Measuring intangibles before NFL draft: How 'the TAP' helps Patriots with their tallest task

Measuring intangibles before NFL draft: How 'the TAP' helps Patriots with their tallest task

Sit down. Stare at a screen. Digest a series of fill-in-the-blank statements. Do your best to answer. Even if you're not sure there's a right way to answer.

In a months-long process designed for NFL prospects to sell themselves to future employers — a process filled with different types of tests, both physical and mental — one known as "the TAP" just might be the most perplexing. Not because of the difficulty of the questions. But because players aren't always sure why they're being asked what they're being asked.

Put yourself in their shoes.

"What matters most is A) the type of job you have or B) how good your work is no matter what the job is." Do you agree with A) or B) completely? Mostly? Somewhat?

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OK. You're getting deep here. No problem. You've thought about these things. Maybe. Click and move on. The screen has more for you. 

"A problem I have when I'm trying to read something is that I A) let other things around me bother me or B) don't notice other people or things around me." Are you completely distracted when you shouldn't be? Or only somewhat? Or are your blinders on when they ought not to be?

You might try to game the TAP here. You might think teams want you to answer one way. But you're not sure which. You furrow your brow, bite your lip, click and press forward.

"I seem to walk and eat A) slower than others or B) faster than others." 

You're about to be a professional athlete. You're not slow. You like food. Speed is good. No matter where it shows up. Has to be. Doesn't it?

"If an animal, I see myself more like a A) dog or B) cat." 

About this time you might be wondering why any of this matters. And who would ever answer cat, anyway? No one wants to be a cat, right? And no one wants you to want to be a cat... right?

Whether taking the TAP at the NFL Scouting Combine, the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine Bowl or online because someone wants a little more information, it's one piece of the pre-draft puzzle for players. How they fill out the survey might not make or break their place on a given team's draft board, but the results could help personnel chiefs determine whether or not an athlete is worth one of their draft picks this week.

For Bill Belichick and the Patriots, the TAP has been a part of their evaluation process for years. Has been going all the way back to Belichick's days as head coach in Cleveland, in fact. Tom Brady took the TAP in 2000. Same for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 and many, many others across the league. 

Far different than the more well-known Wonderlic test — which includes verbal and math questions you might expect to find on the SAT or ACT — the TAP bills itself as an "athletic mindset assessment." Its goal? To measure intangibles like mental toughness, coachability and composure.

It's the brainchild of Dr. Robert Troutwine, a psychologist who's been entrusted by clubs across major pro sports for almost four decades now to help them figure out what makes players tick.

"Throughout my career, I always helped companies hire people," Troutwine said during a conversation at the combine, remembering his start in the player-evaluation process. 

"We used surveys and assessments. I'd already been hired by the Chiefs to help players transition from football to life after football, and I got to know everybody in the scouting department. They were pulling their hair out. 'Wow, I wish I knew this about this kid!' I told them I help companies do that all the time. Whether it's predicting turnover, whatever. That's how it got started."

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Belichick's clubs were among the early investors. Troutwine was close with one of Belichick's scouts in Cleveland, Dom Anile, who worked closely with Belichick's personnel director Mike Lombardi. As the team fine-tuned its behind-the-scenes processes, Anile convinced Lombardi to give Troutwine a try.

In his book "Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level," Lombardi carved out space to explain Troutwine's contributions in the team-building realm. 

"It's such a complicated task, in fact," Lombardi wrote, "that even an expert like Belichick relies on professional outside help . . . We liked the TAP — Troutwine Athletic Profile — so much that we made everyone applying for a job in the organization take it.

"Don't confuse the TAP with the Wonderlic, the better-known intelligence test that the NFL administers to potential draftees. The TAP offers more insight into personality, asking questions such as: If you could be an animal, which would you be: A. Cat; B. Dog; C. Lion. The questions are random and maybe a bit off the wall, but they lead to important conclusions about the prospect. And only Troutwine can decode the responses. In fact, one of his favorite tricks is being able to tell if a girlfriend, rather than the player himself, has filled out the test."

Troutwine looks fondly upon those times working with Belichick, Lombardi and the Browns, and it's led to a continuing relationship with Belichick as a dynasty was built in New England.

"That was so much fun back in the Cleveland days," Troutwine said. "If you look at the staff, I know they did a [documentary] on it, but everybody got hired had to take the TAP. And we used it in drafting and that kind of thing. [Jim Schwartz] took it and I said, 'Wow, we gotta get this guy! I don't care what position he's interviewing for but you better hire him!' "

Schwartz — or "Schwartzy," as Troutwine calls him — got a job in the Browns scouting department and eventually worked his way up the ladder to become Titans defensive coordinator and later Lions head coach. Since 2016 he's been the defensive coordinator for the Eagles, who beat Belichick's Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

"Dr. T had certain insights on guys that we didn't have," Belichick is quoted as saying on a TAP handout that circulated at the Indianapolis Convention Center during the combine. "We brought him in so he knew our staff and our philosophy. I think a lot of Bob and what he does."

