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"Underachieving" Texas Longhorns: Mack's fault?

I saw a comment over on our resident Houston Texans blog, Battle Red Blog, that indicated that the Texans should avoid Longhorn players because they are mostly "underachievers."  This is coming from a guy who claims to be a Texas fan, no less.  By no means am I trying to trash him; he's obviously not saying it out of hostility but out of genuine concern about his Houston team, and he's not terribly impressed by the two Longhorns on his team, Kasey Studdard and Frank Okam (understandably, although in Studdard's defense he wasn't supposed to be starting).  It definitely does not make him less of a Longhorn fan for believing this (and he conceded the point later), but it is nonetheless interesting that this belief is held among Texas fans as well.

It's something that we've heard before and discussed last year here, this stereotype that there is a much higher level of risk drafting players from Texas than other big-named schools.  The question is, is this true?  And more importantly, how do we determine that such a thing is true?  Do we count Pro Bowls, All-Pro selections, awards, years starting, statistics, etc?  Also, if a player "busts" (assuming it's always easy to determine that too), whose fault is it anyway?  Does it make sense to blame the school he comes from, the player, or the organization that drafted him?  Was it just a bad pick, or was it the right pick that went wrong after the fact?  Because the draft is fast approaching, I'll explore some of these questions in this post.  My point here is not to give a bunch of conclusive answers to all of these questions (I don't have them) but to simply show that it's a pretty complicated issue and it can be hard to divide blame among all parties involved, much less the university these players come from.

The NFL Draft:  A Crapshoot, an Investment, or a Commitment?

First, I'd like to discuss the draft process itself.  There are two common metaphors for the NFL draft that I hear often:  A crapshoot or an investment.  Obviously, those that call it a crapshoot think it largely hinges on luck and not that much different than taking a semi-blind stab in the dark.  Those that call selections "investments" treat it more or less like buying stock; you make judgments on which is most likely to succeed, buy in, and wait to see if you're correct. 

The implications of how one views the draft are obvious.  If you think the draft is a giant crapshoot, then you can hardly blame or credit teams for making their selections; if anything, the only people you can blame or credit are the players themselves and the schools they came from (and even that's a stretch if it's just a bunch of luck).  Seeing as how teams spend a lot of time and money scouting players and there seems to be a general consensus that you can blame teams for their selections, we can safely dismiss this one. 

If you think of draft picks as investments, there is more responsibility attached to the teams, but that responsibility is mostly restricted to the actual choice itself.  In other words, the logic often goes in the popular media that if Player A  turns out bad, then the "investment" or pick was a stupid one, while if he turns out to be good, that means it was a smart selection.  Simple as that.  This seems more accurate but still misses some important things.  For starters, it makes little sense to think teams have no control over how their picks pan out.  The players go into their training camps and are coached by the teams' staff and developed in the teams' facilities and atmosphere, and thus it is false that the team's only important decision is making the pick itself.  Secondly, even if we granted the "wait and see" approach, good investments can go wrong for a variety of reasons, but this does not make the initial decision a stupid one.  Why on earth do many fans and the media think it is particularly genius of them to assign draft grades after the fact?  Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back on drafts to determine which players became good isn't exactly that difficult.  It is entirely possible that the team makes a good choice given the available information but it turned out badly for whatever reason.  For example, anyone who has played poker knows that you can make the smart move based on the cards but nevertheless get screwed, often by a player who was fishing for that hand that nobody should have reasonably expected.  That doesn't make you stupid and that other player smart; you just got unlucky, while he got very lucky.  Even this example, however, doesn't capture everything, for in the NFL, it may be possible that a team makes the right pick but it goes poorly for them not because they were unlucky but because they did an extremely poor job developing the talent they drafted.  In that case, we wouldn't blame them for their initial investment, but rather for their failure to do what they needed to do to make that choice profitable.

Because of this, I prefer to call draft picks a "commitment," because not only must the teams do a good job scouting before their selections, they have to understand how they will commit to the players and develop them.  This, of course, still puts a large amount of responsibility on the player, because he has to be committed to his team as well.  Not only should the team be expected to make a good draft choice, they are to be expected to do the things a good organization should to help the young players become better. 

