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The Steelers 2012 Draft Class: A Bunch of Characters

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There were a number of interesting and thought-provoking comments to my last article, Maximizing the Steelers’ 2012 Draft Class, Part III. A couple of them touched on a subject I felt made a suitable addendum to that article. Here’s the first, from WolfpackSteelersFan:

[I]f one wants to succeed, you won’t get there by feeling sorry for yourself. You will get there by choosing to do the things that are required to get you where you want to go.

And the second, from Steeler Fan Since ’52:

Your concentration on "hard work" in this final article, is especially on target…and not just for sports or music, but EVERYTHING. Want to have a successful marriage? Work hard at it! Want a promotion in your job? Work hard at it! Want to get elected to office? Work hard at it!

This might be the reason "character issues" are in the forefront of NFL evaluation of members of the annual draft class. A player without the personal discipline, commitment and self control, but with great talent is often rated lower than a lesser talented player who has his life and goals in his own control...Whether one makes a visit to Canton or Cooperstown, there is a common thread that runs through all the great athletes enshrined there. All decided to succeed to the maximum with the talent they had and did what it took to achieve excellence...

There’s a question in there that nobody raises, though. We throw around the word "character," but what do we mean by it? I submit we all mean more or less the same thing, at least in the context of a football team, but most of us would have a very hard time giving a succinct, coherent description of what it is. (Mind you, Steeler Fan Since '52 makes a pretty good start.) Furthermore, for some, character has a distinctly moral dimension, whereas for others it is mostly or even strictly pragmatic.

The next issue to face when discussing character is, where does it come from? Is it innate or learned? I think most of us would agree it is primarily learned, but when? And when is too late? And for that matter, how do you teach it?

Angela Duckworth, a teacher and charter-school consultant who decided after ten discouraging years to enter a PhD program in psychology gave this rationale for her change of focus:

"The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves," she wrote. "Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect."

If you are going to develop character in your students, you have to know what it is you are trying to convey. One of the things which caught her attention, because it described a behavior correlating with student success outside of IQ or income level, was the classic study done in the late 1960s by Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel. In the study he tested four-year old children to find out how good they were at putting off a current pleasure to obtain a future good. The quality he was testing was delayed gratification, and he eventually discovered the ability of a child to delay gratification is a strong predictor of their future success. (You can read an absolutely fascinating article about the study and some new work based on it. Wait until you’ve finished my article, though : )

In the study, the children were given what proved to be quite a difficult task. They were allowed to choose a treat from a tray bearing a selection of temptations. They were told that if they would stay in the room with the treat but not eat it while the researcher stepped out of the room for a "few minutes," (the actual time the researcher left was a quarter of an hour,) when he returned the child would get not just the one marshmallow or Oreo or whatever treat they chose but a second one as well. If after a bit the child felt s/he just had to eat the treat, s/he was given a bell to ring. This would bring the researcher back into the room, and s/he could then eat the treat, but would not be given a second one.

Few children managed to wait the whole time. The children were secretly filmed, both to find out how soon they caved in and to see what techniques they used to try to keep themselves from eating the treat. Only thirty percent of the children managed to wait for 15 minutes. At least one child realized no one was around to stop him and ate everything in the room.

Ten years later, Mischel went back and assessed how well the children were doing in school, and, as the New Yorker article linked above notes,

[L]ow delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Years later, as the original subjects entered their late 30s, Mischel found "low-delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs."

A number of other related studies have confirmed this. A study done on eighth graders demonstrated a very strong correlation. In fact, "the ability to delay gratification...was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q."

Although these results were impressive, Duckworth wasn’t convinced it was the whole story.

[W]hile self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word "grit."

Experimental programs have begun to try to teach the habits of self-control, perseverance, and delayed gratification. One participant is the KIPP charter schools, whose founder said "The core feature of the KIPP approach is that character matters for success." Where have we heard this before?

A few weeks before the draft I wrote the following statement:

The Tomlin-led Steelers are almost certainly not going to take a chance on a player like [Vontaze] Burfict, unless they sense in a personal interview with the player there is a substantial desire to radically change.

I certainly didn’t expect the Steelers to draft not one, not two, but three guys with knocks on their character. That’s a third of this year’s draft. Two of the three are the second and third round picks. This is not only a departure from the standard operating procedure for the Steelers, it’s a big risk. It’s perhaps even more of a risk this season, when they have just cut several long-time veterans who were leaders in the locker room. But most of us are willing to trust the instincts of Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert et al, and therefore assume they have a plan. Let’s take a look at the problem children and what Tomlin and Co. have taken on.

