What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 3 – What positions matter?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Thanks again for your question. This is part two of a three part answer to it. At Dear Sports Fan, we believe that following sports like soap opera is the most enjoyable way to be a sports fan. If you missed part one and part two, I’d love for you to read them, but you don’t need to to understand this one!

What positions matter?

Recently I starting playing a role-playing computer game from 1990 that I loved as a kid called Angband. Like many games of its type, when you begin creating a new character, you need to decide where to distribute points across a number of qualities, in this case: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution. It’s a zero sum game. Each point you give to strength is one you can’t give to dexterity or wisdom.

Building a football team is a lot like creating a character in a role playing game. Thanks to the NFL’s salary cap rules, each team has a limited amount of money they can spend on player salaries. Each dollar you devote to one position, is a dollar you cannot spend on another. You have to choose what positions you think are most important to invest in.

In every era of the NFL, there are certain consensus about what positions are most important to invest in. The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis is, essentially, the story of a shift in this consensus, from thinking that every position on the offensive line was similar and not worthy of investment, to the belief that the left tackle was the most important and worthy of incredible investment.

The NFL today is in the middle of another shift in positional valuations and this Super Bowl is set up perfectly to provide a referendum on the current trends because when it comes to which positions the Patriots invest in, they mostly conform with the current trends while the Rams buck the trends in several important ways. If this narrative (which I think I made up this morning) is true, then it’s important not only to General Managers throughout the league but also to players whose ability to get hired and paid might hinge on the outcome of the game.

The current trends in the NFL suggest a few things:

Offense rules supreme over defense

In the ongoing football conflict between offense and defense, offense has been winning for a while, but this year felt like the year the entire concept of defense broke/transformed.

For the basically the whole history of the NFL, defenses have been trying to shut down offenses entirely and the most elite, best defenses in the league had a good shot at demoralizing an offense. Thanks to a series of rule changes that favor offense and an explosion of creative offensive ideas, in 2018, defenses don’t really have a fair shot at being an overpowering force.  In 2018, the best defenses in the league still gave up an average of over 17 points — two touchdowns and a field goal. Like all reasonably entities when faced with a losing cause, teams have shifted their expectations for their defense. Instead of winning through defense teams hope their defenses just don’t totally lose the game for them.

So, you’d expect that winning teams would spend a larger proportion of their money on offensive players. The Patriots are reasonably on trend when it comes to this: their overall split is 46% on offense and 40% on defense (the other 4% is on special teams). The Rams, on the other hand, go against trend and spend 50% on defense and only 34% on offense.

This slant is most clearly seen on the Rams defensive line where they have committed a whopping $42 million, by far the most of any positional group. By comparison, the Patriots have committed only $17 million to their defensive line.

The Rams love defensive linemen. They signed their best defense lineman, Aaron Donald before the year to the “richest deal in NFL history” but because that doesn’t go into affect until next season, he’s not even the highest paid defensive lineman on the team. (That would be famous friend of Warren Buffet, Ndamukong Suh.) They even doubled down (I hate that phrase, but it’s fitting here) on their commitment during the year by trading for Dante Fowler, another highly paid/regarded defensive lineman.

This might seem like a smart strategy, given the old truism about beating Tom Brady in the Super Bowl: that you need to pressure him without blitzing — only possible with an excellent defensive line. But note that it’s an old truism that relies on the Super Bowls from 2008 and 2012 as evidence. When the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl last year, it had nothing to do with the opposing team’s defense — they were terrible but the Patriots own defense was even worse.

Running backs are essentially interchangeable and not worth paying for.
Teams in today’s NFL are consistently featuring young running backs who are on their rookie contracts (The initial contract a player gets as a rookie covers four or five years and is pegged to his draft position. Unless a player is a bust and way worse than projected, rookie contracts are almost always less than what the player would make on their next contract.) There’s an open debate about whether even the very best running back is worth investing a lot of money into. Perhaps the best running back in the league, Le’Veon Bell, sat out the entire year this year because his team would not commit to paying him what he thought they should.

The Patriots conform reasonably well to this trend despite utilizing running backs more than almost any other team in the league. They have three running backs: James White, Sony Michele, and Rex Burkhead and they use all of them throughout the game. These three combined make about as much money as the Rams starting running back, Todd Gurley, who, before the year began, signed the highest ever contract for a running back. By signing Gurley to a four year, $60 million dollar contract, the Rams firmly took a contrarian stand against the trend of devaluing the running back position.

