Posted by: Matt Spillane | March 5, 2010

To fix brains or to bash them?

NFL prospect Myron Rolle

One of my favorite football writers, Chris Brown, recently gave us some insight into the unique tale of Myrone Rolle. A former standout safety at Florida State, Rolle left college a year early to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Rolle will be an NFL draft pick this April, but eventually the young man will be a neurosurgeon, something he’s been dreaming of for years.

As Brown points out, what’s disappointing about Rolle’s situation is how he’s catching flak for not being committed and dedicated enough to football. Brown reveals that Rolle was asked during a January interview with the Tampa Bay Buccanears how he felt about “deserting his team” this season.

This brings up two points of interest for me: that coaches can be so remarkably short-sighted, and the question of whether or not other players get asked about “deserting” their teams. One commenter on Brown’s blog brought up a great point: do NFL teams ask underclassmen about deserting their teams? Rolle left his FSU team to take a Rhodes Scholarship and become one step closer to being a doctor who will help people and save lives. Most underclassmen who declare for the NFL draft leave their teams for the allure of the dollar sign. What’s more noble? What is more deserving of being called “desertion?” Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy left the Sooners a year early to enter the draft; was he asked about deserting his team? I doubt it.

As far as coaches being short-sighted, I understand their perspective; they are in the business of winning, and if Rolle is not prepared to adequately dedicate himself to an NFL team, than he is not helping anyone’s winning cause. Regardless, I can’t help but feel discouraged by that line of thinking. I understand that it’s business, that money and jobs are at stake, but there is more to life than money and winning. Myron Rolle is an outstanding role model who will bring a bevy of talents to whatever NFL team drafts him. Any NFL team would be lucky to employ his services; he’s got intelligence, character, work ethic, and he’s one heck of an athlete. The guy managed to study at Oxford while physically preparing himself for the NFL draft!

Also, forget football for a second. How many NFL teams have employed terrible human beings over the years? Who would you feel more comfortable hiring: Rolle or someone with a felony conviction and a criminal record? I mean, Donte Stallworth and Leonard Little both killed people while drunk driving and both are playing football still! How are teams scared off by Rolle’s admirable and impressive aspirations, yet not worried about investing money into players who have killed people?

Posted by: Matt Spillane | February 25, 2010

13 going on 18

13-year-old quarterback prodigy David Sills

Yes, this story is a few weeks old, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to comment on. When the story broke about 13-year-old David Sills committing to play football at USC, the news was all over the Internet. Everyone seemed to be fascinated by the fact that a seventh grader gave his word to play for USC in a few years.

That’s not what I found most interesting about this story, though. Is it common for coaches to recruit 13-year-olds? I don’t think so. Is it unheard of? No. It happens more often in basketball, but football players sometimes get courted at very young ages as well. Lane Kiffin undoubtedly learned a thing or two from his old mentor, Pete Carroll, about getting players’ attention at a young age.

People have, understandably, heaped criticism upon Kiffin yet again for being a snake (which he is). However, as Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples points out, this is one of Kiffin’s more intelligent decisions as of late. By no means am I defending the ethics of recruiting a 13-year-old, believe me. But the USC coach has much to gain from offering a scholarship to a much-hyped 13-year-old, much more than he has to lose from it.

By verbally extending Sills, a Delaware resident, an early scholarship offer, Kiffin has established a connection with renowned quarterback tutor Steve Clarkson. A relationship with Clarkson is in Kiffin’s best interests; by giving Clarkson publicity now, Kiffin may get future support from Clarkson in recruiting his players.

And while Kiffin has been lambasted for this move, the media and blogosphere have missed the true offender in this case – David’s parents. What kinds of parents allow their child to be thrown into a situation like this? The obvious irresponsible act was allowing their son to give his word and commit to a college while in seventh grade (apparently USC has always been David’s dream school), but it goes much further than that. If Sills ends up being one of the greatest football players to ever step on a field, then everyone involved will look like geniuses. Sills will have gone from prodigy to legend, just like he’s being predicted to now.

But what if he doesn’t? What if he doesn’t get much better and turns out to be average? What if he ends up playing for the local community college instead of USC? He’ll be ridiculed mercilessly on the Internet, deemed a failure, a bust and a disappointment. That dreadful scenario could have been avoided a few weeks ago if his parents had shooed away the media and not bought into this publicity circus. I feel bad for the kid already.

Posted by: Matt Spillane | February 3, 2010

Dreams do come true

To America, today is February 3, or the day after Groundhog Day. To the sports world, however, today is Signing Day. 

A national holiday of sorts, National Signing Day is the beginning of the college football signing period: it marks the first time that high school seniors can sign letters of intent and officially commit to college teams. 

This is the day when 17-and-18-year-olds hold their own press conferences, flush with television cameras and reporters, for the sole reason of announcing their college decision. They will place a few baseball hats on a table – representing their final college finalists – and build up suspense until they place the hat of their choice on their head to declare the winner.

