Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Blind Side

I just finished MoneyLaw Icon Michael Lewis's book "The Blind Side" which describes an outstanding high school left tackle and the evolution of the position for which nature has ideally suited him. It's a great and quick read for those interested in race and class in the United States, the state of intercollegiate athletics, or, most relevant to readers of this blog, the evaluation of untested talent.

The most interesting thing to me about the book is that there are almost no objective criteria to measure offensive linemen like Michael Oher, the book's focus . Offensive linemen don't generate a lot of statistics; their job is to stop the quarterback from being sacked, but because quarterbacks get sacked (or not) for lots of reasons, it is very hard to measure the effectiveness of a particular member of an offensive line. While quarterbacks are measured by a fantastically arcane rating system designed to quantify their every on-field performance, there are simply no corresponding metrics to evaluate left tackles.

As a result, intuition and intangibles become paramount in evaluating offensive linemen. Although he didn't play organized football until his junior year of high school, Michael Oher became one of the most highly recruited football players in the country. He, like the young Billy Beane depicted in Money Ball, simply looks the part. He is described at least 7 times in the book as a "freak of nature" a tall, immense yet agile young man whose hips and backside are described in nearly homo-erotic detail by the college scouts who parade through his high school. Although he was only slightly more than inept in most of his 15 high school games and was nearly non-communicative with the scouts who came to watch him play, his physical characteristics made him one of the top 5 college prospects in the country.

It is not yet clear whether Michael Oher will live up to the praise lauded on him as a 15-year-old. He just finished his Junior year at Ole Miss where he has been a very-good but not world-beating offensive lineman. What struck me about this story is how different it is from Moneyball. In that book, Lewis points out the absurdity of scouts who rely on their eyes and not on proven performance to evaluate talent. Here, there are simply no statistics that will do the job; all that scouts can do is guess.

When we're evaluating talent as law professors -- whether of potential colleagues or of potential students -- we are usually somewhere in between these two extremes. We have some "measurables" -- LSAT scores, article placements, etc. -- but we also have to use our intuitions: Do we think this person has potential, do we think this person's best work is behind her, etc. Decision-making would be far easier if there were always measurable statistics that correlate well with performance; until then, we are forced to rely on our intuitions to fill the gaps.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Bill said...

Oher has been all-SEC twice, which says something, given that he plays on the worst team in the conference (0-8). He declared for the draft this week. ESPN has him the 5th best in his position, 30th best overall, so he should go pretty high.

1/16/2008 2:28 PM  
Blogger sam kamin said...

Bill --

I hadn't known that Oher had declared for the NFL; that will certainly get us an answer sooner rather than later. I'm sticking with my statement that Michael had a good but not spectacular college career. Given the accolades that he received when he was recruited out of high school ("greatest left tackle since Orlando Pace"). Even being twice named the best left tackle in the best conference in the country probably doesn't live up to that kind of hype.

People were talking about Michael playing on Sundays before he knew how to play left tackle. He'll be doing it soon enough.

1/17/2008 11:04 AM  

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