A very weird factoid happened across my Twitter transom the other day, something that legitimately made me wonder if we’d finally crashed headlong into the padded ceiling of NFL scouting angst: That is to say, someone expressed concerns about a quarterback from the state of North Dakota not being able to handle playing a football game in cold weather.
That someone was Mel Kiper, the ESPN draftnik and grooming marvel who has made his name over the course of a couple of decades by dissecting microscopic fibers in an attempt to forecast the future. I know Kiper, like TV weathermen and Nate Silver, has a difficult job to do in predicting events that have yet to occur, and I think that in general he is pretty good at it, all things considered. But I wonder, given the glut of information that must be running through his plus-sized noggin at this time of year, if Kiper always hears what he’s actually saying. I wonder if his entire business, in attempt to discern a signal, tends to drown itself out with the noise.
As North Dakota native Chuck Klosterman pointed out in the wake of Kiper’s comments, the quarterback in question – North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, under consideration to be the first quarterback chosen in the draft – grew up in Bismarck, where the temperature was recently 19 below zero. In fact, here is a photo, via Forum of Fargo-Moorhead sportswriter Jeff Kolpack, of Wentz practicing for the FCS playoffs somewhere due north of the Wall. But this, I imagine, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: The NFL Scouting Combine, the most perpetually awkward state fair we’ve ever known, began in earnest on Tuesday and kicks into high gear this weekend, when Wentz, a lightly regarded commodity up until recently, will no doubt be subject to critiques we can not yet dream up.
At this point, it appears there are two quarterbacks vying to be selected within the first five picks. The other besides Wentz is Cal’s Jared Goff, who feels like as much of a sure thing one could imagine: His father is a former professional baseball player, he has a preternatural pocket presence, he is tall and smooth and charismatic. But now there are concerns about Goff’s lanky body type, because you know, ectomorphs never develop in the NFL; and there are also concerns about Goff’s hand size, which may be a legitimate factor to consider but probably should not matter as much as whether, say, Jared Goff can actually make accurate throws under pressure.
I understand that quarterback evaluation – and scouting in general – is a tetchy and inexact enterprise. I have no issues with the increasing reliance on whatever advanced metrics and measurement can be conjured. But I hope there’s an increasing sense of cautiousness among scouts, as well. I hope they recognize that all this additional information can also subject them to groupthink. During Super Bowl week, I spoke to a scout named Russ Lande, who admitted that he’d dropped Cam Newton down his draft board back in 2011 largely because he’d listened to secondhand concerns about Newton’s character. Ultimately, this didn’t impact the Carolina Panthers’ decision to draft Newton No. 1 overall that year, but there are other instances where this glut of information can overwhelm the bigger picture. You see what you want to see, and in the NFL, that has never been more true.
There is an increasingly arrogant stance among certain NFL executives that college quarterbacks, by virtue of the up-tempo offenses they play in, are not as NFL-ready as they used to be. This is the label now being affixed to Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, an enormous talent who may wind up slipping out of the first round altogether. At some point, it becomes more about finding fault than about investing in potential. At some point, the combine winds up reinforcing the notion that the talent is the problem, rather than maybe the problem lying in the way the NFL views its talent. Maybe there are good reasons not to draft Carson Wentz, and maybe those reasons will reveal themselves this weekend, but I very much doubt the weather has anything to do with it.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb