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So, you like Michael Sam, but you do not like (American) football. Or, you like Michael Sam, but you do not care about (American) football. OR, you like Michael Sam, would like to know what’s lies in store for him next, and you do not care about (American) football, YET.




What's not to like?


Congratulations. Michael Sam is awesome. Football is awesome. This is gonna be great.

(alternative: this is all about to go terribly wrong. But either way: you’re gonna know how and why).

Michael Sam is pretty awesome, isn’t he? And good at football, right?

Awesome, obviously. And Sam is a good football player. He was a fantastic college player at Missouri. College-level success doesn’t always translate at the pro level, but he was a very successful player on a very successful team that played in a very competitive conference.

All of that suggests good things. NFL scouts found a lot to like in his game, too. Sam is a defensive end, and his scouting report especially points out his reach, his aggressiveness, and his ability in a pass rush to beat the tackle to the outside – but really it’s that last one, his perfection of the corner move that elevated his game his senior year, and made him a bona fide NFL prospect.

This is what I just heard: “blah blah blah defensive end. Blah blah blah pass rush. Blah blah blah”

There’s about one million ‘football 101’ or ‘football for dummies’ articles out there. You want traditional? You want irritatingly addressed but beautifully illustrated? You want a guide especially for the nerdy/gaming inclined? All available. (And after that, if you really want to dig into the nuts and bolts of defense, you can start at CalSci. No really)


See? Super simple


I’d say 90% of football fans are only ever really watching the quarterback (you know, the guy who throws the ball?) and whoever he gives the ball to, all while waiting for the next big hit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But just give me two seconds to make my football sales pitch:

Football is a chess match, played with real humans, run by the coaches, involving incredibly complex logic trees. Football is a track meet where you not only have to run precise patterns that involve abrupt starts and stops and quick sideways cuts, but where you have to do it through interference. Football is a contest about throwing accuracy – except that people are trying to kill you while you do it. Football is a high-contact martial art with all of the attendant footwork, technique, and strength requirements – except you have to synchronize and execute it as part of a 3-5 man team, requiring near-psychic levels of coordination. Football is all of these things happening ALL AT ONCE.

No wonder people just watch the quarterback.

Speaking of the quarterback: he can either throw the ball or hand the ball to someone to run with, or run the ball himself. IF he decides to throw the ball, the defending team can defend by trying to get in the way of the pass by chasing down the guy he intends to throw the ball to, and preventing him from catching it*, or they can try to knock down the quarterback himself before he can throw, or (usually) some combination of the two. One of the guys trying to knock down the quarterback? That’s Sam. And, in college, he was very successful at in in a very specific way – by running around the corner aka to the outside of the guy whose job it is to protect the quarterback. Examples Here.

* why yes, there are complicated and sometimes arbitrarily enforced rules about how the defending player is allowed to do this. If you’re curious, get your start: here.

Okay, but when people said Sam had “a bad combine” WTF does that mean? Did his position in the draft really slide because of that, or because he had come out as gay?

Never ever underestimate how backwards and conservative the NFL is; it makes the NHL look like a bastion of enlightenment. I’m not going to say Sam’s coming out had nothing to do with his Draft stock sliding, because to be honest: there are probably some team executives out there who are just Neanderthal enough that they care more about that than football skill (or care more about the imaginary ‘distraction’ effect than football skill). But, as you might have heard, Sam’s sexual orientation was sort of an open secret – meaning most of the teams’ scouting staffs probably already knew or guessed that he was gay, which means that if that was going to factor into their decision, it would have happened much earlier than his “official” coming out.

However, I cannot know NFL execs’ hearts and minds because despite my strong feelings on the subject, they continue to refuse to consult me before making major decisions. We can, though, look at some other factors that would have contributed to Sam’s slide.


Faster than I could run it, that's for sure.


First off: the combine. Much like in the NHL, after the end of every season, the NFL invites its top prospects to a big, public workout, puts them through some grueling physical tests (and some mental ones of… let’s say… dubious usefulness), all so nominally teams (but really mostly the press and public) can learn more about them.

