NFL teams on notice: Character counts in draft
CINCINNATI — A psychologist who helps NFL teams assess the character of draft picks shakes his head when a troubled player is chosen and then turns out to be nothing but trouble.
“I’ve been telling teams for 25 years the same deal: You can’t afford to take a guy like that,” Robert Troutwine said.
Teams are listening — for one weekend, anyway.
There is consensus that commissioner Roger Goodell’s crackdown on player misconduct, and his new policy holding franchises accountable when things go wrong, will make teams squeamish about taking draft-day risks.
Goodell made examples of two ex-West Virginia players: Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones and Bengals receiver Chris Henry. Jones got a one-year suspension and Henry got an eight-game punishment for misconduct.
Team executives got the message.
“They’re going to run the risk that the commissioner may carry a heavy hand when it comes to teams that draft people who have known character issues,” said Floyd Reese, the former Titans general manager who drafted Jones last year. “As a franchise, you’re probably putting yourself in harm’s way if you draft somebody with character issues.”
They can’t say they don’t have enough information.
The NFL does background checks that include school discipline, arrests, court cases, driving records and limited financial records. The checks are done on players invited to the league’s combine, and the information is made available to teams.
Teams use various other methods to get information. This year, six NFL teams — the Colts, Patriots, Eagles, Jets, Rams and Panthers — are using Troutwine & Associates, Inc., to develop profiles on players. Troutwine, an industrial psychologist, uses a 75-question assessment that provides insights into a player’s temperament, judgment and attitudes.
Other teams use other psychologists or questionnaires to gain insights.
“Character is important,” said Troutwine, whose first NFL draft work came in 1985. “Ultimately, you win with those people. I don’t understand why people overlook that.”
The answer involves rationalization.
When a player slips in the draft because of misdeeds, he becomes more tempting with each passing round. Players taken in later rounds will get smaller salaries, so teams see less financial risk if problems follow.
Coaches tend to think that they can keep a player in line, even when he has failed to meet the expectations of others. And the predraft interviews with eager-to-impress players can leave a good — and totally misleading — impression.
“You sit him down, you bring him in, you talk to him,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. “You let him look at you eye-to-eye.”
Often, it’s a tough call. That’s when a team’s commitment to character is revealed.
“For many years, people have been putting a lot of emphasis on character,” said Gil Brandt, a former Cowboys personnel director now employed as an analyst for NFL.com. “Sometimes, you think you can change a person, and that’s very hard to do.”
When a player who was projected to go early in the draft is still there in later rounds, teams are more likely to overlook the problems that made them slide. Psychologists say that’s a huge mistake.
“They say, ‘We won’t take him in the first round,’ then the guy drops to the fourth round and they take him,” Troutwine said. “Well, his character didn’t clean up in the fourth round. He didn’t get any smarter in the fourth round. There are some people that don’t get that. If he’s a bad character guy, you don’t want him.”
The Bengals are the best example of how draft-day risks can deflate a franchise. They had nine players arrested during a nine-month span, six of them draft picks from the last two years. Two of them — Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman — are suspended by the league.
Coach Marvin Lewis says the Bengals will look more closely at character in this draft, but he thinks the talk is overblown of teams being frightened away from players.
“I don’t know that it’s going to affect the teams quite as much as people think it’s going to,” Lewis said. “I think it will affect the players because they have seen (Goodell) deal with things swiftly and harshly.”
The Chargers are a close second to the Bengals in misconduct — six players arrested, and linebacker Steve Foley shot by an off-duty officer.
General manager A.J. Smith said Goodell’s crackdown hasn’t changed the way his team evaluates draft picks.
“It didn’t affect us at all,” he said. “Everything with us and our investigative process is extensive. We do the best we can. We bring in good people with good character.”
Psychologists would like to see the NFL use its input not only to size up players in the draft, but to help the draftees once they join the league. Sports psychologist John F. Murray thinks the NFL has a lot of room to grow in that area.
Murray praised Goodell’s crackdown on misbehavior, but wonders whether it will have a long-lasting impact on how the NFL handles its players.
“I like to hope it would,” Murray said. “I’m pessimistic because I’ve seen so many things happen after the last eight or 10 years and thought things might change, but they didn’t.”