When Elite WRs Get It Wrong

Today he told me, ‘I honestly thought you were a product of Peyton [Manning]. Like I didn’t believe you were good,’ ” Decker says.

Marshall lets out a giggle, demonstrating his guilt. “I did,” he says, smiling. “[I used to think] ‘Man, it’s not fair, they have Peyton,” reinforcing the idea that the success of Denver’s receivers are “a product of Peyton.”

Brandon Marshall is one of the best WRs in the entire NFL. He’s a dominant talent that’s put up 1000 yard seasons with a long list of QBs, a group headlined by the inconsistent but talented Jay Cutler.

One of the best WRs in the NFL misevaluated a player who played the same exact position as him. He discarded his accomplishments as part of the Peyton Manning machine and believed that Decker was a replaceable cog. He didn’t even believe Decker was a special cog, just some random gear that was jammed into the contraption of a Peyton Manning engineered offense who he carried into stardom.

I’m writing about this because the big story around the Jets has been how the players, especially Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, want Fitzpatrick back and credit him for their success. Meanwhile, Marshall struggled to see the value in Decker whom he shares the same WR designation with.

This is the turning point where this post goes from facts to rant.

The ability to do and ability to evaluate are two different skills.

There are many technically skilled talents in the NFL, in music, in any field; that are not capable of correctly evaluating other talent. It’s like the difference between technical skill and creative ability, which is probably a good way to separate these two. No one’s out there pretending Yngwie Malmsteen isn’t an incredibly technically skilled guitarist, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an album by him you feel like listening to more than once. That’s because the ability to do and ability to create are two different skills.

As someone who comes from an artistic background, scouting vs playing feels like the same difference as being able to play an instrument vs being able to write songs. Playing comes from technical skill and scouting is more free-form. One comes from intense training and ability, the other comes from intense testing/theory-crafting. Scouting via analytics works in the same way.

You’re taking actions, abilities, athleticism and placing them into a completely different situation to try and make sense of what new results occur. You use old models in order to filter out those A’s that will fail in those situations. You create potential outliers due to special traits that aren’t present in the archetype of players the new one represents. You will reassess the model of success after you see what the new projections bring.

It’s a long creative process that feels no different to me than I felt regularly making music.

Former players, whether Marshall or others, are operating through the same innate biases everyone operates through. Marshall values what’s made him great more than anything else and when he sees players that don’t play like him, he likely doesn’t see them as being as good. I’m assuming with that statement, but that’s been the same experience I’ve had with musicians.

The guitarists I went to school with didn’t like the hip-hop production I produced and generally thought the whole genre wasn’t good. They questioned the skill it took to sample and create. You’ve heard this yourself, purists that are deeply involved in their scenes defending why their choice is special. It’s rooted in the ego that what you are is special and by being special, everything you do and like is special or “the right way.”

The players in the NFL are incredibly gifted athletes, but likely just as human internally as everyone else and in belief that what makes them successful is the true “good” way to play.

Marshall believed Decker wasn’t good but he was. He always was.

Players turned analysts will give rhetoric on ESPN about skills like leadership, poise, and much else and masses will believe them because they are people who were successful in the peak competition of the sport.

But imagine who these people are. Who are the kind of people who would go to the NFL and then want to come out every day or week in front of a large crowd of viewers to have their words used as a measuring stick? It’s likely many of these players/analysts, from Tedy Bruschi to Ray Lewis (well definitely him) to Trent Dilfer to Steve Young were the loud leaders on their teams. Because they were these people, they believe this is VERY important.

It is actually important to be able to inspire confidence in those around you but it’s easy to see how these players would overrate that ability.

Meanwhile, Merril Hoge is telling everyone Jarvis Landry is the 3rd best WR under 25 over someone like Allen Robinson.

I do use the words of former players to help learn how to analyze better. However, it’s something to always keep in mind. They’re as biased as everyone else and while their words carry more weight than mine or any other fan, Marshall’s thoughts on Decker should tell you they’re not infallible.

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