The word “bust” is thrown around liberally this time of year, and while the player usually takes the blame it’s not always his fault. During the 53 man cut down is when previously highly regarded prospects are either cut or traded. Teams and organizations chose to move on from high round draft picks from past years frequently before the start of the season in several weeks. I feel there is a misconception when it comes to these organizations deciding to move in a different direction – TALENT is not always the case. The big misconception in the NFL or just professional sports in general is highly touted players who are “Busts” can’t play – I’d argue that is far from the case. There are so many factors that go into players succeeding or failing, it’s not just a black and white situation. Below are several reasons why players fail – some out of their control, while others are more self-inflicted.
Coaches: Beside the head coach, the coordinators and position coaches can yield a lot of weight when it comes to a draft pick. This is not always a good thing either because the chances of them staying for a long portion of the player’s career are slim. When a player is drafted there is not always a consensus in the building on draft day. Sometimes the GM will love a player despite the rest of the staff not being a big fan. A position coach may want a specific player, but is often overruled by a GM or head coach – this can cause resentment from that coach moving. Coaches can hold grudges against player just because he wasn’t the player he desired.
They chose not to rotate him with the proper level of competition. The head coach will usually have to intervene or inject moving a player up with the starters. But the position coach will try to find reasons why that player is not good. They will often play guys who are not even close to as talented. This drives personnel people up the wall – but the coaches chose who plays on Sundays, not scouts.
AJ Jenkins was obviously in the doghouse when it came to the 49ers coaching staff. I am not sure why, but it’s relatively obvious the coaches didn’t like him. Players like Marlon Moore and Chad Hall started over him, and while Hall might not start in the Arena League – the coaches played him over Jenkins. As a former NFL personnel guy this would often drive me nuts. I understand a coach is drawn to certain players for various reasons – intelligence, work ethic, toughness, etc. – but what happened to the best player playing? I am not sure exactly what Jenkins problem was, maybe he didn’t have enough heart or desire but when I watched the 49ers rotations they never even gave him a chance to prove himself on the field.
Why not play him with the starters to see what he’s got? Why not let him play with Kaepernick? You drafted him in the first round, let him prove his worth.
There is getting in the doghouse, then there is where ever Jenkins landed – maybe the kitty litter? But now Jenkins is with Andy Reid, a man who has a soft spot for fast WR’s. He will give him every chance to succeed and have a vested interest in seeing him contribute early and often. Something I wish the 49ers coaching staff would have tried.
Schemes: You often hear the term; “don’t stick a round peg into a square hole.” This often happens in the draft when the personnel department and coaching staff are not on the same page. I hate the term best player available because I don’t think it’s an accurate statement. Just because a player is the most talented on the draft board doesn’t mean that he will be a fit. It’s a very fine line. As Bill Belichick often says in New England – the game of football is not about collecting talent, but building a football team.
For example, I love Jonathan Cooper but Bruce Arians has always run a power running scheme. Personally I am not big on taking a guard in the top 10, but that’s beside the point – Cooper was an ideal zone scheme OL because of his ELITE athletic ability. He would be a perfect fit on teams like Houston or Philadelphia. Now I am sure Cooper was the best player on the board, but the best organizations can separate the two – you want the best player who is the BEST scheme fit. Despite him getting hurt, which was before I wrote this article, I still believe the Cardinals would have been better off going in a different direction.
Also when coaches change teams, players who were previously high round picks may not fit the previous scheme – especially on defense. You often see 4-3 DE’s trying to make the move to the 3-4 OLB. This is by no means an easy transition. Some players like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have shown the ability to transition seamlessly, but they are the exception not the rule. It will be interesting to see if guys like Trent Cole, a former pro bowl level DE can do the same. There are NO guarantees when it comes to changing schemes. Good players will be on the street soon, and it doesn’t mean the player was a bust.
Confidence: “Stat geeks” will struggle with this one because it’s not something that can easily be quantified. But young players can ebb and flow mentally, questioning if they really belong at the highest level of football. I saw it for years with players in Philadelphia – just by the way they carry themselves in the building. I learned to sense it in their eyes and body language. Some guys know they belong; while others are consistently fighting a mental conundrum in their head.
Can I really play at this level? If you don’t believe in yourself, it will be very hard for your coaches and teammates to buy in as well.
I was around several guys who had deep belief in their own abilities, this gives them a chance to succeed every Sunday. While players like Asante Samuel, Desean Jackson, and Shady McCoy go to pro bowls, it just as easily goes the other way.
My second training camp with the Eagles first round pick Danny Watkins had been a consensus late first/early second round pick not just in our building but around the league. He held out his first camp, came in late and has been fighting an uphill battle ever since. He was a guy who just didn’t carry himself like a first round guard when you saw him within the building. When you watched him play on tape he would flash and look decent, then would go into the tank. If he does not make the 53 man roster in Philadelphia confidence/mental aptitude will have been a major reason why.
Work Ethic/Desire: Scouts often meet with several people regarding a players drive and work ethic at a school visit. No matter how much information you gather – you can never truly measure how a man will react when he gets a lot of money in his pocket. Former Rams GM Billy Devaney said it best about Alex Barron who’s been a major disappointment, “He does not like anything about the game except getting paid.” You can do all the research you want, but there is still an unknown when it comes to this aspect of the draft.
Brady and Manning separate themselves from the pack because of their relentless work ethic. Both are driven in their mid to late 30’s like they are 22-year old rookies. Your physical talents will only take you so far – if you don’t have the desire and work ethic you WILL be weeded out of the NFL. Jamarcus Russell and Vince Young are both examples of this. While Russell is out of the NFL, Young is trying to develop a work ethic in his late 20’s with the Packers. Usually doesn’t work that way. My personal belief is a work ethic is something you establish at a young age – it’s not something acquired as you get older.
A veteran coach once told me the worst combo an NFL player can have is “being dumb and lazy.” While I think great coaches can overcome a lack of intelligence because they are great teachers – being lazy is an inherent trait that never changes.