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Insane idea: quit scouting

Posted by Doug on April 27, 2007

[First, a final reminder to enter the p-f-r draft contest. Entries must be time stamped before a pick is made.]

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be unique; I wanted it to be a place where you could read something different from what's being printed elsewhere. On the eve of the draft, I have opinions on Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson and Amobi Okoye, but it's not worth my time or yours for me to write them down. They simply don't add anything to the discussion. But the media frenzy surrounding the NFL draft and the absence of anything else football-related to talk about for the past two months leave me in a rough spot. If I want to say something that hasn't yet been said, it's going to have to be a little bit crazy. So I'm opening up a new category: Insane ideas. The ideas posted in this category are not meant to be taken too seriously --- I'm labeling them insane, after all. So I recognize that ultimately most of them will probably not be good ideas, but I am not just blatantly trolling either. I do believe there may be a kernel of a good idea in these posts.

So here goes with insane idea #1. Bear with me while I set it up...

Let's say you're in a football stadium with 80,000 of your closest friends watching a big game. For much of the time, you and your 80,000 friends are content to sit down, because it's more comfortable than standing up. But when something exciting starts to unfold, people start to stand up. Maybe for awhile, you can remain comfortably seated and still see the action. But as soon as some guy in front of you stands up, you have to stand up to have any chance of seeing over him. This, of course, forces the people behind you to stand up, which forces the people behind them to stand up, and so on. Pretty soon, everyone is standing.

But now everyone is worse off than they would have been if they all had simply remained seated. Any particular individual can gain a better view by standing up, which is (one reason) why people do it, but if everyone stands up then no one has a better view. The only difference is that everyone is now less comfortable.

This is not a novel observation. But let's take it a bit further. It's not quite true that everyone has the same view standing up as they do sitting down. The difference between tall people and short people gets magnified when people stand up. To put it another way, sitting is something of an equalizer. If the guy in front of me is taller than I am, then I might be able to see over him when we're sitting, but I can no longer see over him when we're standing. So if I'm short, a logical response might be for me to simply opt out of the standing up game completely. When everyone else stands up, I'll just stay seated. Sure, I'd like to watch the live action, but I'm simply too short to see over the guy in front of me. Standing up doesn't do me any good. Next game, I'll bring a stepstool to stand on. Or maybe I'll bring a little pocket TV. Or maybe I'll just stay home and watch the game on TV. That's not quite as enjoyable as live action, but I wasn't getting all the benefits of the live action anyway, and I was paying a lot of money for the privilege. If I don't buy season tickets, I could afford, for example, a much nicer car.

OK, at this point what we've established nothing more than that I am probably the most annoying and overly analytical football game companion imaginable and that you should not offer me a spare ticket if you happen to have one. But I'm setting up an analogy, and here it is:

Fans = NFL front offices
Standing up = expending money, time, and energy on scouting

If every team did its scouting using Street & Smith's college football preview magazine and watching a few college football games a week (as I understand was essentially the case when the draft was young), things would be easy for everyone and everyone would be basically in the same boat. But then Gil Brandt and his obnoxious Cowboy cronies started to stand up. They beat the bushes looking for small college players. They started conducting interviews and actually try to get to know the players. Now they can see the game pretty clearly, and that puts me and my Street & Smith's at a disadvantage. So I'd better stand up too. Pretty soon everyone is standing up and for the most part everyone is in the same boat again, except that we're all spending an obscene amount of time and money.

But we're not quite in the same boat. Some teams (if you're following along, these are the short people) are spending an obscene amount of money and still not seeing the game. What options do they have? Well, they can either buy a stepstool, or they can stay home and watch the game on TV. In this scenario, buying a stepstool corresponds to pouring a lot more resources into your scouting department: hiring more people and/or better people and giving them a bigger budget. But this kind of stepstool is expensive and it comes with no guarantees. It might collapse the first time you try to hoist your short self up onto it.

I'm more interested in the other option: watching the game on TV. I.e., settling for a slightly less appealing but much less expensive alternative, and then using the excess money to improve my life in some other way. What does this correspond to in the analogy? Is there a slightly less appealing but much less expensive alternative to spending resources scouting prospects?

