Draft Thoughts Part 4 of 4: Winning Is Not The Incentive

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]


At the end of part 3, I said I’d attempt to address why teams don’t examine their processes more closely, why they don’t try to refine or improve them. I think the answer comes down to how decisions are made in the NFL.

I think the NFL has a corporate culture that incentivizes not making waves and not going off the beaten path.

It seems to me that, with all the turnover that happens in NFL front offices and coaching staffs, that being an iconoclast might make it difficult to find continued employment. That doing things your own way as a head coach might make someone wary to hire you for that rebound assistant-coach job. And not falling in line as a scout might mean losing your job and being blackballed.

Scout Dave Razzano tells the story of his time with the Rams, when then-GM Charley Armey tried to pressure him into changing his grade on Alex Smith to make the front office seem unified. Also in there is an anecdote about former Cardinals GM Rod Graves, who used to make his scouts compile, in addition to their own rankings, rankings of how other teams viewed players. He would then draft players from this list even though his coaches and scouts didn’t want them. Talk about the ultimate groupthink.

Speaking of groupthink, Razzano himself mentions it in a separate interview. A Field Gulls article links to the original interview, but the link is broken. The article is quoted, though, and this part is relevant:

Most scouting departments want a consensus before deciding on a draft pick. Razzano told me too many scouts follow the pack.

If you have incentive to make a decision, and you want a consensus to make a decision, you have given your employees incentive to give you that consensus whether or not they believe it.

So that kind of tacitly enforced groupthink is part of the equation. I think it’s compounded by the NFL’s insularity in its pool of coaches and executives. To be blunt, employment in the NFL carries an incredible degree of nepotism, favoritism, and good-ol’-boy-ism that results in one of the smallest hiring networks in any industry anywhere. The best way to get a job as a coach is to have been a former coach, or the son of a coach. Coaches get third and fourth chances when they have performed poorly in the past, based on who they know. The coaching trees have very few roots, and by and large, coaches today do what they were taught by the coaches who mentored them, who did what they were taught by the coaches who mentored them, and on and on. And processes haven’t changed much as a result.

If you aren’t bringing in new ideas from the outside, and you’re just hiring people who can trace their coaching tree back to the same two or three forefathers of the game (or literal fathers in some cases), well, then, how are you possibly going to improve? Where are the new ideas, the challenges to existing processes and lines of thinking, going to come from?

And so between lack of innovation and groupthink, you have a lot of pressure on employees to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done with regards to the draft, whether or not it works– and because of these incentives, arguably even when they know it doesn’t work.

If you take the six-foot cornerback and he fails– hey, no problem. But if you take the 5’10” cornerback and he fails, you have some explaining to do. This is compounded, of course, at the game’s most important position: No one will blame you if you take a 6’4″, tall, big-armed white pocket passer early, even if he can’t play. But if you draft a 6’0″ or shorter mobile playmaker whose mechanics and dimensions aren’t ideal but who always seems to deliver accurate throws under pressure and to extend plays to create opportunities others can’t… well, you have to be right, or no one is going to ever listen to you again, because you dared to be different and it didn’t work. (And God help you if you hire a coach who isn’t willing to work to your quarterback’s strengths and will only do things “his way.”)

Much like how teams “trust their defense” by punting on fourth-and-short despite the reams of evidence that it’s suboptimal, the incentive structure isn’t to make the decision that results in the best player or the best chance to win; it’s the decision that best absolves the decision-maker of personal responsibility. If you do things how they’re always done, how everyone else has done them, no one will blame you when you fail.

(If you remember how Bill Belichick was roasted in the media for going for it on fourth-and-2 rather than “trusting his defense” against Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, you’ll understand why that incentive exists. Think, too, of the schadenfreude toward Chip Kelly when he was fired. Or read about other teams already trash-talking the Browns for daring to try something new.)

This is also why the NFL is called a “copycat league”: If you see a team succeed, do what they did. That’s really the extent of the process for some of these teams. If you fail, well, it worked for them! It should have worked for us, too! Another way to absolve personal responsibility.

This is where, I think, the whole angry defensiveness about “nerds in their mother’s basement who never played the game” comes from. You have a business whose incentive structure dictates “don’t try anything new if you want to keep your job,” and whose fundamental ideas about how to conduct business almost entirely come from a few sources and may not have been updated much over decades. Of course people are going to feel threatened at any suggestion that a new idea, an outside idea, could improve the tradition they’ve built upon, the tradition upon which their jobs and reputations stand. If that were true, then it would increase the chances of championship-minded owners taking risks to bring in outside hires to crash the boys’ club. And if that worked, what would happen to our jobs? (The NFL is a copycat league, after all.)

Fortunately for them, teams rake in money hand over fist no matter whether they win 3 games or 13; whether they use processes that haven’t been updated since the 1960s or they devise new methods and apply cutting-edge data analysis and sports science.

So there’s no incentive for ownership to change, and management is threatened by change. The media is often complicit in this by being critical or disparaging when coaches or management do something outside of convention.

And that’s a good way to segue into the last piece of the misevaluation equation: Public relations and off-field issues.

Teams either aren’t discovering what they should about players, or they’re more concerned about PR than winning.

Let’s talk Laremy Tunsil.

I have two big problems with the reasoning behind why a guy who’s been described as “a generational left tackle” and “the next Jonathan Ogden” (that one by our own Needle) fell to #13 in the draft.

As far as I can tell, teams had two concerns about the video. The first is that Tunsil was still smoking cannabis regularly and would find himself in the league’s drug program– a legitimate concern whether or not you agree with the NFL’s rules, since a suspended player can’t play football. The second is that teams didn’t want the PR nightmare of the headlines on Friday morning showing their first-round pick toking out of a gas mask.

