The Steelers, the Colts, and the Talent Level in the NFL

A recurring theme in many of the doom-and-gloom posts that we have been drowning in this week has been that the Sunday night (admittedly ugly) win over the Colts was embarrassing. Instead of being pitted against The Great Peyton Manning, our defense was playing a retired journeyman QB (Kerry Collins) and a perennial clip-board holder (Curtis Painter.)  It should have been another shut-out, instead of a hard-fought game that we had to win in the closing minutes. Or at least a shut-out minus the score(s) our offense gifted their defense with.

It is certainly true that Collins and Painter are not in a class with Peyton Manning. It doesn't necessarily follow that the result would have been completely different if he had been in the game. There are just too many other variables.

But I am not trying to guess how the game would have gone with Manning at the helm. Instead, here are some thoughts about what these statements in re Collins and Painter don't sufficiently take into account—the razor-thin difference in talent level between the league's best and the league's worst players.

I recently noted in a comment that only about 1% of high school football players ever play in the NFL. Stylepoints gave me a link to the NCAA figures. They indicate that 1% was in fact far too high—only about 0.08% of high school football players end up in the NFL. The percentage for NCAA players is better—the figure rises to a meager 1.7%.

As Mike Smith said in this article about fake cadences,

 

Everybody is trying to get an advantage, each and every week. It's so competitive in this league because the ability level across the board is very similar. When you look at these 32 teams, the ability level is the same.  It's being able to sustain it and people look for every edge that they can get to sustain and have the same ability of the level of play that they need to have. I think it's part of gamesmanship. It's just part of the game. It always has been and it always will be.


You could put his statement that "the ability level is the same" down to parity, and that's part of the story. But although it may not seem that way, the players on every team, in every position, are the crème de la crème of those 1.1+ million high school football players. The differences between the players that actually make it into the NFL are, relatively speaking, minute.

Just look at how small the difference is in the 40 time between the fastest and the slowest players at the same position in this year's combine. Here are the results for wide receivers:*

Fastest:    Edmund Gates, Abilene Christian - 4.35
Slowest:   Vincent Brown, San Diego State - 4.66

The fastest 40 time ever recorded for a wide receiver since 1999, when they began using electronic timing, was posted by Rondel Melendez in 1999. His time was 4.24. In other words, the difference between the fastest time ever posted by any wide receiver (using the same measuring technique) and the slowest wide receiver at the 2011 combine is well under half a second. The difference between the fastest and slowest 2011 wide receivers was under one third of a second.

Not being Al Davis, I don't think that a player's 40 time is the most important thing to consider when looking at a wide receiver. It's just an element that one can easily compare between players.

While there are clear differences in the talent level of players in the NFL, there is a magnifying effect in this winnowing-out process. The actual differences between players that manage to sign with a team are less than one would presume. And once they actually get onto a team, the differences are magnified yet again by the much higher level of play at the NFL level.

Once a player signs with a team, the story is just beginning. It takes a while (in some cases, several years) to evaluate what you actually have. Players continue to develop (or not) at wildly differing rates.

Take the case of Maurkice Pouncey, who came in and wowed the league with his rookie play at center. We don't yet know Pouncey's upside, or even if he has one. Did he peak in year one? Or is he going to continue to develop and end up as one of the greats in the hallowed tradition of Steelers centers?

There's really no way to predict that with certainty, although we obviously hope for the latter. And of course the wrong injury, God forbid, could make the discussion moot.

Conversely, you have the 2008 DPOY, James Harrison, who was cut early and often, including several times by the Steelers, because he just didn't get it. Well, obviously he did, but a long time after a really "talented" player would have. I think that the Steelers are feeling okay about giving him second (and third, and fourth) chances at this point. But apparently in 2002 he was deemed less talented than any player actually drafted, because he wasn't.