Thinking of the draft this way shifts how we evaluate responsibility in the draft.  Typically, when a player busts, everyone laughs at the team who picked him, the player himself, and the school he came from.  Basically, the player just sucked, the school he came from is overrated, and the team that selected him who missed these obvious facts has a bunch of dumb scouts.  However, if thought in a more comprehensive manner, we would be much more hesitant assigning blame in such a blanket way.  For sure, there are teams that have simply drafted poorly, but many teams are proverbial "vortexes of suck," such that not only do they sometimes make bad draft choices, their good draft choices have a small chance to succeed in their dysfunctional franchise.  Joey Harrington and David Carr deserve much blame for their failures, but it would ignorant to think that they had a whole lot of help early in their careers.  Similarly, it is popular to make fun of the 49ers for taking Alex Smith and not Aaron Rodgers, but there is no telling how Rodgers would have fared if he was placed in the situation Smith was.  Rodgers got to sit for four years behind a star QB in a relatively stable franchise, while Smith went to a team that hadn't been good for a while. Furthermore, while a team like the Colts are routinely praised for their smart draft choices, I think part of their success in drafts is due to the fact that they simply develop whoever they draft well.

Starting out, it is not entirely clear how much blame goes to the player, the team, and the school the player went to.  Sometimes a team just makes a bad choice with predictably bad consequences.  Sometimes a team makes a bad choice and maybe gets lucky (if Darius Heyward-Bey eventually becomes a superstar, for instance, I don't think anyone should go back and call that a smart pick).  Sometimes a team makes a good choice but gets unlucky because that player blows out his knee or something.  And sometimes a team makes a good choice but then fails to do anything to help that player out.  It's obviously not that easy to assess where blame should go in all these situations.  How much more so, then, even if we were to find a school with a lot more disappointments than successes in the NFL, would it be to place a general note of failure on a university?

Expectations:  What are they?

Often, you might hear somebody say a player is okay but "that's not enough for a first rounder."  You can replace "first rounder" with anything else, such as second rounder, top ten pick, top pick, etc.  In other words, he's still a bust or an underachiever because despite being decent, he isn't as good as he's supposed to be.  Of course, this just leads to the question of what is expected of these players.

There are many common ways to measure this, but they are not as clear-cut as some would like to believe.  Pro Bowls selections, for example, are frequent, but as we all know, they can be pretty debatable and sometimes given simply due to name recognition (which is why safety Roy Williams has as much as he does).  Heck, while I'm not dogging on people who come in as alternates, the AFC had to go so far down the line because their top QB's would not come that David Garrard was selected to the Pro Bowl.  Also, it is possible for a player to be a one-year wonder, make the Pro Bowl, and then completely disappear.  Super Bowl rings?  Unrealistic to expect out of everyone given all the factors involved.  Hall of Fame status?  Also unrealistic, even for first rounders.  Years starting?  A lot more reasonable, but just because somebody has been starting doesn't mean he's been doing well, and just because somebody misses time doesn't mean it's his fault (injuries can play a role). 

First rounders obviously get the brunt of the criticism, but how realistic are the expectations?  Obviously, it is ridiculous to expect every first round selection to be a Hall of Famer.  It is reasonable to expect some solid play over the course of a few years.  But how many Pro Bowls, MVPs, or All-Pro selections do they need?  Does the team have to show marked improvement in the W-L column as well  Does he need to play significantly better than everyone of his position drafted after him?  What if the team plays him out of position and his play suffers?  Whose fault is that

And to make things worse, there are those murky issues where players don't do much for the team that drafted them (in whatever round) and then go on to a new team to do quite well for themselves. Are they "busts?"  Perhaps from the perspective of the original team, but it'd be hard to call Brett Favre a bust, no matter how tired we are of hearing about him.  The guy was drafted by Atlanta and didn't do anything, but ended up being a superstar in Green Bay.

