Sometimes the answer to how great a player can be is found in what he says.
Not how he says it. Not when he says it. Just what he says.
Former longtime NFL scout Ron Marciniak discovered that when he was scouting for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980s. When Marciniak interviewed players, head coach Tom Landry asked him to keep track of the number of times a player would refer to his father.
It could be negative or positive, but Landry just wanted the reference noted. Years later, Marciniak looked back over all the interviews and saw an obvious pattern. Just about any player who had six or more check marks in the dad column ended up being a good-to-excellent player.
"You're talking about guys who played 10 years in the league. They were never in trouble, a lot of them All-Pros," Marciniak said. "That's one hell of a coincidence … it really worked. Character was a big thing with Coach Landry. Bill Belichick was the same way when I worked with him in Cleveland. To Belichick, character and family were at the same level as the position ability factors, speed, size, quickness and strength."
While that homespun measure of success may not appear to measure up in today's digital-techno world, what a person says may be as good a measure of whom they will become as any other test. From functional MRI testing to gene mapping to the New York Giants' famous 400-question personality test, the NFL has been inundated with ideas about how to get inside of an athlete's head. Now, one company is trying to do that with a far less invasive process.
Achievement Metrics is the latest company to join the fray. Dr. Roger Hall, a psychologist with the company and its partner company Social Science Automation, was at the NFL scouting combine this year to do presentations to the NFL and media about the process he has helped develop. Hall said the program developed by Social Science Automation founder Michael Young has been used by several branches of the federal government, including the Center for Disease Control and the intelligence community.
In simple terms, Achievement Metrics simply takes transcripts of interviews with prospects from when they were in college, keeps track of what words they use and how they use them and comes up with an actuary table that measures the likelihood of whether that player will be arrested or suspended and might miss a game.
"All we're doing is taking transcripts of what these people say and feeding that information into a computer," Hall said. "Basically, it's a bag of words that gets measured. From there, we're coming up with a prediction about them … it's basically an actuary table based on language."
Hall declined to give any specific examples of the 200 or so words sought by the company or the usage.
"Coke doesn't give out its recipe," he said with a chuckle.
Furthermore, what Hall and his company are setting out to do is essentially the inverse of what was searched for by Landry. Hall is trying to sort out the bottom end of the scale.
While higher-profile prospects such as Christian Peter, Adam "Pacman" Jones and Odell Thurman were deemed to be character risks coming out of college, there are plenty of lesser-known athletes who also raise concerns. And while history has proven that these athletes aren't automatically eliminated from teams' draft boards, it does alert franchises to possible chemistry risks.
"Some teams are better able to handle some kinds of players than other teams because of the culture they have built in their locker room," said Hall, who declined to discuss any specific players. "They may have a group of veteran players who know how to work with younger players who are maybe troubled. Or you may have teams that just doesn't deal with it at all, doesn't take guys with problems and doesn't have a structure for them."
As Marciniak put it: "You can be a guy who doesn't have great character and sneak by on ability for a year or so. You can be a nonworker, not very smart, a drunkard, a nontrainer, a cheater, a liar. But if a team is looking for a guy to play for 10 years, to be successful for the long term, character is too important."
It was so important to Landry that if a player didn't measure up in terms of character, he would often dismiss the prospect by saying: "Next player."
"I'd say, 'But Coach, he's 6-foot-4, 275 pounds and he can run the 40 in under 4.9 seconds.' Coach Landry would just say, 'Ron, next player,' " said Marciniak, who also worked for three years under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. Johnson, a psychology major in college, also valued a player's mental makeup.
"Coach Johnson put a really high value on doing the personal interviews himself, particularly for those top-five guys in the draft," Marciniak said.
Belichick acknowledged at the combine that he measures character strongly, but didn't put a specific value on it.
"You're looking at the whole package of what a player is about," Belichick said. "It all factors in."
Of course, a prospect can say "daddy" a hundred times in an interview, but that doesn't make him a good player. If you're 5-foot-6, 260 pounds, no amount of respect for your father is going to allow you to play cornerback in the NFL.
But the idea of measuring people's speech in an effort to evaluate their personality can be essential to making a critical decision. No situation illustrates that more than the 1998 draft, when the Indianapolis Colts made a choice between quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Manning went No. 1 and Leaf No. 2.
Leading up to that draft, the debate over Manning and Leaf raged throughout the NFL. Part of the Colts' process involved having psychologist Dr. Robert Troutwine interview both of them. His conclusion was that Manning was better able to handle the stress associated with playing in the NFL, particularly quarterback.
While their career paths weren't determined by the results of a test, Manning's career is likely to end with him in the Hall of Fame. Leaf's career? Well, it's just a shame.
"There are a lot of reasons other than physical that players don't make it in the league," Troutwine told CNN.com in 2001. "The game has gotten so complex. You want to know if a player can learn quickly enough, can adapt, can handle the pressure – many things."
Regardless of how you find that information, it's critical.
"To me, with the amount of money that these players are being paid with these contracts, they should be willing to go through any number of tests you give them," Marciniak said. "Yeah, some of them may sound silly, but you're always looking for information."
Or as Indianapolis president Bill Polian put it: "You can call some of this weird science, but I don't think that's really fair. We're all looking for more data on a player – and good data, something that's meaningful. With our team, we have a system we feel comfortable with, but that doesn't mean there's not something else out there that's of value."
- Tom Landry
- Bill Belichick