The Story Behind the Football Chapter

Two more reviews have been offered of The Wages of Wins. The first is from JC Bradbury, of Sabernomics fame and an economist in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Sport Science at Kennesaw State University. Bradbury’s review was published in the International Journal of Sport and Finance (IJSF) and is the first review in an academic forum penned by an academic.

The second review is also offered by an academic, Jeffrey Standen. Standen is a professor of law at Willamette University and also The Sports Law Professor, Standen’s blog where the review was posted.

Standen’s review has been posted in our review section (found at both our homepage and on a page posted in this forum) but I have not yet received permission from Dennis Howard (editor of IJSF) to post Bradbury’s review. So you will have to take my word that Bradbury’s comments are every bit as positive as what Standen offers.

Positive reviews are very nice, but discussing these comments is not the purpose of this post today (it could be, but I am not sure having an author rehashing this aspect of these reviews would make interesting reading). If you look really hard through these reviews you can find tucked inside just a tiny bit of criticism. And the criticism for each reviewer is the same. Basically neither Bradbury nor Standen found our discussion of quarterbacks to be on par with the other material we offer.

Although quibbling with such positive reviews is silly, I needed something to write about while I watched Michigan-Ohio State in my dusty Michigan sweatshirt (which I wore because I thought – obviously incorrectly – that Michigan had a better chance of winning when I wore clothing that said “Michigan”). So while watching Michigan lose I decided to tell the story behind our football chapter.

The original title of Chapter Nine was “Consistent Inconsistency.” Stacey thought “How Are Quarterbacks Like Mutual Funds?” sounded better, so we changed the title. This chapter was actually the very first written and initially included all the equations and regressions we used to examine NFL quarterbacks. After Freakonomics came out we realized that one could present academic research without the math we use in academic articles. Consequently this chapter was completely re-written from its original form.

The final version – without any equations or regression results – runs 29 pages and more than 11,000 words. The purpose behind all those words was to make a simple point: Basketball players, relative to athletes in football and baseball, are consistent performers across time.

To make that statement one has to measure performance in football. Unfortunately, the NFL’s quarterback rating metric does not appear to be the best possible measure of player productivity. Consequently we thought we would use our tools to create a few new metrics of performance such as Net Points per Play and QB Score. It turns out, one could have made our point about football players and skipped QB Score, since the story of inconsistency can be told with the NFL’s Quarterback rating system or the measures offered by Football Outsiders. Of course, I still like QB Score – which is a simple, yet accurate, representation of what a quarterback does on the field – so I think all the words are worth it.

Although I like QB Score, again the focus of Chapter Nine is on consistency. And this story is important because we find in baseball, football, and basketball that payroll and wins are not strongly linked. In baseball and football we explain this weak link by noting the inconsistency we observe in player performance across time. In basketball, where find relatively consistency performance, we need an alternative explanation.

The alternative explanation is that decision-makers in the NBA evaluate performance incorrectly, over-emphasizing scoring and not focusing on all the other elements that determine outcomes in basketball. And that is the primary story we tell in The Wages of Wins.

Of course we could have told that story with just a few paragraphs on football. But if we did that the world would have had to live without QB Score, and wouldn’t that have been a loss? Hmmmm…. maybe not. But I still like QB Score.

A few additional comments…. Michigan’s loss to Ohio State obviously pales in comparison to the loss of Bo Schembechler, the coach I will probably always identify with Michigan football. And Schembechler’s death followed the death of Milton Friedman, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. Both Brad DeLong and Steve Levitt offered wonderful comments on the significance of Friedman. I especially like Levitt’s recount of a conversation he and other University of Chicago professors had with Friedman:

“The conversation turned to the fact that relatively few economists these days practice the sort of economics that Friedman embraces—what is known as Chicago Price Theory. Chicago Price Theory involves combining simple, basic principles of economics with the analysis of data. Friedman complained bitterly about the fact that the profession had bifurcated into a group of pure theorists who had no contact with data and a group of highly technical econometricians who he felt had lost touch with the facts.”

Like Levitt, we essentially follow the Friedman approach in our research and it was nice to see Levitt emphasize this particular aspect of Friedman’s legacy.

And one last comment… tomorrow I will respond to a few of the comments offered on my discussion of PERs. And yes, I may even quote Friedman in this discussion.

– DJ