Sam posted average to below-average results on Combine drills like the bench press, the 40 yard dash, and the vertical leap. Do these tests really mean anything? Do they actually have anything to do with eventual success in football?

No. Yes. And Maybe.

Like I mentioned earlier, even the guys in football whose job it is to be really, really fast don’t just run flat out for 40 yards – they’re stopping, starting, turning and twisting. In general, football players also aren’t leaping into the air from a stationary position either, and as anyone who has lifted weights can tell you, there’s not always a direct correlation between functional strength and your ability to lift dead weight.

More than testing specific skills, the Combine has become a sort of meta-analysis of players, ie, we need players that can successfully physically and mentally prepare themselves for challenging situations, if this candidate has successfully prepared himself for the Combine, maybe that means he can also prepare himself to succeed in the NFL. It also gives teams a chance to meet candidates in person and assess their personalities – but that leads us down the path of intangibles which makes me want to vomit, so let’s bypass, shall we?

Finally, even given all the many years of practice NFL teams and their scouting staffs have, they still get it wrong. A lot.

Bill Barnwell runs down a few more reasons why Sam might have slipped in his really awesome piece, here, including things like the injury that prevented him from participating in his pro day and the limitations in his game. (BTW, do you like football? Are you reading everything Barnwell writes? WHY NOT?)

The weaknesses in his game, by the way, really come down to that at this point in his career, he’s sort of a one-trick-pony. He’s got that outside pass rush move he’s really good at and that’s about it. He’s going to need a wider array of tools at the pro level, as well as increased size and strength, and the Combine didn’t give teams a good indication that he would be able to do that.

THAT SAID, was Sam under increased scrutiny compared to other players at his skill level? ABSOLUTELY. And what do people do when they pay attention to something? They start picking it apart. I’d bet you good money that’s what happened to Sam.

Finally, there are A LOT of positions on an NFL team, which means even though I think most teams would still say they want to draft “the best player on the board” – there’s going to be more drafting for positions of need than there is in hockey, especially in the later rounds where it gets a lot harder to judge who is going to succeed in the NFL. (The hopes of a late-round draft pick may not be too terribly far-fetched: one analysis shows 73% of 6th and 7th round picks over the ’99-’08 seasons started in at least one NFL game. AND, everyone loves to tell stories of gems found in the later rounds). Ultimately, what all this means is that there are lots of guys who theoretically were good enough to be drafted in the later rounds, but weren’t. But, that’s not always a bad thing.

Right - this one guy said there’s an advantage to not being drafted, what’s up with that?

Let’s start with the advantages to being drafted:

1. If you go in the early rounds, you will likely get a real big signing bonus. [Why are you reading about the Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie contracts instead of the Rams? Well, because I care more about the Chiefs than the Rams (sorry, not sorry, St. Louis)], and two – because while rookie contracts are not quite as identical from team-to-team as they are in the NHL, they fall under their own rookie salary cap, which ensures some similarity across the league, and once you get past the first round the term and base salary are set in stone. What varies is the amount of guaranteed money, and the signing bonus. The higher you get drafted, the bigger chance you can negotiate yourself some guaranteed money and a hefty signing bonus.

But wait, let’s back up. Why are signing bonuses so important? And WTF if guaranteed money? Well, NFL careers are generally short, brutal, and tend to end abruptly. Unlike in hockey, if you sign a four-year deal, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get all four years’ worth of payout. If you get cut, sorry, you’re out of luck. The only money you can count on is the guaranteed fraction and the signing bonus, which you get up front.

2. You’re more likely to make the team. Each team is going to bring way more potentials to camp than they can actually sign, virtually every spot on the roster has competition (although some are more secure than others). Teams are less likely to cut a drafted player because it makes them look bad. It makes them look like they wasted a pick. So you have a little advantage over your undrafted competition there.

Now, what are the disadvantages to being drafted?