Gurley is undeniably a phenomenal running back and a star in the league. He led the NFL in all sorts of running stats this season and, perhaps more importantly, was seen as the driving force behind the Rams offense. The Rams are most effective throwing the ball when they use what is called a play action pass or a fake run. So you could argue that Gurley’s strength as a runner, even if it’s not important in itself, is vital because it forces defenses to respect the fake-run passing plays. So maybe the Rams’ bucking of the trend against paying running backs will prove to be worth it.

What makes a football team great? Who should you pay the most? Where should a team splurge and where should it skimp? The result of this year’s super bowl will validate current trends in answering these questions and possibly even start some new ones.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 1 – “Nobody believes in us”

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Super Bowl LIII will be played between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 3, 2019 and will be televised on CBS. Sorry, I know that wasn’t your question, but that’s how all blog posts about the Super Bowl must begin. This year’s game promises to be a good one. As a football (and New England Patriots) fan, I am already getting excited to see it. Like all Super Bowls, however, it has attracted a lot of narratives. It is more fun to watch the game if you understand the plot, so I’ll do my best here to explain some of the most common interpretations of this year’s Super Bowl and evaluate how true they are.

This will be a three-part post. Part two looks at the “passing the torch” narrative. Check back to catch part three soon!

“No One Believes in Us”

After the Patriots won their first game of the playoffs this year, they and their quarterback Tom Brady immediately attracted widespread disbelief and scorn for “playing the nobody believes in us card.” As you probably know, (to paraphrase Napoleon,) an army travels on its stomach but a sports team travels on cliche, and there’s no more seemingly effective cliche in team sports than to claim that “nobody believes in us.” It is a cliche that cements teammates together and fosters a sense of besieged fraternity that can overcome any odds.

On the face of it, relying on the power of cliche seems… unlikely to work, but as Brian Phillips pointed out in his recent homage to tennis player Andy Murray on The Ringer, there is a logic to it:

Spend any time around professional sports and you realize that the armature of cliché by which athletes tend to describe their experience is mostly a survival tactic. The athletes aren’t stupid. They’re simply trying to shore up the resources to compete in an unforgiving environment. If nuance is a tool of doubt and doubt is fatal, you eliminate nuance. You simplify. Say anything often enough and you believe it.

In this case though, no one believes Tom Brady’s “no one believes us” cliche — at least no one outside of the Patriots locker room. In response, ESPN ran an article poking fun at the idea, entitled, “Who believes in the Patriots? Almost everyone actually” and CBS Sports ran a similar article subtitled, “New England is apparently the team no one believes in, forever and ever and ever and ever.” Their point is that Tom Brady and the Patriots are not just not underdogs, they might be the most overdog football team ever!

For evidence, they point to their unprecedented sustained success: since Belichick became coach of the Patriots in 2000 and Brady quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl five times, they’ve made it nine times. They are currently on an unholy streak — this is the third straight year they’ve played in the Super Bowl and the fourth out of the last five. Right before the AFC Championship game (a semifinal for the Super Bowl) someone changed the Wikipedia article on the game to read, “The AFC Championship Game is the annual championship game of the American Football Conference (AFC) where one team gets to play the New England Patriots for a chance to play in the Super Bowl” and it wasn’t even statistically that much of an exaggeration. Tom Brady is widely thought of as the GOAT or greatest of all time to play quarterback. Bill Belichick is likewise thought of as the greatest coach of all time. So how can the narrative possibly be that “no one believes” in the Patriots?

It’s not. “No one believes in us” from the Patriots point of view is a false narrative but the backlash against it is also a little bit misleading. While it’s clearly not true to claim that no one believed the Patriots making or winning the Super Bowl was possible, it is true that most observations of the Patriots  at this point include a generous pinch of disbelief. Their sustained success is unlikely:

  • No one else has ever done it, certainly not in an era of the NFL when league rules seem to be slanted toward “parity” or creating a league where teams rise and fall quickly.
  • People do think that Tom Brady is a great quarterback but they know that he’s 41 and that Father Time is undefeated.

Patriots are not underdogs but they have been overdogs for so long that the longer it continues, the more unbelievable its duration becomes.

Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?

Thanks,
Lester


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer