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The intangible factors that go into Saturday’s roster decisions

There are a lot of things we can measure and observe, but roster decisions will be based on other factors we cannot see.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

By 3 p.m. (Arrowhead Time) this Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs — and 31 other NFL teams — will have trimmed their 90-man rosters down to 53 players. Over 1,100 professional football players will suddenly find themselves out of work.

A few will sign with other teams within hours or days — but when that happens, they will displace other players who had just breathed a sigh of relief at making their team’s “final” roster. About a third of the youngest players will eventually be signed to an NFL practice squad, where their dreams will continue.

But for most, Saturday will be the end of their time in the NFL. For some, it will mark the end of a career that spanned years; for others, it will be the cruel end of a dream that seemed so close to fruition just a few months ago. Some will have the satisfaction of knowing that there was at least a time they could make the grade; others will eventually understand that it was never even possible.

But all of those who hang up their cleats for the last time will have one thing in common: they will have been judged to be unable to cut it in the NFL.

So how are these judgments even made?

As fans, we put great stock in media personalities — and other fans — who can accurately guess which players will make the cut. We strive to learn enough to be just as good at making those predictions as they are.

And yet... even well-connected media types (and well-informed fans) almost always get it wrong — in ways both big and small. It’s not for lack of hard work. I’ve known many professional analysts (and fans, too) who were as well-informed as a person could ever hope to be. But when it came down to the final rounds of the draft, the last few roster spots on a team or the final teams to make the playoffs, they might as well have been throwing darts at a board.

How could this be? Isn’t any athletic endeavor all about production — that is, the ability to produce on the field? Isn’t this something that all of us can see just as clearly as the coaches? Why shouldn’t a well-informed person be able to accurately predict which players will be drafted, which ones will make a team or which teams will succeed?

Just before the 2015 NFL Draft, I wrote an Arrowhead Pride FanPost about the 2014 film Draft Day. The point of the post wasn’t that the film accurately reflected the realities of an NFL team — or even the draft itself. Instead, it was to argue that the film revealed some essential human truths as they pertained to the draft:

Personal relationships matter. Character matters. Hard work matters.

These personal attributes are important in any human endeavor — whether it’s digging holes in the ground to put up telephone poles, building cars on an assembly line or defending the run on an NFL playing field. But evaluations of them are necessarily subjective — and in the case of the NFL, completely hidden from our view.

In recent weeks, Chiefs coaches have given us hints about the importance they place on attributes like these.

”The kid loves to play football,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said of De’Anthony Thomas last week. “He loves to practice. He enjoys it. That’s the kind of people — and character — that we want.”

On Monday, Bieniemy expanded on that theme when speaking of Thursday’s final preseason game.

“They get to apply for a job, whether it is here or with 31 other teams,” he said. “They get an opportunity to put what they are and who they are on tape. That is what’s important about this last game. These kids get an opportunity to go out there and play 60 minutes of football in an NFL game. The thing about it, some tough decisions have to be made, but they don’t necessarily have to be tough if you go out there and put consistent behavior on tape that says, ‘You know what? This kid here is worthy enough to be a part of what we want to build.’”

A couple of weeks ago, special teams coordinator Dave Toub was asked what he was looking for in his players.

”He’s got to be smart. Fast — fast is probably very, very important. Effort — he’s got to be there all the time. And somebody that transfers the classroom on to the field. That’s what we’re looking for.”

On Monday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put a different spin on what Toub had said.

“I’d like to see — more than anything — the guys not make the same mistake twice. That tells me maybe they’re picking it up. That’ll be one of the things we focus on.”

Recently an item that turned up in my Twitter feed caught my eye. It came from Devin Jordan, a former Ohio State wide receiver who is now an assistant coach at Youngstown State. I don’t believe Jordan came up with this list himself — I think I’ve seen it before — but considering its source, it’s worth noting:

10 things that require zero talent but can still lead to success:

  1. Being on time
  2. Great effort
  3. Enthusiasm
  4. Having a positive attitude
  5. Being passionate
  6. Using good body language
  7. Being coachable
  8. Going the extra mile
  9. Being prepared
  10. Work ethic

These are the kinds of things Bieniemy, Toub and Spagnuolo were speaking about — intangible characteristics that can separate one player from another.

I can’t tell you how individual NFL players will be evaluated on these kinds of attributes. Even if I could, I couldn’t tell you how much importance a particular coach would assign to them. But when roster decisions are being made, it’s unreasonable to think these kinds of personal characteristics are — or should be — ignored.

Some will scoff at this argument. “Why,” they might ask, “should an NFL coach make decisions on any factor that doesn’t relate directly to someone’s ability to play? I don’t care if they get along with others. All I care about is if they can play the game.”

I respect this argument. On a certain level, it makes perfect sense. But I would point out that I’ve never been hired for a job just based on my résumé — that is, the measurable, tangible representation of my ability to do the job. Each time, I’ve had to have a personal interview before being hired. I’ll bet that’s been true in your life, too. If the only things that mattered in the performance of a job were things that could be objectively quantified, why would anyone ever have to have a job interview?

So after the Chiefs make their final roster cutdown on Saturday — and some of their decisions don’t make any sense to you — remember that what they’ve seen is somewhat different than what you have seen. That won’t necessarily mean that the coaches made the right calls — by definition, a decision based on a subjective evaluation can’t be quantified — but it will help explain why the calls they made might be different than the ones you might have made.

In the end, the quality of their decisions will be measurable: whether they result in the team’s success.

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