A Decade of Profiling America's Team

Published On: Jan 1st 2023

InterviewFootballAnalytics

Heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys figured they needed to start looking for a quarterback. By that point, Tony Romo had been wildly successful but was nearing the end of his career, and the front office thought perhaps it was time to land an heir apparent.

The Draft is always tricky. Teams swipe players off of other people’s draft boards, and sometimes the best pick doesn’t always come from the first round.

That year, the Cowboys held the fourth overall pick, and when you’re slotted that high, it’s like having a Thanksgiving bounty of options. But as the top quarterbacks that year went to other teams, Dallas started thinking about finding someone in the later rounds - a QB perhaps flying under the radar a little bit, but gifted with all of the intangibles needed for NFL success.

They found Dak Prescott in the fourth round. By the end of his rookie season, he was a Pro Bowler and the Rookie Offensive Player of the Year. The Cowboys, however, didn’t just stumble upon the Mississippi State quarterback. They did their homework - watching him on film and at all-star games, talking to his college coach, his position coach, his family, friends, and associates.

They also sent him a Profile behavioral assessment test, which confirmed everything they believed about their future franchise player. “The leadership behavioral style, what it takes to succeed in this league, we just thought he really stood out,” says Tom Robinson, the Cowboys’ director of football research. “And from day one, his leadership traits were just remarkable. People in our organization just raved about it. He was supposed to be a third-string quarterback, but from day one, it was just like we knew the moment wouldn’t be too big for him to be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.”

No one in the NFL uses behavioral assessments like the Cowboys. Nobody, in fact, in the world has a more extensive collection of information on football players than the folks in Dallas. Ten years ago, the Cowboys partnered with Profile to create a database of prospects that now includes more than 5,000 players. If you’ve been an NFL draftable candidate in the last decade, odds are the Cowboys have you on file.

Behavioral assessments aren’t new to the NFL or exclusive to the Cowboys. The league, for years, has offered various versions of the tool to its draft prospects, including the widely reported Wonderlic test. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, and providing teams with all of the information necessary to make a decision only makes good business sense. But no one does it like the Cowboys. Thanks to the ease of Profile’s testing - it can be easily sent via email or text - Dallas can essentially flood the market and issue the behavioral tests to any and all draft-eligible candidates. They send out requests to everyone who attends the Senior Bowl, the Draft Combine, and whoever else comes on their radar. Last year, for example, more than 900 college football players received and took the test.

Robinson is a data guy, so the appeal is obvious to him. A business major at the University of Texas, he received a masters in predictive analytics at Northwestern and also taught a course about data science and sports there. He started out as a consultant, working on analytics for a number of clients, including the Cowboys. In 2010, the football team hired him to oversee an analytics field that is becoming bigger and broader in the NFL. In his role, Robinson is involved in the analytics on the football side of the operation, which includes scouting, coaching, the front office, and, of course, player performance.

The challenge in the NFL, of course, is to be different. With just 32 well-funded teams, competition is fierce, and everyone is trying to find a way to get a leg up.

“We think if you do things a little differently on the edges, that’s where you can stand out.”

Hence their database. The idea behind it is simple: to build a comprehensive database that produces a well-rounded picture of an athlete and is easily accessible to everyone within the Dallas organization. The one-stop receptacle includes scouts’ opinions of a prospect, feedback from interviews conducted, and not just the Profile testing results but an interpretation of them. “We’re trying to get a complete picture of every player that’s out there,” Robinson says. “This helps us highlight not just who the prospect is but what he can become. You’re always looking for guys who are bigger, more athletic, smarter, stronger, but this tells us what motivates them, and how they achieve and perform. It’s not only checking the box, but seeing how they can elevate others around them.” Robinson believes combining the subjective eyeball test and gut feeling, along with the more analytical results of Profile is the best way to get that complete picture. “It’s the experience of using the system and the correlation of what you see with your own eyeballs,” he says. “It’s amazing how powerful it can be.”

What amazes Robinson, though, is how few college football teams are using the same information. On the backside of their careers, at the Combine and various all-star games, players are routinely probed about their character. NFL teams don’t want to make mistakes. The Cowboys, for example, have held the top spot in Forbes’ annual list of the most valuable teams in the NFL since 2016 and also hold the top spot for the world’s most valuable sports franchise, worth an estimated $8 billion. That money is predicated on success, and that success is built on the talent and character of the team’s players.

College football teams are the golden geese in college athletics, their value skyrocketing with bigger and more lucrative television deals. Yet football coaches remain among the most reticent to use behavioral assessment tools. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” Robinson says simply. In an ever-expanding transfer portal, more than 8,000 football players put their names in last year, behavioral assessment tools would help coaches more quickly identify the players that are right for their program. At the high school level, it would help hone the seemingly limitless pool of prospects to the ones that suit them best. Yet it not only would help college football coaches internally, but it would also better prepare their players for the NFL. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses before the Draft - when you still have time to work on both - would only elevate a player’s draft appeal, in Robinson’s opinion. “You could so easily jump on a website and set up a complete profile of a kid, including the test,” he says. “It can also lead your discussions and help your whole group get to know one another. Football organizations are huge. This is something the whole team can benefit from.”

Robinson admits he was once like the college football coaches, convinced that athletic ability trumped everything. Yet the more the Cowboys used Profile, the more he saw its value. “Getting the right personality, someone who can handle the pressure that comes with being a Dallas Cowboy, to try and become the best you can be while balancing out everything else that tugs at you here can be a challenge,” he says. “You need the right person.”

For proof of just how well that works, Robinson needs to look no further than in his own locker room. As an athlete, Prescott is so invaluable to the Cowboys they twice placed the exclusive franchise tag on him, ensuring he remained in Dallas. Yet he is equally impressive as a person. This year he again was selected by the Cowboys as their nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, the NFL’s most prestigious honor. Through his Faith Fight Finish Foundation, Prescott has led the advocacy charge for colon cancer research, mental health, and suicide prevention, bridging the gap between law enforcement and their communities and assisting those facing life-challenging hardships. “Our profile of Dak has beared unbelievable fruit for us,” Robinson says. “He’s been outstanding. Players gravitate toward him. He’s a leader. He’s been a pretty good success story here.”