I was particularly interested in reading the “Freakonomics” blog as I’ve been a big fan of both of the books. One post that stood out to me was the Football Freakonomics entry, which featured the results of the first annual “Dough Bowl”–a complete roster of the top performing players who earn far less than their counterparts. The criteria included: base-salary, cap-hit, number of seasons played in the NFL, and whether or not they made it to the Pro Bowl.

Based on this criteria, the Baltimore Raven’s runningback, Ray Rice, was named MVB (Most Valuable Bargain), who earned a base salary of $600,000 and gained 2,068 yards from scrimmage. Looking through some of the comments, this title contains a level of subjectivity (I’m not a football know-it-all by any means so please excuse me if I get any of the lingo wrong), and there was a wide variety of players who were equally worthy to earn the title, and many more who were overlooked and not included in the roster. One reader, RGJ, commented, “I think it would be interesting to go by positions and calculate the production per dollar, rushing yds, TDs, etc .” which I agree would result in a more objective-based winner and perhaps a better indicator of performance.

I commented on this blog post by posing the question “of the players included on the roster above, how many of them are up for new contracts this year and does this have any affect on player performance?” Huge salaries seem to play a major role in professional athlete motivation and leaves fans questioning their idols’ passion and love of the game. I found an article that analyzed three different NFL players’ performance in the years after their contracts were extending, and basically the conclusion realized was that it is common for players to see a slight dip in performance the year succeeding a contract-extension, “usually because of complacency and lack of motivation” but that ultimately the teams will receive their money’s worth. It would be interesting to include a “years remaining in current contract” criterion to the Dough Bowl roster and see if that has any impact on the selections made.

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8 responses »

  1. Marc says:

    I think it’s really interesting to evaluate a player’s effectiveness as measured by their salary. I think this has come into question a lot, especially this past year, as players’ paydays seemed to have a big effect on their game. For instance, Titans RB Chris Johnson had a huge drop in production after becoming the highest paid running back in the NFL at $53.5 million over 4 years before this season. He only reached the 100 year barrier twice in his first 10 games this season and only scored 4 touchdowns the whole year. More interesting is that Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was having a great start to his season before becoming the Bills’ highest paid player of all time with $59 million over 6 years, throwing 8 interceptions in the next 4 games and losing 7 of his 8 games following the contract extension. Now, there may have been other reasons why these players started underperforming, but I think you have some evidence to back up your assertion about contract extensions affecting play.

  2. Paul Martin says:

    I’ve always found it interesting to examine the cross breeding of fields such as economics and sports. I thought Claire’s comment on the original post was absolutely a question worth asking. There are many many more categories that could be added to the Dough Bowl roster, which is vaguely similar to sabermetrics in baseball, except for with money. This topic and Claire’s post also called to mind Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which is the story of the Oakland A’s reorganizing their drafting strategy to find the most undervalued players. It’s really weird to see a player who you think is worth so much more than what they are getting paid, or on the flip side, someone who is getting paid boatloads that you think is worthless.

    • I really liked the article, as well as some of the ideas that Claire had proposed. Kind of going off of what Paul wrote about baseball, I think it’s time to incorporate a salary cap for Major League Baseball. Even though I am a big Red Sox fan, I hate the idea that money can get you anything, and in many instances even World Series Rings. By having a salary cap in baseball, this would force teams to truly optimize the value of each player on the team, much like Claire had pointed out with Ray Rice or even another name that comes to mind is Victor Cruz (who had a base salary up to this year, but is looking for a contract extension and a raise). A salary cap would simply even out the playing field for every team, give them equal opportunity to win a championship, which would be based on skill instead of how many benjamins you are holding at the end of the day. But once a salary cap is put into place, disgruntlement always resurfaces as money issues can never be decided upon, as seen in two lockouts, NBA and NFL.

  3. Jordi says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t get more comments given the generally insatiable appetite among your compatriots for sports news and opinion.

    I like your question a lot!

    Ben K in my other section wrote on football top. He may have hit on (har har) another factor- injury avoidance. I was wondering if there is some unobserved quality in players that makes them injury-avoidant, or, healthier. If a _team_ can affect this, maybe it helps them keep their whole roster (not just star players) on the field and more productive over a long, brutal season.

  4. Alex Lin says:

    When I read this post, I found myself comparing the evaluation of NFL players to the analysis of stocks in my portfolio. The stock would be the parallel to an NFL player and their salary would be equivalent to the stock price. As a manager of an NFL team, I would like to see the most performance (yards, sacks, field goals) out of a player for the cheapest salary. As a portfolio manager, I would like to see the most performance, such as increase in revenue, for the cheapest stock price.

    More specifically, I agree with RGJ and Claire in that the players should be evaluated by the position they pay. As Claire states, it is a more “objective-based indicator of performance.” For example, if there are very few elite NFL quarterbacks, then teams would be willing to pay more of a premium for those few quarterbacks (supply and demand). This could be compared to the Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio of a company. An analyst would compare the P/E ratios of several companies in the same industry.

    • Claire McCardell says:

      That’s interesting that you should make that connection between NFL performance evaluation and stock evaluation–that was how Dubner opened the blog:

      “Are you the kind of person who loves to hunt for undervalued stocks that are ready to pop? Or maybe you cruise tag sales and flea markets hoping to find an old stamp collection or oil painting that’s worth millions?

      If so, you may like our latest Football Freakonomics episode. It’s called “Dough Bowl.” It is our tribute to the NFL’s best bargains, the players who lit it up this year for far fewer dollars than their counterparts.”

      There are some definite similarities in analyzing undervalued stocks and “bargain” players. The end goal is the same for both: portfolio managers want to high performing stocks at the cheapest price, and NFL coaches want the most talented players for the cheapest contract. Similarly, I wonder, if players can become “overvalued” due to their high-profile (and high earnings) status as they become more famous and desirable by other teams, just as stocks from popular, well-known companies also tend to become overvalued as the market jumps on them.

  5. Zach says:

    I’m always interested in this kind of stuff. A couple of years ago, I did a similar statistics project that involved charting the productivity of top NHL players compared to their salaries. One thing that I noticed was that it varies greatly on position, which this study took into account. Besides that, the other big variable is what number contract the player is currently on. You alluded to it by mentioning a “years remaining category”. The big thing is the rookie contract. For instance, the MVB, Ray Rice, is still on his rookie contract. So although he has become a legitimate star in the league, he is still being compensated like the new kid on the block. Also, in regards to the question you posed, it’s definitely something to take into consideration. Announcers always make a point to talk about when a player is in the final year of his contract. I wonder if it actually has some validitiy?

    • Claire McCardell says:

      That’s really interesting, I’ve never heard of rookie contracts, but it makes sense that new players start on the bottom earnings tier and work their way up. It would also be interesting to note how many of the players on the “Dough Bowl” roster have rookie contracts. As I’ve been thinking about the impact years remaining in a contract has on players, it seems that there is support for both sides. Based on the blog post alone (and what little knowledge I have of the NFL) it seems that there are a fair number of NFL players who “out-perform” their salary. Is this an indication of being motivated by passion and the love of the sport (as opposed to just salary), or is it an attempt to make a final impression before re-negotiating their contracts?

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