Saturday, April 29, 2006

Football: The Gulf Between College and the Pros

The Wall Street Journal published two articles in Friday's edition that focused on college prospects for the NFL draft. "Why the NFL is Drafting Benchwarmers" (Sam Walker, Friday, April 28, 2006 p. W1, p. W6) describes how general managers focus more on player's raw athleticism than on game results. Size, speed, vertical leap sway scouts more than game performance. The pros look for "specialists" with the raw potential to fit into their game schemes. Walker's article implies that these attributes are not necessarily on display at the college level.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian is quoted as "The distance between the college and pro game has never been greater." Why the difference? For one thing, colleges face more restrictions. They are limited to 20 hours of practice per week in season and only fifteen formal practice days in the off season. With more players leaving school early, college coaches have less time to teach technique or install complex game plans. The article goes on to say "Once these players get to the NFL, the learning curve is even steeper than before. Many NFL Teams have switched to the 3-4 defensive alignment . . . that requires players with specific combinations of quickness, bulk and intelligence that most college systems don't cultivate. On offense, most college teams are using a scheme where a super-mobile quarterback takes snaps from the shotgun formation with as many as five receivers and creates chaos by improvising. Meanwhile, the NFL is more interested in tall, stationary passers who can take snaps from center, drop back efficiently, read mismatches and deliver crisp passes with an efficient arm motion."

ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge was heard on the radio describing the difference between college and pro pass coverage. In college, he said, a receiver might be open by eight feet. In the pros, he might be open by only eight inches. He was illustrating the value of quarterback passing accuracy at the pro level.

A related article by Allen St. John ("Picking Playcallers," April 28, 2006, p. W6) presents a backward analysis of the stats of college quarterbacks who found success in the NFL, comparing it to those who did not. One statistic he found telling was yards-per-pass-attempt (YPA), especially the difference in YPA in the player's junior and senior year. The idea being that higher averages show greater passing efficiency. Successful NFL quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger) were found to have a minimal difference in the stat in their last two college years, an indication of consistent performance. Other QBs whose YPA was significantly higher in their senior than junior year struggled when they got to the NFL (Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, Brian Greise, Phil Rivers). Basically, they were college one-year wonders.

A second indicator of future success is the more familiar touchdown-to-interception ratio. Manning, McNabb, Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Daunte Culpepper all had a ratio better than 3:1 in their last college season.

Of the three prominent college QBs in this year's draft, Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler, Leinart has the best stats by St. John's measure, with a minimal junior-senior difference in his YPA and a TD/interception ratio of 3.86. Vince Young showed the greatest difference in his soph-junior YPAs, while his TD/interception ratio of 2.6 is lower than was Kyle Boller's number. Cutler's TD/interception ration was lowest at 2.3.

And what does all this mean? For one thing, college and pro football are the same sport, but are not the same game! College players are still school boys and boys are assessed differntly when they get to the pro level. A stellar college career does not necessarily predict succeess in the NFL. When playing with men, it's better to have raw athleticism than a blue chip resume (but best to have both).

Second, it's probably a waste to pick a quarterback in the first round. A prospect selected in a later round, like Tom Brady, can be as effective as a first rounder, like Alex Smith. Even good college quarterbacks taken in the first round need a season or three to develope into pro signal callers. Owners, GMs and fans would be wise to allow that time. Usually, they don't! Of this year's quarterback first rounders, Matt Leinart's appears to have the best prospects as a pro based on his college numbers. Check this space in three years.

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