First and foremost, Mike Adams. Much has been written already about the various actions which plummeted his draft stock, and he might as well get used to it, because these indiscretions will follow him for quite sometime. The following exchange demonstrates just how big the risk with him is:

LostAlone87 said:

As for Adams, I personally have no concerns about his character. Hell, this side of the pond it would essentially be assumed that he smoked weed in college. No-one in the NFL is a boy scout, and its just complete crap to pretend that these guys are. Is he a good athlete ? Yes. Will he work hard to be a starter ? Yes. And the fact that he had to go to the Steelers and convince them to take him on shows that. He’ll work as hard as anyone else on the team because he knows that the slightest hint of problems will lose him his career.

Neal Coolong replied:

I’m sorry, but the fact you fail to recognize what the actual problem is is exactly why it’s such a problem.

On THIS side of the pond, we have a problem with someone’s decision-making ability when they do something they know they’re not allowed to do, know they’re going to get tested for it, but choose to do it anyway.

This isn’t about character, it’s about arrogance. He thought he could beat the system. He failed. Yes, I have a problem with that. I have a problem with everyone instantly making this out to be about smoking pot and boy scout behavior...He’s probably already in the diversion program (one more failed test he’s out four games). He can’t drive to Goodell’s office and apologize if he gets caught again.

And the NCAA violations weren’t really even mentioned. Again, many people think the current system/rules are crazy, and would like to see them changed. But they haven’t been. So whether Mike Adams or anyone else disagrees with the rules, it doesn't change the fact of their existence. He broke them, he got caught, and this happened more than once. There are really two problems— Adams broke the rules, and a lot of people, obviously including him, believe the rules he disregarded aren't important.

However much he or anyone else may feel they didn't matter, though, they mattered to the NFL, and his callous disregard for things the NFL feels are important call into question Adams’ intent to play professional football. Note I didn’t say "his desire to be a football star." Heck, I want to be a football star. And Adams has about as much chance as I do to be one, if he doesn’t start doing the things necessary to achieve that. He’s got a lot to prove. And he definitely shouldn't worry about whether given rules make sense or not. For him in particular, they are the rules. Other people can debate them and work on possibly getting them changed, but he doesn’t have any slack in his bridle, and if he fights the bit he’s headed for the dog food factory.

There are great signs of hope, however, in his case. Being drafted by the Steelers at all was the result of a very admirable ability to face the music.

In a interview on, Adams said driving to Pittsburgh for the meeting he asked for was probably the hardest thing he had ever done—to put his pride aside and admit to a group of men he greatly admired what he had done. Bob Labriola asked him whether he saw it as a second chance or a last chance. Adams gave the right answer—"pretty much a last chance. If I didn’t make the right choices my credibility is down the drain. From here I just have to make the right choices and take it and run with it."

Whether Adams has the grit to persevere and the self-control required to put aside everything except the task at hand remains to be seen. In the end, whether the poor choices he made in college are moral issues or pragmatic ones the result for the Steelers is probably the same. But I believe it will take at least some increase of moral fiber to stick to his guns.

In Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s post-draft press conference they were asked about their level of confidence that Adams would stay on the straight and narrow. Tomlin said they got to a "level of comfort" with Adams sufficient to justify picking him, but "convinced is another word, and we’ll just live day by day."

Tomlin was then asked whether he "stays on a kid like this," whether he has the veterans watch him? Tomlin laughed and said "all of the above —not only ‘a kid like this’ but all the kids. We’re not going to assume anything. These are young people making a significant transition."

Adams told Mike Prisuta at Rookie Mini-Camp "Step One is to prove myself to the people in this organization and the people in this city." It's now up to Adams whether his childhood dream to play for the Steelers has even a chance of coming true.

Sean Spence:

Well, Round 2 was pretty interesting. So now it’s Round 3, and this is the chance for the Steelers to take someone obvious. A high-character player. Someone in a position of need. Someone like, say, Alameda Ta’amu. Well, guess again. Sean Spence it was, and although, as Mike Tomlin said in the post-draft presser, "he encompasses a lot of football character things that we value," he had a few negatives as well. Reportedly, he got a 12 on the Wonderlic, and he was suspended for one game in college for "receiving improper benefits." The latter, on a much smaller scale, is part of what got Adams in trouble, so I won’t rehash that discussion. It does, however, call into some question his intelligence, which was already reeling from the blow of getting a 12 on the Wonderlic.