I'd like to suggest that at this point the amount of freely-available information about the draft is so mountainous that, if you believe there is wisdom in crowds, it's not completely insane to believe that compiling all this public information in an intelligent way could constitute a reasonable substitute for a scouting department. In other words, the internet and a bunch of draft publications (maybe even Street & Smith's!) might be your TV.

I am not saying that teams who utilize this plan would typically have good drafts. But is it so hard to believe that you could, in the long run, have a drafting record that is only slightly below average with this plan? I am certainly not saying that your 19-year-old cousin who set up a draft website in his parents' basement is as good at evaluating talent as professional NFL scouts are. Rather, I am suggesting that, if he's a smart kid, he can learn a whole lot by piggybacking on the enormous body of work that is being done and reported on by professional scouts and others. There are a lot of sharp football minds, including some former professional scouts, who break down gobs of game film, who go to the college all star games and all the other events, who talk to the players, who talk to agents and NFL personnel men, and whose full time job is to provide information about draft-eligible college football players to anyone who wants to pay a small fee for it. There is also probably a lot of information to be inferred from reading factual accounts of which front offices were present at which pro days, which prospects were making visits to which teams, and so on.

If I paid Chase $50,000 per year to spend his every waking hour unearthing every possible nugget of information he could get his hands on, and finally synthesizing it into a draft board, could it pass for the draft board of a real NFL team? Having never seen one of the latter, I can't say. But seriously, how much worse could the result be than the drafts the Detroit Lions have had during the last decade? Or the Browns? In addition, I could employ a Massey-Thaler-like strategy of trading my high picks for multiple middle round picks, thereby minimizing my exposure to a single piece of bad information that Chase might have missed because he's not a real scout.

Now I know what you're thinking: concocting a plan to produce drafts better than the Lions of the late 90s and early 00s isn't exactly going to pave the road to the Super Bowl, which should be my ultimate goal. You're absolutely right. But remember the short guy who decided to watch the games on TV even though he'd have preferred to watch in person. Making that change wasn't necessarily a net loss of overall happiness for our short friend because, if you'll recall, he used his season ticket money to upgrade his next new car purchase from a Kia to a Honda.

And that's the crux of the matter. It's all fine and well to save millions (tens of millions?) on scouting every year, if I can find some other way to spend that money that will help my football team more than my cheap scouting budget will hurt it. With a salary cap in place, I can't spend the extra money on veteran players, but there may be other options. Maybe I could upgrade my next coaching hire from Wade K. Phillips to Bill H. Cowher. Maybe I could hire the absolute best offensive and defensive coordinators in the league and pay them enough so that they wouldn't be tempted to flee for a head coaching job. Maybe I could upgrade my facilities to make my team a more attractive destination for free agents. Maybe a bigger and/or better staff of team doctors and trainers (or groundskeepers) would help me keep my team healthier than average in the long run. We're talking about a lot of money saved here.

Like just about everything in life, winning football games is about the allocation of resources. Every team has a budget and must decide how to divvy it up among the various enterprises that comprise the final product. Most of the time, spending extra resources to improve one aspect of the team means that some other aspect will have to make due with less.

Now that doesn't mean that you can just spend your resources any old way and get the same result. For example, I would not as a general policy recommend saving 6 million dollars per year by always fielding a starting quarterback who is willing to play for the league minimum. Why not? Because the dropoff in production would probably be so steep that you'd be hard pressed to make it up by spending that money elsewhere. The difference here is that I'm (sort of) confident that a huge drop in expenditures in the scouting department might only lead to a small drop in production. If that's the case, then it's likely that the production drop can be more than recouped with a huge expenditure in some other area.

As promised, this idea is insane. But also as promised, I think there is a good idea at the core of it: skimp on scouting. Not because scouting isn't important; it's very important. But why foot the bill, when others (including your competitors!) are willing to do a lot of the work for you? If your scouting department has been doing a below average job, I'm about 95% sure that Chase could do almost as good a job for less than 1% of the salary. What I'm less sure of is whether or not I could find a way to use the savings productively.