Part 3: The NFL Combine: Do Big Investments Yield Big Returns?

In the last article, we concluded that while combine performance is related to draft position, it is not related to first year offensive performance. So, then, are GMs, owners, and coaches picking based on the wrong criteria? If they are, why might this be happening?


What were they thinking?
As psychologists, we were curious about what is driving this effect. It would seem that teams are overvaluing their higher draft picks. A cognitive phenomenon may be helpful in explaining why highly drafted rookies are being given ample chances to succeed based (at least in part) on their combine performance – even though they may not be performing at a first round level.
The Endowment Effect
The endowment effect5 suggests that simply by drafting a player (i.e., “putting him on your team”), GMs, owners, and coaches immediately attribute a greater value to that player than would an objective party. Research on the endowment effect indicates that this team’s appraisal of this player may eventually outweigh his true value as determined by his performance on the field.
Psychologists offer a few explanations for the endowment effect. First, it could be that our general tendency towards loss aversion explains why we value things that we own more than market value. In general, the hurt of anticipated losses is much more painful than the pleasure associated with anticipated gains. If a team uses one of its precious top picks on a player, the anticipated hurt of having to cut or trade that player, even if they are underperforming, drives teams to give their selections as many opportunities as possible to justify their draft position and prove the front office right.
It could also be that people are motivated to see themselves as generally good, and therefore perceive things associated with themselves as good as well. Similarly, other research suggests that simply owning something causes people to form a more positive mental association with it than others might. Our perception of true worth becomes skewed simply by “owning” an object. To be sure, this is not to suggest that NFL teams “own” players that they draft, nor are we trying to objectifying them. Instead, the idea is that choosing something can lead us to feel a cognitive connection with it, the effects of which are similar to ownership.   Don’t believe us? Try this out6. If you were going to sell your car, how much would you offer? Chances are, the price you think it should sell for is more than the true market value of your car — and definitely more than someone else would pay for it.
These psychological principles suggest that because NFL personnel have an innate need to feel that they are good decision-makers, they give their higher draft picks opportunities to succeed — regardless of whether they are performing or not. The evidence from the data calls the true validity of this mindset into question.
Takeaways: seeing one’s self in a positive light, sense of loss, ownership equals love.
These are the brakes
This analysis was performed on a five year span from 2008 to 2012. This gave the analysis a large enough sample size from which to draw conclusions, and also kept the results relevant to today’s NFL. The game within the game changes more frequently than you might think and we wanted to keep this analysis current.
The analysis only included wide receivers and running backs. There will likely be different stories for other positions such as defensive players, quarterbacks, or special teamers.
These are averages. It bears mentioning that we are talking about averages here – on average, how a player does at the combine will be related to where he is drafted; on average, a player who is drafted higher will get more opportunities as a rookie; on average, combine performance will not be related to player performance as a rookie. There are always exceptions to every rule.
Not all players take part in the combine. Often “sure things” — those projected to be high first round picks — do not attend the combine. This analysis included everyone who participated in the combine.
The analysis only included first year performance. We only looked at first year performance, but guess what the best predictor of second year performance is? First year performance. And do you know what the best predictor for third year performance is? Ask your SAT tutor.
No prediction is perfect. We can hear you screaming at your monitor. There have been lots of players who have had great combine performances and turned out to be NFL hall of famers. Teams can get it right, teams can get it wrong. But could it be better?
Stop Teaching to the Test
More and more colleges are getting rid of the SAT requirement for college admission. Should the NFL follow suit and do away with the combine? Players at the combine hail from over 100 colleges and universities across a multitude of conferences. They have been groomed in environments with thousands of different coaches, stadiums, and levels of competition. With so much variability across teams and programs, judging the quality of an individual player can be difficult. A standardized measure is needed, but is the combine, as currently constructed, the best answer?
Just because collegiate performance has been shown to be a predictor for future NFL performance doesn’t mean that it is the only predictor. A revised combine could easily enhance a team’s ability to assess a player’s true worth. Former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli has suggested that playing speed during a real game is very different from speed as measured in the combine. In regards to a wide receiver’s ability to create separation, a crucially important component of the NFL game, Pioli suggested “reactive quickness” might be another measure that could, intuitively, help predict future NFL performance7.
There also needs to be more psychological understanding of players both individually, as well as how they function within a team. The only psychological test used at the combine, the Wonderlic, has failed to positively and significantly predict future NFL performance for any position8. If everyone from Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups commonly use psychological testing, such as the infamous Myers-Briggs, why hasn’t this gained greater traction in the NFL? More advanced testing and more nuanced metrics will not only help teams make better decisions both in the front office and on the field, but will in turn create an even better league for the fans to enjoy.
Until then, we’ll be glued to our televisions this February 22-25, wowed as we watch the best athletes in the world perform the Cirque de Combine, the only place where a 340 pound offensive lineman reminds us all at home just how out of shape we actually are.

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