The Importance of Football Character

Drafting is the easiest and most efficient way to build a team, as NFL general managers are acquiring talented players who are fast, healthy and entering into the prime of their careers. Drafting talent is easy. Drafting talent with character and a good medical report is the ultimate challenge for any personnel evaluator.

Projecting anything or anybody is no easy task. As a rule, half the players drafted in the first round will fail to meet expectations and most will be considered a “bust” within three years. Only 25 percent of first rounders will play to a pro bowl level while the remaining draft picks will play to a rank and file level.

Most teams have their own reasoning and beliefs that they adhere to when deciding on who to draft.  Some teams have no real philosophy and those teams usually wind up drafting high every year.

I’ve found that the most intoxicating and overrated trait that teams use to justify their draft picks is speed and/or athletic ability since speed & raw talent are the real separators between the average and above players in the league. There are much better ways to evaluate a football player than on just speed or athleticism.

Understanding “Football Character”

Charles Tillman was a second round draft pick under Jerry’s Angelo’s management tenure. Photo: Chicago Bears

Before we go further, let’s first define “football character.” Football character entails a player’s work ethic, competitive nature, threshold for pain, football IQ, overall passion for game and level of play within these characteristics.

At the college level, a gifted player can dominate with his talent alone regardless of his lack of football character.  When the player gets to the next level, it tends to catch up to him. Rarely does a player have a long career in the National Football League without football character since he can no longer mask those flaws with his talent as he once did in college.

Football character is the glue that allows players to establish themselves and create the needed staying power when their talent starts to erode. It allows them to continue to play well past their prime. The exceptions are so rare that you almost can’t even categorize them as aberrations – they’re that rare. It might surprise you to find out that most busts have more to do with a players lack of character than talent.

Time, Money and Citizenship

The two things most players don’t have in college that they’ll have an abundance of at the next level is time and money. How a player handles his idle time and new money will have a big impact on whether he’ll have a future in the NFL.

Players with a strong sense of “citizenship” are more likely to be able to handle his new lifestyle and not let it become a distraction. My definition of citizenship is what type of person the player is once he leaves the facility. Football character has everything to do with what a player is doing when he’s at work at the facility while his citizenship is defined by who he is once he leaves work.

While both “citizenship” and “football character” are important to his future success as a football player, I would say that the latter carries more importance. That’s the reason I would always say “we’re not looking for boy scouts” because our jobs are to win football games. We weren’t hired to serve the community. That’s not to say a player’s citizenship isn’t important because I feel like it is very important. I’m just saying that football character is more important.

In the end, you’re much better off drafting players who have talent with a strong history of practice and games started, than a player with elite talent, that can’t be counted on.

Players Have To Play

The last criteria that can have a major impact on a player’s success at the next level is his durability. I’m a real believer that if a player is hurt (misses approximately 25 percent or more of practice time and games) in college he’ll be hurt in the pros. Why wouldn’t he? The pro game is more physical, the season is longer and the player is constantly getting older while accepting an accumulation of wear and tear on his body.

I’ve seen my fair share of players pass physicals despite having had a laundry list of injuries in college.  In the end, that laundry list has proven to be a better predictor or durability than any physical or MRI.

Sometimes a player has missed time due to the way a player was trained, but sometimes it is just a matter of how he handles pain. And sometimes, it is just a matter of a player’s genetic make up. The bottom line is that if a player can’t stay healthy, then he can’t practice and get better. When he’s not in there, it puts a real burden on his teammates and coaches and they never know if they can count on him week to week. That axiom, “you can’t help the club in the tub,” certainly rings true in the NFL.

Why Character Matters

Character is the barometer we use to gage the risk & maintenance required of a player.  The greater the character risk, the greater the chance the player will be a bust.  Time is not an ally when the season starts and low character players have a way of taking time away from doing the things you need to be doing on a routine basis.
Always remember that you can buy talent, but you can’t buy a locker room…. it has to be developed.  History confirms that the teams who accumulate talent with little regard for a player’s intangibles will LOSE.  Team oriented attitudes – winning attitudes – can’t manifest without players who have strong work ethics, a passion for what they do and the desire to be great. Nothing can withstand or sustain in this league without that type of resolve.
Talent is very important, but when you start compromising character for talent, you rob yourself of the glue that brings a locker room together and the “IT” factor all great teams have. It’s a fact, I’ve lived it!
The character of a football team good or bad usually shows itself at about the halfway point of the season. By that time injuries have taken their toll, most players are playing through some degree of pain, there have been some tough losses, the media is starting to beat up on you and agents are getting into their player’s ear about taking care of themselves and not getting hurt for contract purposes
And if you sign free agents from other teams before getting contracts done with some of your own players, it can cause dissension in the locker room if your don’t have a room full of high football character players.  All these factors are very common each year with most teams and the teams with character are able to work through them.

Examples of Good and Bad Football Character

When I was In Tampa, we drafted a player who had also been drafted by baseball.   Prior to drafting him in the 3rd round, we got him on the phone and made sure that if we drafted him that baseball would not be in the picture.  He assured us that his first love was football and that it wouldn’t be a problem, but all we had was his word.  He was not fast or overly athletic, but he was a good player.

Once the player was on the team, the coaches at that time did not like him because of his lack of speed.  There was a point when we were seriously entertaining cutting him.  In fact, we even tried to make him a LB to see if we could get something out of him.  He added 15 or 20 pounds and he looked bad and played worse at the experimental position.  That staff got fired and we told the new staff what was said about him.  They said they would work with him and see for themselves.  That player had very high football character and it was a real credit to the player that he never lost hope or his will to be great.  His name was John Lynch.

On the other side of football character, we drafted a LB out of the midwest with a high first round draft pick.  He was a hold out and got paid substantial money.  Between partying, buying new cars and water toys, we rarely saw any of the type of play we had seen in college.  He couldn’t learn his assignments and couldn’t be trusted to play every down.  The player was late for meetings, fined repeatedly and it went on and on.  It was one bad thing after another.  If it weren’t for drafting him in the 1st round we would have cut him after his rookie year.  He never got, but we sure did!

Two totally different people & talents, the separator were their characters and this is no exception. It happens all the time.  Talent without character is nothing more than a bad apple.