San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is going to take the field in two hours and it won't just be a vindication of the decision by coach Jim Harbaugh to replace Alex Smith and his 13-3 run with a passer rating over 100 - Harbaugh can't lose in the eyes of the public even if the team does - it will be a vindication of science.
Scouting is tricky business, supposedly due to 'intangibles' scouts can only detect holding stopwatches and making athletes do meaningless exercises. You don't get this in the film version of "Moneyball", it is just another story about the Underdog who overthrows Convention, but in the book, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane says of his own baseball playing days and scouting - no one ever asked him if he really wanted to be a baseball player. Not in the cursory sense, obviously you don't make your way to a contract at all if you aren't liking it and good at it - but want it. It's little wonder he thought there had to be a better system than watching guys throw and hit and deciding to throw millions of dollars at them. There are some intangibles, 'football smarts', but NFL history shows the traditionally smartest people don't do all that well.
Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee talks about John Brenkus, host of "Sport Science" on ESPN. Kaepernick is a vindication for him too. While everyone was talking about Cam Newton, Brenkus was analyzing players who were not already deemed the first pick of the 2011 draft. In his California lab, he used every biomechanical tool available to measure players and Kaepernick was a lights out star across the board. So the skinny, tattoo-covered young man from the University of Nevada was extolled by Brenkus and yet immediately dismissed as an 'academic' pick and not a football savvy one. He went to the 49ers in the second round when the staff was looking for an athletic option backup for the more traditional Alex Smith, who was a first round pick and was good in the opinions of scouts, only to have a spotty career before Harbaugh arrived as his coach.
The analysis by Brenkus showed he was more than a backup quarterback who could run. And that meant the scouting combine teams used really wasn't showing an accurate picture of what quarterbacks could do, unless you think a standing broad jump is going to determine NFL success when angry 300 lb. men are trying to cripple you.
The strange, awesome delivery of Colin Kaepernick. Link and credit: Paul Kitagaki, Jr., Sacramento Bee
While scouts with stopwatches criticized his odd delivery, Brenkus measured eye ocularity and release and accuracy and found that eye trackers showed he was registering in measures like 'how fast to detect where to throw the ball' and then releasing it at the levels of elite quarterbacks, the 0.2-0.4 second range. Brenkus insisted Kaepernick, not Cam Newton, was the best pick in the draft based on fundamentals.
Kaepernick tested before he lit up the NFL.
In a way, he was the best pick. Newton is obviously terrific but for money spent and criticism, the choice to start Kaepernick is already near Tom Brady and Kurt Warner levels of admiration.
Brady and Warner are two reminders of how some science can help NFL scouting; scouts picked Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell in the first round, Brady was picked in the 6th round of the 2000 draft and Warner didn't get picked at all in 1994 but they both own Super Bowl rings.
Brenkus is a serious guy so maybe more scouts will listen now. How many NFL scouts have been choked in the name of science? Or nailed in the groin with a 90 MPH fastball?
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