Belichick's not the only one. Gregg Popovich's Spurs have used the TAP. The Kansas City Royals have been in on the TAP. The Chiefs. The Colts. The Panthers. It's been given to NFL prospects in Indianapolis for their multi-day job interview since 1985 and continues to gather information on a couple hundred prospects every year, its bizarre questions occasionally twisting young minds into proverbial pretzels. 

"I think," Troutwine said, "the other thing that sets the TAP apart from other assessments is it's not transparent. 'What are they getting at?' [One true-or-false statement says], 'There's ONE right way of doing things.' The word 'one,' O-N-E, is capitalized. They might say, 'Well, kinda. Kinda not.' 

"Some kids will raise their hands and say, 'I don't know how to answer that.' You have to lean one way or the other. It's a survey. Be yourself. It's not gonna do you any good to camouflage anything because after we draft you, I'm going to work with the coaching staff with how to bring you along and help you realize your potential. So lay it all on the line.

You really should be yourself because many of the things we're measuring might be considered as attitudes. Again, we just want to know what your attitude is so we can nurture you the right way. Don't game the test.

The TAP has, like everything else, had to adapt to stay in the game. Back in 1985, Troutwine had a test that functioned as a scale to measure a person's work ethic. But back then, the research showed that particular test wasn't helping him differentiate one person from another. A test for work habits did. But not work ethic. 

"The thing about it was everybody had a good work ethic," Troutwine explained. "That changed. Now, you bet your boots we test both: work habits and work ethic."

Troutwine has also noticed an ongoing change in what he considers "mental toughness" among those surveyed. 

"Now, with social media and everything, when you're in the middle of it, it's hard to articulate what that change might be, but we definitely feel it coming," he said. "I did a project with the Navy SEALs and was able to successfully predict who would make it through BUD/S training and become a Navy SEAL. We do call that 'mental toughness.' We've been charting that for the last 10 years. Not only in football but nationwide and worldwide, actually. It's going down."

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The version of the test provided to NBC Sports Boston included not just fill-in-the-blank statements, but some questions that assessed reaction time and some that seemed to want to drill down on one's ability to process spacial concepts. The results were then quickly tabulated and returned with a 1-to-100 grade on 12 "intangible performance traits" meant to detail one's athletic mindset compared to other athletes.

The numeric analysis returned — not surprisingly — reflected that a sportswriter-slash-TV guy-slash-podcast host (yours truly) took the test and not a soon-to-be pro athlete. I scored a 99 in the "Growth Mindset" trait but just a 17 in "Decisiveness." My "Focus Speed" was up at a 94 — maybe because I'm so practiced at manipulating a laptop mouse — yet my "Conventionality" score was only 34. 

My "Mental Toughness," "Grit," "Composure," "Confidence," "Coachability," "Attention to Detail," "Mental Execution," and "Adaptability" scores combined with the others to deem me a "Musketeer" mindset type. There are eight types: Muskateer ("helpful athlete type"), Eagle ("responsible athlete type"), Engineer ("independent athlete type"), Ice ("methodical athlete type"), Knight ("protective athlete type"), Maverick ("dynamic athlete type"), Rocket ("driven athlete type") and Trailblazer ("spirited athlete type"). 

Muskateers are described as loyal, true to themselves and others and having common sense. Those are the positives. The negatives? "May not be focused enough on winning." Other Musketeer types, according to the results provided, include quarterback Drew Brees and pass-rushers Von Miller and Clay Matthews. 

Tom Brady? He was a Rocket, according to the TAP. Someone who is confident and has an in-charge style. Someone who is cool under pressure. The negatives for that type? "Could be perceived as arrogant" and may make decisions too quickly. Other Rockets include Carson Wentz and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. 

What does that mean for this week, with the first round of this year's NFL draft just hours away? What does it mean for the Patriots? Will they be looking for Rockets and Rockets only because the greatest player in the history of the sport fit that mold for them? 

Not necessarily. Along with player interviews, background checks, interactions in formal and informal meetings, the TAP is just one piece to the puzzle of getting to know the players about to be hired.

But it might be the piece to the puzzle with the most mind-bending questions.

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

Remember when Cam Newton jokingly compared the Patriots' playbook to "calculus" after signing with New England last month?

Turns out that wasn't his own assessment. (Not yet, anyway.)

Rather, it was Julian Edelman who made Newton aware of what he was dealing when the quarterback called his new Patriots wide receiver for the first time.

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"We were both excited just to be on the phone with each other," Newton told reporters Friday in a video conference. "Then all of a sudden he just said, 'Hey bro, this (explicit) is calculus.'

"He said it and it was just funny. From that whole 15-minute conversation, that's the only thing that I just remembered: Calculus."

