Talent versus Effort in the NFL

An eternity ago, (actually after the Steelers/Colts game) I published this post about the talent level in the NFL and how small the differences are. Ivan Cole left one of his insightful comments, part of which follows:

I think more can and should be made of the issues of work habits and perseverance. These things can trump or compensate for some of the ‘talent' issues. It's interesting to note how many of the truly great players were not necessarily exceptionally great talents, at least not initially, but had pathological work ethics that served them well down the line.

The issue of the balance between innate talent and effort is one that interests me greatly. It is a big issue in my field (music) as well as sports. In fact, in any field where one is in any way in competition with another, it is a subject of debate.

There have been several books published during the last decade or so that more or less claim that talent doesn't exist, or if it does it has a negligible effect in achieving excellence. The contention is that a sufficient amount of the right sort of practice (10,000 hours is the amount generally thrown around) is what makes the difference.

Of course, it all depends on what you are calling talent. The authors of books such as "Talent is Overrated" or "The Talent Code" are using the common understanding of talent as an innate gift—the sort of thing that either you have or you don't. I agree with that premise, but think that they take too narrow a view of talent. I don't believe that talent is in most cases a single attribute. I believe that each profession has a group of traits that combine to make a person more or less effective, or even capable of performing the job at all.

For example, there were several well-known and excellent organists during the late 19th and 20th centuries that were blind. Being blind is a handicap to an organist, naturally, but it can be overcome with proper training and the help of other people. But I've never heard of an excellent organist with no legs, because having no legs would make one fundamentally unable to operate a significant portion of the instrument. This person might have every other possible gift that would make a fine organist (good coordination, great musicality, and so on.) They might become an unbelievably good pianist, but they will never be an organist.

In the same way, pretty much anything about a person that cannot be changed to a sufficient degree can be considered part of one's "talents." In football, your size, the way your body is configured, how easy it is to put on muscle, baseline intelligence, and so on, are part of the total that you bring to the table.

Another thing that may not be considered a talent, but certainly matters, is how you deal with pressure and nerves. Especially in the skills positions, this may be one of the more important attributes, and it is one that is pretty difficult to change. Witness Limas Sweed, who seemed to have everything he needed to be a terrific wide receiver in the NFL, except for the psychological makeup to allow him to catch a ball reliably in critical situations. He may be able to overcome this somewhere else and achieve according to his considerable promise, but if he can't overcome it all of his other gifts and his hard work are for naught.

And you could even move beyond this into character traits. That bleeds over into the whole "nature vs. nurture" thing, and I don't want to get into that, other than to say that we all know of people who seemed to have great gifts but never realized their potential because of some character defect. I'm not trying to get all deterministic here. I believe that we have a choice in these things. But there is more to overcome in some cases than others, and some people will never manage it. In some cases, you could even view great talent as a disadvantage, as Ivan pointed out:

In so many areas of life talent, especially exceptional talent, can be the enemy to strong work habits precisely because that talent can so effectively cover a multitude of sins... Generally, it is probably true that the greatest obstacle to overcome at the elite professional level is that talent is rarely if ever a sufficient advantage to insure success. It is just the price of admission. It is what you can marshal beyond talent that will make the ultimate difference. And for many players who have been able to skate to this point without much in the way of a maximum effort it is a an obstacle they ill prepared to overcome.

So when we look at the differences between players and attempt to assess them, we are making the assumption that I defended in the previous post—that no one who doesn't have a certain fairly high base level of talent is even going to make it to the NFL in the first place. Once a person is there, how much difference does effort make?

The two obvious players to compare are our two DPOYs, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Polamalu was a first-round pick; Harrison was an undrafted free agent. It took James Harrison a lot longer to even achieve a slot on the roster than Polamalu, and in fact Harrison was cut from the roster a number of times before finally finding a place. Polamalu was contributing significantly during his second season. Harrison required a great deal more time than that—it was not until the end of the third season after he was first picked up that he started really showing the team enough to make him a starter.

