In the wake of the arrest of Aaron Hernandez and the growing evidence that there was a veritable forest of red flags about his character before the New England Patriots drafted him and then gave him a $40 million contract, there are many questions about why the NFL, with the huge revenues it generates, would want to take the risk of signing someone with a troubled past. The simple answer would be to just not take players with issues. There is some evidence that the Dallas Cowboys are one team that has decided to take that route since Jason Garrett became head coach. Certainly, the recent draft classes seem to be comprised of players that lack much in the way of warning signs.
But that may be a wee bit simplistic. After all, in the year before Garrett got the head coaching job, Dallas drafted a player with all kinds of issues in his past. Had Garrett gotten the job a year earlier than he did, you have to wonder, would the Cowboys have ever taken Dez Bryant in the first round of the 2010 draft?
In discussing the issue of red flags, Bryan Broaddus talked about Bryant from his perspective as a former scout with the Cowboys. In an segment on 105.3 FM The Fan, as quoted in SportsDay DFW, he said Bryant was the worst case of a troubled player he had ever seen. Although the issues were different from those surrounding Hernandez, they certainly provided a lot of reasons why a team might want to take him off their board. Given the way he slid on draft day despite his obvious raw talent, it seems likely many did. But it appears that Jerry Jones wanted to take a chance, and Bryant became a Cowboy.
For a while, it certainly looked like this could be a mistake. There was the issue of some unpaid bills at local merchants. He got kicked out of a mall for his sagging pants. While these were troubling, they were minor. The arrest in 2012 for family violence was not. For a while, as different versions of the incident emerged and the Dallas district attorney seemed inclined to go after him hard, it looked like this might become another talented player whose career was derailed by his own missteps off the field.
Then in mid-season, the charges were resolved with a year's probation, giving Bryant a clear path to get his life in order. He also had been a willing partner with the team in establishing some rules and restrictions on himself to help keep out of trouble, as documented by CowboysFan_inDC's FanPost. And Dez simply exploded on the field. Now he is being mentioned everywhere as one of the two best wide receivers in the league, alongside Calvin Johnson. With things going well so far (knocks on wood 'til knuckles bleed), the work and patience with Bryant may pay some huge dividends as he is now the top receiving weapon for the Cowboys, as Archie Barberio explained very well.
And this might never have happened if the team had backed down because of those red flags.
This is why teams are still going to think about taking a chance on players with troubled pasts. Sometimes, it pays off big. And sometimes, it completely blows up in your face.
Right now, Bryant looks like a good call and Hernandez is unquestionably a bad one (although there are some who are not convinced that Dez is out of the woods). The problem is that you cannot come up with a strict set of rules or any magic formula on how to do this. As Chris Wesseling put it at NFL.com in his own comparison of Bryant and Hernandez, this is much more an art than a science. It ultimately comes down to how well a team can read the players it is evaluating. Do they show a real desire to move ahead, to be real professionals? Given that teams are for the most part dealing with players around 20 to 22 years old coming out of college, they have to also determine if these kids even grasp what it takes to be a professional.
There is an article by Greg Gabriel in the National Football Post (and a hat tip to OCC for already putting this in one of his news links articles) that talks about the process used by teams in evaluating character. He brought up one thing that, to me, should be a key moment in the interview process for any team dealing with a player who has questions marks on their resume.
Hernandez had good "football character" but his personal character left something to be desired. During the interview process, he would not make eye contact with the interviewer and did not seem believable. When you asked him questions about his past and failed drug tests his answers were vague at best. He never confronted the "issues." (Emphasis added.)
How do you consider taking a player who comes across as dishonest and untrustworthy? Why would you? Maybe Hernandez figured out how to handle things better with the Patriots than he did in that interview, but if he was the same with them, then somebody in New England was letting themselves be blinded by the athletic skills.
There are some major differences in the Bryant and Hernandez stories, with the former mostly dealing with home and family issues where Hernandez had some apparent gang ties that never seemed an issue for Bryant. There also seem to be some big differences in how they come across. While I am just going on an impression from available interviews, Bryant does not come across like a player who would not look you in the eye. Perhaps he was able to present himself as someone who really wanted to be a success in the NFL, and who was willing to work at it.
As long as there are players like Bryant out there, some NFL teams are going to take chances on them. Tyrann Mathieu got drafted, and he certainly has as many warning signs as either Bryant or Hernandez. The most important decision for a team to make is whether the player is someone who can make the effort to mend their ways. The biggest mistake is to convince yourself they can when the evidence just isn't there.
As I mentioned at the top of this article, I wonder if Bryant would have been drafted if Jason Garrett was already the head coach? Actually, I think he might have, because I think he was very much a Jerry Jones decision. Based on the past few years, I think Jones still plays the biggest role on the first day of the draft. After that first round is done, he seems comfortable to turn it over to his staff, but that first round pick is his baby. With Bryant, he got a good player. And despite the RKG approach that now is prevalent in Dallas (and which you may have noticed I am a big fan of), I think the team will still take an occasional chance if they think a given player is sincere about learning and living the way that is now demanded of the Cowboys.
Bryant is a living argument for giving a young player a chance to grow up and learn how to be an NFL player - and a man. There is always going to be some risk, but there are many other risks that have to be taken, from injury history to looking for small school talent. This is just another part of it, and there is no simple, black and white formula that will give you foolproof answers. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it will be a disaster. You just have to work hard to improve the odds, but still you also have to take some chances. Football is never safe.
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