to tap into his speed and strength, which will then allow him to grow into a player who meets or exceeds his fantastic potential.

They teach. They mix in the intangibles; the algorithms; the way of thinking that will give the player an edge over his opponents come game day. These coaches are the mad scientists behind the scenes who keep a blue-chipper from turning into that rock or paperweight on the squad.  

The team that drafts well has a pretty good chance of being a competitor. The team that drafts well and surrounds those picks with brilliant coaches are certain to have success—and on a regular basis.

Just ask Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers and he will tell you, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson…”