As you are all, [well some of you at least] aware recently, the list of players who have been invited to the Scouting Combine has been announced. It's always been a vitally important process as a player's chances of being drafted increase exponentially if selected to participate and plummet if left out. However every year players who are not deemed to be ideal for the NFL make their way into the league and thrive. I was able to introduce some of you to: Joquie Bell, Blair White, Terrell Whitehead, Sam Shields, Danny Woodhead, Clay Harbor to name a few and I will again begin posting introductory profiles of what I call 'self-made' football players. As we have seen these players can contribute though their climb is steep. Let's look at how some players from the past might fair today.
Imagine you are a NFL GM, scout, or coach and you have the following prospects to consider. The first one is a possession WR from SMU, he was a starter only one year but made All-Conference, he's a shade less than 6'2", weighs 182 lbs., ran a 5.0 forty and his medical exam shows scoliosis--curvature of the spine. The next is a QB who was only 6'0" and 138 lbs. when he entered college and finally grew to 6'1" and 194 lbs. He finished his career by totaling 3,007 yards and 27 touchdowns passing; he's not very mobile, has an above average arm and good touch. The third is a linebacker who was All-MAC and Defensive Player of the Year but he is 6'3 3/4". He was 187 as a freshman and managed to get up to 217 but when you weighed him after the season was back to 203 and he's not fast enough to play outside. So do you take him, or any of them?
How about a QB who is a little less than 6'0" and 189 lbs., has an average arm, but is a very competitive and tough prospect that won All-American honors, and leads the SEC in total offense and passing, he has good mobility and 4.85 speed? Finally how about a running back who in high school, amassed 8804 rushing yards and scored 106 touchdowns, was a college star who set 58 school records including the single game rushing record in his very first start. He comes out after his junior year with 3928 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns. He's a durable, fierce competitor who can run between the tackles as a highly efficient downhill runner. He's skilled at cutting through quickly changing gaps toward "daylight" as well as running to the outside and catching the ball as a receiver. As a bonus, he has good instincts and technique in pass protection but is barely 5'9" and weighs 203 lbs. and has been timed from 4.63 to 4.69 in the forty. Is he a mid to late second day pick? A priority UDFA?
Now if you are a real NFL history buff you might have figured out that each of the aforementioned marginal-sounding prospects went on to be a top 5-10 of all time Hall of Famer. (And if you haven't figured it out I'll reveal them at the end of the article.) We all know about the stories of Fred Biletnikoff, Steve Largent, Eddie LeBaron, Pat Fisher, Lionel James, Mark Kelso, Terrell Davis, Jeff Garcia, Tom Brady, and so many others who were not supposed to be big enough, fast enough, strong enough etc. And unless you are still looking forward to your 6th birthday you've heard the truisms about not being able to “measure heart” close to one hundred times.
But a less well known truism about football scouting would be "we don't trust heart." For every Zach Thomas who gets a chance and is put in a system that allows him to thrive, there are dozens of prospects who can play but don't attract a suitor or find the right system. It should be pointed out that there are also a very long list of prospects with prototype measurables: Brian Bosworth, Shante Carver, Curtis Dickey, Hart Lee Dykes, Aundray Bruce, Ryan Leaf, Mike Mamula, Lawrence Phillips, Jim Druckenmiller, Marcus Dupree, Eric Kumerow, Jeff George, Kelly Stouffer, Rick Mirer, Todd Marinovich, Cade McNown, Greg McMurtry, Heath Shuler, Akili Smith, Sammie Smith, Blair Thomas, and Tim Worley, just to name a few. I bet many of us could come up with over 100 similar examples of players who had all the physical tools but flopped.
The other truisms that you hear bandied about are "the film doesn't lie" and “the best way to know if they can do it is if they have done it.” Though these things are said it's increasingly clear that upside, potential, and ceiling are still a deciding factor for many talent evaluators. Production clearly can't be depended on by itself, but if a player has proven that he's able to perform against everyone he's faced that has to mean something. The question is what? Steve Spurrier, Ty Detmer, Andre Ware, David Klingler, Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Josh Heupel, Jason White, Kliff Kingsbury, B.J Symons, Sonny Cumbie, Ken Dorsey, Brock Berlin, Nick Rolovich, and Timmy Chang were all extremely successful college signal callers (some of whom were All-Americans, Heisman Trophy finalists or winners, national champions) and all struggled at the next level or are struggling to even get an opportunity at the NFL level.
Why? For many it was physical limitations that were exposed by superior athletes, for some it was a mismatch with the system that they were asked to run, in some cases it was a lack of that indefinable “it” that quarterbacks have to have to be successful in the league. With most other positions it's relatively easy to get a thumbnail sketch of why a prospect didn't pan out: lack of speed, lack of toughness, couldn't grasp responsibilities, injury prone, lacked field vision, guessed too much, bad hands, bad feet, bad attitude, bad instincts, heard footsteps, poor blitz pickup, not enough patience, too tentative, ... but there are always some you just can't explain.
Just as there will always be high-profile busts and there will always be under the radar overachievers enshrined in Canton the 64 million dollar question is how do you tell them apart? I believe that when all the measurables are measured and the poking and prodding is done there are two things that separate the wheat from the chaff. Dick Butkus, Paul Krause, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Mike Webster, and Larry Wilson are all among the greatest ever but had pedestrian, average measurables. What allowed them to be Hall of Fame level players were a passionate commitment to improvement and football intelligence and those are the two things that are missing from the list of busts. So how do you find those qualities? Look for a player who showed successful adjustments, either to new systems, positions, or responsibilities, and who elevated his play when asked to against top competition or in stressful situations.
A perfect example is former Auburn former Washington and current Oakland QB Jason Campbell. He played in four different collegiate offensive systems, but showed increased command and production each year. As a professional he has played in five more systems for two teams. He has a quiet, humble yet confident demeanor despite the lack of confidence his professional mentors have shown in him and though it remains to be seen just how high his ceiling proves to be. I still think he will pan out. J.P Losman, though a little smaller, has similar measurables and if anything a slightly stronger arm. However, I thought he would be a less-successful field general because I believe his personality, which is a little arrogant, rubs some teammates the wrong way. The quarterback position is the highest risk, highest reward position and the hardest to read. I think some people are natural leaders and all great quarterbacks are.
For those that still want help with the identities of the mystery prospects: the first is Raymond Berry, the second is Johnny Unitas, the third is Jack Lambert, the fourth is Fran Tarkenton, and Emmitt Smith is the last one. The thread that connected them all is a passionate commitment to improvement and football intelligence. Those are the two things that every legendary success has and every legendary bust lacks.