FNQB: When are Fans Interests Divergent from Organizational Interests?
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One of the most popular, if most vanilla, mantras of this time of the NFL offseason is the “system player.” Coaches and general managers and scouts like to think of their organizations as uniquely principled, and in the hunt for the kind of player that can excel in their system, even if they would be a poor fit elsewhere. If the interest of the organization is winning games, then I’d say it’s pretty important to find a steady chain of this kind of player to replenish the quality of the roster year-after-year. Winning makes everyone happy: it keeps the owner satisfied, it keeps the players motivated, and it keeps generating the fan dollar. All of this would imply that the system player is universally valued, even if players tend to fit some systems better than others, and thus are valued differently from franchise to franchise.
Of course, football is not as difficult a sport to evaluate as general managers and coaches would like the rest of us to believe it is. At it’s core, the game promotes a few fundamental skills over all others: those who can rush a passer and put a quarterback on his butt are going to succeed in any scheme, as will those who can line up at the increasingly isolated tackle position, and eliminate the pass rusher from the box score. The quarterback needs to be able to stand in and find his explosive, crafty downfield receivers, and the defensive backfield needs to be sufficient enough at their jobs to make the quarterback second guess himself and start to lose his sense of timing in the offense. And at the heart of the game, players who can block and tackle will always have a spot on the field. Scheme identity is a concept that can promote strengths and protect weaknesses, but no matter who is coaching the team, no matter who is collecting the talent, winning teams can all do a few things very well, and losing teams struggle with the fundamentals, scheme fit be damned.
The winningest organizations have a steady diet of core players of which some are excellent scheme fits, and others are just supremely skilled football players. The idea here is not to promote the positives of one group of these types vs. the other, as common valuation metrics see their contribution all the same. It’s to be much more direct: is the proliferation of the “scheme” player throughout the league–and the NFL draft–causing players who are good at football to be undervalued? And as an extension, when are the interests of a fanbase divergent from those of management? As I will demonstrate, it’s actually quite common for the long-term interests of a franchise to get compromised in the interest of short-term job security.
Ask any finance consultant about the value of liquidity metrics to the well being of the company he does consulting for, and you’d be surprised how much of his work has to do with maintaining a certain level of flexibility in any organization. Sport management is no different in nature. Liquid assets, in NFL labor terms, are merely the players who don’t lose their value no matter how much turnover happens at the coaching or similar decision-making levels. But in professional football, an industry where the turnover rate for the average head coach is just a tick over 3 years, you can see how scheme-dependent players can go from the pro-bowl to the wavier wire in a single coaching cycle.
Of course, this is also why, despite obvious instances of parity in the NFL, teams that struggle tend to continue to struggle from year to year to year. When you change the scheme, you lose a lot of contributing talent on a team that probably didn’t have an over-abundance of talent to begin with, and then the new coach is already back-against-the-wall trying to turn around a now talentless team before his personal tenure ends. In many cases, this involves an even greater dependence on scheme-dependent players–the dreaded NFL co-dependence–and usually continued losing, or in some cases, a winning season followed by poor moves and more disappointment. However, the alternative of keeping a coaching staff that isn’t producing beyond three years just for the sake of continuity isn’t really appealing either. If the hire was not a fatally flawed hire, and after three years, there’s no more optimism than there was as the beginning of a coach’s term, it’s likely that the coach isn’t about to be successful in his job because management isn’t providing him with competent talent.
The only way to stop the self-sustaining cycle of failure and dependence on “the process” is to overcome it with talent of multiple kinds. An example: in the 2009 NFL draft, the Washington Redskins drafted DE Brian Orakpo out of Texas with the 13th pick. Orakpo started 16 games at linebacker for the Redskins, and did not really fit the scheme they were trying to play. The Redskins featured one of the most highly paid defenses in football history, but were merely average on that side of the ball, won 4 games, and both coach Jim Zorn and VP of football ops Vinny Cerrato were fired at the end of the season. A common tale of self-sustaining failure, and potentially wasted draft choice except for the following facts: as an out of position rookie, Orakpo had 11 sacks, and went to the pro bowl. If the Redskins can break the cycle of failure they have been mired in for 10 years, Cerrato’s parting gift of Orakpo, a defensive cornerstone, is one reason why.
