"Football Freakonomics": Tradeoffs Are Everywhere

The following is a cross-post from NFL.com, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

Economics is all about tradeoffs. If you want to buy a top-tier performance car, it’ll cost you a lot more than a Camry. If you’re looking for an investment that’ll set you up for life, you have to be willing to take on more risk.

NFL personnel decisions involve the same kind of tradeoffs. Better players generally cost more. Bigger players are generally slower. Just look at the NFL Draft, and how hard it is to balance all these tradeoffs when making your picks – especially when you’re spending huge money on a team leader whose future is impossible to predict. (We explored this puzzle earlier in “The Quarterback Quandary.”)

In this installment of “Football Freakonomics,” we look at a different kind of tradeoff – the decision of how to handle a player who’s gotten in trouble off the field. Unfortunately, you don’t have to think very hard to come up with a lot of big names from the recent past: Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, and Plaxico Burress, to name just a few.

With guys like these, the tradeoff is pretty clear. The player has already proven his value on the field, so that’s the upside. But will his off-the-field trouble follow him back into the game? And then you’ve got to wonder how his physical performance will be affected by his time off for bad behavior.

It would be nice to be able to give a purely scientific answer to the following question: After getting into big off-the-field trouble, do players tend to perform better, the same, or worse?

Unfortunately, that’s a really hard question to answer, for a variety of reasons:

1. The sample size is relatively tiny. While it may seem like a lot of professional athletes get in trouble, the fact is that they inevitably make headlines when they do, whereas you and I don’t. This leads to a skewed sense of proportion about how much athlete wrongdoing there is. A former NFL security chief – who was also a former FBI assistant director – once told me that NFL players are in fact arrested at a lower rate than young men the same age in the general population, and a variety of independent studies back him up.

2. There are a ton of other variables to wrestle with. Just take Vick and Roethlisberger. Vick was in prison and out of football for a couple of years (during which time he went bankrupt), and then reentered the league as a backup in a new city. Roethlisberger, who wasn’t even arrested, missed just six games and came back with his same team. So comparing the return of one to the other is very much comparing an apple to an orange.

3. You also have to face the fact that most guys who get in trouble aren’t high-profile guys and, moreover, they often don’t come back and play. Imagine there are two groups of players who get in trouble: high-profile guys and low-profile guys. The high-profile guys will almost certainly get another chance to play if only because they’re better players to start with. But here’s the kicker: they’ll also get more scrutiny as a result. As with a lot of things in life, we tend to pay more attention to the noisy examples and forget the others which often constitute the majority.

So how would I think about this question if I were a GM or a coach, considering a player who got in trouble off the field?

First I’d ask myself: is this guy a generally solid citizen who got in trouble due to a lapse in judgment, or was he a knucklehead to start with, who made it to the NFL despite his character weakness?

Then, if he fits in the second category, I’d ask myself the most important question of all: am I willing to live with the tradeoff? Just because I want to drive the Lamborghini doesn’t mean I shouldn’t buy the Camry.

Here’s the NFL Network video we shot on the subject:


caleb b

"or was he a knucklehead to start with, who made it to the NFL despite his character weakness?"

Great point.

Lawrence Phillips, Maurice Clarrett, JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf....etc, etc, etc.


the eagles should have kept TO- QED


Smart GMs do deep background checks before acquiring a player. That way there is a smaller chance of having to make this decision after the problem surfaces. Where there's a gray area of uncertainty, teams with good leadership among the players can make the difference with new players by "educating" them about the way things are done in their clubhouse.


I think after all the performance analysis one has to remember that to a degree this is the entertainment business. There is a big PR gap between taking a chance on a new contract with Ray Lewis (was at the scene of a murder), and Michael Vick (puppy murderer) and Plaxico Burress (too stupid to recount).

You may say the GMs are all about money, but the ownership sokmetimes are people with morals. You don't see the Maras, for one example, putting up with too much cr@p (see ya, Plaxico). And Al Davis would be the other extreme, seems(ed) drawn to bad PR.

Personally, as Gladwell has written, the difference between success and failure in an NFL player in a given season at a given age is so hard to fathom, if I was a GM, I wouldn't bother to add a sleaze into the mix. If I were an owner who won the Superbowl, having to shake some rapist or dog murderer's hand in thanks would take a lot of the luster off it.


Voice of reason

You can also argue that with the assumption that the 31 other teams arbitrary de-value a player for off-the field problems that have nothing to do with football (assuming that they are not football related, like steroid abuse or gambling on the game), that they're undervalued assets, and that you would profit from going out of your way to obtain them. You could potentially get Pro-Bowl caliber player that you would otherwise not be able to recruit for a fraction of the cost. Also, you could draft a 1st-round talent in the 4th or 5th round. While an evil player might not give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, he'll produce on the field, and give you a better shot of winning. People mistakenly seem to think that there's some kind of correlation between being a boy scout and winning football games.

And while people claim that they won't root for a team full of thugs, they seem to avoid the team the most when they're out of the play-offs and finishing 6-10.


James Briggs

One thing to look at is how do they compare physically with the rest of the league just before they came back. Plaxico Burress is almost impossible to guard because he is so tall. Michael Vic left prison in fantastic shape. He is in the upper 1% of players in the NFL when it comes to strength, speed, and endurance.