Something every fan wants their team to pull from the NFL draft is an “instant impact” rookie—a guy like Ndamukong Suh. A rookie who steps into a starter’s role, immediately transforms team weakness into strength, and changes the dynamic of their entire unit. Every team—and their fans—hope, if not expect, their first-round picks to have the instant impact of a Matt Ryan, or a Joe Flacco, or a Michael Oher, or . . . wait.
All of those guys turned in subpar performances this weekend, as their teams were bounced from the playoffs. Peter King even called for the “Matty Ice” nickname to be put on ice. Michael Oher was abused by James Harrison—and fellow wunderkind-turned-goat Joe Flacco is taking a beating in the media, too, after taking a beating on the field. What’s going on here? How come so many headline-grabbing rookies are turning into mediocre second- and third-year veterans?
Part of it is the changing nature of the game. Football used to be a game of execution: the team that executed better won. Schematic wrinkles and innovations have always been around, but superior ability (where “ability’ = talent * skill) has always produced superior results.
In college football, ability is hard to come by. Not only is elite talent incredibly hard to recruit, but those players aren’t yet skilled; they need to be taught to play the game. As more and more college programs push harder and harder to succeed, less elite talents are being pressed into service earlier.
It’s that intense pressure to perform, to get talent on the field, that has major college programs recruiting true freshmen to fill immediate needs. Lansing sports media stalwart Tim Staudt recently said about recruiting, “I remember when Duffy would sit us down in the spring and introduce us to all the new sophomores.” Duffy (and likely, Bo and Woody) would be aghast at high school kids expecting to start!
So, we have elite talents stepping into top-level programs and starting, and we have decent talents stepping into mid-level programs and starting. How do coaches deploy these players before they know how to play? That’s where schematic creativity comes in. Football coaching at the college level has become a way of maximizing a player’s natural gifts, while hiding his natural deficits. At schools where there’s very little nearby talent (West Virginia), or where the bountiful talent is aggressively mined by rivals and the rest of the nation (Texas Tech), schematically innovative coaches have learned to consistently make silk purses out of sow’s ears.
It's been a pet theory of mine that this is affecting the NFL in two ways: 1) the same pressure to succeed is causing NFL teams to push rookies into service early, and 2) rookies have never been less prepared to step in and start. The teaching-to-a-system, fit-in-your-niche approach taken in college is producing one-dimensional athletes who are tremendously difficult to scout.
Once, during a Fireside Chat, I asked SI Senior Writer Tim Layden about this theory. He disagreed—saying that even if my premise is true, the quantum leaps made in nutrition, strength, and conditioning at the college level are producing players who are much better athletes, if not much better football players. Even conceding that point, the challenge for NFL coaches has become the same: how do you start rookies that are great athletes, but who’ve learned little of the craft of their position?
The answer, of course, is for the coaches to protect those players—to hide their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. Look what the Jets have done with Mark Sanchez—ask him to simply not make mistakes, and then every once in a while take a shot deep to keep the defense honest. With a couple of circus-catch specialists getting open downfield, Sanchez will hit on enough of those shots for the Jets’ defense to win them game. The interesting thing is, the Falcons did the same for Matt Ryan. Let’s look at his career stats:
In 2008, Matt Ryan exploded onto the scene, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Okay . . . maybe “exploding” is overstating things; those are unremarkable numbers. But rookie quarterbacks almost never take care of the ball that well, and his yards-per-attempt were off the chart. The hype train for “Matty Ice” left the station early, and picked up speed quickly.
In the second season, attempts rose as Michael Turner’s production fell off (Ryan only played 14 games in 2009). His completion percentage dipped, his yards-per-attempt dropped dramatically (7.9 to 6.5), and both his touchdown and interception ratio rose. What’s happening here? He’s being asked to shoulder more of the burden. They’re not running, running, running, then uncorking a deep ball. They’re not drawing the defense in with high-percentage passes, then bombing it over their heads. Ryan is being asked to win the game—while his stats suffered for it, they indicate progress.
So, what went wrong this year? Well, his attempts rose drastically—throwing almost 36 times a game, compared to 27 his rookie season. YpA remained flat from his second season, at 6.5, for a total of 3,705 yards. His touchdown percentage stayed flat from his second season, 4.9%, while his interception percentage dropped precipitously, from 3.1% to 1.6%. So . . . nothing went wrong. For the first time, Matt Ryan was asked to carry the Falcons offense all by himself, and he responded by playing the best football of his career.
The reality is that Ryan’s astonishing rookie year created hype it’d be almost impossible to live up to. Is “Matty Ice” already an all-time great? No, but he’s performed like an above-average NFL starter in only his third year—and unlike his rookie season, there’s no doubt it’s “all him.” Maybe this is as good as he gets, but the Falcons would certainly take ten more years of this and rightfully call themselves lucky.
It’s well within my memory—and I’m only 29—that players were drafted to develop, not to play. Now, players are drafted, plugged in the lineup, given up on, and cut before traditional wisdom says they should even be ready to play. You have guys coming out for the draft after their true junior year, getting a couple of years to “make an impact,” and then being cut loose while they’re only 24 or 25. Lord knows, if my industry gave up on me when I was 25, there’s zero chance I’d be where I am today.
Take the curious case of Mike Williams. Incredibly productive in two seasons at USC (176 receptions, 2,579 yards, 30 touchdowns), he famously followed Maurice Clarett’s lead into a year of limbo, unable to make the leap to the next level, nor able to return to college. Nevertheless, the 6’-5”, 235-pound (or thereabouts) prospect was the #1 overall prospect on Mel Kiper’s famous Big Board; theoretically the Lions got a great value when they selected him 10th overall. We all know what happened after that: motivation and concentration issues made “BMW” more of an X3 than an M3. He was released after just two seasons, and Kiper penned a column naming Mike Williams one of his worst evaluations ever ($).
A funny thing happened this offseason, though—Williams’ college coach, Pete Carroll, picked him up in the offseason. Still just 27, and entering his fourth year in the league, Williams made his fourth NFL roster. Incredibly, he evolved into the Seahawks’ top target, hauling in a team-high 65 catches for 751 yards. Those numbers aren’t quite what you’d expect out of a #10 overall pick in his fourth NFL season—but they’re much, much closer to than not worth wasting the soap to wash his jersey.
What’s the moral of the story, here? Not every good player is an instant-impact player. Not every instant-impact player evolves into a Hall of Famer. “Great for a rookie” is only “decent” overall. As the Lions round the bend into this draft season, they do so with only a few pressing needs. I trust the Lions leadership not to reach for those needs, but I’m cautioning us as fans to do the same. As this roster matures, the Lions should indeed be drafting to develop, not to start; the second- or third-round pick may not start right away and that’s okay. The likes of Sammie Hill will have to hustle to make the team, and that’s okay. The Lions have a much bigger need for a Mike Williams type, who slowly develops into a quality starter, than a Michael Clayton—who set the world on fire in his rookie year, and has barely moved the needle since.