The Combine is an Excellent Source of Information Which Can Be Quickly Dismissed if it Doesn’t Fit With Your Prior Beliefs


I think I might be the only person who is wildly entertained by the tea leaf interpreting that’s already occurring as the NFL Combine numbers come in.

Keep in mind that the twittersphere is currently full of tweets that contain quoted measurements from the Combine, which is to say that lots of Draft Twitter is 100 percent paying attention to the Combine. But I don’t think I’m picking on anyone in particular when I say that there is very little updating of beliefs going on. You can tell based on the (sometimes immediate) dismissals of those measurements as not fitting with the player’s tape.

So an entire amateur cottage industry is both paying attention to, and immediately dismissing, the results of the Combine.

I’ll be honest and say that I think the problem traces back to an issue that we’ve been guilty of on this site, which is taking continuous measurements and then turning them into binary issues. It works like this: players who are 75 inches are big, while players that are 71 inches are small. That probably doesn’t make any sense. Presumably your framework should contain some way for a player who is 71 inches to be different in degree (not in kind) from a player who is 75 inches.

The way that this is impacting the discussion as Combine results come in is that if a player’s measurement implies that they might not be strong – like a low bench press number for instance – if that number isn’t consistent with prior beliefs it’s simply rejected as irrelevant. But then what’s the point in even measuring it? Or what’s the point in paying attention to the measurement? Instead shouldn’t that number be part of a calibrated framework so that you can say instead “Bench press reps are a relatively small part of the equation, so this number isn’t good for the player but should also have a relatively small impact on the player’s prospectness”?

See the difference there?

Numbers that don’t fit with your prior beliefs aren’t rejected, they’re just given the proper weight that your calibrated framework says they should be given. If your framework says that a player’s weight is important, and the player comes in shy of 210 pounds, you both don’t have to completely reject the player and you don’t have to reject weight for being unimportant.

There’s another issue that should probably be discussed because it’s a logical extension of what I’m talking about. It’s the idea of box checking. You’ll hear a lot about box checking as the Combine goes on. Box checking sounds like a pretty binary activity. A player either is something or he isn’t something. I can criticize box checkers because we’ve been guilty of it here on the site, so I’m also offering a self critique. We have all of these measurements that exist on continuous scales in hundredths of a second, or quarter inches, or pounds, and then we take them and reduce them to a yes or no. It’s like if you watched TV in black and white on purpose because seeing the shapes was good enough and color can go screw itself.

It might seem at this point like I’m pretty far afield from where I started, but I don’t think I am. Our brains have limited ability to take all of these data points – which again, exist on continuous scales – and process them all. So what ends up happening is that we reduce them to things that matter or don’t matter (or boxes that get checked) in order to save space. So for people who might criticize the existence of spreadsheet jockeys, how else is all of the information supposed to be stored?