Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice ended his career with a staggering 22,895 receiving yards and an eye-popping 207 total touchdowns. Rice, who reportedly ran just a 4.71 40-yard dash, is also the poster child for why "measurables don't matter." If the 40-yard dash and other quantifiable measurements really predicted NFL success, could Rice really have turned in perhaps the best career for any wide receiver in NFL history?
Well, yes. When dealing with statistics, it's often tempting to find instances that seem to disconfirm a specific hypothesis in an attempt to prove its invalidity. In the case of Rice and the 40-yard dash, it's enticing to argue that since Rice (or Frank Gore, or Anquan Boldin) ran poor times and have still been very successful in the NFL, the 40-yard dash is useless as a predictor of achievement.
But it isn't. It's important to remember that when forecasting events, we're dealing with probabilities. It's especially true in relation to the NFL draft, when the goal of scouting departments is to figure out which
traits predict future success, whether it's great game tape, a high IQ, or a stunning 40 time, and then value those characteristics more than others. However, the goal isn't to make flawless draft selections, a fruitless endeavor, but rather to maximize the chances of success for each pick.
In many ways, drafting is like playing poker. If you watch the World Series of Poker on ESPN, you know that any regular Joe (or Chris) can take down much superior players; it's part of the randomness inherent to poker. I could play a hand completely incorrectly, monumentally decreasing my chances of winning, and still beat out the world's top professionals with a lucky card. Over the long run, though, my luck would run out. If I continued to play sub-optimal strategies, I'd eventually lose my money.
The same is true in the NFL. If you ignore the percentages, you can still hit on really good players, even a Jerry Rice. But it's a poor long-term strategy. The teams that most consistently draft based on "gut feel" instead of quantifiable evidence are continually among those at the bottom of the NFL barrel, and no single piece of evidence to the contrary – yes, even a Hall of Fame receiver – can dispel that notion. Dismissing the importance of quantifiable measurements because of an isolated instance or two would be the equivalent of always raising in poker with a 2 and a 7 because "hey, it worked once."
I proposed a version of this idea, that drafting is a probabilistic process and the best teams tilt the odds in their favor, in my articles on running back speed and defensive end height. In the former, I found that running backs who clocked in below 4.49 at the Combine have had a rough go of it in the NFL.
In terms of maximizing approximate value, there appear to be three required traits for success in the NFL at the running back position: speed, speed and … speed.
And as always, we have our outliers. For example, Frank Gore has been outstanding despite running a 4.65 in 2005. Since that time, the other running backs to run higher than 4.55 and thrive in the NFL are, well, none. The three next-best runners who clocked in below 4.55 since 2005 are Stevan Ridley, Alfred Morris and Shonn Greene. Not exactly in the same class as Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice and Matt Forte, all of whom ran no worse than 4.44.
The point is that although drafting is an inexact and probabilistic science, there are still proper ways to do it. It really boils down to valuing the process over the outcome. In the same way that the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the opponent's 30-yard line is typically correct regardless of the outcome of the play, players can be quality picks regardless of how they turn out on an individual basis. As long as the Cowboys and other teams place emphasis on perfecting the process of drafting – one that recognizes there are no "sure things" and the best you can do is shift the probability of success in your favor – then they'll be just fine. [embedded_ad]
It's easy to use a player like Rice to dispel the importance of measurables, but maybe we shouldn't write him off just yet. Despite running a 4.71, Rice is said to have run one of the all-time fastest "flying 20s," the last 20 yards of the 40-yard dash. Lots of teams around the league now value the flying 20 for wide receivers because it's a good indication of a player's ability to separate from defenders. Even Rice, the archetype for the "measurables don't matter" movement, might have been the perfect example of why the numbers lie only if we don't know what to look for.