It is obvious the expectations are difficult to set from player to player.  Certainly, if a player has a Hall of Fame career featuring multiple Pro Bowls, records, and SB rings for his original franchise, he exceeded expectations even for a #1 draft pick.  Also, it is obvious that a guy like Ryan Leaf fell way, way short of any reasonable expectation.  Nonetheless, between such extremes, expectations are tricky things to pin down, and if they aren't so clear, it makes conclusions of "busts" and "underachievers" all the more difficult.  For some fans, 6th and 7th round draft picks are not even expected to make a roster spot, so almost by definition, they can't bust, and then they expect first and second rounders to be superstars, so by definition, they can't ever exceed expectations.  Not exactly the fairest way to evaluate players.

I think it is legitimate (and needed) to have general expectations based on draft status, so first and second rounders are expected to be starters within a few years at least and be productive, top ten draft picks should make a noticeable impact on the team, and guys in the middle and late rounds have appropriately lower and lower expectations.  That's fine.  Other than that general note, it's a bit difficult to measure expectations in a specific way, much less blame a university when a player does not meet them.  If you want to list more specific ones in the comments, go ahead, but I think it is a difficult thing to do.

Texas NFL Players

So why does Texas seem to have this reputation?  I think it has to do with limited perception of first rounders and not an overall evaluation of all the players in the NFL.  Consider the first rounders in the Mack Brown era:

1999:  Ricky Williams
2001:  Casey Hampton, Leonard Davis
2002:  Quentin Jammer, Mike Williams
2004:  Roy Williams, Marcus Tubbs
2005:  Derrick Johnson, Cedric Benson
2006:  Vince Young, Michael Huff
2007:  Michael Griffin, Aaron Ross
2009:  Brian Orakpo

Of these, the ones most casual fans would know are the skill position players:  Ricky Williams, Roy Williams, Cedric Benson, and Vince Young.  From that list, it is obvious how casual fans can have a negative perception of Texas players.  All of the above players have at some points in their careers been good, but they've also had off the field issues that have drawn public attention.  Ricky Williams has revived his career again but threw away his Hall of Fame potential for weed.  Roy Williams was good enough in Detroit that people felt sorry for him, but that sympathy has ended in Dallas.  Benson has resurrected in Cincinnati, but Chicago Bears fans will forever hate him for his off the field drama and his lack of production.  And Vince Young, despite his overall success, sat in the 2008 season after injury, had that crazy drama (real or imagined) afterward, and remains a hotly debated player.

Because the criticisms of VY have died down at the moment, we will leave him out.  I think most Texas fans would admit that Ricky, Roy, and Cedric did not live up to expectations to a certain extent.  Ricky has had a very productive NFL career, but we all know it could have been more so if something wasn't wrong upstairs.  Benson has a chance to have a good career but didn't do much for the team that drafted him.  Roy Williams still has that chance as well, but this past year was an extreme disappointment.  Thus, let's grant that these guys underachieved.  Whose to blame?  Texas?  Now that's a hard sell.  I'm not sure how "coddling" could make someone like weed as much as Ricky.  I also do not see how that is remotely relevant to Roy Williams either.  The only player you can make that argument for is Cedric Benson (assuming "coddling" happens at Texas, which it doesn't), and even that is pushing it.

What about the others?  Michael Huff and Derrick Johnson went to dysfunctional franchises, with DJ in particular being used out of position and still being a solid starter over the years.  Marcus Tubbs had a bright future but a knee injury did him in, hardly something you blame on anyone, much less the university.  Leonard Davis did not become the tackle everyone wanted but became a very good guard.  Mike Williams was a disappointment, but I've never heard this was because of some gross maturity issues going back to college.  The rest of Mack's first rounders have had no significant issues thus far.

Thus, out of the 14 first rounders in Mack's era so far, about half might be classified as underachievers.  One was due to injury, another due to some wacky faze with weed, and some were due to bad franchises.  Most of the above players have found a place to be productive with the exception of Mike Williams and Roy Williams, the latter of which still might.

How does this measure up to other schools?  Compared to Florida, it actually might look good.  What about USC?

