How one former Green Beret is changing everything about NFL recruiting
Making it through selection to serve in one of America's elite special operations units marks an unusual milestone in a service member's career. Making the cut serves as the culmination of a lifetime of preparation and hard work, while simultaneously ushering in a new era full of brutal challenges, higher stakes, and even longer days ahead. Becoming a Green Beret is a lot like earning a spot on a professional football team: when everyone is elite, it takes something special to stand out.
Former Green Beret and current Director of Player Development for the Indianapolis Colts Brian Decker knows that, and he's managed to quantify that something special into a model that improved candidate selection rates by thirty percent in his last Special Forces unit. Now, he's brought that same model to the NFL.
(Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts)
"What Brian did was change the paradigm," said Col. Glenn Thomas, Decker's former boss at Fort Bragg. "People get accustomed to looking at things the same way and applying the same solutions to the same problems. Brian challenged our assumptions. He took things that had generally been intangibles and turned them into tangibles."
Football is, in many ways, analogous for war, with a combination of strategy and brute force playing out in a melee of individual skirmishes with the singular goal of advancing deep into enemy territory. The stakes in a football game are lower than in war, of course, but in the minds and hearts of those playing, themes like sacrifice and commitment are just prevalent between the hash marks as they are on the battlefield.
The thing is, despite the hard metrics both NFL teams and military units have been measuring for decades (using tests to assess things like speed and strength), many would contend that once a person has proven their physical ability to perform at that level, the real elements that dictate success or failure tend to be less tangible. A timed run can't measure a soldier's ability to dig deep in a firefight, nor can a series of drills determine if a rookie could handle the incredible pressure of playing at the professional level.
Decker believes there are some things that set elite operators apart in all fields, whether we're talking combat operations or professional football.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Steven Lewis)
"One of the things about professional sports, rock climbing, parachuting, jumping from 123,000 feet in space to Earth, they're all really hard things to do," Decker explains.
"I think if you remove the sport, specific skills and domain from it, you find that (elite performers) are a lot alike. I think the demands placed upon greatness look a lot alike, regardless of field."
Roughly half of all first-round draft picks in the NFL wash out of the league, and with so much money riding on these decisions, NFL teams have spent years trying to devise ways to predict a player's success before they sign the contract. From Decker's perspective, however, they simply haven't been measuring the right things.
Teams are taking big financial risks with their draft picks. The entire franchise could be effected by these decisions for years to come.
(Swimfinfan on Flickr)
So Decker set out to quantify the unquantifiable--to find a way to use numerical measurements for seemingly intangible elements of a player's personality like their drive or desire to succeed, their responses to stress, and their emotional intelligence. If all other things are equal, Decker's approach states, it's those qualifiers that will indicate the likelihood of a player's (or Special Forces candidate's) success.
The hard part is assigning hard numbers to such things in a uniform way, and while Decker won't reveal the exact metrics he uses for his assessments, the success his program has been enjoying in the Colts' locker room seems to speak for itself.
"Every team in the league is doing a lot of work in terms of psychological evaluations, and has been doing it forever and ever," says Joe Banner, the former Browns CEO who gave Decker his first job in the league in 2014.
"But his approach, and the types of questions he asks, and his ability to synthesize information and get to the right conclusions, that part of it is absolutely groundbreaking. There is nobody in the league doing what he's doing as effectively."
Last season the Colts went 10-6, marking a turnaround for the franchise.
Once Decker has met with a prospective player and made his assessments, he always follows the math up with five specific questions meant to steer his line of thinking:
Does this player have a favorable development profile?
Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?
Does he have a good learning and support system?
Is he a character risk, and if so, how do we understand that risk and help this player?
Is he a good fit?
But it takes a lot more than assigning some figures and asking lofty questions. Prior to this season's draft, Decker interviewed and assessed over 160 players. Next year, he plans to top 300.
"This is a commitment industry," Decker, who served in the military for 22 years, explains. "That's another thing I like about football. You can't just be here for the T-shirt. You gotta give a pound of flesh to do this."