In the NFL, intangibles are attributes that cannot be measured.
Motor, toughness, effort, heart, pride—there’s no space for these in the box score and no Combine-like event that can test for them. But these qualities form the backbone of any competititve football team. In a league where the line between winning and losing is razor thin, can we accept the fact that there’s no smart way to measure these all-important intangibles? The Atlanta Falcons could not, which is why they invented the CT grade.
Short for Competitive Toughness, the CT grade boils down a player’s most important intangibles into one easy-to-analyze number. According to the Falcons, the score plays a huge role in their approach to team-building. Considering that the team narrowly missed out on winning the Super Bowl, perhaps they’re onto something.
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The advent of CT can be traced to a conversation between Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and team general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Both men knew they wanted to build a team with a high-motor, physical identity. But quantifying which players fit that mold using traditional statistics wasn’t easy. If you want to build a team with more speed, you go out and get guys who can run a blazing 40-Yard Dash or 3-Cone Drill. But when you want to build a team with more passion and aggression, what measurables do you turn to?
“It actually started with Thomas [Dimitroff],” Quinn told AJC.com. “We really wanted to make our competitiveness and toughness come to life. We did what’s called a CT grade, with one being the lowest and highest being a rare number.”
“Competitiveness” and “toughness” can be hard to define, but they mean a couple of specific things inside the Falcons’ culture. Essentially, the Falcons like players who fly around the field and play through the whistle. They also like players who play a physical brand of football and who display the ability to bounce back after a bad play or bad series. “The first part of the ‘C’ is the urgency that you play with. The second part of that is the ability to finish. As a competitor, the urgency in your play and the finish in your play,” Quinn told AtlantaFalcons.com. “[Then] toughness. The first part of that is the extreme physicality that we want to see. The [next] part is resiliency and mental toughness—the resiliency to battle back.”
It might seem like a player who grades high on the CT scale might also stand out in the box score, that’s not necessarily the case. CT grade is more about how a player plays the game rather than their production. “You can have a really high CT, but production might not be there. Or you can demonstrate [things we like] at positions where stats don’t show up. You always want to have that high CT number, [it’s about] how hard you’re playing. The urgency, the finish, the physicality, the resiliency—that’s what defines CT,” Quinn said.
Dimitroff and Quinn formulated the basis of the CT grading process together before collaborating with the scouting department and the rest of the coaching staff. Now, the entire organization knows how to go about analyzing a player’s CT grade.
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How important is CT to what the Falcons do? Consider this—after every game, each Falcons player is assigned a CT grade by the staff. Also, the players must watch film and assign themselves a CT score. Not only that, they’re required to assign an overall CT score to their positional unit. “Each player in each game is given a CT grade. Then the players in their meeting rooms also give themselves one and their unit one to see how we competed as a unit. [We look at] what our toughness was as a unit,” Quinn said. “It’s always at the front of our thinking.”
CT grades also play a pivotal role in the Falcons’ approach to the NFL Draft and free agency. Shortly after they selected UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley with the 26th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Quinn revealed that he had one of the highest CT grades of any prospect on their board. The Falcons liked McKinley’s CT grade so much, in fact, that they gave up a third and a seventh round pick so they could move up five spots and grab him.
“We started looking at the board, and we’re very, very particular about our CT grade. [McKinley] is one of those guys where not only can he perform on the field, but he has these characteristics that are important” Dimitroff said in a press conference. “[Quinn] and I made a pact to each other that we were going to be very particular about keeping each other in check on that. When we get a little bit swayed by someone’s speed or athleticism or brawn, we were always going to talk to each other about the CT. Come back to the CT.”
McKinley’s scouting profile on NFL.com reads like a player who likely scored remarkably high on the Falcons’ CT scale. An excerpt: “Relentless worker bee on the field. Refuses to give offensive tackles a snap to catch their breath. Not a content player and is always charging towards the ball.”
When STACK profiled McKinely for our Path to the Pros series, we asked him what type of legacy he wanted to leave in the NFL. His answer was reminiscent of a player with a high CT grade. “[I want to be remembered] as someone who just went 110 percent all the time. Just a non-stop motor, never quit on a play. Someone who went out and left his heart on the field,” McKinley said.
The Falcons have been using the CT grade as a major component in their team-building process for a little more than a year now. Could their approach change the way NFL teams think about intangibles? Only time will tell, but if you want to see what an extraordinary CT grade looks like on film, check out Takk’s highlights:
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