Have you been watching basketball since football season ended? (Yes, we are in the dark ages of sports right now, before basketball really heats up. Don't worry, though, NFL Network coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine starts on Wednesday.) Have you been bitten by the "Linsanity" rage going on throughout the world? I have, in part because it appeals to my love of NBA hoops, but even more so because it appeals to my first love: player personnel.
Like most fans, when an unknown basketball player like Jeremy Lin emerges as a star, I immediately ask the question: How does a talent like this not get drafted? When I first saw Lin play, I was in awe and had to learn everything about him because I wanted to know how my favorite team (the 76ers) did not find this talent. Thank God for Google.
Great players slip through the cracks in the draft process of every sport, including pro football. For example, how does Texans star runner Arian Foster not get drafted? How does he get waived and no team places a waiver claim for him? How does Steelers linebacker James Harrison go undrafted and get cut several times? How does a quarterback-starved league let Tony Romo go undrafted? These questions have always bothered me, in and out of the league.
The easy answer is a misevaluation of talent. And often, misevaluation is the cause, as it does require a talent to correctly evaluate talent. But having been involved with football for most of my life, I understand there are several ways to make personnel mistakes.
The most common one is what I call "the agenda." The agenda pops up when a player is drafted highly, or when a major decision-maker falls in love with a particular player, thus causing an unfair evaluation for every other player at his position.
When a team drafts a player in the early rounds, there is little chance for another player at the position to outshine him -- the agenda is for the highly drafted player to be a star. No matter how talented an undrafted or free-agent player might actually be, he's never allowed to win a job because it would be an indictment on the team's drafting process. The decision-makers want to protect their draft picks, thus eliminating the purity of the evaluation process. The agenda is a pre-determined evaluation, regardless of what that the player might provide in pure production or work ethic. In essence, the agenda violates the first rule of scouting: Never begin with the end in mind.
Another culprit in misreading talent is called "sponsorship." Normally a player enters an organization because someone -- a scout or a coach -- likes his talent. But often a player is just signed to fill out the depth chart. When a player comes in to fill a spot, he does not get a fair evaluation because there is no one supporting his cause, or sponsoring him. With no sponsorship, the player receives minimal practice and game repetitions; therefore, he is unable to show his talent. It's a sad truth: A player can come into an organization and never get a fair opportunity to showcase his skills because no one is supporting his cause.
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Sometimes teams cannot believe their good fortune -- they don't trust their own evaluation of a player because he originally was undrafted or cut several times by other teams. This is called a "pedigree mistake." Sometimes evaluators, coaches or scouts just can't accept what their eyes tell them about a player, because someone else waived him. Questions arise: How can this player be any good if two teams already cut him? What is really wrong with this player? Teams will let a player's past transaction sheet determine their evaluation, even if the player displays talent.
Finally, the "Everyone is the GM" mistake will allow good players to pass through organizations. This happens when a position coach is given the authority to ultimately decide which players at his position actually make the team. Position coaches always want to keep the smartest player, the more developed player, the player that can help them right now -- rather than the player with the most raw talent, someone who might be ready in time. In reality, if an organization allows an assistant coach to be the GM of his position, it's hard to blame him for wanting instant help. There has to be someone -- either a personnel official or the head coach -- who is thinking long term, thinking on a broader scale to avoid this common mistake.
Players will continue to slip through the cracks as long as organizations continue to allow these four mistakes to occur. The best organizations treat each player the same and make each player earn his spot -- nothing is automatic. Mistakes are part of the sports business, but self-inflicted mistakes can be avoided if teams stay open-minded at all times.