The problem with using these two players as a comparison is that both of them are hard workers. Troy's arguably superior level of talent allowed him to progress faster. Harrison was able to compensate for what would seem to be a lesser amount of talent by long, hard hours of work.

But there is a further question—was the effort Harrison was putting in the right sort of work? As most of us can attest, just repeating an activity mindlessly seldom results in much improvement. It takes a certain sort of mindful effort and preparation to achieve excellence. Perhaps James Harrison just didn't know how to prepare, and once he figured it out he began to achieve to his potential. So we can see that even the question of "effort" is not a straightforward equation.

To make a proper comparison, then, to either James Harrison or Troy Polamalu, what one really needs is a player who is very talented and as a result has been able to cover up a lack of preparation. The problem is, I can't see how anyone could get very far in the NFL without a good bit of work.

Given the incredible level of competition, it's hard to imagine a situation that would not require long hours of preparation, study, and effort to even be able to get on the practice squad. So in the end it is almost certainly those who are willing to put in the extra time and effort, and have the necessary guidance to do so productively, that are going to excel. And only at that point will differences in "talent" again divide some individuals from the rest. In fact, I would contend that at this point a player may be seen to have talents that were not initially evident.

An obvious example is Tom Brady. He was a sixth round draft pick (#199) in a quarterback class whose other two successful quarterbacks were Chad Pennington, (Round 1, Pick #18) and Marc Bulgar (Round 6 Pick #168.) I always wondered why he was picked so late, and went looking for his scouting reports.

Brady was the 9th rated QB in a draft that has only produced three quarterbacks with a significant career in the NFL. It seems that though he showed some hints of what he might become, there were a lot of knocks against him. Here are his "talents" as they were evaluated prior to that draft by Pro Football Weekly:

• Good height

• Composed and poised

• Smart and alert

• Good at reading coverages

• Good accuracy and touch

• Team leader

These were balanced by a number of negatives:

• Poor build—very skinny and narrow

• Lacks great physical stature and strength

• Easily pushed down

• Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush

• Lacks a really strong arm—can't drive the ball down the field

• Lacks a tight spiral

• System-type player who can get exposed if he must ad-lib

• Could make it in the right system but will not be for everyone

It's easy to second-guess something like that in hindsight, but it's interesting to look at what the knocks were against him and whether they've been fixed.

Offhand, I would say that he's still pretty easily pushed down, and he's certainly not built like Ben. Effort, good coaching, and experience have fixed most everything else. He was projected as a 6th to 7th round pick. He has produced at the level of a top 1st round pick. How much of that is due to innate talent and how much to effort and experience? That's pretty hard to say, but he had a number of the sort of things that are difficult to coach—intelligence (both IQ and football intelligence,) and leadership (although part of that is possibly due to the therapy he sought during college to manage anger and frustration.)

Good coaching and lots of practice are, I would assume, responsible for changing an unimpressive arm strength and delivery to something that broadcasters love to fawn over. Game experience has presumably helped him learn to move when necessary (although it's still not a great strength.)

So although it can be difficult to tease all of this out, it's clear that both the talent and the right sort of effort were critical to his success.

A player on the current Steelers roster that has some similarities is Antonio Brown. He was chosen in the 6th round at pick #195. Walter Football rated him as the 24th receiver in the draft, and projected him as a 6th - 7th round pick. Here are Brown's pros and cons according to the scouting reports:

• Experienced return specialist

• Reliable hands (there was some disagreement among the various sites on this point)

• Potential as a slot receiver

• Good speed

The negatives were pretty daunting:

• Undersized. Lacks the size to be a possession receiver

• Lacks top-end speed. Doesn't have the speed to stretch the field

• Very limited upside. Best in the slot in a West Coast type offense

• Will struggle with the physical aspects of the game at the NFL level

• Needs work on underneath routes

But Brown had shown enough that the Steelers scouts, who had gone to Central Michigan to look at someone else altogether, noticed him. They gave him his chance, and Brown took it. He came into camp this season determined to make a place for himself on the team, and he came early to practice and stayed late. And obviously it has paid off, both for him and for the team. Emmanuel Sanders' injuries gave him the opportunity to grab a starting spot, and he earned it. But he also has some of the things you can't coach. Although he has worked long and hard, some of what he brings, such as how he sheds pursuers and so on, are more innate, I would guess.

