NFL

NFL’s New Personal Conduct Policy Won’t Solve Its Problem

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The NFL announced that its owners have unanimously approved a new, tougher personal conduct policy for its players. The biggest thing they showed with the vote is that they still don’t understand the problem they’re facing.

When Roger Goodell was appointed commissioner, he did so with the mission to stamp out bad behavior by the players. With himself as judge and jury, Goodell would reach out with the heavy hand of justice, and the league’s reputation would be transformed.

But, as I wrote back in September, Goodell took careful aim on the wrong problem. Despite being a public relations guy during his career in the NFL’s league office, Goodell fell victim to a classic mistake: he believed the media.

It’s not that news reports were wrong when reporting about individual misdeeds, it was the belief that those individual misdeeds converged into a deep-rooted problem. In reality, an objective and systematic look at the off-field behavior of NFL players shows they’re overwhelmingly a responsible, law-abiding bunch. NFL players are far less likely than others in their age/gender cohort to do the kinds of things that run afoul of the law.

Goodell’s personal conduct policy is aimed at correcting player behavior. But the issue isn’t the behavior itself, but the perception. And, with his strong-arm policy and “I’m gonna control of this situation” approach, he’s actually exacerbating that perception problem.

By creating a Big Solution, Goodell (and the league’s owners) feed the perception that player behavior is a Big Problem. It’s not. There are individual problems that can be addressed, but a few isolated incidents don’t require a codified system of justice — we have a court system for that.

Now, the perception problem wouldn’t have been easily fixed. The league has data on its side, but narratives are often immune to facts. And, the perception is fueled in part by the reality that the majority of players are black, and automatically seen as “other” to a significant portion of the white majority in this country.

However, the NFL also has big advantages in countering a perception problem, such as powerful media partners and friendly reporters who would happily publish a story the league wants.

The new policy isn’t all bad. The provision that allows for a paid leave of absence when a player is charged with a violent crime is good. And, I think it’s a good thing to convene experts to find ways of reducing incidents of domestic violence among the league’s players.

But, the NFL is unilaterally implementing its own justice system — without consulting the players union. They’re attempting to codify punishments for certain actions, but will inevitably misjudge and overlook key factors. No matter how many experts they bring together, they just can’t think of everything. And what they can’t think of will come back and bite them in ways they can’t imagine.

More to the point: even the most perfect, ironclad, no-holes personal conduct policy is doomed to fail because the league’s problem is the perception of player conduct, not the actual conduct of the the vast majority of its players. A more stringent policy serves only to heighten the perception that players are out of control. So when the next big incident happens (and it will, because players are human), the storm will only be worse because it’ll have the additional boost of…See, NOTHING can get these guys to act right.

The players aren’t the problem, and its a damn shame their employers seem unaware of this fact.

How Does Robert Griffin III Compare to Other Young QBs?

griffin sacked

In what has become an annual event, the Washington Slurs have ended the competitive portion of their season. Sure, there’s another games to go, but with a 3-7 record, there’s no realistic scenario that gets the Slurs into the playoffs. So, the Washington coaching staff and front office will surely go into player evaluation mode to see what they have to build upon.

Their most important evaluation will be at quarterback. Three years ago, the franchise paid a heavy price to acquire Robert Griffin III, and even the most ardent of Griffin supporters would have to agree that major improvement is necessary.

While the knee-jerk reaction from fans (judging by Twitter commentary, office chit-chat, and sports radio callers) is that Washington should move on from Griffin. The verdict: he’s shown he’s not an NFL-caliber QB. He doesn’t read defenses well enough, and when he does try to run, he seems to be missing that world-class sprinter speed he exhibited before the wrecked knee and the dislocated ankle.

To me, what makes the most sense is to ride out the season with Griffin and see if he’s able to learn and improve. While Griffin had a tough game against the pitiful Buccaneers, backups Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins each performed worse when given extended chances to play. McCoy did have a good game a few weeks ago, but was dismal as the starter in Cleveland. Cousins may have potential, but had a tendency to throw the ball to the other team.

I don’t see a ton of reason to play McCoy or Cousins, barring an injury or a catastrophic meltdown. Griffin looks like a guy who needs experience, which he won’t get by standing on the sideline. If he doesn’t show improvement, I’d lean toward picking up that fifth year option, and then holding an open competition for the QB job.

But, before diving headfirst into the wreckage of the future, it’s worth a look at how Griffin compares to other QBs at a similar point in their respective careers. In his third season, and with 32 starts, Griffin is obviously struggling. My search through the historical record suggests that’s actually pretty normal for young QBs.