Trojan first rounders since 1998:

1999:  Chris Claiborne
2000:  R.J. Soward
2003:  Carson Palmer, Troy Polumalu
2004:  Kenechi Udeze
2005:  Mike Patterson, Mike Williams
2006:  Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush
2008:  Sedrick Ellis, Keith Rivers, Sam Baker, Lawrence Jackson
2009:  Mark Sanchez, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews

The problem with the comparison is that while USC has more first rounders (16) during this time, most of them are recent and it's hard to make too many judgments on players drafted within the past few years.  Sanchez has promise, but he just finished his rookie season, for instance, and there's no telling where things will go.  Still, let's grant that he was worth it, as well as Cushing and Matthews, who both had good rookie years.  We'll call Ellis, Rivers, and Baker acceptable while Lawrence Jackson has been a disappointment.  Leinart and Bush have yet to live up to the big expectations (although Bush has been productive), and Mike Williams is a bust.  Kenechi Udeze is now out of the league through no fault of his own, being diagnosed with leukemia, and Soward and Claiborne were nothing special.

That makes seven out of the 16 draft picks "underachievers,"  It is most certainly not Udeze's fault that he's out of the league now, although some may argue that he did not have the production he should have, especially in the 2006 season.  Soward and Williams were busts.  Leinart still has a chance to come in and do good things.  As for Bush, most call him an underachiever, but we might even say he's more the victim of inflated expectations than anything else.  In any case, about half of the first rounders from USC have "underachieved" in many people's eyes, and in none of these cases would I blame USC.

Oklahoma?  Here they are:

2002:  Roy Williams
2003:  Andre Woolfolk
2004:  Tommie Harris
2005:  Mark Clayton, Jammal Brown
2007:  Adrian Peterson

Roy Williams has several Pro Bowls to his name, but that often makes Cowboys fans laugh.  Woolfolk wasn't all that great, and Mark Clayton is a mixed bag with some nice highlights but not consistent production.  Depending on how you look at them, that's between two to three "underachievers" in this small sample size... again, roughly half.

I thought about looking at Ohio State, but I'm feeling lazy and it ultimately doesn't matter.  My point here is not to try to figure out what school has the best success rate among first rounders but to show that every school will have guys who don't meet "expectations," and when they don't, you can hardly find times where it is appropriate to blame the schools for that.

Of course, it would be decidedly lazy and short-sighted to limit such analysis to the first round.  Every school will have success stories coming from later rounds, even those who were once UFAs.  Both Lylle Sendlein and Quan Cosby were UFA's and have found a spot in the NFL.  Second rounders like Rogers have had success (minus the gun incident).  Of the later rounds, we'll find guys like Scaife, Robison, Vasher, and Tarell Brown do some good things.


Have Texas Longhorn players failed in the NFL?  Certainly.  And there will be future ones, no doubt.  Is there a smidgen of evidence that this has to do with how Mack treats them in college?  Nope.  It would be too easy to choose virtually any big named school with a significant amount of prospects in the NFL, list the amount of players that haven't "panned out," and sloppily conclude that teams should avoid that school.  Unless you want to miss out on guys like Polumalu just because we can list failed USC players, I think it is safe to say this logic is pretty flawed.  Heck, Miami, at least in the early 2000s, was often considered the best place for NFL talent, yet they were often regarded as the most arrogant and misbehaved school (talking perception here, not necessarily reality).  If this type of logic held, we should see a bunch of flameouts due to arrogance and stupidity among all Miami players, but we actually see a lot of productive players.  I am not saying that what school they come from has no bearing whatsoever; it can help knowing what system they come from and the level of competition they faced, for instance.  Still, the reasons for a player failing to live up to expectations, which we've seen isn't easy to set in the first place, can be varied and complicated, and it can be a big stretch trying to generalize all of these players based on the school they came from. 

In a nutshell:  If you think your team should pass on Thomas, Kindle, Houston, or Shipley because they are Longhorns and are "coddled" and "soft", that isn't exactly the wisest thing to believe.