Thursday, April 30, 2015

Peyton Manning -or- Ryan Leaf: Superstar -or- Bust?

After the 1998 N.F.L. draft produced one of the greatest busts in history, what have we learned about the science of evaluating human talent — on and off the field?

Manning or Leaf? A Lesson in Intangibles

Say the name Bobby Thomson and before long someone is sure to bring up his 1951 partner in baseball history, Ralph Branca. Ever since the 1986 World Series, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner have gone together like a hot dog and a beer (or perhaps more like oil and water, if you’re a still-mournful Boston Red Sox fan). Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are forever joined in grace by their 1998 pursuit of a home-run record, and in disgrace by their reliance on performance-enhancing drugs. And what figure-skating fan can hear about Nancy Kerrigan without thinking of Tonya Harding, the two being linked by a bizarre episode of attempted kneecapping in 1994?

In much the same way, any conversation about football that mentions the splendid Peyton Manning is bound at some point to turn to his onetime doppelgänger, Ryan Leaf. In 1998, Messrs. Manning and Leaf were blisteringly hot prospects as they entered the National Football League’s annual draft — college quarterbacks of exceptional promise, either of them certain to be that year’s No. 1 pick. As recalled in the latest weekly video documentary from Retro Report, that was exactly how the 1998 draft played out. Mr. Manning was selected first, by the Indianapolis Colts. Mr. Leaf was chosen next, by the San Diego Chargers.

That is where similarities between the two men dissolve. Peyton Manning went on to become one of the best pro quarterbacks of all time, capturing five most valuable player awards and leading teammates to three Super Bowls. Ryan Leaf? For all his physical prowess and an $11.25 million signing bonus, he became a synonym for an absolute bust. He played in a mere 25 games across four seasons. His passes resulted in many more interceptions than touchdowns. After football, his life skidded off the road. He had a pill problem. In 2012, he began serving a seven-year sentence in his native Montana for breaking into a house in search of painkillers.

So, with the 2014 pro football draft upon us this week, does it boil down to a matter of character?

The Colts seemed to think so. In Mr. Manning, a member of a family that qualifies as pro football aristocracy, the team believed it had a master of control and poise. Mr. Leaf was the stronger athlete in many respects, but he turned out to have a 10-cent emotional quotient to go with his million-dollar arm. He was hot-tempered and at times lackadaisical in his training habits. The focus on character — “intangibles” being a favored word — is reflected in a current movie, “Draft Day,” with Kevin Costner playing a football team’s general manager who is more concerned with a prospect’s inner qualities than with his throwing arm.

Character is an issue in all sports and, for that matter, in other endeavors. Perhaps it weighs more heavily in football because an unusually large number of players, 11, must meld into a single unit. Cliché though this may be, the team is a chain that is often only as strong as its weakest link.

How shall one assess a vicious racist who gets along with almost no one, is quick to use his fists and is thoroughly disliked by even his own teammates? Not a sound prospect, many would say. But what if we call him Ty Cobb, who had the highest career batting average — .366 or .367, depending on whose stats you use — in Major League Baseball history? Would you drop a bundle of cash on an ill-disciplined fellow who is given to overindulgence and who as a boy was deemed by those in charge of him to be “incorrigible”? What if we say his name is Babe Ruth?

The N.F.L. has managed to find room for players with criminal records, often for acts of violence. In some past years, the league had so many players under indictment that its games could have been carried by Court TV. A 2012 study by a professor and a student at Hamilton College in upstate New York concluded that a player’s running afoul of the law was less significant as an indicator of future performance than run-ins he may have had with coaches and teammates.

The quest to assess intangibles is not likely to end. Nor is it confined to professional sports. To cite but one example, some defense lawyers rely on consultants who are supposedly expert in sizing up people quickly to help pick the “right” jury.

One such lawyer is Gerald B. Lefcourt of New York. Yes, he sometimes calls on those specialists, he said in an interview. But “the benefit is deselection rather than selection,” Mr. Lefcourt said. In other words, “it’s more to get you to understand who shouldn’t be a juror” than who should — an unacceptable type for him being someone who is, say, “very government-oriented or a compliance type.” Still, in the end, “you go with your gut,” Mr. Lefcourt said. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Which is exactly what the football pros say, too. — Clyde Haberman | New York Times

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