To find similar players, I used Pro Football Reference’s database to find QBs with at least 20 starts in their first three seasons (since 1995). Using PFR’s passer rating index (Rate+) (where average = 100 and higher is better), Griffin is tied for 14th with Jay Cutler. A total of 63 QBs made the list. Here’s the top 20:

  1. Kurt Warner — 132
  2. Jeff Garcia — 119
  3. Daunte Culpepper — 118
  4. Carson Palmer — 114
  5. Russell Wilson — 114
  6. Marc Bulger — 113
  7. Brian Griese — 113
  8. Tom Brady — 110
  9. Peyton Manning — 110
  10. Nick Foles — 109
  11. Colin Kaepernick — 109
  12. Mark Brunell — 108
  13. Ben Roethlisberger — 108
  14. Jay Cutler — 106
  15. Robert Griffin III — 106
  16. Joe Flacco — 105
  17. Matt Ryan — 104
  18. Aaron Brooks — 101
  19. Cam Newton — 101
  20. Matthew Stafford — 101

Notable players falling just outside the top 20: Andy Dalton (21st), Donovan McNabb (23), Andrew Luck (26), Michael Vick (32), Drew Brees (38), Eli Manning (44), Vince Young (55), Trent Dilfer (58), and Alex Smith (60).

At least a few of those guys seemed to turn out okay in the long run.

However, recall that Griffin’s rookie season was one of the best ever. His Rate+ was 122, which tied with Roethlisberger for second best all-time behind Dan Marino’s 125. He obviously hasn’t performed to that level the past two seasons. The more “normal” progression is for young QBs to improve as they gain experience. Griffin was great immediately, but then played worse. It begs the question…What happens if we look ONLY at second and third seasons?

To answer that question, I pinged PFR’s database to find QBs who started at least 15 games in their second and third seasons (Griffin has 17 starts so far in his second and third seasons). As a rookie, Griffin’s Rate+ was 122, which is outstanding. For his full career, it’s 106 (a bit above average). But for the past two seasons, it’s 95, which is a little below average.

This suggests Griffin isn’t playing catastrophically bad (which he’s sometimes accused of doing), but it’s also clear he’s nowhere near the offensive force the Slurs need him to be.

Among the 67 QBs with at least 15 starts in their second and third seasons (since 1995), Griffin ranks 39th in Rate+. At the top of the list are a virtual who’s-who of good-to-great QBs. Kurt Warner tops the list. Peyton Manning landed fourth. Russell Wilson — selected 73 picks after Griffin — ranks 11th. Tom Brady is 12th.

Players in the “about the same” grouping with Griffin include names like: David Carr, Shaun King, Gus Frerotte, J.P. Losman, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson, Eli Manning,and Patrick Ramsey.

Guys who rated worse, but became good QBs later include Drew Brees (51st), Alex Smith (63rd), Drew Bledsoe (65th) and (kinda-sorta) Trent Dilfer (67th).

Not very encouraging.

Probably the most hopeful scenario for Griffin is the Ben Roethlisberger story, but that narrative is different. Roethlisberger was terrific as a rookie, and followed it up with an outstanding second season. His third season was rough, but he bounced back in year four and has been a solid-to-excellent QB since.

Griffin, of course, had a great rookie season, a MAJOR drop-off in year two, and a modest recovery in year three (so far). Unless Griffin can find a way to improve, he’s far more likely to be someone’s backup in the near future than to be the franchise bedrock the Slurs were hoping he’d be.

The NFL’s Problem

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Approximately nine years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found himself a good pick and shovel, and hacked his way through the tough outer skin of the NFL shield. He dug holes to the appropriate depth and placed into them something he did not understand. Then he shoveled some dirt back on top — a little at a time for nearly a decade — and congratulated himself on being so full of foresight, wisdom and leadership.

Driven by the best of intentions, Goodell unwittingly planted a field of public relations land mines when he appointed himself chief prosecutor, judge and appellate court magistrate of a vague “personal conduct” initiative to clean up the NFL. In the classic mold of ready-fire-aim leaders throughout history, Goodell decided that the only way to rein in the NFL’s “out of control” players was with the firm guidance of suspensions and official condemnation of the Commissioner’s Office.

Goodell had fallen victim to a classic PR blunder: he believed the media. In some ways, his faith in the media was logical. There was a steady diet of media reports of off-field misdeeds. There was racial code word murmuring about broken homes and young men coming from “inner cities” or from “poverty.” Why, they just needed the stern hand of a Moral Authority, and who better than Goodell himself? So, Goodell cooked up a bold and aggressive fix to a problem that did not exist.

Had Goodell ordered a meaningful study of the off-field behavior of NFL players, he’d have found that they were overwhelmingly a responsible, law-abiding bunch. The data has been crunched by several different outlets — feel free to Google up your pick of them — and they show in different ways the same thing. Specifically, NFL players get arrested far less frequently than the general population, and far, FAR less often than males in the same general age group.

