BREAKING NEWS: Football is played with eleven people on a side. This makes scouting the aggregate effort pretty easy—one team beat the hell out of the other, hooray—and scouting the individual very, very hard. We will make fun of NFL scouts for worrying about hand size, arm length, and skull smoothness until the cows come home, but you also have to admit that their jobs, while very silly, are also very, very hard.
For instance: take Myles Garrett and Jonathan Allen. Myles Garrett falls into the category of Obviously Spectacular Player for college football people who watched him embarrass offensive linemen for three years at Texas A&M. The combine is there to quantify that jaw-dropping speed and agility in terms you can take to spreadsheet people, who will see numbers and go “bloop blorp yes this is fast fine pay them monies.” You have to do that—the NFL runs on such thin margins of talent differential that you have to take every available advantage possible. If that’s microquantifying things to make your point, that’s what you’ll take.
Myles Garrett ran a 4.64, but you already knew he was ridiculously fast. You also knew that he could be run over, but honestly, name a pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in college that can’t be blown over by enough dominant fatness putting a good uncalled hold on him and following through with bulk and a solid bench press?
An Alabama fan might say “Oh that’s easy: Jonathan Allen.” They’re half-right, and for both right and wrong reasons. Alabama fans would say this about Jonathan Allen because they’re cheating, and because Allen is more of a 3-4 end, a position that demands a different skill set, build, and overall talent profile. They also say Jonathan Allen because for Crimson Tide fans over the past two years, Allen is basically like duct tape or WD-40 or hot sauce or tussin. If you have a problem, just rub some Jonathan Allen on it and it’ll be fine.
It’s terrifying how often this actually worked.
This is where things get really, really hard for someone trying to translate talent to another, more intense level of competition. Allen or Garrett both have their shortcomings because both are sadly human, and will be more and more sadly human as they take the field against larger, more terrifying competition than they’ve already faced playing college football. Garrett will struggle to get off blocks like he has never struggled before, because Garrett, inhuman as he is, will be playing other inhuman talents too normal in the NFL to name. He won’t get to play UTEP anymore, not even when he plays the Browns or the Rams or whomever the official mediocrity of the NFL happens to be that year.
That goes double for Allen. His physical superiority resulted in some of his highlights looking like outtakes from The Avengers where Hulk is tearing apart the decks of the helicarrier and throwing Thor through plate steel. That’s not an exaggeration: Allen literally threw people off blocks and leapt over people, so much that some turnovers seemed to happen from the sheer shock of him being on the field. The only time we’ve seen that prior to Allen was when Ndamukong Suh played for Nebraska, about the best compliment we can pay a defensive lineman from a college football perspective.
It won’t be that for either of them in the NFL, most likely, a differential that gets to the core of a.) why we prefer college football, generally and b.) why scouting is so hard in the first place. College is the last layer of football where talent can look consistently dominant against competition, and that’s cartoonish and entertaining and central to the game. It’s not that the blowout is a bug of the college football ecosystem, it’s a feature, and a necessary one. You do get to watch your team, at one point, absolutely torch someone—and even though you may wince when admitting it, you will enjoy it.
You also have no idea what will happen when they face real competition, a degree of adversity they’ve never seen before, or enter a working situation they cannot possibly succeed in COUGH COUGH THE BROWNS COUGH. That happens, and will happen, all the time and over and over again—when a coach simply decides you don’t have any variant of “it,” when you’re put in the wrong scheme, or even when you just end up some place you hate and can’t wait to leave.
Which makes John Ross running a 4.22 kind of perfect in this sense: If he wanted to have a perfect NFL career, Ross would just retire here, now, or maybe just a few minutes after catching one long bomb of a TD in preseason, and just after signing a large rookie contract with something like guaranteed money.
He’s perfect now, and we can remember that, and him cooking Adoree Jackson on a deep TD against USC so badly Jackson himself tweeted about it. Skip all the unnecessary adulting and humbling of the NFL. Move on to some lucrative career in insurance or banking or something with a nice house already paid for, and a record-setting 40 on the books.
Otherwise, we have to watch Jonathan Allen and Myles Garrett and maybe John Ross be merely excellent, often human, and maybe even watch them fail under mismanagement, underperformance, or cruel circumstance. It’s a lot like reliving your terrifying first five years out of college all over again, but with less alcohol, bail money, and credit card debt. If that sounds scary to you—and it sounds terrifying to us—imagine the person writing the check on the other end, trying to figure out which one of these options will blow up on them in a pretty normal, frequently occurring fashion. Because that’s gonna happen—even with great talent, and sometimes because of that great talent.
It’s almost enough to make you understand the concept of [clears throat in very northeastern pundit voice] “lunchpail guys with high ceilings”[/ends voice] not as a matter of cliche, but as a form of protection. Their warranties are cheap. The supply is plentiful. Find a few, you’re suddenly uniquely brilliant. Ruin an obvious talent, and suddenly you’ve crashed a supercar. No one wants to be the one who crashes a Ferrari, even if you can just get a new one next April. It’s not like smashing up an Impala.
No, no: people stop and take pictures of that shit, and that’s forever. There are accidents, which are normal and boring, and then there’s the oldest, least desirable form of news that you never, ever want to be a part of yourself, but always stop to watch: expensive accidents. Notice that the thing never considered here are the feelings and welfare of the Ferrari, which is usually thrown aside for a new one without much concern.
To that, we’d only have the counter that the NFL at least has the minimal integrity to put a price tag on its expensive commodities, and to pay it. Some places claim the Ferrari showed up by itself first to get a degree in criminal justice, and then for the free gas and love of racing alone.