Tuesday, September 21, 2010
On Choosing the Wrong Guy
A little over a decade ago, I wrote a story that seems particularly embarrassing in retrospect: I was working in Cleveland, and the Browns had the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and they were deliberating between Ricky Williams and Tim Couch. Well, I went to Kentucky and wrote a profile of Couch, who was something of a local legend. And I am not an expert on anything, let alone quarterback play, but I thought he looked great. I remember watching him throw a ridiculous touchdown pass to receiver in the back of the end zone; I remember the way the ball soared toward the heavens, and then the way it cradled softly into the wideout's hands, like a baby rabbit swathed in cotton dropping from a low tree branch. I thought he had every possible tool a quarterback needed to possess, and so did everyone I spoke to about him; I thought there was no way the Browns could pass him up, and I said so, and fortunately I was gone by the time things fell apart and Tim Couch became the latest in a series of Northeast Ohio-based punchlines involving Playboy playmates and Butch Davis.
I was thinking about this last night, as I watched the Saints play the 49ers. Because many of the principal players in that game are proof that no one knows anything about anything when it comes to evaluating NFL talent. When it comes to scouting, at least 30-40 percent of the time, the expert's opinion is no better than mine. We have access to more information than ever before, and it doesn't make that much of a difference, as much as the experts would like to convince us otherwise. We see what we want to see. In the end, it's all a guess. And in the case of the experts, the hive mentality still wins out. Drew Brees, once lightly regarded, is now the greatest clutch quarterback since Joe Montana.* Alex Smith, a No. 1 draft pick, a failure many times over, appears to have channeled the mojo of Steve Young. And, of course, there is Reggie Bush, who had a no-good, terrible, very bad week, and who remains the greatest college football player I've ever seen, but apparently is never going to be much more than a situational player in the NFL, and certainly not as good as Mario Williams, whom the Houston Texans chose over Bush.
A few years ago, some cultural critic wrote that Reggie Bush "possesses the kind of greatness a child can see." I agreed with him at the time, and I agree with him now. His point was that the NFL seems to gravitate toward counterintuitive decision-making, I suppose because it makes it seem like the scouts and the talent evaluators, in fact, know far more than normal humans do. It gives them a patina of expertise; it justifies their existence, and the existence of the NFL combine, and all those bizarre mating rituals at which muscular young men strip off their shirts and run through a maze of traffic cones. But more information doesn't mean more success. In certain cases, I see no reason not to cling to what I see, even when the result proves irrational. If I had to do it over again, I still would advocate for Tim Couch over Ricky Williams, and I still would advocate for Reggie Bush over Mario Williams. Some things just make sense, even when they don't.
*Really, was there anyone watching that game who thought Drew Brees, given eighty seconds, even against the 49ers' ravenous defense--and one of these days, Mike Singletary's eyeball is actually going to pop right out of his head--wasn't going to win this game? I would have bet five thousand dollars on it, if I had five thousand dollars and a bookmaker in my pocket rather than four dollars and a receipt from a sports bar in the Kansas City International Airport.