While players often are portrayed as if they’re pirates or bandits marauding through the nation’s peaceful streets, reality is that the NFL arrest rate is about 13% that of males age 25-29 in America. This is a good news story about NFL players, not reason for serial consternation.

The NFL’s biggest off-field problem is domestic violence — but even that is a relative success story. The NFL arrest rate for domestic violence is 55% that of males age 25-29, which means NFL players are considerably less likely to be involved in domestic violence than their age-group cohorts. It’s laudable that Goodell and the NFL are taking steps to address the issue, though it would be more credible if it wasn’t so clearly a panic move. Most reasonable people would agree that even one case is too many. But, even panic moves can sometimes be a good thing, and if the league’s efforts further reduces the number of domestic violence incidents…then good.

Back to my point, what Goodell failed to grasp when he appointed himself The Moral Authority was that he was feeding the stereotype monster. Big problems require bold solutions. Ergo, a bold solution means a big problem. So, in the public’s mind, Goodell’s long suspensions and hefty fines were because player behavior really was out of control. If even the Commissioner was tacitly acknowledging a big problem with the behavior of NFL players, the problem must have been MASSIVE. Unfortunately, Goodell’s strategy of administering “justice” wasn’t cleaning up a problem (player behavior was at least as good, if not better, than could be expected), it was exacerbating the perception of NFL players as a bunch of lawless thugs.

Had Goodell understood the league’s perception problem, he could have used the NFL’s influence with the sports media to introduce a different narrative that could have served as a counter to the inevitable off-field incident. (And yes, such incidents are inevitable as long as the NFL uses actual people to play the games.) The NFL could have used the data to show not just that NFL players are overwhelmingly responsible, law-abiding citizens, but that they’re MORE responsible and law-abiding than the average citizen. This makes a ton of sense considering some of the attributes that make a person elite at anything (including playing football): discipline, intelligence and hard work.

The perception that the NFL has a behavior problem is borne of this simple reality: there’s no beat reporter for waiters or bellmen or mechanics or bloggers or journalists or…you get the point. There are hundreds of reporters covering the NFL on a daily basis. Hundreds more commentate, opine and do part-time reporting. Those reporters uncover a wealth of information, and dutifully report it. But, in their reporting of facts, reporters don’t always provide a proper context — especially when that context runs counter to the narrative.

In this case, the narrative was that player behavior was poor. Each new arrest was reinforcement of the conclusion. Each new suspension or fine provided a punctuation to the story. Crime, justice, the possibility of redemption. The narrative was bolstered by plausible reasoning from opinion writers — broken homes, absentee fathers, kids these days, athletes who are spoiled, coddled, immature and selfish. The list goes on. But, the reasoning was meaningless because it was constructed on a false foundation. So many were determined to put an end to the lawless behavior of NFL players, that almost no one stopped to notice that the behavior was already excellent.

Worse, Goodell establishing himself as The Moral Authority opened himself (and the league he represents) to charges of “not taking X issue seriously” at nearly any time. Because the sentences were essentially arbitrary, all that was needed was a punishment that seemed light in comparison to some other action deemed worse. That happened this summer when Josh Cribbs was suspended a year after testing positive for marijuana (which was preposterous in itself, but that’s another story) while Ray Rice got two games for knocking out his fiance in an elevator.

In a sense, the truly honest answer is that the NFL doesn’t take a lot of social issues very seriously, and with good reason. It’s not their business. Their business model is to stage football games before massive crowds. Their business is to provide programming fodder for their television partners, and stories for web pages and print publications. Fixing what’s wrong with society would be nice, but it’s a job for which a sports league is ill equipped.

Those metaphorical land mines are detonating, and they’ll continue to go off as the investigation into the league’s handling of the Ray Rice incident continues. Best case for Goodell is a finding that he was merely incompetent in failing to view the video (which the league had in its possession) before handing down Rice’s sentence. The other option is that he’s also dishonest.

Goodell is scrambling now — to protect the NFL shield, but also likely to save his job. Goodell’s job was to avoid the negative headlines. In his zeal to fix a non-existent player behavior problem, he set in motion a chain of events that inexorably led to this.

They Actually Kicked to Hester

Chicago Bears v Washington Redskins

Yesterday’s Chicago at Washington contest was on more or less as background noise in my house. I watched chunks here and there, but I was doing other things and not paying close attention until the third quarter. When I saw the game going to commercial with a highlight of Devin Hester running into the end zone, my initial thoughts went like this:

  • Was that footage from a previous game?
  • Why would they show footage from a previous game?
  • Washington kicked to him. To Hester. With their coverage unit?
  • Why would the hell would they kick to him?

