After two tours in Iraq, the echoes of war would crawl into his thoughts at night, refusing to let his mind ease. “Boredom punctuated with terror,” is what he calls it. He still remembers how bloody his fingers would get loading his ammunition during training, how the planes would shake as they touched down near enemy territory, the BOOM of a rogue RPG after it exploded just in front of the truck he was riding in, six miles outside Baghdad.
He remembers the fear he felt, in charge of a 12-man unit, worrying that he’d have to tell a wife that her husband wasn’t going to make it back home.
There’s a parallel he sees, something about the audacity it took to survive in his old world — one of the most demanding and exclusive branches of the U.S. military — and the one he finds himself in now. Brian Decker stood on the field of an NFL preseason game last August, marveling at what he had just seen: a safety sticking a ballcarrier in the open field. “Two guys traveling 20 miles an hour,” he says. “It sounds like a car crash.”
Then he thinks for a moment, and he spins his story full circle.
“Most people aren’t willing to turn it loose like that. I think it takes something special. And on the other side, I think about the military. How many people are willing to sign up for $60,000 a year for something that may eventually cost them their life?”
Slow down, Browns: You’re a long way from becoming ‘the new Patriots’
Cowboys’ draft: Inside Trysten Hill pick despite attitude concerns at UCF
Decker may very well be one of the most interesting men in the NFL, a former Green Beret from the U.S. Special Forces unit who successfully catapulted a 22-year career in the military into a job in professional football. Though his title with the Indianapolis Colts is a bit vague — director of player development — his duties are not. He probes draft prospects, digging into their psyche, and tries to uncover what others can’t. He coaches the scouts, counsels the players and meets with the head coach. Perhaps most significantly, he offers the general manager a set of eyes that are indifferent to the on-field talent that so often clouds evaluations in this league.
Former Green Beret Brian Decker, a 22-year veteran of the military, has become an instrumental piece to the Colts’ draft process. (Photo: Indianapolis Colts)
Decker, 47, is taking a model he developed late in his time with the military and applying it to the talent acquisition and developmental arm of an NFL team. The objective: assess the character and internal makeup of a prospect so deeply that the team can, perhaps more accurately than ever before, confidently predict whether he will succeed or fail at the next level.
It worked with the Special Forces – why not pro football?
Two drafts and one turnaround season into the experiment, he resists calling it a success, or revealing specific case studies. “Too soon to tell,” he cautions. But what he won’t argue with is the franchise’s firm footing for the future. No doubt the Colts are a team on the rise.
How much of an impact has Decker had?
Some inside the building believe he’s one of the smartest people in the organization. Some outside it believe he’s among the most innovative in all of football.
“I don’t know of anybody like him in the league,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard says. “I don’t.”
“What he’s doing is absolutely groundbreaking,” adds Joe Banner, the former Browns CEO who gave Decker his first job in the league in 2014. “He’s a difference-maker, and as more time passes, more teams in the NFL will be trying to find their own version of Brian Decker.”
Changing the paradigm
It wasn’t that Banner wasn’t looking for a way to crack the riddle that has long confounded NFL front-offices — why roughly half of first-round draft picks wash out of the league — it’s just that he didn’t think he’d find his answer in a lieutenant colonel stationed 125 miles east of Charlotte.
Banner worked for 12 years as president of the Philadelphia Eagles, building teams that went to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. By 2013, he was CEO of the Browns when his GM, Mike Lombardi, returned from a trip to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, fascinated by a Green Beret who’d successfully overhauled the unit’s outdated selection process and wanted a chance to see if he could do the same thing in the NFL.
At that point, the Browns hadn’t won more than five games in five years. They were willing to listen.
“We were trying to think outside the box,” Lombardi says now. “I think it was important to get somebody that wasn’t gonna be swayed by talent.”
INSTANT IMPACT: 9 players in 2019 draft who could make a Super Bowl difference
NFL POWER RANKINGS: Colts, Eagles among teams on rise after draft
4th & MONDAY: Our NFL newsletter always brings the blitz
And that, in essence, is Decker’s approach: Teams have been tracking the measurables — height, weight, speed, strength, countless data points — for decades; what he wanted to quantify were the immeasurables, i.e. everything else. Drive. Desire. Intelligence. Response to stress. Any factor that could derail progress or stall talent. “The whole game,” a former NFL head coach calls it.
