“Turn on the tape.”
We hear that a lot, right? Why has
And there’s no doubt that film study is an important part of football, whether it’s game-planning for opponents or scouting NFL rookies.
But as it stands right now, there are a few problems with blind film study.
First, we really have no consensus on “how” to watch film. Two very well-trained scouts can watch the same tape and come away with two very different opinions. We see that all the time in the draft, and it can be problematic.
Second, there’s not always much relevant film to study. Is it really all that helpful to watch a dozen games of a small-school college prospect competing against players half his size? How about a player who was known to be competing through an injury for an entire year? What about a guy like Wilber who is now a couple of years removed from his college days without much NFL experience? Or players making position switches?
When it comes down to it, film isn’t standardized. We can’t just “turn on the tape” and trust what we see because there are just too many variables for the results to be extremely meaningful. And even when everything is as systemized as it can get, different eyes see different things.
That brings us to the third problem with the current state of film study, and the most damning: It’s not falsifiable. That’s a major, major issue because a lack of falsifiability is a telltale sign of something being unscientific, and thus incapable of improvement.
How do you falsify a scout’s claim that a prospect “plays with heart,” “displays savvy,” or “has great hips”? You can’t. Not without analytics.
Look, scouts are really good at what they do. To watch film and accurately grade individual prospects in an environment as chaotic as the football field is awesome. But we need to accept their opinions in spite of the fact that they can’t be falsified. They can’t be improved upon.
Analytics, on the other hand, is built upon a scientific foundation. Through an evolutionary process, bad stats can become good stats. Statisticians are refining their formulas and models all the time, using data to create more accurate forecasts.
But how can bad film study become useful? How can one scout piggyback on the work of another? As it stands right now, that can’t be done. Each scout needs to learn the nuances of watching film, which requires countless hours of dedication. Even then, there’s probably a fairly low ceiling on what he can provide since there’s no scientific foundation on which he can build. Worse, his opinions must be accepted on faith.
Meanwhile, analytics continue to evolve. The scientific nature of stat analysis – the way in which it can advance – makes it scalable in a way that traditional analytics-deprived scouting is not. If the Cowboys are truly a team built upon valuing “the process” over the outcome, analytics absolutely must be embraced.
A Look at Kyle Wilber
In my article on why defensive end George Selvie could be special, I mentioned that Selvie is average to slightly below-average in terms of height for a defensive end (he’s been measured between 6’3” and 6’4”). I charted the height for all defensive ends who have attended the NFL Scouting Combine since 1999.
There’s a pretty big sample here, so the results unsurprisingly resemble a bell curve. You can see Selvie falls around the average to just slightly below the mean.
Selvie ended up falling to the seventh round despite racking up the most tackles-for-loss in college football since 2000, in large part because of his injury history. But what if Selvie were taller? NFL teams value height quite a bit in defensive ends, and the numbers seem to support that.
Using approximate value as a grading metric, it’s pretty clear that there’s a relationship between height and pass-rushing success. Those defensive ends who have ranked in the middle or top third in height (which has been right around 6’4” and up) have been far, far more successful than shorter defensive ends.
But why? It’s actually not because of the height. Instead, height is strongly correlated with something that really matters for pass-rushers: arm length. Defenders need long arms to fend off the blocks from offensive linemen. NFL teams continue to value height in pass-rushers because tall defensive ends find the most success.
But in the same manner that offensive balance is just a byproduct of winning, height is the byproduct of pass-rushing success – an effect of a deeper phenomenon instead of a cause of it. Winning teams are balanced because they acquire a lead by passing efficiently, and tall pass-rushers are effective because they typically have long arms.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Wilber. He’s 6’4”, 246 pounds with 33 ¼-inch arms. That arm length is average to slightly below-average for someone as tall as Wilber. Here’s a distribution of arm length for 6’4” players from this year’s draft class.
The most common arm length for a 6’4” player is between 34 and 35 inches. Wilber falls in the lower half of the second tier. Selvie, meanwhile, lands in the top 25 percent with his 34 ½-inch arms. Those long arms are undoubtedly part of the equation for Selvie’s early success.
In Wilber, the Cowboys have a player who is near the average in both height and arm length, but quicker than the average defensive end. Check out the defensive end short shuttle distribution since 1999:
Wilber checked in at 4.31. He finds himself in the 81st percentile for defensive ends, i.e. he’s quicker than four out of five defensive ends who attended the NFL Scouting Combine since 1999.
Despite that, he’s not quite producing at the level of the Cowboys’ starters in his limited action.
Granted, Wilber’s pressure rate could change dramatically as he gets more snaps under his belt, but he’s not yet producing at the level of Ware or Spencer. Again, we need to see more of Wilber to more properly analyze his productivity, but he hasn’t shown anything extraordinary just yet. And weighing under 250 pounds, Wilber’s game will really be about rushing the passer over being a force against the run.
In the end, Wilber is a difficult player on whom to get a read. He’s probably physically gifted enough to play at a decent level in the NFL, but he doesn’t have the elite skill set/measurables of a Ware (or even a Selvie). With Ware aging rapidly and Spencer likely out of Dallas in 2014, the ’Boys desperately need to find their pass-rushing duo of the future. While Wilber is probably a capable fill-in, chances are he’s not going to be a dominant long-term option.
All you need to do is look at the numbers.