Jaguars: Can Speech Pinpoint Future Flaws?

By : March 20, 2009

Jaguars: Can Speech Pinpoint Future Flaws?

Michael C. Wright, Jaguar/NFL Reporter

The Jaguars parted ways on Monday with wide receiver Matt Jones, who spent last week in a Washington County, Ark., jail for violating the terms of his probation on a drug charge.

But perhaps the club’s dilemma with Jones, stemming from his two arrests since last July, could have been avoided altogether.

That’s what Roger Hall, consulting psychologist and CEO of Ohio-based Achievement Metrics, will find out in the coming months after evaluating the speech patterns of Jones and more than 200 other NFL players drafted between 2000 and 2007. Hall’s company claims it can forecast whether players – most notably upcoming NFL prospects – are at greater risk for off-field problems by dissecting their speech patterns from common interviews conducted with the media.

“Over the last three, four or five years, [players have] done a much better job of preparing for [personal] interviews,” Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said last month at the NFL Scouting combine. “They have all the right answers. It’s incumbent upon us to ask different questions now so we can get through some of the canned rehearsed answers.”

Achievement Metric claims to wade through such minutiae by what Hall calls “automated text analysis.” The company feeds a player’s quotes through a computer model that measures hundreds of factors involved in speech, including subtleties such as the number of syllables per adjective, amount of self references used, and number of present tense vs. past tense verbs.

Utilizing an algorithm created by a partner company called Social Science Automation, Hall is able to analyze the speech, take it apart and transform it into mathematical data.

“There are hundreds of these variables, all of which are slightly related to the outcome of a person being arrested or having some type of other off-field problem,” Hall said.

At a seminar (in which Jones’ picture flashed across the screen) during the combine, Achievement Metrics presented data showing that Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch came into the league in 2007 with a higher risk of arrest or suspension than his peers. According to the study, Lynch had a 26.6 percent chance of being arrested on a drug or alcohol offense. (Lynch pleaded guilty to a gun charge earlier this month, but marijuana was found at the scene of the arrest.)

Results of the Lynch study weren’t made available until after Buffalo drafted him No. 12 overall in 2007. The running back was among the initial 270 players studied by Achievement Metrics drafted between 2000 and 2007.

Lynch fell into the same grouping as former NFL cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for being a potential distraction for having shown a propensity to engage in turbulent relationships with teammates and coaches.

“On the face you think there’s no way,” Hall said. “When I was introduced [to the science] I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ “

Hall said Jones’ data was placed into a second batch of 300 players that Achievement Metrics plans to study using an improved computer model. Because of the proprietary nature of the information, Hall said the analysis on Matt Jones’ speech won’t be released anytime soon.

The company says statistically significant similarities exist in the speech of pre-draft prospects that go on to be arrested or suspended. But regional dialects and slang are totally disregarded in the analysis.

“There are very subtle parts of speech that correlate with different outcome variables,” Hall said. “We’re creating a predictive model of risk based on a sample of public speech – giving interviews – much like this one. If you read these interviews, you’ll see they’re pretty generic … ‘give 100 percent, bring our A game.’ But I’m telling you, if we get enough samples, yes we can [predict whether a player will be arrested or suspended in the future].”

Achievement Metrics, based in Hilliard, Ohio, has been in business for 10 years. Earlier clients have included the government intelligence community, the Centers for Disease Control and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Hall and his colleagues figured the NFL provided the perfect avenue for expansion given the large financial commitment teams make to players. Personal interviews and research by scouting departments sometimes aren’t enough to keep teams from wasting cash on players who eventually run afoul of the law.

“I’ve never believed that we as football people are well-qualified to make a judgment based on that 15-minute interview,” said Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian. “There are people trained to do that. We can judge them as football players. I’m not a psychologist and I’d rather have a psychologist do that.”

Hall said that 12 NFL teams stopped by to hear the company’s presentation at the combine, but wouldn’t say whether the Jaguars attended. The team would not comment for this story.

“There are people in our database where we’re like, ‘Hmm, when is it gonna happen?” Hall said. “But there are people in our database that may never be arrested. What we’re doing is providing an alternative tool for teams [to use in the evaluation process] because these players are very valuable people and they’re tough to measure.”

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