Expert Opinion: What is it Worth? Montana, Brady, and Tebow

I am absolutely fascinated with the Tim Tebow story. Not the one about the vilified, overtly Christian athlete. No, I am fascinated with the countless stories of athletes like Tebow that experts said could not be successful, and then end up having one success after another. Spoiler alert: Tebow led the Broncos on a 95-yard touchdown drive in the final six minutes of the game tonight and finished off the last twenty yards himself with a scramble into the end zone to clinch a 17 – 13 victory over the Jets. 

Tebow is not the only quarterback who comes to mind. Ever hear of a guy named Joe Montana? Montana played at a little known football college called Notre Dame. He was recruited by ND, but in 1977 at the beginning of his fourth year in the program (an injury gave him five years of eligibility) Montana was still listed third on the depth chart behind Rusty Lisch and Gary Forystek.

ND started the season 1-1 in 1977 and Montana did not play until there were eleven minutes left in the third game of the season with ND trailing by more than a touchdown. He rallied ND to a victory (Data provided by Wikipedia) and never lost his starting job after that. In fact, ND did not lose another game that year after he got the chance to play.

ND finished 1977 with a win in the Cotton Bowl over then-number-one ranked University of Texas and ND was voted the National Champions. All Montana did in college was win, usually late as he led his team in one comeback after another.

You would think that such a clutch performer who led his team to a National Championship would be viewed favorably by the experts in the NFL, but the scouts did not think very highly of Montana. They ranked his arm strength as particularly weak. So, the following quarterbacks were drafted ahead of Montana:

First Round: Jack Thomson, Phil Simms, Steve Fuller 

No other quarterbacks were chosen in that draft until Montana was taken with the last pick in the third round, number 82 overall. All Montana did in the NFL was win four Super Bowls, win three Super Bowl MVP awards, get selected for eight Pro Bowls, and get elected to the NFL Hall of Fame. He is widely considered to be the greatest quarterback of all time.

Okay, so maybe you heard of Montana, but have you ever heard of a guy named Tom Brady? I will admit I did not like the guy until this year when I saw an ESPN film called “The Brady 6.”  It is the story of Brady and the six quarterbacks who were drafted ahead of Brady in the 2000 NFL draft.

You can and should watch “The Brady 6″ on YouTube (I embedded part I below), so I will not bore you with Brady’s story here. But, I found one thing especially noteworthy: the experts at the NFL combine had ranked 576 college quarterbacks in the speed and agility categories in the multi-decade history of the NFL Combine. Brady’s overall ranking in the history of the combine was 576.

The football experts rely on these combine numbers the way baseball scouts heavily rely on batting average for hitters and velocity for pitchers; the way fund analysts rely on pedigree for performance prospects and beta for risk measurement. Oh, and the experts all felt that Brady had poor arm strength.

The two quarterbacks who earned 100 wins in their careers in the fewest number of starts were Joe Montana and Tom Brady. Watch the Brady 6; it may forever change the way you think of experts in sports and elsewhere.

Today, we have Tebow, who is being criticized for a supposed lack of NFL-caliber skill, and the criticism is often nasty. The silence from Denver’s front office, scouts, and coaching staff has been deafening. It should be noted that Tebow was drafted by a different front office and coaching staff from the current one in Denver.

Yet, today I found out that Tebow is 4 -3 5 – 2 (5-3 6 – 2 after the win against the Jets) in his first seven starts in Denver compared with Hall-of-Famer John Elway’s 1 – 6 record in his first seven. Tebow is now 4-1 this year after Denver started 1-4 without him and he has Denver in the playoff hunt. Tebow has something like eight touchdowns to one interception in that seven game span and Elway had those numbers reversed. The knock on Tebow has been that he does not have the arm strength to be an NFL quarterback. It sounds familiar.

Maybe the experts will have gotten this one right in the end. After all, Tebow did have more success in college than Montana and Brady; he did win two National Championships at The University of Florida and a Heisman Trophy. And, unlike Montana and Brady, Tebow was taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

I am choosing NFL quarterbacks for this criticism of experts, but you could pick any position in the NFL, or any position in any other sport, and you will find that experts often get it wrong. Or, you could choose experts in any field from finance to climate science. Many are not just proven wrong, but fantastically wrong. Perhaps it is because those who are deemed experts are usually the ones who are the most sure of themselves; they make the best media, board room, or draft room presentations, but perhaps they are not necessarily the best at understanding talent or analyzing complex phenomena. Often times, the one who is the most aggressive and talks the loudest wins the day.

Michael Lewis’s great book Moneyball is all about experts who get it wrong, leaving cheap bargains available for savvy analysts who can see through the nonsense. Here are some reasons that experts make mistakes in evaluating baseball talent: evaluating a player based on whether or not he has a square jaw (“a baseball face”); whether he looks good in jeans; or whether he has a pretty girlfriend. That is the kind of analysis that experts provided before Moneyball, and many still have similar biases.

One such bias in baseball that has not disappeared is a bias against “soft tossers;” i.e. pitchers who cannot consistently break 90-miles per hour on the radar gun. Remind you of the supposedly weak arms of Montana, Brady, and Tebow? Baseball pitching experts are enamored with velocity and are blind to practically every flaw in a pitcher who can throw hard. But, if a pitcher does not throw hard they will ignore him even if he has few flaws, even if he can knock a fly off a catcher’s mitt, make the ball move, change speeds, and collect wins. Never mind that the greatest pitcher in the last thirty years rarely used velocity to get hitters out, but could hit practically every spot he wanted to within an inch or two, move the ball, and change speeds: five-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.

So, should we rely on experts to the degree that we do? Warren Buffett points out that  experts concluded that his and other value investors’  accomplishments were either lucky–like a coin flipper who gets heads twenty times in a row–or that there is just not enough data to evaluate their success. His now-famous story is of 225 million orangutans spread evenly throughout the country who mindlessly flips coins; by sheer luck 215 of them will get heads twenty times in a row. But, he says that if forty of those 215 orangutans are from the same zoo, maybe they are on to something.

Were the experts right, but the outlier successes of the Montanas, Bradys, Madduxes, Buffetts, Klarmans, and Einhorns to be expected as merely the lucky random ones who fell under the far reaches of the bell curve?

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