Winds of the NFL

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I follow the NFL draft.  And this year, with my adopted St Louis Rams holding picks #2 and #13 (of the first 32), the draft was injected with an additional shot of testosterone.  I say “embarrassed” for two reasons — the obsession with spectator sports consumes so much valuable time that it is truly spiritually and physically unhealthy. Yet, the NFL (as do others) wants us to invest more of our time into their product. Count the hours that we fans invest — the games of our favorite team, the other games, the other sports, the pre-game shows and the post-game shows, the articles, the conversations and increasingly the drafts and other shows, and it is a wonder that we have time for anything else! 

The second embarrassment is the empty wind, the waste of it all.  Although there is some value in hearing analysts present and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the best players, and in identifying the needs of each team, mock drafts — that is, predictions of what 32 or so teams will do with the first 32 picks—are themselves a statistical “impossibility.”  Given that each team has at least two, and perhaps four, five or more significant needs, given that they do not know who will be available from the many players they might choose from, and given that trades happen, what is the real value of the numerous mock drafts by countless pros and amateurs over many months, with new versions appearing regularly, each as a new event?  But the fans watch it and the shows and articles multiply, and this year — a movie!

The volume of empty wind is increased when analysts discuss whether teams will trade their pick. George Bernard Shaw is purported to have approached a woman for a “rendezvous” to which she indignantly replied, “What kind of woman do you think I am?” He responded, “We know what kind you are, we are just negotiating the price.” “Will the Rams trade their pick?”  Sure, any team will — it depends on the offer. One year the New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft for a single player! And who can know what a team will offer because it is impossible to know how much value a single individual, let alone an organization with several decision-makers, will assign to any player.

And what is the value of the player — do they know how good he will be?  A review of any past draft reveals that many of the highest evaluated players turned out to be busts.  On the other hand, the Pro-Bowl of any year is mostly made up of players who were drafted in the later rounds or not drafted at all.  The NFL even has shows about the top-10 busts, and the top-10 undrafted players, and then adds “honorable mentions.”  Fans know them: Quarterbacks Jamal Marcus and Ryan Leaf among the biggest busts, and Joe Montana (3rd round), Tom Brady (6th round), and Kurt Warner (undrafted) as the greatest prizes, to name just three QBs.  

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So what is the value of incessant articles and TV shows, and especially of polling the fans, asking who their team should take?  If the scouts and other NFL and college experts, who devote countless hours of organized, sophisticated, scouting — from physical measurables and video of every play to personal attitude and background –hit and miss so often, why are we polled?

What matters is how the player plays.  His pre-draft grades are only one elusive element as to whether or not he will succeed, the only real issue, which means we must wait for years to find out whether the team’s draft was successful.  Moreover, the team’s style and its coaching talent are crucial elements for a player’s success.  The same player put in a mismatched system (for him) and with mediocre coaching, and perhaps too many undedicated teammates, will likely not thrive.  

And finally, we come to the greatest of the unknowns — is the player motivated, with a sustained motivation, to engage in the combat and competition, the grueling physical and mental challenge, that the NFL poses? No one can know this, not even the player, until he faces it. Fans can express harsh derision for a player who has great physical talent but underperforms. But his psychological make-up is at least as important as talent. It is part of the pre-draft evaluation and the post-career evaluation of a player. If he doesn’t have it, he should not be ridiculed, it means he doesn’t have it — and truckloads of money cannot necessarily provide it. 

The NFL draft can be interesting and fun.  Investing some time in observing the process is part of the fan experience.  But turning away from worthless speculation and devoting energies to other more productive uses of time, should be part of our life equation — (yes, there is a rabbinic message here): “Teach us (God) to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12) — investing our precious God-bestowed time, wisely.