Why the heck was Brian Orakpo available for the team that picked 13th in the draft? Why was Baltimore Ravens OT Michael Oher available at the 23rd pick in the first round? These are top five football players in any draft class, and neither was exactly a hidden gem…both were extensively scouted by pretty much every team, heck, Michael Lewis wrote a book about Oher two years before the 2009 draft. Maybe they can fall out of the top five out of fabricated concerns about their football ability and the reluctance to hand out big-money deals to two specific players. But once you’re getting out of the top ten and into the area of the draft where winning teams pick, now you have to question the priorities of teams picking in the top half of the draft. The specific question: what are the priorities of a team that decides to pass on great football players for niche market players? Why are players with complete skill sets undervalued in the NFL draft?
The Oakland Raiders catch a lot of crap from the football universe for picking players who fit an ideal over players who are good at football, but this is hardly an issue limited to just the Raiders. Teams, on the whole, do not go into the draft or free agency looking to represent the ideals of their fanbase: improving the future of the team regardless of what it might mean for their personal job security. With such an obvious need on the offensive side of the ball, how many teams would have done what Cerrato did and landed their pass rushing cornerstone when either the offense was going to have to produce, or you were going to lose your job. Cerrato’s faults as a talent evaluator aside, the NFL expectation would have been to draft the best available offensive player who fits the west coast offensive scheme in that situation, perhaps Percy Harvin.
The franchise quarterback fallacy is another reason that forces great players to be undervalued. One of the many reasons that neither Orakpo nor Oher went in the top five picks despite providing premium value at a premium position is because two quarterbacks got picked in the first five picks by Detroit and the Jets, and combined for a 10-15 record, a 54% completion percentage and 6.5 yards per attempt as rookies, and probably a few years of job security for the decision makers. The Kansas City Chiefs took DE Tyson Jackson ahead of projected value because they needed players who fit the 3-4 scheme. The Buffalo Bills, with needs all over the football, opted for 4-3 rush end Aaron Maybin over Orakpo. They now play a 3-4 defense under a new GM and new coach. All of those team, exception Jets (who featured the no. 1 defense, despite not picking a defensive player in the 2009 draft), are again picking in the top ten this year.
Out of the top twelve picks in the 2009 draft, less than half of the teams made a pick based on trying to get the best player for the franchise long-term. The Rams, I think, did this with Jason Smith. The 49ers definitely did this with Michael Crabtree. The Packers did it with B.J. Raji, and I think the Jags did it with Eugene Monroe. The Seahawks got the No. 1 overall player on a lot of boards at No. 4 with Aaron Curry, couldn’t fit him neatly into their defensive scheme, won five games, and their head coach and GM lost their jobs. Curry still figures to have a long, pro-bowl filled career, like Orakpo, and it’d be hard to argue that the Chiefs or Lions wouldn’t be better off with him. The Broncos, Bills, Raiders, and Chiefs all spent mega-bucks on scheme-dependent players (and you wonder why the Chargers have won the AFC West four consecutive years, and have the longest tenured coach in the division who happens to be twice-fired Norv Turner), the Lions and Jets chased overvalued quarterbacks, and the Bengals went for the guy who would sign for the cheapest contract (and succeeded!). As a consequence of these actions, the Redskins can get a top five player on their board while picking at no. 13!
Clearly, this is a league-wide activity. Seven teams out of twelve teams with non-winning seasons in 2008 did not pick in the best long-term interests of their fans and owners. This hardly suggests that all seven picks will fail as pros (though Maybin is most likely a sunk cost already). Probability suggests that two or three of these picks will work out just fine. What this proves instead is that many completely rational decision makers have no interest in putting their franchise in good position for their successor. This is reflected in their drafting and signing habits. There are two goals here: to keep their jobs as long as possible, and to win with players who would not necessarily be winners for future leaders of the franchise. The structure of the league is forcing fans and owners of losing franchises onto a vicious cycle that only one or two teams a year can break out of, and the attrition rate is much higher than this. In my best estimation, this is why the NFL can be both a league that promotes parity, and yet, a league that is dominated by five or six franchises season-to-season.