The Signing Day mayhem can be tracked all day long, on numerous television channels and Web sites, with groundbreaking news apparently unfolding before our eyes.

While other high school seniors will excitedly announce their college decisions in front of their parents, hundreds of fawned-over football players will announce their choices via their own personal media circuses.

I wish I could say that I don’t care about any of this. The entire concept – high school kids getting around-the-clock attention for ultimately doing nothing of consequence – is ridiculous and pointless. I wish I could ignore the bizarre spectacle that Signing Day has become and focus on something of substance and consequence. Every second that I watch of Signing Day coverage, I fully recognize and understand the useless way in which I am spending my time.

And yet I can’t look away.  

This afternoon I was at the Marist football office, where I work, and I found myself watching the press conference of some random high school player on ESPNU, identified by a name I could not pronounce and some meaningless recruiting ranking. He was rambling on about nonsense and clichéd tales about how the importance of this “event.”

Although I’m a college football fan (the Michigan Wolverines are on the way back!), this kid’s choice of college meant nothing to me. Somehow, I kept watching. He eventually announced that he is attending UCLA, and my viewing ceased.

Something struck me then. I watched this press conference with simultaneous interest and indifference, along with three other people. None of us had any reason to watch this. No attachment or unique interest. Yet none of us could look away.

Why did we watch that press conference so attentively? Why did we care? I think the answer came not a minute afterward in the form of a question.

“If you were that kid and you could go anywhere you wanted, where would you go?” asked one of the people I watched with. The four of us proceeded to give our answers, providing reasoning and partaking in a little debating about which schools we would choose if given the option.

We want to be that kid in the press conference. We want the freedom – the option – to choose whatever school we want. That kid who chose UCLA probably had scholarship offers from almost every school in the country, and we want to make that decision for him.

But it’s more than that. We want the opportunity to make a decision without limitations, without restrictions. The kid from the press conference – and other kids like him – gets an opportunity to make decisions with potentially significant consequences.

More importantly, they can choose anything they want. They literally choose their dream school. And in their case, that very well may be their biggest dream. The millions of football fans who eagerly – yet indifferently – pay attention to Signing Day wish they could make their dreams come true.

We all yearn to be that kid in the press conference, and it has nothing to do with football.

Posted by: Matt Spillane | January 28, 2010

Tebow, the NFL draft and football decision-making

In light of Tim Tebow’s performance in the Senior Bowl this past weekend and the NFL combine looming later this month, I remembered a relevant and insightful piece of writing that pertains to both subjects. One of my favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in November about the thinking behind NFL draft selections and the process of evaluating and projecting college players. It was a follow-up to an earlier piece he had written that touched on the process of evaluating and projecting college quarterbacks to the NFL game.

Relying on multiple sources of research, Gladwell questions the thought processes of NFL personnel gurus who decide which players to select on draft day and in what order. His sources place strong emphasis on past performance as arguably the most accurate indicator of future success, as opposed to the Combine numbers that NFL higher-ups drool over. I find this debate fascinating and particularly relevant given the intriguing argument surrounding Tim Tebow’s NFL prospects.

I adhere to the school of thought that emphasizes on-field performance over physical attributes, but that whole schism of thought requires its own separate post. How this affects Tebow, though, is what’s so interesting.

Tebow doesn’t wow scouts with his mechanics or fundamentals, and questions about his natural ability to throw the football have put the pro potential of one of college football’s immortals into serious doubt. Tebow does, however, boast an unparalleled résumé that includes one remarkable achievement after another. What are we to think of him?

Using the research and conclusions presented in Gladwell’s piece, one would conclude that Tebow should make a good NFL quarterback. He was a winner (35-6 career record as a starter, two national championships) and accurate (completion percentage of 64 or higher every season). There are valid questions to be answered, of course. Can he improve his mechanics? If not, will it matter? To what degree did Urban Meyer’s offense affect his statistics? These questions must be all be answered before his potential can be accurately and thoroughly evaluated.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of this debate; he may not be on track for the NFL Hall of Fame, but he should also be better than a second-string tight end of fullback in the professional ranks. One thing we can all agree on is that Tebow deserves a shot to play quarterback, and if he is to succeed he will need a year on the sideline, learning and practicing an NFL offense.

The other question surrounding the former Florida Gator is that of where to draft him? I’ve heard everything from late-first round to third round, with a lot of dissenting opinions in between. Based on the consensus status of Tebow as a project and the research from Gladwell’s piece, the second round could be the best place for him. The first round is painfully high for a project with so much uncertainty, but waiting until the third round coud be a mistake if someone else snatches him up. The best value for Tebow, both athletically and financially, seems to be the second round. 

Regardless of how you feel about his pro potential and draft stock, you have to admit you’re intrigued by it all. I know I am.