To the first point: With all the resources teams supposedly put into scouting, and the amount of ridiculous and personally invasive questions that do get asked of and said about prospects (I think Eli Apple was overdrafted because his size was regarded as more important than his tape; anonymous scouts think he was overdrafted because they think he can’t cook, or else they want to know if he’s gay), I just have one question: How the hell did the Ravens, or any other team considering Tunsil, not know about this already?

How did they not know about the video? How did they not know the details behind the video? How did they not know Tunsil’s personal history extensively, given, again, the sheer invasiveness of the research teams put into potential first-round picks?

If they had done their research, this is what they’d know: Tunsil passed every drug test at Ole Miss and at the Combine. (This isn’t like Randy Gregory a year ago, who has talent but also failed multiple drug tests during the draft process.) Tunsil and his agent claim the video is from high school, and there’s no evidence the events depicted therein are recent, and no evidence he had drug problems of any kind in college (Robert Nkemdiche’s story aside, perhaps). Even Tunsil’s NCAA suspension was for typical NCAA “We enforce poverty on the workers in a billion-dollar industry in order to preserve the fiction of amateurism that allows us to continue this bilking” reasons.

This should not have been a surprise to any team.

If that video was the difference between you taking Tunsil or passing on him, as it apparently was with the Baltimore Ravens (they publicly claim differently, but anonymous sources on the team say it is so), then your team of scouts and personal researchers– you know, the ones who are so good at their jobs that no outsider could possibly understand them or do them– just aren’t doing their jobs.

If you have the time and resources to burn on asking a prospect if he’s gay, or to ask how he would kill someone (?!), you have the time and resources to uncover this video and find out the truth behind it well before draft night.

Some people will say, “Well, it’s not just the video. It’s how it looks to take a guy who has stuff like that come out on draft night.” The PR reason. Setting aside the fact that your goal is to build a winning football team, not get good press, and also setting aside the hypocrisy of teams that sign violent criminals being scared of bad press for cannabis, here’s my rebuttal to that:

If your PR people can’t find a positive way to spin taking a generational talent at a key position, they should get out of public relations.

It’s undeniably true that Tunsil has had some bad people in his life– most teams believe the video was leaked by a fired financial advisor, and Tunsil’s stepfather is suing him over an alleged assault that occurred when Tunsil’s stepfather was assaulting his mother and he stepped in.

(EDIT: After I wrote this, but before I published it, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote a typically terrific column about how the NCAA’s system of faux-amateurism and keeping up appearances created the culture for shady people with bad intentions to get close to Tunsil. NCAA reform is a whole other topic, but it’s desperately necessary.)

You know what would be a good PR move? Drafting Tunsil, then having your coach say something like “We did our due diligence, and this video is from long in the past. We think this is a fine young man and a hard worker, who unfortunately has had some bad people in his life, and that’s all the more reason for us to give him a hand up into our support system, into the [Cityname Teamname] family, to surround him with players and coaches who can be positive role models and help him grow into the best player and person he can be.”

(This should have been especially true for the Baltimore Ravens, who make a lot of noise about having a strong team environment with a lot of veteran leadership. Instead they chose tackle Ronnie Stanley over Tunsil. This from a team that employed Ray Rice and has a statue of Ray Lewis outside its stadium.)

We didn’t get that. Instead, someone leaked this video to try to ruin Tunsil, and the league did its best to oblige. For shame.

Of course, a good kid who has some bad people in his life is still a risk. Not an opportunity. That’s how the NFL thinks. But then, NFL teams frequently think players are “risks” for absurd reasons that throw back to decades-old stereotypes of football players: Simply having interests outside of football, or a personality off the field that strays too far from “meathead gladiator,” makes you a risk in the eyes of NFL coaches and executives.

(This is true in college as well: Arian Foster’s coaches at Tennessee buried him during the draft process as a troublemaker, because he had the audacity to care about getting a degree in something he wanted to study, rather than going the route so many big-money programs steer their football players toward and majoring in We Have Friends of the Program in That Department. The student-athlete fiction is a lot less convenient for the NCAA when it’s the student-athlete himself who wants to take both roles seriously.)

Fear of change and risk aversion permeate every facet of team management. That is the key to understanding how the NFL really operates.

The primary concern for team owners and executives isn’t winning games. It’s keeping the money rolling in as safely as possible. That means rejecting change, rejecting the unpredictable. That’s why there are so many incentives for coaches, scouts, and other subordinates to the owner and chief executive not to make waves or do anything differently.  Doing things differently brings tough questions. It risks failing in an unconventional way. And since teams make money hand over fist as is, regardless of results, the only thing an owner really fears is messing with that.

And hell: Given the likelihood that safety concerns will cause the game of football as we know it to change drastically within our lifetimes, will we ever see an NFL run well enough to give us the best football possible? Or will “just barely good enough to continue to raise season ticket prices 10% every year” continue to be the standard until the game goes away?

The NFL is a cash cow as it is, so owners have no incentive to change, and executives who do things the same way everyone else does things can blame bad luck when they fail, and if they get fired, they’ll get another chance a year or two later from the good-ol’-boys network as long as they do things the safe and conventional way, going along to get along. For a league with such a popular and lucrative product, the NFL does a remarkable job of not trying to make it the best it can be.

Everything I’ve written in the last four posts, I think, can be boiled down to a one-sentence summary. I think it may be the way we remember this draft down the line, and it’s also a great illustration of how backwards the approach NFL teams take to the draft is. That summary is this:

This is the draft where a team traded up in order to take Jack Conklin five spots ahead of Laremy Tunsil.

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