And there is another factor that hasn't been explicitly discussed, and that's game experience. I don't think it is too surprising that Jason Worilds has started to really take off now that he has gotten a lot of snaps on consecutive weeks. There are things about performing that you can only learn by performing. You can read about them. You can study them. You can talk to lots of people who perform and get their perspective. But you don't really know how it feels until you do it.

I taught skiing for a year, back when we lived in New Mexico. It is my experience that some of the worst skiers, at least in the early days, are really intelligent people. They want to understand everything before they try it, but there are things you can't understand until you experience them, and sooner or later you have to just swallow hard and go for it.

During the famous Art Rooney public utterance after the 2009 season he said that the team needed to get production out of their rookies sooner. We all know that Tomlin and company feel the most comfortable with their veterans, but playing veterans at the expense of young players has a definite downside. It makes the most sense to judge on a case-by-case basis. We are seeing a lot more of that this season as beloved vets are sitting to create playing time for promising young players.

And finally, there is the "system" a team runs, as mentioned in both Tom Brady and Antonio Brown's scouting reports. The number one overall pick in 1999 was quarterback Tim Couch. He had the great misfortune to be drafted by the Browns, a young, struggling expansion team at the time. It is an interesting if ultimately futile exercise to wonder whether he would have turned out differently had he been drafted by a better team. He might not have been injured so much if he had been drafted by a team with a line good enough and experienced enough to protect him, for instance. So I suppose that this also says that how a player turns out is due in some part to luck as well—health-wise, fit with the team-wise, and so on.

Does talent matter? As Ivan says, it's the price of admission. Does effort trump talent? Talent without sufficient effort is spelled "bust." But I don't believe that effort can entirely overcome a lack of basic talent.* Does game experience matter? It's absolutely crucial. It's where the talent a player has and the effort he has expended are honed and refined to produce a complete player. Or at least as complete a player as he is capable of becoming. What that "upside" is depends very much on a combination of his basic abilities and how steadily and well he has prepared for his opportunities.

*I had an interesting encounter with just this very thing this summer. I participated in a string workshop (as in violins and so on) in which one got to learn different styles of playing such as bluegrass fiddling and jazz improvisation. At one point I spoke with a man who is quite accomplished in a completely non-musical field. This gentleman believes the mantra that anyone can accomplish anything with sufficient effort, and told me that although he had little experience with music as a child, he had decided as an adult to learn Irish fiddling. He has been playing in an Irish band for the past ten years or so. I was suitably impressed, until I actually heard him play. He had difficulty discerning the fact that his violin was almost a quarter step out of tune.

I have perfect pitch. This is no credit to me. I was born with it, just as I was born with brown eyes, which is good or bad according to taste : ) Having perfect pitch doesn't mean that I always play the violin in tune, because it doesn't tell me where to put my fingers. It does tell me, immediately, whether I've put them wrong. Only steady application will help me to play consistently in tune, but the "talent" I have of perfect pitch helps me to improve quickly when I do apply myself, which is, alas, not often enough.

This man obviously put a lot of time and effort into learning to play, and he now has a great deal of experience in performing. But in my opinion he will never be very good at the violin, because he lacks a basic talent that one needs to play the violin well. Fortunately, I think that the blood alcohol level of the auditors is generally fairly high at Irish band performances. That doesn't make him a better player, just more bearable...

P.S. Happy Holidays to yinz and yours. Don't forget that your talent of eating large amounts of turkey and other holiday delicacies has to be supported by hours of effort and preparation by someone or other at your home, and it therefore behooves you to lend a hand : )

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