But how much does the Wonderlic really matter? And what is it, anyhow? I knew it was an intelligence test given at the combine, and was multiple choice, but had to look it up to find out anything beyond that. It turns out to be a general assessment test for prospective employees, designed to test the capacity of said prospective employee for problem-solving and learning. A score of 20 (out of 50 questions) indicates average intelligence, correlating to an IQ of around 100.

But how relevant is it for football players? Apparently some of them don’t think there is much relevance. One player drafted by another team whose score this year set a new standard for poor performance claims he looked over the questions, realized none of them were about football, and just quit. It will be very interesting to see how he does, because if nothing else this indicates a lack of perseverance in the face of something his prospective employers are going to see, because he viewed it as pointless. What happens the first time his coach tells him to do something he thinks is dumb? Or tells him to do carioca drills? Now those are pointless.

I have no idea whether Spence’s score can be attributed to something similar. But the concern about his intelligence appears to be a non-starter. Keith Butler, the linebackers coach, said "Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart." Which is pretty much a compendium of the words indicating intelligence, without actually using that word. Not all intelligence translates into the ability to solve the sort of problems the Wonderlic poses. If Spence didn't persist in the face of difficult questions on the test, though, that calls into question his ability to persist in the face of difficulties on the field.

The NCAA violation appears to be a single minor incident and is probably not a concern either. Spence may ultimately prove to be too small to play ILB in the NFL, but that isn’t a knock on his character, and I’m prepared to give him a pass unless he begins to show signs of systemic idiocy.

Chris Rainey:

The following comment thread occurred in seton hall and steelers’ post assessing our new draft picks, when Adam perhaps optimistically foresaw both a bunch of return yards and blocked punts for Rainey:

Bitfailu said:

He can either block punts or return them. If he’s the returner, he won’t be blocking anything.

This led to NCSteeler’s comment:

If he misses the block, he can return it. He’s that fast.

whogastim chimed in with:

I call BS. Rainey is NOT Redman. Only Redman could miss the block, retreat downfield, catch the ball and return it for 2 touchdowns. :-) (Not that Redman would miss the block...)

It was funny, and I almost started writing a "Redman II" sort of post. I didn’t, though, after a moment’s thought. Why? The real Redman was, and is, a perfect subject for such whimsies. Chris Rainey is not. For one thing, Rainey hasn’t had the chance to go to training camp and wow Steeler Nation, a necessary prerequisite. But the other reason is part of the point of this post.

The real Isaac Redman is humble, grounded, and if he has happened to see our BTSC flights of fancy he appears to have enough sense to not let it go to his head. Chris Rainey, as someone nicely put it the other day, is skirting the fine line between confidence and arrogance. (I would credit the author if I could find the comment,) It isn’t at all certain at this point which side of the line he’s inhabiting.

It’s easy to say "he’s just a kid, he’s excited (that much is definitely clear!) and he’s just saying things the other guys are thinking but have enough sense not to say." I don’t agree. Maybe the other guys feel that way, and maybe not, but, as the Good Book says, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."

Neal, in reference to Mike Adams, said "This isn’t about character, it’s about arrogance." He apparently feels arrogance isn’t a character issue. I would disagree with him there, both on the moral and pragmatic level. Why?

It goes to the heart of Ivan Cole’s comment at the beginning of "Maximizing the Draft III":

I’m speaking of whether or not a player believes he can or should improve. Often players fail precisely because they believe that they are already good enough and think improvement is unnecessary (after all it got them this far) Or, because they have always been dominant to this point in their lives the possibility of improvement is beyond their ability to conceive.

If, like Adams, you appear to think you’re too smart or too cool to get caught, or the rules don’t apply to you, that’s definitely arrogance. But it is also arrogance to assume your talent and/or previous experience and training means you need less work than everyone else. As Hombre de Acero noted in his comment to my previous article:

Troy Edwards [is] the guy who once balked at working out saying, "you can’t race air…."

Well, now we understand a little more as to why Hines was an after thought when they drafted Edwards, where as now Hines Ward is a future Hall of Famer, and [Edwards] is one of the great all-time Steelers first round busts.

The sort of hubris Ivan was talking about is one of the fastest ways to become a former NFL player. Depending on the amount of experience and ability you begin with, you might last a shorter or longer time, but eventually you are going to be overtaken by those who just plain work hard. This is partly because the actual difference in talent level in the guys who make it into the NFL isn’t nearly as great as it was in high school or even college. That talent gap has been narrowing considerably, which is something you might not notice if you are sufficiently arrogant about your abilities.

