"The Quarterback Quandary"


That’s the name of an article I wrote for NFL.com, about the importance — and difficulty — of picking a good quarterback in the NFL draft. I also hosted an NFL Network program (video preview here) on the same topic, to air in conjunction with this week’s draft.

Excerpt from the article:

It’s not fair to say that the NFL draft is a total crapshoot. First-round players generally perform better than second-round players, who generally perform better than third-rounders and so on.

But there’s a dirty little secret that most people won’t acknowledge, or don’t even recognize. Selecting a player in the draft is essentially trying to predict the future, and human beings are simply not very good at it.

How do we know this?

First of all, there’s this quote from Niels Bohr, the Nobel-winning physicist: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” But don’t take Bohr’s word for it. Let’s look at evidence from a couple of fields unrelated to the NFL draft: finance and politics.

In recent years, academic researchers have been charting the predictions made by high-ranking experts in those fields. What they’ve found is quite sobering. When it comes to describing how the future will unfold, the typical financial or political expert does about as well as a monkey with a dartboard. Even more sobering, experts who have a particular concentration of knowledge do even worse in that area; and the more famous an expert, the more likely he is to fail.

Repeat after me: Predicting the future is really, really hard. Meteorologists have gotten pretty good at making three-day weather forecasts. Four days? Not so good.

Howard Tayler

And the reason meteorologists are good at a three-day forecast is because so much of what's visibly happening right now is completely relevant to the three-day prediction. It's almost like predicting where a thrown ball will land.

The four-day 'cast? That's where you start to have to watch the guy throwing the ball, and figure out what's on his mind.


It does beg the question, what does matter ? (other than round). Were there qualities that did predict NFL success ? GPA ? Seems like there could be many attributes to check.

John F

I think the most sobering quote from your article is this one, "If you took a few million parents and asked if they'd rather their son grow up to be President of the United States or a starting QB in the NFL, I'm guessing -- if they were being honest -- they'd go for the QB."

Sadly, I think you're right. But who am I to criticize; I'd rather *be* a starting NFL QB than POTUS.

Cañada Kid

I also have noticed how, yes, first round picks tend to do better than the second picks, and so forth, but the cost to perform (i.e. the contract size versus actual performance level) starts out at its lowest, in an inverse relationship with the performance.


I believe that Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent essay on this very topic some time ago. AFAIK the essence was that QB performance at college relates poorly to his performance in NFL due to very different style of play.

BTW where are the meteorologists who can predict weather 3 days in advance? Ours can barely manage 24 hours.

Jay Livingston

Niels Bohr, the Nobel-winning physicist: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” I have often heard this quote attributed to Yogi Berra. The similarity may not go much further.


Some thoughts...

First, I have a feeling that KNOWING you are a first rounder, along with the extra attention that is likely give to you, does indeed make for better performance. Now, there's no way this is going to happen, but I would be willing to bet a Coca-Cola, that if draftees DID NOT KNOW in what order they were drafted, and you told 5th rounders that they were 1st rounders, and gave them the associated attention/training/encouragement, you would see 5th rounders perform much higher than they normally do. (And, conversely, if 1st rounders were told they were 7th rounders, given 7th round attention, they would likely not perform at the same level as usual.)


As for why experts do worse at predicting the future, some call it "analysis paralysis." A true expert KNOWS that there are so many variables, so many feather-touches, so many butterfly-wing-flaps that can redound to affect outcomes, that they likely shy everyone else is seeing. After all, if they see it like non-experts, then they might reason that they have not brought their expertise into play.

I remember during the Falklands War, one of my political science professors told the class (and I applaud him for taking the bold risk!) that he thought Britain would NOT carry the day. The class moaned aloud and assured him that he was wrong. And he was. He was adding in all the variables...and when you do, the weighting may eventually tip the prediction in the wrong direction.

But for us non-experts, we just go with the plain, bland facts. And apparently THAT is indeed what carries the day. The problem is that if an expert isn't saying anything different from "the common folks," the question arises as to the value of that expert. And the expert himself/herself likely thinks that the common folks can predict no better than a monkey throwing darts, and so seeks to find reasons to come to a conclusion that is different than what they think is blind chance.


The R

There is no quandary. None of the the QB's now have what P Mann has as an all-around player and buck$. You can see what I'm talking about here http://nflfootballfanatical.com/peyton-manning-highest-paid-nfl-player/