Then I started wondering just how bad a decision it was to even kick the ball where Hester could catch it. The answer — about this stupid:

 

See, Washington has the NFL’s worst punt coverage unit this season, and Hester is the best punt returner EVER. At the risk of being repetitive, Washington is last in net punting average, last in yards allowed per return, and tied for most punts returns for a touchdown allowed. They’re facing the best return man in history. And they kicked the ball to him.

Okay, I’m not sure I’ve made my point yet. Since 1920, 167 players have had at least 100 punt returns. Former Washington standout Brian Mitchell is the all-time leader with a whopping 463 punt returns. Number two is Eric Metcalf with 351. It’s not exaggeration to say Mitchell is the Cal Ripken of NFL punt returners.

Back on topic, Hester ranks 16th on the total returns list, but ranks 9th in total punt return yards. All-time, Hester is 4th in yards per punt return — the guys ahead of him played in the 1940s and 1960s (George McAfee, 1940-50 (played in Chicago); Claude Gibson, 1961-65; and Bill Dudley, 1942-53).

But where Hester separates himself from the rest is in what he did to Washington yesterday — scoring. Hester is the all-time leader in punts returned for a TD with 13. Metcalf is second with 10, but that 3-score difference creates an illusion of closeness. Metcalf had 351 career returns — Hester has 255.

Just for the heck of it, I calculated the TD% for NFL players with at least 100 punts returned. Here’s the top 20:

Rk Player From To Ret TD TD%
1 Devin Hester 2006 2013 255 13 5.1%
2 Adam Jones 2005 2013 124 5 4.0%
3 Patrick Peterson 2011 2013 107 4 3.7%
4 Joey Galloway 1995 2010 141 5 3.5%
5 DeSean Jackson 2008 2013 117 4 3.4%
6 Rick Upchurch 1975 1983 248 8 3.2%
7 Desmond Howard 1992 2002 226 7 3.1%
8 Lemar Parrish 1970 1982 131 4 3.1%
9 Henry Ellard 1983 1997 135 4 3.0%
10 Steve Schubert 1974 1979 103 3 2.9%
11 Bob Hayes* 1965 1975 104 3 2.9%
12 Eddie Drummond 2002 2007 140 4 2.9%
13 Eric Metcalf 1989 2002 351 10 2.8%
14 Deion Sanders* 1989 2005 212 6 2.8%
15 Phillip Buchanon 2002 2011 106 3 2.8%
16 Dana McLemore 1982 1987 142 4 2.8%
17 Dante Hall 2000 2008 216 6 2.8%
18 Amani Toomer 1996 2008 109 3 2.8%
19 Claude Gibson 1961 1965 110 3 2.7%
20 LeRoy Irvin 1980 1990 147 4 2.7%

See Hester up there at the top? Roughly 5% of the time he returns a punt, he scores. He’s the best ever at it — and the contest isn’t even close. Indeed, if Hester fails to score on his next 68 punt returns, he’d STILL be the all-time leader in punt return TD%.

Yet, the geniuses running the Washington football team kicked to him. Three times. And, of course, Hester returned one for a touchdown. This is a thing that happened.

How to Reach A Bad Conclusion: Omit Relevant Facts

RG3

Writing for Yahoo! Finance, Tony Manfred proclaimed that the 2012 trade of Robert Griffin III has been bad for both Washington and St. Louis. It’s not like there’s no evidence to support this theory — and Manfred cites some good ones:

  • both teams have bad records
  • the Rams need a better QB, and
  • Washington has needs at multiple positions that could have been filled with draft picks.

The problem with Manfred’s analysis is that he left out some relevant details. First, the draft is not the only mechanism for NFL teams to acquire talent. And second, Washington was handicapped in its efforts to fill holes at other positions by a preposterous, unfair, and in all ways ridiculous $36 million salary cap penalty.

And let’s keep in mind that the salary cap penalty was announced on the eve of free agency — after Washington made the trade for Griffin. Had the penalty been assessed earlier in the off-season, the team’s draft strategy may well have been different.

Just theorizing here, but if Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen had that $36 million in cap space, they likely would have spent on it some of those problem areas like offensive line, cornerback and safety. You know, instead of bargain shopping for the likes of Will Montgomery, Tyler Polumbus, Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty.

It’s improbable to think they really thought that a sixth round pick (Baccari Rambo) would make for a competent starter. There’s just no way they’d be using a four-cornerback, one safety alignment if they had that cap space available.

All that said, Manfred may be correct when it comes to the Rams. I pay little attention to the team. That said, their reasoning in trading Griffin was clearly that they thought Sam Bradford would become a franchise quarterback.  That’s turned out to be an error.

From Washington’s side, I wouldn’t quibble too much if someone wanted to argue the team paid too high a price for Griffin — the price was steep. But for that argument to have merit, all the relevant facts need to be included.