Does this mean that "talent" isn't as important as we think? In that case, what takes its place? Well, that's the subject of a whole different post. For the moment, let's continue to look at the differences in talent between players. Here is some of the information from the scouting reports for two wide receivers taken in the 2011 draft.  I've pared them down a good bit, and eliminated information that would easily identify them.

Here's Receiver No. 1:

Stats


2010 – 67 catches, 1220 yards, 18.2 avg, 8 TD’s

2009 – 62 catches, 851 yards, 13.7 avg, 8 TD’s

 

Positives


• Outstanding hands

• Attacks the ball and can pluck it out of the air

• Tracks the ball well

• Good blocker

• Tough to bring down in the open field, smaller CB’s have a hard time tackling him

 

Negatives

• Has had some injury issues in the past

• May have difficulty separating on some routes

• Needs to work on his route running

 

Here's Receiver No. 2:


Stats


2010 – 57 catches, 848 yards, 14.9 avg, 9 TD’s

2009 – 53 catches, 808 yards, 15.3 avg, 6 TD’s

 

Positives

• Explosive off the line

• Makes it hard for CB’s to press him

• Outstanding hands

• Adjusts well to poorly thrown passes

• Capable of making catches in traffic

 

Negatives

• Too thin

• Route running needs to be more consistent, gets lazy at times

• Tries but still a poor run blocker



Receiver No. 2 was the first WR taken in the 2011 draft, A. J. Green. Receiver No. 1 was the last WR taken in the 2011 draft, DeMarco Sampson. Both players made the roster on the team that drafted them—Green went to the Bengals, Sampson to the Cardinals.

Green has piled up some nice stats and two TDs with the Bengals, as one would expect from a top-five first-round pick. Sampson hasn't put up any stats yet, and time will tell whether he turns into a "free agent," a perennial benchwarmer, or he develops into a viable starter in the NFL.

The two men began with a similar group of attributes. (In the interests of full disclosure, some of what I cut out makes them appear a bit less close.) But both were promising receivers with route running issues. They had very similar stats during their last two years of college. However, Green has that little something extra that makes him an obvious star.

The least talented player in the NFL is vastly more capable than the majority of the populace, and even the most pedestrian player has the ability to eat your lunch on a good day, especially if you are having a bad one. That is why I'm beginning to believe that there are two main factors that go into the "any given Sunday" mantra.

First are the matchups. To take tomorrow's game as an example, the question is not just whether Andre Johnson is a more talented and/or accomplished receiver than Ike Taylor is a cornerback. (We'll ignore the fact that the rules increasingly favor the offensive player. Like it or not, that's one of the elements with which a DB has to contend.) The question is whether the scheme that each of them play within gives them the better chance for success vs. the other scheme when combined with how healthy/energetic/"on" each one is feeling.

The latter is no small thing, given that pretty much every player is playing most games with some lingering injury issue. It can be anything from soreness to, say, the torn meniscus that Arian Foster played with at the end of last season.

The other element is the interaction, chemistry, or whatever you want to call it between the players in a given unit, and how long they have had to develop it.

On the latter point, our offensive line played a good bit better toward the end of last season, when there was finally a relatively settled lineup that got a lot of snaps together.

To the first point, a few people noted after the Baltimore fiasco that Dick LeBeau's defense is based upon the impact of a few key players. It isn't the safest system, but it usually works. On that day the key players were mostly not playing well and it failed, big-time.

It makes me wonder about the Steelers "coming out flat," as they were said to do on that infamous day. Was there is a perception among their teammates that these impact players were having a bad day, and a consequent fear that nothing could be accomplished? But I'm speculating without data. Even if I had the necessary data, "coming out flat" is pretty hard to quantify. After all, if the Steelers had "looked flat" in the first half of the Baltimore game but won it in the end, I don't know that anyone would think much about the initial "flatness." Hindsight gifts us all with predictive powers.

To be continued...



* Depending on which site you check, the figures are slightly different, within a few 100th's of a second. These were from Walter Football. Gates was still the fastest on everyone's site, and Brown was the slowest on all but one that I found.

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