Thin-Slicing the NFL Scouting Combine

by Jerome's Friend

For many college football players and NFL hopefuls, the NFL Scouting Combine is the ultimate job interview.  It represents the last chance before the Draft to improve their relative worth on each team’s respective draft board.  Players are poked and prodded mentally and physically as elements from their game day forms are dissected, segmented, and measured.  To many fans and analysts it’s fascinating.  To them, the combine is a necessary element in supplying the information needed for teams to make the best decisions on draft day.  To others, the combine is akin to measuring a sample of trees to determine the breadth of a forest.  They measure the circumference of the trunk, the length of the branches, count the number of rings, the number of leaves, and then take a sample of DNA back to the lab for analysis.  These trees are exceptional.  This forest is in excellent health.  NFL scouts, directors of personnel, coaches, and general managers have already seen countless hours of player film before the combine, and even Howie Roseman declared that combine results won’t have much effect on the Eagles’ draft board.  So just because the combine exists, does that make it necessary?

There is a concept in Psychology called “thin-slicing”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink.  Gladwell defines thin-slicing as “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and people based on very narrow ‘slices’ of experience.”  In essence, thin-slicing is a form of intuition; it’s making quick decisions with relatively little information.  Gladwell presents several examples and every-day applications, ranging from love at first sight to decisions made on the field of battle.  And it’s fair to say that the best NFL quarterbacks thin-slice the field after every snap (something at which Michael Vick may not be the best).  But there is one example in particular that can shed some light on the relevance of the NFL Combine.  Gladwell speaks of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital (the hospital that inspired the television show ER).  In the 1990s, Cook County Hospital, one of the busiest hospitals in the nation, was struggling to find beds for patients being admitted through the Emergency Department for chest pain.  Technicians, nurses, and doctors asked questions: do you smoke, drink, do you exercise, have diabetes, etc.  They listened to the heart and lungs and took ECGs to determine if the patient is having a heart attack, a difficult diagnosis to make.  In an effort to make the best determination, doctors collected as much information as possible by dozens of means and many times, if there was any semblance of doubt, erred on the side of caution.  The issue with Cook County Hospital was not only the lack of space, but also the cost of a room for the many un- or under-insured patients, $2,000 a night.  In 1996 Brendan Reilly was appointed as chairman of the Department of Medicine and realized that the hospital was spending more and more money every year on patients that weren’t actually having a heart attack.  He turned to the help of a cardiologist, Lee Goldman, who, after working with a group of mathematicians, developed an algorithm for diagnosing and treating chest pain that relied on just four intake elements.  Over time, Reilly developed a decision tree based on these elements that could be used in clinical practice, and then challenged his staff.  For the next few months, Reilly’s doctors would diagnose chest pain just as they always had, then they would use the algorithm, and the outcomes of the two methods would be compared.  After two years of data collection, Goldman’s algorithm, a formula that relied on much less information than typically collected (that is, it relied on information sliced thinly), outperformed traditional methods of evaluation by an incredible 70 percent.

For many NFL teams and coaches, the NFL Scouting Combine is much like pre-1996 Cook County Hospital.  It’s information overload.  It has no effect, or poor effect, on evaluations that result from watching a player on game day, or on game film.  And many times a handshake and a hello can carry more weight than documented combine results. In fact there are studies in which the first fifteen seconds of a job interview are reviewed and results, hired or not hired, are predicted with a high level of accuracy.  Fortunately, player interviews are a part of the Combine process.  Perhaps then, this is the value of the Combine, especially from the player perspective.  Those fifteen seconds are the moments during which NFL hopefuls need to succeed.

In an age where technology has allowed for the evolution of athletic performance analysis with incredible detail (see, Money Ball), it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, to twist them and turn them in a manner that can support our own biases.  And while thin-slicing theory can still contribute to this statistical revolution (and is not without its own inherent biases), it also reminds us that there is a unique human element that can never be overlooked… that feeling in your gut when you know something just feels right.  Those intuitions are more important than “40” times or bench press repetitions. It’s interesting, though, how thin-slicing, this ability to unconsciously find patterns with not a lot of information, helps us discern the best NFL talent from the rest of those really cool looking trees.

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