The 3rd Commandment
Play-making is the function of the players.
Make no mistake: Some players have more talent gifts than others and a team with gifted play-makers is more likely to be successful in the NFL than a team without gifted play-makers.
"The gifted people take the design of things beyond the design," former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said. One of Vermeil's favorite examples of such a gifted player was former St. Louis Rams' running back Marshall Faulk. "Marshall Faulk can make a play when not many little things were done well. I have seen him do it," Vermeil said. "He's gifted. That's all there is to it."
"There's a set place to where the play is supposed to go," Faulk said. "Sometime it's there. Sometimes it's not. And then from there, it's what's inside of you."
Faulk was not only a physically gifted football player, he was a mentally gifted player as well. "He thinks like a quarterback," Kurt Warner said. "You put him in any situation and he sees the whole field, knows whom to pick up, and how he can help out, because he's aware of everyone's assignments."
"I understand the game of football, I really do," Faulk said. "When we break the huddle and line up I've thought the play out already. I already have a feeling as to what's going to happen."
Identifying phyiscally and mentally gifted football players is not easy. "You can take a baseball player," an NFL veteran pointed out in David Harris' The Genius, "give him a different hat, the same bat, and he's going to hit the ball. Same with basketball. But football is a game of systems and different situation-type players."
Two of the best ever at the task of identifying gifted players were the Dallas Cowboys' computer and Bill Walsh.
Before übersabremetrician Bill James stood a post at a Kansas pork-and-beans plant ... before übertechnologist Steve Jobs joined the Homebrew Computer Club ... even before überauthor Michael Lewis took the hit in an 8th grade football game that convinced him that "football player" would not be among his future career paths... Tex Schramm and the Cowboys were quantifying the value of players on a computer.
As explained in Michael MacCambridg's America's Game, at the 1960 Olympics, Schramm was fascinated with the information generated by an IBM computer, which calculated statistics, medal standings, and record times. After he returned to Dallas, Schramm contacted IBM and explained what he wanted to do to Salam Quereishi, a computer programming expert in the Service Bureau Corporation, an IBM subsidiary in Silicon Valley. Schramm and Quereishi, a cricket fan who knew nothing of American football, moved slowly and methodically to create the tool that Schramm envisioned for quantifying the value of football players.
Schramm quickly realized that he had to standardize his scouting form to make quantification work. The new form had 15 statements, each describing a particular skill. Players were rated on a scale of 1 to 9, a 9 if they fit the scale exactly, down to 1 for not fitting at all. And because the team was concerned with more minute differences on the positive side, the scale was unbalanced, so that 3 was average.
MacCambridge wrote: "By the fall of 1964, the four years of intense work began to yield results. The Cowboys' executives were on hand for the first printout, as the IBM 7090-7094 computer produced its data on wide sheets of perforated paper. Among the myriad lists that were printed out for Dallas, after players were sorted according to a variety of criteria, was a list of the top fifteen prospects overall. At the top of the list was a cocksure quarterback from Alabama named Joe Namath."
Walsh's approach was different. According to Vermeil, Walsh might have been "the best ever at manipulating the draft to his ends." Walsh stressed instincts in his evaluations, while placing a limited amount of value on measurables. Walsh never spent hours studying video. He rarely needed (or had) picks high in the first-round. Only once while coaching did he trade up in the draft to select a player. A guy named Jerry Rice.
"He was very adept at understanding the nuances that would be important for different positions, and what would separate great athletes from good ones," said former 49ers executive Carmen Policy.
"We tried to evaluate players on how they functioned on the field, not on some arbitrary standard," Walsh said.
"I instructed everyone scouting that I wanted to know what the redeeming quality is that this person has that will help us win," Walsh said. "Don't tell me what he can't do. Tell me what he can do. Can he cover kickoffs? Will he be alert and ready if ever called upon? That quality alone might be a value that is worth treating as a skill itself. Don't just say he can't do this and can't do that. Find every player's possible contribution and identify the reason to take him rather than just the reasons not to."
Among the assistant coaches' responsibilities was sorting through all the videotapes of potential picks and collecting the 10 best and 10 worst plays of each for Walsh's review. Then Walsh met separately with the scouts, separately with the assistant coaches, and with both groups together. "We created an atmosphere in meetings in which a scout or coach was able to express himself completely," Walsh said.
Walsh considered Rice and Dwight Clark, taken in the 10th round of his first draft, as the best picks he ever made. "In the process of scouting Steve Fuller, we found Dwight," Walsh said. "Even though he caught only 12 passes or something in his college career, he was big, with functional speed and a great attitude. They had to hold me back from drafting him (earlier)."
Paradoxically, Walsh also could ignore his system. In 1979, Walsh picked Joe Montana over Steve Dils, even though Dils had been his quarterback the year before at Stanford, knew Walsh's system cold, and had led the Cardinal to its greatest win under Walsh, a 25-22 victory over Georgia in the Astro Bluebonnet Bowl in which Dils rallied Stanford from a 22-0 deficit. In addition, the tight end was critical to Walsh's system. David Harris called the tight end the "universal joint" of Walsh's offense. "Walsh always featured tight ends," former Cincinnati QB Greg Cook said. "Tight end through the zone, deep down the middle." Yet, Walsh never spent a first-round pick on a tight end and only twice used a second-round pick (John Frank and Wesley Walls).
Finally, Walsh also occasionally got lucky. Indeed, without good fortune, Walsh may have out-smarted himself out of Montana. Prior to the 1979 draft, Walsh decided that he would take Montana with the first pick of the third round, the 57th overall pick in the draft. But after Dallas traded the final pick in the round, the 82nd overall, to Seattle and Walsh convinced himself nobody would take Montana in the third round, Walsh struck a deal with Seattle that sent the 57th pick to the Seahawks and returned the 82nd pick and a veteran linebacker to the 49ers. But the Cowboys still held the 76th pick in the round and when that pick came up the highest rated player on the Dallas draft board was Montana. And Dallas amost always took the hightest rated available player on its board. Except this time the Cowboys did not. As Dallas already had a talented quarterback of the future (Danny White), the Cowboys brass went "against the board" and took the next-highest-rated player, a fine tight end named Doug Cosbie.
When it comes to evaluating players individually, QC knows his limits and attempts to follow the teachings of Sports Illustrated's fabulous pro football writer, Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z), whose ability to write technical football for the masses is second to none (see, e.g., X'd, O'd And Ko'd). Dr. Z has provided a tale that is simultaneously instructive and cautionary from one of his meetings with Walsh. Dr. Z wrote:
"Once in his office we were having a pretty intense talk about the upcoming draft. I found that we were agreeing on a lot of things, especially the heart and desire players, the overachievers. Finally I got so carried away with my own astuteness that, in a burst of lunatic egotism, I asked him if I could ever, possibly, land a job on someone's personnel staff.
"He frowned. How to break it gently to this idiot?
"'The problem would be,' he said slowly, 'that you would fill a roster with players who'd look good chasing guys over the goal line.'"