Tuesday, August 21, 2012

NFL Quarterback Battles - Does Competition Really Breed Excellence?

As we pass the halfway point of the NFL preseason, we thankfully near the close of one of the most asinine traditions in football: the “competition” for starting jobs. All around football, most notably at the quarterback position, players are brought in to compete for the starting job, with this competition sometimes lasting all the way up until the first game. Seattle currently has a three-way competition underway between free agent Matt Flynn, incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, and rookie Russell Wilson. In Cleveland, rookie Brandon Weedon beat out last year’s starter, Colt McCoy. In Miami, a three-way race just ended as rookie Ryan Tannehill beat out the now-injured veteran David Garrard and last year’s overachiever Matt Moore. The Jets have embraced Tim Tebow’s unwanted media attention as an alleged competition for starter Mark Sanchez. In Jacksonville, last year’s terrible Blaine Gabbert seems to be safe from the veteran brought in to compete, Chad Henne. And out in Arizona, last year’s pricey dud Kevin Kolb looks likely to lose his job to John Skelton.

So of the 32 multi-billion dollar NFL franchises, nearly 20% have purposefully sought out “competition” to see who the team’s leader and most important player will be. This competition will continue into the actual season for some teams.

The reasoning behind this is the often-repeated coachspeak that competition breeds excellence. Competition is consistently viewed as a crucible through which the strong survive—a thoroughly Darwinian approach which our society has accepted, pitting two people or teams or companies in competition so that the fitter can thrive and the lesser fail. NFL teams follow this method in picking quarterbacks. Schools increasingly follow this model in education. Libertarians and disciples of Ayn Rand preach the benefits of true and free competition to bring the best of all possible economies. Those who fail do so because they simply were not strong or adaptable or smart enough; those who succeed are seen to be better than they otherwise would have been.

But as an NFL fan, long ago a sanity check started me thinking that this was not true. Let’s look at who played quarterback in every Super Bowl in the last ten Super Bowls: Eli Manning and Tom Brady (2012); Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger (2011); Drew Brees and Peyton Manning (2010); Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner (2009); Eli Manning and Tom Brady (2008); Peyton Manning and Rex Grossman (2007); Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck (2006); Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb (2005); Jake Delhomme and Tom Brady (2004); Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon (2003).

So, were these quarterbacks refined by competition? Certainly not during their championship seasons: in each case they were the returning incumbent and unquestioned starters. Were they, then, refined by competition early in their career? No. Of these Super Bowl quarterbacks, 77% never participated in a “quarterback competition” at all: some sat and studied under a mentor until retirement or injury gave them a secure starting job (Brady, Rodgers, Warner, Hasselbeck, Johnson); others were drafted as franchise players and handed the reins to the job immediately (both Mannings, Brees, Roethlisberger, McNabb).

In the past ten years, only three quarterbacks reaching the Super Bowl had undergone serious competitions to earn their jobs, and none of these have pretty stories. Rex Grossman was drafted to be a franchise quarterback but consistently flopped, being carried by the Bears defense to a Super Bowl appearance; his career has been filled with “competitions” because his current coaching staff always hates him as their starter and wants to replace him with someone else. These constant competitions have done nothing to make him a better quarterback. Jake Delhomme started out as a backup and NFL Europe quarterback before signing to “compete” with starter Rodney Peete in Carolina, who he beat out to win the job; he never again faced a quarterback competition in his career, but had several years as the secure starter before leading Carolina to the Super Bowl. And Rich Gannon was a career backup who consistently got starting opportunities but never impressed his coaches, until flourishing in Jon Gruden’s offense for a few years at the end of his career. None of these three are elite quarterbacks, and in their Super Bowl seasons most of the credit is (rightly) given either to the team's defense or coaching or something other than their adequate-but-not-great quarterback.

In other words, successful, elite quarterbacks are either handed a secure job immediately or mentored into the role: they do not achieve it by competing with those lower on the depth chart. At best, it seems that quarterback competitions are good ways to displace underperforming starters with unproven players you did not even want to draft a few years ago; at worst, they are counter-productive.

It seems, then, that reality does not support the oft-repeated coachspeak that competition will lead to everyone “elevating” their game and performing at a high level. Rather, secure jobs seem to build stability and long-term success, not the other way around. Competitions seem to lead to adequate or mediocre players, while mentoring and long-term stability seem to lead to success.

Is this really any surprise? How many of you would actually see your work improving if someone else was hired to do your job as a backup and “compete” with you to keep your current job? You might work harder for a few weeks, but would you actually be better? Having lost the confidence of your boss, and looking over your shoulder at your possible replacement, would you actually succeed at work? No! Most of us would immediately start looking for another job.

Hundreds of studies have been done on the topic and consistently show that competition is not the best way to increase productivity or effectiveness. David & Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota analyzed 122 studies on the topic, finding that only 6% of the time did competition lead to higher productivity.

Why? There is an old saying in the business world which says, “You don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the next guy.” This is exactly the mindset bred by competition. When you are competing with someone, you are not focused upon doing your best, but rather upon doing better than him.

Golf is a good example. When I go play by myself, I simply want to play well and have fun. Shooting a 90 or a 100 does not much change my enjoyment of the day. I focus on doing the best that I can, and am satisfied with that result. But if I go play with someone else, and perhaps the loser has to buy lunch, then all of a sudden my competitive spirit comes out. No longer do I want to simply play my best; instead, I want to beat them. Every shot, I am putting increasing pressure on myself to outperform or outdrive or out-putt my opponent. As often as not, this extra pressure leads to increasingly worse shots and a terrible round. Competition by its very nature demands not your best, but your “better than the next guy.”

For the regular readers of my blog, of course, this should come as no surprise. For what is competition but a firm hand of the Law applied to our lives? When Pete Carroll in Seattle makes his quarterbacks compete, he is not making them better, but applying the Law to their every action. All of a sudden, every throw must be perfect or you might be benched. Every play must be run properly or you might find yourself traded. And when it is over, when the first game begins, what Carroll will have bred is a weary and self-doubting starter, a frustrated and angry backup, and a team which has had too little time and stability to properly prepare and follow their team leader.

The Law never leads to success, but only adequacy. The Law never leads to “best”, but only “better than the next guy.” The Law never builds up, but only tears down.

In other words: pick a starter, Pete Carroll. People have fantasy drafts coming up.

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