Every spring, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane would meet with his scouting department to whittle down the massive draft pool into a select group of players the staff would feel comfortable choosing in June’s amateur draft. In 2002, the same staffers met in the same dingy room in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum, but this time, the man leading the discussion seemed like he was interested in drafting players for something other than a baseball team. At least, as Michael Lewis recounts in Moneyball, the book that became the movie, that’s how it felt to most of the scouts at the meeting.
With the help of his brilliant deputy, Paul DePodesta, Beane had thrown himself headfirst into a search for an objective definition of how to win baseball games. If he had to shatter all of the sport’s beloved truisms along the way, so be it. However, the majority of the A’s scouts in 2002 were holdovers from what would eventually become a bygone era—baseball lifers who worked up enough tobacco spit each day to fill a milk jug and who trusted their own eyes to best reveal the sport’s truths.
Lewis describes the scene: As Beane ran through the team’s potential draft picks, he began to systematically pick apart the flaws of an unnamed player who boasted impressive physical attributes but lacked any convincing baseball production.
“This guy’s an athlete, Billy,” said one scout. “There’s a lot of upside there.”
“He can’t hit, “ Beane said.
“He’s not that bad a hitter.”
“Yeah, what happens when he doesn’t know a fastball is coming?”
“He’s a tools guy.”
“But can he hit?”
“He can hit.”
“My only question is, if he’s that good a hitter why doesn’t he hit better?”
The conversation is, fundamentally, absurd: My only problem with this baseball player, Beane essentially says, is that he isn’t good at baseball. Yet 16 years later, a similar conversation is happening in NFL front offices across the country, where some team will select Josh Allen with one of the first 10 picks of next month’s draft.
In his second and final year as a starter at Wyoming, Allen’s overall performance defined pedestrian: He completed 56.3 percent of his passes at a rate of 6.7 yards per attempt while notching 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. In early February, NumberFire’s Jim Sannes conducted a statistical analysis of all the quarterbacks eligible for the 2018 draft, and the salient point requires no context: “Among players in this class, Allen is last in every category except for games played. There, he is instead tied for last with [USC’s Sam] Darnold.”
Both Allen and ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who put the 21-year-old signal caller at the top of his most recent mock draft, have echoed the same exact line: “Stats are for losers.” Of course, the losers conquered baseball a long time ago, and two of the NFL’s most analytically sound franchises just met in the Super Bowl, but anti-objectivity and know-nothingness remain defining features of professional-football culture. Instead, Allen has wowed NFL teams with his height, weight, hand size, arm length, arm strength, and his ability to leap and jump.
Back in 2002, the Oakland scouts would constantly resort to descriptive judgments of a player’s appearance, saying things like, “The guy has a great body,” or, “He’s huge in the ass.” To which Beane would respond, “We’re not selling jeans here.” In scouting amateur prospects, the underlying tension, Lewis writes, was between a new, if obvious-seeming, line of thinking that focused on what a player had already accomplished, and “the baseball man’s view that a young player is what you can see him doing in your mind’s eye.” That same divide has defined much of the NFL’s pre-draft discussion in 2018. One anonymous scout, according to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, offered up a blunt assessment as to why Darnold, the probable no. 1 overall pick, wouldn’t make it in the pros: “Bad face.” And sure enough, the first bullet point in the “Strengths” section of NFL.com’s scouting report for Allen is “Prototype frame for pocket passer,” while the first weakness reads, “Never had completion rate higher than 56 percent in either season as a starter.”
Despite the latter observation, some team is going to draft Allen early in the first round, possibly even in the top three. Quarterback scouting is part art, part science, and part coming to terms with an unsympathetic universe that is governed by an infinite number of atoms randomly smashing into one another. Allen could very well become a good (or even great) professional quarterback, but all of the objective evidence suggests that selecting him is a much riskier proposition than pretty much any other prospect expected to go in the first few rounds of the draft. If drafting unpredictable amateur athletes is all about assessing and projecting risk, then any team selecting Allen in the top 10 is making a flawed decision.
Outside of Philadelphia, fans root for more than just a sound front-office process, though. Sure, it’s maybe comforting to root for a franchise with a savvy Beane-like figure exploiting inefficiencies and irrationalities at every turn, but the reality in the NFL is that most teams are still being led by a decision-maker who’s operating somewhere within the orbit of leaguewide conventional wisdom. Plus, once Allen officially joins a team, his draft value will immediately cease to matter. He’ll hug Roger Goodell, he’ll get his name added to the roster, he’ll be given the same jersey that thousands of people wear every Sunday, and his success or failure will define the next few years for a certain fan base.
However, even an unsound process can lead to positive results. So, if your favorite team could potentially draft Allen, I implore you to take a page out of the old baseball scout’s notebook and imagine in your mind’s eye what he could do. Let yourself be enchanted by his prototypical build. Fall prey to his cannon arm; call it a rocket launcher; lose an entire weekend wondering what piece of heavy machinery best describes the upper portion of that right limb. Gaze longingly at his good face. Watch his college highlight reel—which strips out all of Allen’s incompletions (read: nearly half of his passes), turns his best plays into his only plays, and backs it all with inoffensive replacement-level rap music—and fall under the same spell that has dazzled so many draftniks:
At his best, Allen belongs in a special class of athlete: the kind that begs for the dimensions of the playing surface to be expanded. Thanks to a surreal level of physical prowess, these players are able to make the kinds of decisions that aren’t even available to the majority of their peers. It’s LeBron James flicking a no-look pass with three fingers. It’s Steven Gerrard picking out the far-post upper corner while falling toward the sideline. It’s Barry Bonds slapping an opposite field home run against Greg Maddux. And it’s Allen making a 40-yard post pattern look as simple a 5-yard slant route. But there’s one obvious difference: The other three made careers out of consistently rewriting the geometries of their sports, while for Allen, the mistakes have exceeded the myth-making.
According to a study done by Scott Kacsmar for Football Outsiders, the success rate (which Kacsmar admits is subjectively defined) of any first-round quarterback from 1994 to 2016 was less than 30 percent. For someone with Allen’s uninspiring track record, the odds would seem to be even lower than that. But if you’re a Jets fan, a Bills fan, a Cardinals fan, or a fan of almost any other QB-needy team, take solace in this: The chances are still greater than zero. If you support the Browns and they end up selecting Allen with either the first- or fourth-overall pick, just know that it likely won’t be at the behest of their chief strategy officer. After all, his name is Paul DePodesta.