During the playoffs last year, I went up to Green Bay to talk to Aaron Rodgers about Hail Marys. I asked him how far he thought he could throw a ball “in a vacuum.” His response was that a throw in a vacuum would be continuous, infinitely sailing along without ever hitting the ground. Touché.
Rodgers is one of my favorite people to interview in the NFL. The majority of players and all coaches will listen to you and then offer up some vague combination of words that could answer any question. Rodgers, though, will think about what you’re actually saying and break down every word. Great quarterbacks like him are just wired differently.
This needs to be repeated this month because we have entered a breathtakingly stupid part of the draft evaluation cycle that is both specific to this era of analysis and the product of decades of overthink. The catalyst for the conversation is Josh Rosen, a 21-year-old from UCLA, whose college coach, Jim Mora, described his former quarterback to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King as needing to be “challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored. He’s a millennial. He wants to know why. Millennials, once they know why, they’re good.” Finding a way to hold Rosen’s concentration level, Mora said, would be important to whatever team drafted him.
Former offensive lineman Ross Tucker theorized that Mora’s comments would be a “major concern” to “some NFL people.” Last month, a team executive told NFL.com that Rosen is “going to have to get grown men to buy into him as their leader. That is not a given.”
That these comments led this week’s NFL news cycle is the logical conclusion of modern draft analysis: prospects being judged harshly for the exact personality traits that many great NFL players have.
You have to coach Tom Brady “every single day, every minute of the day and all year round,” according to his former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. Peyton Manning and Rodgers are famous in the league for wanting to know the “why” to every decision made by their coaches. Hell, Manning essentially ran his own practices for the bulk of his career. His former teammate, tight end Marcus Pollard, said the lines were blurred between whether Manning was a player or coach during his Colts tenure. On one team flight, Manning’s former offensive coordinator, Clyde Christensen, wanted to put off game planning so he could go to sleep. Instead, Manning sent a stewardess to tell Christensen that he couldn’t sleep and had to watch tape now.
So here we are. There’s an insatiable demand from the public for draft intel, coupled with a near-infinite amount of information, and yet we have confused the exact attributes needed to be a professional football player. Scouts and executives rave about how much information exists for prospects now. I’ve heard you can watch every college snap of a player in the time that, just a few years ago, you would’ve spent rewinding through a handful of games. Plus, with the internet and social media trails, there are dozens of avenues to learn about a player off the field and get a sense of his personality. There’s more information than ever for everyone, but information is not the problem; it’s what we are doing with the information. Armchair psychology still dominates the narratives around the draft, despite little evidence that NFL teams can accurately judge a player’s makeup, and even less evidence that NFL teams even know which personality types succeed. Remember, the 49ers passed on Rodgers, according to then-coach Mike Nolan, in part because “Aaron was very cocky, very confident, arrogant.”
The problem with evaluating prospects is that there are two completely disconnected areas that are equally important. The first is public and fairly objective—that’s the tape. Basically everyone has access to it, and even if there are disagreements among evaluators, everything is at least in front of everyone’s eyes. Then there’s the secret kind of evaluation, the one based on asking the equipment manager and teammates and position coaches what a player was really like. NFL teams like to position some scouts as if they were a football Philip Marlowe, stalking campuses and finding out that the top cornerback prospect on their board doesn’t use fabric softener. (Interestingly, Mora told King that no GMs have called him about Rosen.) And this is where the trouble starts. This is where we get the anonymous scout’s evaluation of USC’s Sam Darnold that reads, in part, “Bad face. Overrated.” This is where we get a scout worrying that Eli Apple does not know how to cook. Baker Mayfield keeps a list of media members he doesn’t like, and some say that “could be troubling.” However, Darnold’s makeup is flawless and scouts loved the fact his teammates showed up at his pro day. But what about his bad face?
If millennial is in fact an insult in the NFL, that’s a problem, since the term describes such a broad grouping of people that it includes nearly every NFL player at this point. It even includes coaches like the Rams’ Sean McVay, whose boss called him a millennial in a fawning ESPN piece last season. Eventually, every coach in the league will be a millennial, too.
Rosen’s success or failure in the NFL will have next to nothing to do with the generation he grew up in. Hell, he’s probably not a millennial because he’ll own a house soon. Even if “millennial” is a crippling condition, he’ll be competing in an NFL with nothing but millennials, meaning everyone will have short attention spans. What, exactly, does the NFL fear about millennials? Do they foresee an age when players get so hopelessly bored that they start picking at the grass in the middle of the play, like an unathletic Little Leaguer in center field? Or maybe it’s something a little more simple?
The NFL fears millennials because they are slightly different from the generation before them, and the league fears any change at all. Millennials learn differently than older players, and teams like the Rams and 49ers have done studies on how to conduct meetings with the younger generation. But it’s mostly a panic about nothing. We have multiple years of millennials coming into the league with very few accompanying issues. No one has stopped a game to play Fortnite. And remember, Brady likes avocados too.