The Patriots playbook that Tom Brady spent 20 years mastering is notoriously complex and has stumped talented veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne. Edelman has dealt with that playbook for a whole decade, so it's no wonder his comparison stuck with Newton.

Not that the 31-year-old QB is intimidated by learning a challenging offense after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

"At the end of the day, football is still football and you just can’t make too much on it than what it already is,” Newton said of the playbook. "(Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) has been there every step of the way as well as (quarterbacks) coach Jedd (Fisch). Just been hammering away. All the quarterbacks have been trying to learn this whole system from what it is."

Newton admittedly faces a tall task picking up the Patriots' offense in short order without the benefit of the on-field workouts of a traditional training camp.

The three-time Pro Bowler has his means of getting up to speed, though: Newton is a "visual learner" who famously relied on a large three-ring binder in Carolina stuffed with notes on the Panthers' offense.

"We all have our different methods of how we (learn) and go about different ways to retain as much information as possible,” Newton said. "I don’t think the binder is actually here, but some type of retention methods have adapted towards New England."

Newton has a few more weeks to study, but his first test -- the Patriots' 2020 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 -- is rapidly approaching.

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For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

Josh McDaniels wouldn’t trade his time with Tom Brady for anything.

But the Patriots offensive coordinator did point out Friday that those times Brady wasn’t at his disposal are very valuable right now as the Patriots offense does its post-Brady pivot.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had when I didn’t have Tom,” McDaniels said on a video conference call. “Believe me, no one was happier to have him out there when he was out there for all the years I was fortunate to coach him.

"But I would say I did have some experience with the Matt Cassel year (in 2008), which I learned a lot about how to tailor something to somebody else’s strengths, we had to play that four-game stretch (in 2016) with Jacoby (Brissett) and Jimmy (Garoppolo), I thought that was helpful. And I was away for three years. So trying to really adapt … it’s not changing your system, it’s adapting your system to the talents and strengths of your players.”

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How will the Patriots offense change now that Brady’s gone has been a dominant topic of discussion this offseason. The six-time Super Bowl winners' strengths are well-documented and hard to replicate – absurd accuracy, poise, pocket-presence and the ability to decipher and manipulate defenses at will. Part of the reason they’re hard to replicate is that it took him a dozen years of monkish devotion to get where he was. Nobody’s got time for that.

So, after a couple of decades building a tower out of wooden blocks, the blocks are knocked down and scattered. And McDaniels starts building again. Same blocks. Different-looking structure.  

“(We need to) adapt (the offense) to the players that we have,” said McDaniels. “So, again, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Do I really want us to be good at this? Or are we good at this?’ There’s a fine line between really pushing hard to keep working at something that you’re just not showing much progress in vs. ‘Hey, you know what, we’re a lot better at A, B and C then we are D, E and F, why don’t we just do more A, B and C?” I think as a staff we’ve really had a lot of conversations about those kinds of things.”

McDaniels has discussed in past seasons how developing an offense is a trial-and-error process. The difference this year is there is no chance for the “trial” portion. No joint practices. No preseason games. Obviously, no OTAs or minicamps.

“We can’t make any declarations about what we’re good at yet because we haven’t practiced,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I think everybody’s chomping at the bit, eager to get out there and start to make a few decisions about some things that we want to try to get good at, and if we’re just not making a lot of progress then we just have to shift gears and go in a different direction.

“But I’m going to lean on my experience and then I’m going to lean on the staff, coach Belichick, just to, (say), ‘Let’s be real with ourselves. Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not doing so hot at it so let’s just scrap it for now and move in a different direction.”

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Obviously, a direction they’ll move in will most likely be powered by the mobility of whoever the starting quarterback is, Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton.

McDaniels pointed out that a player with the size, power and mobility of Newton does change things.

“It’s certainly not something I’m accustomed to using a great deal but you use whatever the strengths of your players that are on the field allow you to use, to try to move the ball and score points,” he said. “So whatever that means relative to mobility at the QB position, size and power, quickness, length, height with receivers … you go through the same thing many different times.”

Newton, said McDaniels, is the same as any other player who brings a unique talent.  

“I remember when you get a new receiver group … our receivers have changed quite a bit in terms of some of them were bigger … Randy Moss was a bigger guy and then we’ve had some smaller guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, and then you have tight ends that are more fast straight-line players and then you have guys like Gronk and those kinds of players,” he pointed out.

“Regardless of what the position is, I think you try to use their strengths to allow them to make good plays and if that’s something we can figure out how to do well and get comfortable doing and feel like we can move the ball and be productive then we’re going to work as a staff to figure out how that works best, and try to utilize it if we can.”

In other words, when you have a player with a superpower - Moss' speed, Welker's quickness, Gronk's size, Brady's brain, Newton's power - , you tap into said superpower. ASAFP.