You don't get to pick your team. Like I mentioned earlier, lots of guys who could play football won’t get drafted, and A TON of them will sign rookie free agent contracts and be brought to camp to compete for a spot. If you don’t get drafted, you (read: your agent) might get phone calls from multiple teams trying to sign you, which means you get to pick the coach, system, and depth chart where you think you’ll have the best chance of making the team. That can definitely outweigh the not-very-significant signing bonus you would get from getting drafted in the later rounds.

Okay. But this other guy said maybe the Rams aren’t the best team for him. How come?

The Rams are a pretty middling team in a fiercely competitive division. I don’t know a ton about them, because my football obsession isn’t really on par with my league-wide NHL obsession. But that said, let’s start some good things about the Rams:

The Rams are a historically progressive franchise, having been the first to sign African-American players in the 1940s. And they seem to have drafted Sam in part because they think doing things like drafting the first openly gay player is a good thing. You can read that as progressive or mercenary, I imagine the truth falls somewhere in between the two. Analysis and commentary by St Louis fans, who are likely to be familiar with Sam from his Mizzou days, has been largely positive.

But here’s the rub: the Rams are already a pretty good pass rushing team. Here’s where Sam might fall on their depth chart. You’ll note he’s behind a guy named Robert Quinn. Robert Quinn is really, really good at his job. But just because Sam probably isn’t going to start (he’s not going to start) doesn’t mean he won’t make the team. He’ll have to be good at special teams play, he’ll have to work really fucking hard to impress the coaches, and he’ll have to be useful in specialized pass rushing plays.

There’s no reason Sam can’t do that.

So, what happens next for Sam, football-wise?

Assuming he hasn’t already, he’ll sign his rookie contract. Rookie Camps are going on basically right now, where he’ll get his crash course introduction to life in the NFL, the Rams organization, and the Rams playbook. Later in the spring/early summer there’ll be Organized Team Activities (OTAs) which are sort of nominally-optional-actually-mandatory mini training camps. And then, if he’s still on the team, full training camp will start in mid/late July. Training camp is followed by a four-week preseason.

What happens if he doesn’t make the team?

You can bring 90 guys to training camp. After the third week of preseason, you have to be down to a 75 man roster. And after the fourth week, you cut to 53. There are 11 guys on the field at any given time, so for simplicity’s sake, imagine 11 offensive players + 11 defensive players + 3 special teamers (kicker, punter, long-snapper), that gets you to 25. The way you get to 53 is by adding in the backups, and the players that are substituted in specialized situations (imagine analogously if there was room on an NHL roster to carry guys that JUST killed penalties. Sort of like that.) How many of each position a team will carry on their roster varies team to team, but it might break down something like this.

Each NFL team also has a ‘scout team’ aka a ‘practice squad’. These are eight guys who are basically the best-of-who-didn’t-make-it. They practice with the team, often learning the opponent’s playbook and acting the role of the opponent during team practices (hence the name). They do not travel with the team. Players on the practice squad can be “called up” to their NFL team in case of injury or if a roster spot opens up. Players on the practice squad can also be poached by other teams and signed to their team if a roster spot opens up.

What happens if you get cut AND you don’t make the practice squad?

Well, you keep working out. You stay in shape. You stay close to the phone. Football is an incredibly violent sport, guys get hurt all the time. Bad for them. Good for you.

A couple of really great reads, by the way, on the life of “marginal” NFL players: this article about Pat Schillar, who’s trying to make the team. And Nate Jackson’s book, Slow Getting Up (excerpted here) about trying to stay on it.

Is Sam really the only gay football player?

Good lord, no. There is a vast and storied (and often depressing) tradition of gay football players. Sam is just the first to come out publically while still (or in this case, before being) under contract with an NFL team.

You may also be interested in the story of Jerry Smith, a closeted NFLer who later died of AIDS (super depressing). There’s also Wade Davis, retired NFLer and current Executive Director of You Can Play (only lightly depressing), and Alan Gendreau, kicker and never-quite-made-it college football player (medium level depressing).

Guys, I hope that was interesting and useful? Questions, comments, corrections? Let me know!
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