Option in NFL: Zvi Griliches One More Time
In everyday usage “technological change” often references changes to machinery of some sort. Among economists, the term refers to changes in the methods of production, “know how,” in whatever form. Over fifty years ago, Zvi Griliches published his article “Hybrid Corn: An Exploration in the Economics of Technological Change” in Econometrica, showing how across a variety of states the acreage planted with hybrid seed took over. The expansion, however, did not all occur at once. Instead, it started slowly in each state with few adopters, then gained steam, and finally won over even the die-hards resulting in an “S-shaped” curve depicting the growth in its use. This picture describes the diffusion of most any technological change whether a new corn seed, a new tractor implement, or black players on Major League teams.
Of course, some innovations do not enhance production and never go beyond a few experimenters. In the early stages of use, it’s difficult to distinguish between crazy ideas and brilliant ideas. Almost any new idea will draw vocal detractors, sometimes among people of respect and insight.
A few years back, someone as insightful in football wisdom as Bill Belichick said, in effect, that the “option” is not a viable part of offensive strategy in the NFL. This kind of statement, or one generalizing beyond the option to any planned running by QBs, has been repeated ad nauseum. As more and more teams, some very successful, adopt the strategy, it’s looking less crazy and more brilliant.
When Michael Vick ran option-based running plays, and then Vince Young, these were viewed as concessions to their relative weaknesses as passers. Their success was waved off as short term. Then Tim Tebow comes along and the naysayers kicked into full voice — this guy can’t even throw very well, he’s an abomination to our dictum. The trouble is that success (along with an increasing supply of QBs who can run and throw), breeds imitation (Griliches’ S-curve). Now, we have Colin Kaepernick (49ers), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Cam Newton (Panthers), and others regularly combining planned runs (including “read options”) and winning (at least Kaepernick and Griffin). They are the new golden boys. Everybody needs an RGIII. Of course, supposed learned commentators like Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, and Steve Mariucci continue to fall back on their dictum, at least for the long term, but I’m not buying it. The expansion is on.
One key difference between sports and agriculture, however, is that one particular technology doesn’t necessarily swamp all others. Rules do favor passing. Successful teams for many years have employed skilled passers with ever-increasingly complex passing schemes. The trouble is that not everyone can draft a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. The ground in Iowa and the ground in Kentucky may both be receptive to hybrid corn seed, but the same passing scheme that works in New England or Denver isn’t going to work nearly as well in some other place because a key input, the QB, does not have the skills of Brady or Manning. Yet, coach after coach, GM after GM, analyst after analyst seems determined that only QBs who try to exactly imitate them (but, inevitably do so poorly) land starting jobs. Instead, QBs with some but not currently (or maybe ever) the passing skill of Brady or Manning but much more running skill can be much more successful using an offensive scheme that utilizes those running skills.
Maybe Tim Tebow’s passing skills are not up to some threshold needed for lasting success but Robert Griffin put up Tebow-like passing numbers Sunday night, but the Redskins still won the game (and scored 28 points). An important contribution of the QB running threat extends beyond his yards gained as a runner. Just as with Tebow in last year’s playoff game with Pittsburgh, Griffin’s running threat opens up running opportunities for the running backs. The Skins’ Alfred Morris gained 200 yards Sunday night, benefiting from Griffin’s threat. Even Griffin, who had a modest night passing, hit a few key post patterns that were much easier connections because Cowboy linebackers were drawn in by running fakes just as Steelers were during the game last year and, particularly, on the game winning pass play in overtime. The “interaction” effects between running and passing abilities of QBs not just on their own passing numbers but on yards gained by other runners are frequently overlooked by the analyst crowd.
Belichick’s skepticism arose, in part, because of the size of NFL defenders and the threat to QB health. After all, RGIII banged up his knee a few weeks back. Whether QBs are safer or less safe out of the pocket or running up field is an empirical issue. With the high rate of QB injury among guys who aren’t trying to run upfield, and given the “slide” option for upfield running QBs, I’m not so sure that sitting in or near the pocket is really safer.