How does this relate to "grit" and delayed gratification? Well, in Rainey’s case, I don’t know, because I don’t know how hard he will actually work. My unease with Rainey, in short, has absolutely nothing to do with the threatening text message he sent his ex-girlfriend, although it is what led to his arrest record.

Kevin Colbert was asked about the texting incident, and Colbert said they of course knew about this, but they had some unique background on him because of his relationship with the Pouncey family. Colbert said that while they appreciated Maurkice vouching for him, they took it with a grain of salt, since the young men were old friends and former teammates. But to Tomlin and Colbert the fact that Maurkice’s family would feel strongly enough about this young man to provide him with a home, and that Rainey would take that opportunity to go on and graduate, that said a lot to the Steelers.

I am much more concerned about the frequent comments Rainey has made to the effect of how talented he is. In a way, I hope he doesn’t have too much immediate success, and therefore realizes he’s got a lot of work in front of him. You can’t teach speed, but speed is also one of the most fragile of attributes. Time will tell whether he’s willing to work at the things necessary to supplement his speed.

As James Shelley said here:

[D]iscipline — regardless of century, technology or era — has always been the commitment to choose one thing at the expense of all others.

There’s no use in pretending to know how any player is going to turn out in the NFL. Even as "blue chip" a pick as David DeCastro could ultimately prove to be a disappointment, although in his case that would almost certainly be caused by external factors. The crystal ball is a great deal murkier with guys like the three under discussion, because the question of character adds an extra element of uncertainty to the equation.

However you want to define character, and whatever you want to call the associated traits—grit or discipline, self-control or delayed gratification, our new crop of "troubled youth" have a choice before them. Even the young men themselves may not know how they are going to respond to the challenges before them. Will they take the easy way out, or have they learned valuable life lessons from their previous indiscretions?

I don’t speak as a person looking down from a lofty peak, a person who by unremitting toil and a single-minded dedication to one thing achieved what I dreamed of. Quite the contrary. When I was a freshman organ major in college I had a choice. I could apply myself, work harder than I had ever worked before, and truly excel, or I could get by on my talent, just like I always had. I wouldn’t have thought of it as arrogance, but in retrospect perhaps it was. Or perhaps it was our old friend delayed gratification, or rather the lack of it. It was more fun and less work to hang out in the student lounge.

Although I did practice more than I ever had, that wasn’t saying much, and it also wasn’t enough. My teacher had gone out on a limb for me and gotten me the only full scholarship for the keyboard department, thus permanently pissing off the piano faculty. He planned to put my name in during my second year for something which would have given me national prominence and possibly set me onto the path of the career I supposedly wanted. But in the end, hanging out in the student lounge was a lot more appealing than the practice room, and I could always practice later in the day. Or tomorrow. But there weren’t enough tomorrows to take me where I thought I wanted to go, and someone else was chosen.

I had two disadvantages our rookies don’t have. First, I had no idea about the whole scholarship thing until several years later. I adored my teacher, and had I understood at the time what he had done for me it might have made a difference. And I had no idea about the missed opportunity until it had already passed. That also might have made a difference. But very possibly not, either. When you’re 17, a year is a really long time from now, filled with tomorrows in which one can do the practice one should be doing today.

These rookies are aware the Steelers have gone out on a limb. And hopefully they are aware of the impact the choices they make today, this hour, this moment are determining what their "tomorrow" will look like.

Do I regret not taking advantage of the opportunities before me at age 17? Well, I very much regret the disappointment I caused my teacher. I don’t regret the life I missed. My current life is much fuller and more interesting than that one is likely to have been. I made a legitimate choice, although I was unaware at the time I was making one. But there were consequences either way, both for me and for other people.

This is another wild card we don’t think about so much with the guys we draft. It’s easy to assume they all have the same burning desire to succeed, but this is highly unlikely to be true. As I said about Adams, it’s possible they want to be football stars, but putting in the necessary blood, sweat and tears is another matter. A lot of guys never play a down in the NFL after being drafted, and surely at least a few of them take a good look around and decide this isn’t really what they wanted after all.

But if our new draftees do want it, and if they are willing to do what it takes to get there, they will find a support system around them unlike any other in the NFL. If they take full advantage of it they will justify the risk Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took, whether they actually pan out or not. Let’s hope they know what they really want, and will learn quickly how to work towards it.