Thin-Slicing the NFL Combine

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Combine gives us a ton of information about draft prospects, but is it all necessary?

For many college football players and NFL hopefuls, the NFL Scouting Combine is the ultimate job interview. Pro Days notwithstanding, 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. They need to see Johnny Manziel’s 4.68 40-time and Sammy Watkins’ 16-rep bench press (actually, 17 minus 1). They need to see the cone drills and gauntlets. To others, the combine is akin to measuring a sample of trees to confirm 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, they say. 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 has said 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. And humans have become very good at it. It's fair to say that the best NFL quarterbacks thin-slice the field after ever snap (something Nick Foles does quite well). Gladwell presents several examples of every-day applications, ranging from love at first sight to decisions made on the field of battle.

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 chest pain patients being admitted through the Emergency Department. Technicians, nurses, and doctors performed several tests and tasks in order to diagnose. They asked questions like: 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. 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. It was costing them time, money, and resources.

Then, in 1996 a guy named Brendan Reilly was appointed as chairman of Cook County’s Department of Medicine and realized that the hospital was spending 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. 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 studies show that we can accurately predict whether a person will be hired within the first fifteen seconds of a job interview, 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 represent post-1996 Cook County Hospital. Those are the seconds 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, sport science, 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. So it’s interesting to think how thin-slicing, this ability to unconsciously find patterns with not a lot of information, can better help us see the forest from the trees, or the general talent from the specific skill sets.

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