The Kyler Murray talk exposes the flawed nature of NFL decision making
I will start this article with a disclaimer: my personal opinion is that Kyler Murray is a prospect with a very high risk of failure. On the other hand, people who -unlike me- have their livelihood depend on picking the right players believe he is likely to succeed. But this is not really an article about Kyler Murray, it's about how NFL teams make decisions. Regardless of whether one thinks Murray will succeed or not, most people in the NFL believe that since the Cardinals took a risk by hiring an unproven coach who plans to install a radically different (and also unproven) offensive system, they have to pick a QB that the coach thinks can operate well in the system to maximize their chances of success. The saying is "if you believe Murray will succeed, you have to go all in". And therein lies the problem.
There is a scientific way of making decisions. But many professionals, including apparently most NFL GMs and scouts feel that since decision making is about predicting future events, as long as you get it right, the science does not matter. While there is some merit to that thinking, to date there has been no one who can predict the future with 100% accuracy, or even anything close to it. In case of uncertain outcomes, the scientific way to make decisions is to calculate the probability of success, multiply with the expected outcome (which needs to be quantified to do so) and come up with an expected payoff (i.e a decision that has a 50% chance to produce 2M of profit and a 50% chance to produce nothing has a 1M expected payoff). And therein lies a second problem, since things like winning a Superbowl are hard to quantify (many people would say it's priceless). As a result many NFL professionals ignore the method altogether. In my opinion that is not wise.
In the history of the NFL, 1st round quarterbacks have about a 50% hit rate. Which means that with the benefit of tons of information and expertise, the pros get it wrong half of the time, the same odds as flipping a coin on whether a QB will succeed. Since there's such a high chance of getting it wrong, perhaps NFL team management should try to look at things from a more scientific perspective. In that vein, let's assign Murray the average chance to succeed (50%). What is the payoff?
In the case of Kyler Murray, the prevalent draft logic is that the Cardinals have to take him to increase the chances of the new system working. But what does that say about the new system? If it requires a quarterback as unique as Murray to succeed, and a pro-ready Top 10 pick from the last draft can't run it, then the system itself is very risky. Even if it works, it will be highly dependent on having a QB with a unique skillset to run it, and possibly a backup to make sure the offense can operate to some degree in his absence (especially given that Murray is a very undersized running QB and therefore carries a high injury risk). In the terms used so far, that amounts to a low payoff, since at best the Cardinals will have an offense that is explosive on a good day, but inconsistent.
And yet the conventional wisdom in the NFL is that the right thing to do is for the Cardinals to double down on the risk of the system by picking a risky prospect to run it. Which is exactly the opposite of the thinking in any other business, where organizations try to hedge when making risky decisions. And while such thinking is understandable given the transient nature of NFL management (coaches and GMs often only have a couple of years to succeed or they're shown the door these days), it is still irresponsible and questionable decision making.