After Lombardi and the Browns coaches met Decker at Fort Bragg, they asked him up to training camp later that summer, and that’s where he met Banner for the first time. There, Decker told the team’s CEO about what he’d done with the Green Berets, about reverse engineering more than 500 course failures, revamping a tired selection process and watching their success rate climb by as much as 30 percent. What Decker had learned, and what his work could prove: there was a whole lot more to finding the best candidates than simply seeing which ones could survive three grueling weeks of physical training.
Decker gave the weed-out process a much-needed makeover. He created a model that compiled 1,200 predictive data points, weighing factors the Green Berets had never before tried to quantify — specifically, those hard-to-define qualities such as leadership and intelligence under duress — and helped them identify which candidates were best equipped not just to survive training, but excel thereafter. Over time, the washout rate dipped dramatically.
“What Brian did was change the paradigm,” says Col. Glenn Thomas, Decker’s boss at Fort Bragg. “People get accustomed to looking at things the same way and applying the same solutions to the same problems. Brian challenged our assumptions. He took things that had generally been intangibles and turned them into tangibles.”
Which, of course, was the sort of breakthrough executives in a not-too-distant field — professional football — had been chasing for years. Swing and miss on a few first-round picks in the NFL and you’ll soon be looking for work. Banner, running the show in Cleveland, was determined to boost the Browns’ batting average.
“In Philly, we had done a lot of research on why only 50 percent of first-round draft picks were making it in the league,” he says. “What we learned was that our football evaluations were overwhelmingly right. It was the intangibles, like how driven they were, that were frequently unknown and hard to predict. We wanted to change that number from 50 percent to, say, 70 or 80 percent.”
What he sought was a better way to assess character, then to predict future growth or decline. And wouldn’t you know it, here was this Green Beret, sitting in his office in Cleveland, claiming he could do just that.
Getting his shot
Brian Decker didn’t just watch “Moneyball” — he processed it. “Now that’s what I’m trying to do,” Thomas remembers him saying after Decker saw the film for the first time.
He didn’t just read books — he studied them, then passed them on to his superiors. He gave Thomas a copy of Michael Mauboussin’s “Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing.”
Decker didn’t just hope his approach would work in the NFL, he believed it would. All he needed was a shot.
“One of the things about professional sports, rock climbing, parachuting, jumping from 123,000 feet in space to Earth, they’re all really hard things to do,” Decker says, explaining his thought process. “What I got fascinated with over time: How different are those guys that go on to be the best at what they do, regardless of field? Whether it be a free diver that holds a weight and goes 400 feet underwater, then swims back to the surface … I think if you remove the sport, specific skills and domain from it, you find that (elite performers) are a lot alike. I think the demands placed upon greatness look a lot alike, regardless of field.”
In other words: What makes a great Green Beret, he believed, would also make a great football player. When it came to player evaluations, he didn’t think teams were seeing all they should be seeing.
“I bet you they’re looking at some of the wrong things,” Thomas remembers Decker saying after the Browns’ visit.
Banner was intrigued enough to hire Decker after the season, and patient enough to wait for him to wrap up his military service before he could start. Problem was, by the time that day arrived, both Banner and Lombardi – his two biggest advocates inside the organization — had been fired. Decker lasted two years in Cleveland but was let go when new GM Sashi Brown took over in 2016.
Lombardi took a job working with the Patriots after his exit in Cleveland, and pitched Decker to Bill Belichick, who sat and talked with Decker for hours in the bleachers at Lucas Oil Stadium the following winter at the NFL Combine. The coach was interested enough to fly him out to New England for an interview, but eventually passed, leaving Decker wondering if he’d ever get another shot in the NFL.
A 3,508-word profile in ESPN The Magazine published a few months later changed all that. After the story came out, the buzz built around the mysterious Green Beret who was trying to break into the world of pro sports. Decker received calls from executives in all four major leagues: the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. A few months later, one newly hired NFL GM got a call from Banner.
“Chris, I’ve got a guy I really want you to meet,” Banner told him.
