The Twenty Percent Failure Factor

Ok, I’m back…sort of. Darren at Big Red Network has a great piece on recruting in the age of attrition. He makes a lot of sense of a somewhat difficult topic. His work also got me thinking about something I had read from Bill Walsh.

In Finding the Winning Edge, Walsh discusses the twenty percent failure factor that impacts NFL teams with regard to their acquisitions. Walsh states:

“If a personnel department is doing an outstanding job of evaluating and acquiring talent through the draft and free agency, its failure rate (i.e., the number of players who don’t ‘pan out’ for whatever reason) can be expected to be around twenty percent. In other words, regardless of how capable and efficient your scouts and coaches are in identifying, researching and projecting the potential value of a particular player, a fall out of approximately twenty percent wil occur.”

I thought this notion was noteworthy as a the latest group of Nebraska players prepares for the NFL draft by participating in all-star games and getting in shape for the combine. Clearly every team in the NFL has experienced some degree of disappointment in its acquisitions. Top draft choices turn out to be busts (including players from Nebraska) or expensive free agent signings fail to live up to expectations.

Walsh claims:

“The point to be emphasized is that no matter how much time and effort a team puts into the acquisition process (i.e., no matter how thoroughly a team ‘studies’ a given athlete) some miscalculations will happen. The process simply involves too many variables to be able to accurately account for every factor.”

Walsh argues that this twenty percent failure rate is about all a franchise can absorb and continue to be competitive and that capable and experienced management will firmly grasp this reality.

The failure factor is also interesting when one considers college football recruiting. Obviously the failure rate for college athletes should be somewhat higher given that college teams do not utilize a full-time scouting staff and also find themselves dealing with a much larger pool of eligibles. From CFB conventional wisdom (whatever that is) I’ve always gathered that a recruiting class in which 40-50% of the players become meaningful contributors should be considered a success. In light of the continued exodus from our 2005 class, and news that others considered leaving, however, Walsh offers another piece of insight.

“If the percentage of failures among a team’s acquisitions climbs above the expected failure rate, then shortcomings exist in the team’s system of evaluating and acquiring players. If disappointment after disappointment occurs, they can’t all be related to ‘bad luck’.”

Players have always failed to pan out, and unhappy players have always left for the hope of a better situation. My hunch, however, is that this dynamic is going to continue to evolve. I see a future in which more player movement (from team to team) will occur. The spontaneous changes in personnel will negatively impact teams’ development of depth. It may also eventually force coaches to play more first-year players, either to make up for this lack of depth or to placate the egos of highly regarded recruits. As more young players are then relied upon to contribute the degree to which a team will be able to expand its offensive or defensive system will be limited by the level of the squad’s development. Player character will then become increasingly important, especially at the lower end of the roster. Although players in this situation may join the team under a lower set of expectations and might not be on scholarship, they may become important contributors and thus must sustain their intensity and their efforts. Finally coaching staffs will be forced to develop patience and to exhibit flexibility when dealing with the shocking loss of front-line players.

That sounds like a whole different ball game to me.

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