The Cleveland Browns are going to be on the clock and under the microscope next Thursday. While the front office wants to build its team and do what’s best for the franchise, one goal likely remains in the back of management’s mind: Don’t draft a bust.
Cleveland has control of the first and fourth picks in the draft this year. While this seems an advantage, the Browns’ position comes with great expectations. To be sure, the names of Tim Couch, Johnny Manziel, Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden still haunt the franchise.
While the label “bust” has been firmly affixed to these former first rounders, it’s not a coincidence that these players so disproportionately end up in Cleveland. It may in part be due to Cleveland’s lack of ability to evaluate talent, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
Rather than a skill evaluation problem, busts are often a result of an inability to develop talent once a player enters the league. To be sure, there is no “bust-gene.” Upon entering the NFL, no player is destined to fail. And while scouts and general managers seek to ascertain which players are most likely to pan out, practically all of the first-round picks in the draft are incredibly talented football players who have the potential to be successful in the NFL.
In football, it’s easy to blame players for poor on-field performance. When a quarterback tosses a pick, or a linebacker misses a tackle, people notice. But what we don’t see is the tremendous organizational aptitude or ineptitude that largely determines a player’s success.
When evaluating a young player who is new to the league, it is crucial to examine one’s context in order to properly assess ability. A player who is labeled a “bust” after poor performances often lacks the organizational luxury of skillful teammates, mentors and patient coaches. A bust could be somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the order of the draft is such that the worst teams get the best draft picks. Thus, the most promising young players may find themselves in situations not quite conducive to success.
Such was the case for Jared Goff in 2016. The Rams sold the proverbial farm in order to move to the number one spot in 2016 draft to select him. After a lackluster first season of limited work in which Goff threw five touchdowns to his seven interceptions, cries of bust began to echo around the LA colosseum. But the Rams refused to hit the panic button, and they doubled down on their young signal caller. Rather than yanking him and starting anew, the Rams hired a new coach — Sean McVay —who changed the team’s culture. This past year, Goff threw the same number of picks and ratcheted up his touchdown number by 22 in more than twice as many games, and thereby cemented himself as the future of the franchise.
The Rams could have written off Goff as a bust and moved on. But rather than making rash conclusions about his ability, they adapted and put him in a place to succeed.
While the Browns will acquire some talented players next Thursday, no 21-year-old will be the panacea for a team that has earned only one win in the past two seasons. And if a young player does not succeed in a culture that has fostered so much failure over the years, he should not be derided as a bust. He might just be a victim of circumstance.
Cal Barash-David ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.