Chris Ballard had read the article, and he’d been fascinated with Decker’s story. Turns out, they’d been in contact for months. When they first began talking, Ballard was still the No. 2 in Kansas City, working behind GM John Dorsey. He’d hinted to Decker that if he ever got a shot to run his own team, he wanted Decker in the building.
“A lot of people will say that,” Decker says. “Not a lot of people will follow up with you.”
By January 2017, Ballard had his shot. He was the Colts’ new GM. Three months later, in a reshuffling of his scouting department, he hired Decker, who turned down what he says were “potentially more lucrative” offers in order to work with a general manager who believed in his vision.
“I trusted Chris, hands down,” Decker says. “I genuinely trusted him. He’s a genuinely decent man.
“And when you’re as much of an outsider as I am, you only get one shot,” he continues. “You wanna make sure you’re going to a place where you can create value.”
A pound of flesh
When he evaluates a draft prospect, Decker asks himself five questions.
Does this player have a favorable development profile?
Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?
Does he have a good learning and support system?
Is he a character risk, and if so, how do we understand that risk and help this player?
Lastly, is he a good fit?
Decker has helped the Colts map out a strategic document the team uses in player evaluations that tracks those hard-to-define metrics they’re after — metrics he won’t reveal. The overarching aim is to construct a culture of high-character players that pose less of a risk to the franchise, and in turn, leads to more sustained success on the field. “We feel like your locker room can be a competitive advantage,” Decker says, sounding a whole lot like his boss, Chris Ballard.
“Chris is trying to take information in time period 0, and predict information in time periods 1, 2 and 3 – where a player is going to be (as his career unfolds),” Decker explains. “The upper limit of that solution set is his talent. A straight line is his talent. Anything that’s going to take him off of that will probably be attributed in some way to human factors. And so my thought … we’re not going to eliminate the uncertainty, but what if we can reduce the uncertainty by five percent? And we can compound that five percent annually over time? That becomes a competitive advantage.”
He spends the season monitoring the pulse of the team, traveling to road games, meeting regularly with coach Frank Reich, counseling the younger players, encouraging those coming back from injury. He spends the winter and spring offering a sounding board to the scouts, helping the personnel staff grind the draft board down from hundreds to the few that will end up in Indianapolis. “Getting the right guys on the bus,” he calls it.
Unique as his approach seems, Decker isn’t the first of his kind in the NFL. Jack Easterby, formerly a team chaplain with the Kansas City Chiefs, spent the past five seasons as a character coach for the Patriots before becoming the Houston Texans’ vice president of team development this spring. But Banner, who spent two decades in front offices and remains in contact with several league executives, is adamant that the retired lieutenant colonel is blazing a trail when it comes to player evaluations in pro football.
“Every team in the league is doing a lot of work in terms of psychological evaluations, and has been doing it forever and ever,” Banner says. “But his approach, and the types of questions he asks, and his ability to synthesize information and get to the right conclusions, that part of it is absolutely groundbreaking. There is nobody in the league doing what he’s doing as effectively.”
On the heels of the Colts’ draft success in ’18, and Decker’s impact throughout the building, Ballard promoted him from player personnel strategist to director of player development last spring. He interviewed more than 160 players ahead of this year’s draft. Next year, he hopes to sit down with 300.
Among the Colts’ selections this year, Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was a captain in his only season with the Owls, Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke is an Eagle Scout who’s performed at Carnegie Hall and completed an internship under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Michigan State safety Khari Willis was chosen by the Big Ten to give its keynote speech at the conference’s kickoff luncheon last year.
The right guys on the bus, remember.
“Brian plays a big role, and we overload Brian,” Ballard says. “He is highly intelligent, and he’s got a great way to get to the core of who somebody is.”
Decker’s bought in to what the Colts are building and how they’re building it. He loves the long hours, the challenge of cracking the code that’s long confounded NFL decision-makers. He’s anxious to see what this team looks like in two, three, four seasons, after his work has had time to marinate.
He hesitates to take credit for the Colts’ sterling draft class last spring — their first two selections were first-team All-Pros — instead insisting that time will reveal the real verdict.
But just listen to the way he talks about life in the NFL.
“This is a commitment industry,” says the former Green Beret. “That’s another thing I like about football. You can’t just be here for the T-shirt. You gotta give a pound of flesh to do this.”