Zimmer and his staff seem to be committed to the idea of “process over outcomes” when evaluating players, and he keeps emphasizing these themes without saying the words. It’s something I’m a big fan of, and I detailed the idea of prioritizing process over outcome in evaluation when I broke down Johnny Manziel a few months ago. To restate at length:
At a fundamental level, people understand the divide between evaluating a process and evaluating an outcome. From a football perspective, it’s easy to find examples everywhere. The most obvious example, of course, is measuring quarterbacks (or coaches) by wins instead of anything else.
A lot of other measures of quarterbacks can come to different conclusions, and process-oriented measures, like net yards per attempt (which is in itself an outcome-dependent measure, but it gets complicated when we talk about second-order outcomes and whatnot so for now this example will do), do a significantly better job predicting future outcomes than past outcomes. In fact, net yards per attempt is a far, far better predictor of future winning than past wins—which is honestly terrible at predicting future wins.
Despite all that, it’s very easy to get caught up in accomplishment. It Might Be Dangerous, a blog about baseball, talks about this when it comes to draft analysis (in a different way), and to open the discussion (as many process v. outcome discussions do), the author talked about gambling:
Many years ago I was playing blackjack in Las Vegas on a Saturday night in a packed casino. I was sitting at third base, and the player who was at first base was playing horribly. He was definitely taking advantage of the free drinks, and it seemed as though every twenty minutes he was dipping into his pocket for more cash.
On one particular hand the player was dealt 17 with his first two cards. The dealer was set to deal the next set of cards and passed right over the player until he stopped her, saying: “Dealer, I want a hit!” She paused, almost feeling sorry for him, and said, “Sir, are you sure?” He said yes, and the dealer dealt the card. Sure enough, it was a four.
The place went crazy, high fives all around, everybody hootin’ and hollerin’, and you know what the dealer said? The dealer looked at the player, and with total sincerity, said: “Nice hit.”
I thought, “Nice hit? Maybe it was a nice hit for the casino, but it was a terrible hit for the player! The decision isn’t justified just because it worked.”
. . .
As tough as a good process/bad outcome combination is, nothing compares to the bottom left: bad process/good outcome. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that allows for one-time success but almost always cripples any chance of sustained success – the player hitting on 17 and getting a four. Here’s the rub: it’s incredibly difficult to look in the mirror after a victory, any victory, and admit that you were lucky. If you fail to make that admission, however, the bad process will continue and the good outcome that occurred once will elude you in the future. Quite frankly, this is one of the things that makes Billy Beane as good as he is. He is quick to notice good luck embedded in a good outcome, and he refuses to pat himself on the back for it.
. . .
Championship teams will occasionally have a bad process and a good outcome. Championship organizations, however, reside exclusively in the upper half of the matrix. Some years it may be on the right-hand side, most years should be on the left. The upper left is where the Atlanta Braves lived for 14 years – possibly the most under appreciated accomplishment by a professional sports organization in our lifetimes. In short, we want to be a Championship organization that results in many Championship teams.
Interestingly, Barry Ritholtz of a wealth management firm uses the example of an NFL team that has prioritized process over outcome at the behest of their head coach, Tom Coughlin. Ritholtz goes on to argue that this process-oriented focus has led to long-term gains for Coughlin, and is a lesson that can be applied to investing.
Generally speaking, good processes will lead to good outcomes in the long-term. A short-term focus on outcomes is itself a bad process, lends itself to high variability and can cause some serious problems.
Zimmer has mentioned similar themes throughout camp, and the message seems to have trickled down to the players.
Anyone who watched the broadcast of the preseason game saw Ben Leber interview Xavier Rhodes, and he brought up a curious incident, where Zimmer chewed out Rhodes shortly after Rhodes had made a play by picking off Cassel. Rhodes responded:
“I just had to stay on top of my man. I wasn’t supposed to work so hard to make the pick, he just wanted me to make it easier on myself”
It’s a little similar to a few anecdotes he mentioned in the pressers today. “If I know what routes Kyle Rudolph likes to run, it doesn’t help me as a defender to guess and be right. When I go against somebody I don’t know, I’m guessing, I’m cheating, I’m playing it differently, I think it’s important that we learn how to play football first.
“I had Terence Newman back when he came back to Cincinnati, and he jumped in front of a route and intercepted a ball. I said, ‘Terence I don’t want you doing that yet. I want you working on your technique, I want you working on what you need to do to get better. And then, when you get that part down and then you can use your intelligence about where you’re at playing football. Then you become a much better player,’ and he understood and went from there.
To me, it’s about getting us better. It’s not about defeating the offense or defeating our defense. It’s about getting us better. That’s what will stand the test in the long run. When we have to go play 16 ballgames and a guy can jump a route two times and get an interception and get beat ten times, that’s not a good day”
Similarly, when Zimmer was asked about Derek Cox and his fine play in camp up to this point, Zimmer responded by pointing out that there are issues with Cox’s play thus far. “He’s doing a good job. He’s still got a lot of technique to work on but he’s a smart guy and a tough guy.”
Cox, the clear leader in camp in training camp interceptions and pass breakups, still hasn’t made the first team. When I asked him about it, Cox responded by saying that he wasn’t holding tight in coverage to his man. Indeed, I recall a few plays where he let the receiver get open and Cox made a play on his recovery instead of deterring the ball thrown. It wasn’t like Richard Sherman or Charles Woodson baiting a quarterback into thinking a receiver was open, but a genuine set of mistakes he recovered well from.
Similarly, when I asked Isame Faciane about his good game against the Oakland Raiders in the preseason game (at the time not knowing that he ended up as Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated player), he didn’t even acknowledge that he thought he had a good game, saying “I feel I didn’t rush, to the best of my ability. I rushed to the middle of the man a little too much during this game. You know, that’s been my problem a little bit through camp, rushing the middle of the man. I feel like I learned from this and to fix it through practice for the next game.”
It’s not so much that outcomes don’t matter, simply that the best way to guarantee future outcomes is to focus on correct processes. Derek Cox is athletic enough to recover against the people he’s playing against. Often these are players like Rodney Smith and Adam Thielen—good but not good enough to be considered starters in the NFL. The question is if he can do it regularly against people who do a better job of attacking the ball and boxing out receivers—and it explains why he hasn’t worked with the first team. Same for Faciane, who shined against third-string offensive linemen but with incorrect technique.
As an outside observer, evaluating training camp is ridiculously difficult. Sometimes we get too caught up in the outcome, and don’t talk about the process.