One-Potata, Two-Potata: The (Million) Dollar Logic of the NFL Draft

A great many of us have the memory. Standing among a loose group of our childhood peers at the edge of a vacant blacktop, field, or diamond, we try to look nonchalant and confident as the two captains eye us over. Whether self-appointed or chosen by the binding logic of the “one-potata, two-potata” game, those lucky two now hold the fate of our afternoon (and the bulk of our self-esteem) in their hands. As the teams are chosen and the group around us dwindles, our anxiety begins to grow. If we are an odd number, that anxiety becomes a dull terror. The threat of being relegated to the sidelines as the odd man out looms larger; our friends have all been picked and still, here we stand, rendered somehow invisible to the discriminating eye of those merciless judges.

Perhaps, though, it was just me. I’ll readily admit that, as a kid, when it came to sports I was more Ogilvie from The Bad News Bears than (Li’l) Bow Wow from Like Mike. If I wasn’t close chums with one of the captains, or couldn’t bribe my way onto the team with free handouts of Big League Chew bubble gum, I was usually passed over for those third graders with a leaner, hungrier look about them. Re-living these painful scenarios, however, is not just to recoil in horror at the misadventures of my youth, but to point out how sports, in many ways, inevitably leads us all back to childhood.

Take the NFL draft, for example. Later this month, a recapitulation of this difficult scene will take place on an unprecedented scale. Held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and broadcast on ESPN, the draft, for all its baroque embellishment and glitz, essentially replays the same drama of those bygone sandlot days. No longer standing in a nervous group at the edge of the playing field, the players (at least those most assured of being selected in the first round) now wait in the wings of the green room, surrounded by an entourage of family, agents, stylists, and general hangers-on. They wait for the breathless moment when the league commissioner steps to the podium and announces their name, producing a team jersey and cap for them to show off in their first photo opportunity as a professional athlete.

Others, though, must wait at home. The draft lasts for seven rounds, with picks and trades continuing over a two-day period. After the initial excitement of the first 20 or so marquee players’ selection, the event diminishes into a familiar source of anxiety for those players who are simply hoping to be chosen at all.

Of course, there’s much more to miss out on for these players than simply a weekend afternoon’s activities. By this stage of their career, football is a million-dollar business. Consequently, the scrutiny that’s involved in draft selections these days makes the studious gazes of our childhood captains seem downright heartwarming by comparison. Every draft choice is planned, calculated, researched, and then recalibrated to ensure maximum return-on-investment for the team and its management. As a result, players entering the draft today are examined to an unprecedented, and some might say ridiculous, degree. One who might agree with this latter assessment is ex-University of Texas quarterback Vince Young.

A junior with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining, Young decided to enter this year’s draft early after turning in one of the most remarkable performances of any single athlete in college football history. Leading his team to an undefeated season and a national championship match-up with defending champs the University of Southern California, Young and his teammates were nevertheless counted out by a vast majority of the media and fans in the days leading up to the game. ESPN, in fact, was so assured of a repeat victory that it ran comparisons of the 2005 USC team with other championship teams of seasons past — long before the game with UT had even been played.

The contest, however, instead provided a national showcase for Young’s unmatched abilities; he willed his team to victory with both his passing and running ability. The favored Trojans had no answer for his offensive prowess and Young left the game a champion, riding a wave of publicity that assured him of a top ranking in the upcoming NFL draft — that was, until he took the Wonderlic exam.

What all-important assessment could bring such intense hype to a screeching halt? One might well ask. The Wonderlic Personnel Test is given by the NFL to potential draft candidates as a de facto IQ test. The results, particularly for quarterbacks, are often emphasized as indicative of a player’s decision-making abilities on the field of play. Out of a potential 50 points, Young’s first score was a rumored six. Shockwaves reverberated through the league. Mock draft boards were rewritten, columnists reigned in their glowing praise. On the defensive, Young’s supporters decried the result as a grading error. He took the exam again and scored a reported 16, which, though not stellar, is a mere three points below the league average.

Still, the damage has been done. Although the veracity of the initial score is so well guarded as to be impossible to verify, the low result has awoken a Pandora’s box of stereotypical associations that continue to dog African American quarterbacks like Young. Deemed not smart enough to play the position by racist essentialists, black quarterbacks in the NFL have historically been damned by selective praise. Players like Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Donovan McNabb have all been heralded for their scrambling ability, rather than their passing arm or decision-making skills. The implication is that these African American QBs are getting by on pure athleticism, while their white, “blue collar” counterparts (Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Ben Roethlisberger, and others) are able to win with their minds and in spite of their relative lack of speed and athleticism.

Interestingly, this same opposition played itself out in Young’s recent championship game. He faced USC quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart — a Southern California golden boy who had managed to win the media over as a “true pocket quarterback”. The translation: Leinart, who is white, is at his best making decisions and passing the ball, not scrambling around the field and using his athleticism to help the team. For many, the game pitted Leinart’s “refined” talents and experience against Young’s “raw” abilities. Of course, Young’s team won the contest 41-38, but Young himself might have lost the draft battle, as Leinart (reportedly) outperformed him on the Wonderlic with a score of 35.

True to form, Leinart has been projected by most to be selected ahead of Young in the draft. Given his test scores and (it can’t be ignored) his race, Leinart is seen as the “safe” pick — a teachable apprentice who will adapt to the complicated offensive schemes of the NFL more easily than Young. To be fair, Leinart is indeed a top quarterback, and would make a smart pick for any team in the market. Yet, inexplicably, Young’s score has also seen him lose ground to Jay Cutler, a (white) quarterback from Vanderbilt who wasn’t even able to lead his team to a bowl game last year, much less a national championship. Cutler, however, has impressed with workouts and test scores in the evaluation period leading up to the draft, indicating that a proven record of performance is growing increasingly obsolete for the league’s army of psychometricians.

Young, on the other hand, seems to suggest a work in progress to these evaluators. Despite a record of on-field success, he’s been unable to shake the quantifiable marker of the Wonderlic score. Yet, even if he did score a six, what would a multiple choice exam have to say about his football skills? With most experts agreeing that IQ tests can at best measure only specific skill sets and fail to give a holistic impression of a test taker’s full cognitive abilities, the league’s emphasis on the Wonderlic and other pre-draft evaluations can be seen as symptomatic of the current administration’s compulsive testing disorder — a staple of its “Leave No Child Behind” program. As a result, students (and now athletes) are increasingly pigeon-holed into the narrow margins of a standardized test’s subject matter, unable to demonstrate crucial skills like creativity or determination when confronted with a multiple choice prompt.

The reality, however, is that in spite of the best science that test makers can throw at them, football players, like students, remain largely unknown quantities. All the 40 yard dash times and bench press measurements in the world will, more often than not, fail to accurately predict the true abilities a player may (or may not) demonstrate on the field. This fact is reflected in the inevitable yearly busts of teams that pick highly touted players (see Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, and dozens of others) who soon wash out of the league without accomplishing a thing.

In light of such unreliability, all this pre-draft poking and prodding seems so much hoodoo. Couching educated guesses in the guise of hard fact-finding, the league’s grand inquisitors instead reveal just how far away they remain from being able to predict the future. The best of them are forced to rely on game tapes and win-loss records to make their picks, while the worst fall victim to the persistence of stereotypes, dressed up as data, but no less damaging.