Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lyin' Eyes, Lyin' Numbers

One of George Carlin's most famous monologues was on the differences between baseball and football. It's too bad Carlin died before he could work Tim Tebow into that bit.

Suppose, if you will, Tebow was a baseball player, with the equivalent level of performance in that sport in top-shelf college competition that he enjoyed as Florida's quarterback. Suppose also that Tebow had baseball-related technical flaws evident to the naked eye of any fan, let alone scout. A Jim Furyk-like hitch in his swing, say, or a pitching motion reminiscent of the funkier deliveries of Bugs Bunny when he twirled for Warner Bros.

Well, there would be debate about Tebow's future in the big leagues among the anonymous scouts and front office types who gossip over the back fence of baseball notes columns. But there would also be a number something like a 1.046 OPS or a 1.10 ERA listed to the right of Tebow's name. And there would be no doubt whatsoever, even among Tebow doubters, that he would be a high draft choice. Very high. He'd be scanning online apartment listings in Greater Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San Diego right now.

Let's go back to the real Tebow, the football player. At the most statistically quantifiable position at his sport, Tebow has compiled astonishing numbers in what is generally thought to be the toughest college football conference in the country, the NFL's highest minor league, if you will. He threw for zillions of yards, ran for hundreds of touchdowns, and last but certainly not least, Tebow started 39 games as a QB and lost four. If there were footballmetricians, they would be screaming at the Rams to make Tebow the number one pick in the draft this April.

There aren't really any footballmetricians, except the gang over at Football Outsiders, and even they don't fancy Tebow's chances in the NFL. In this game, eyeball evidence matters, not numbers. The tapes from Senior Bowl practices, which the NFL Network thoughtfully has rebroadcast on a 37-hour a day basis, show Tebow fumbling snaps, throwing passes straight into the ground, and passing with a sidearm motion not even seen in baseball anymore.

As a result, there is a consensus in the NFL community, and among all fans outside northern Florida, that Tebow ain't got it. He will never be a starting pro quarterback. The most generous estimates of his future, like mine, are that he could be a useful supplemental change-up to a team's basic offense -- a Brad Smith who doesn't return kicks. In other words, a fourth round draft pick.

There are contrarian opinions on Tebow, some issued by people whose ideas must be respected, like Jon Gruden, and some, like Michael Felger, who are just jerking your chain. As far as can be ascertained at this moment, none of the contrarians will be making draft selections this April.

About Tebow, we'll see. I'm using him here as a case study in the difference in talent evaluation between our two largest professional sports. In baseball, the war between the seamhead-old scout alliance and the quant empire is over. The numbers-crunchers have won, and statistical analysis is at worst a 50 percent factor in every team's assessment of a player's future.

In football, allegedly a far more scientific and futuristic game, eyeball evidence rules, and stats are cited only by agents. From Bill Belichick down to humble outsiders such as you and I, football people make up their minds about a player by watching him, and filtering what we see through the infinite complexity of our brain, or at least that part of it stuffed with football information, prejudice, and guesswork.

Here's the kicker. The success/failure ratio of talent assessment of these two methods are exactly the same. The conventional wisdom is more often right than wrong, but wrong often enough to make depending on it an express train to failure.

The numbers argue J.D. Drew is much, much better than you think, but you're right, and they're wrong. Eyeballs that had been watching football for decades told the San Diego Chargers that Ryan Leaf would be a Hall of Fame quarterback.


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