Monday, August 17, 2009

Killing Kenny and Devin Hester: Natural Talent in the NFL

[I've reread this a few times, and I can find no place where I disagree with it. I might be wrong, or overgeneralizing it, but the ideas are sound.]

Three years ago, if you turned on football on any Sunday afternoon, you would undoubtedly see the magnificent kickoff and punt returns of a a player wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. And amongst the quarterback controversy of Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the bright spot on the Bears offense was Devin Hester, special teams extraordinaire. If he caught the ball on a return, chances are that he would find his way to the end zone, passing blockers like they weren't even there. Such moves hadn't been seen in the NFL since the days of Barry Sanders. It put a spark in to the Bears game, scoring them points, or at least getting them to mid-field before Grossman ever put his helmet on.

Or if they decided not to punt the ball to him, it sailed into the sidelines, causing a penalty and giving them good field position. That year, the Bears went to the Super Bowl, despite Grossman, and the Bears looked to be back in mid 80's form. But sadly, the Bears never fulfilled that destiny. Why? Because Hester, his agent, and the Bears office decided that he should stop doing kickoff returns and become a wide receiver. And while he was the Bears' leading receiver last year, which isn't saying much, with Orton as the QB, it cut down dramatically the number of returns he was able to make as a punt returner. He explained that being a WR had you running every play, and then by the time the punt return came up, you had much less energy.

Why would Hester give up his record breaking special teams career to become a wide receiver? It was like his name disappeared, only to be known to the Bears fans. Two reasons: First, wide receivers make so much more money than special teams players do. And that's understandable, since WRs play all of the offensive drives in the game. Also, players like TO and Chad "Ocho Sinco" are much more noticeable, with characters and notoriety. the other reason comes from the Bears' perspective. If they could get more out of Hester than just special teams plays, he would be more valuable, especially if they paid him WR money. However financially sound this might be, it was foolish in the end. The Bears failed to be what they were three years ago (although an injured Defense had something to do with that), and they now miss the advantageous starting positions that they had when Hester was a returner. They are giving up so much just to get more out of Hester, without the results they actually want. In a free market society, people should make what they earn. In other words, the talent that one has, the amount of production that they contribute, their potential, should be directly related to how much they make. The Bears should, in an ideal society, realize that Hester contributes vastly more as a returner than as a WR, and they should compensate him based on that production. In other words, he should be a returner making a WR salary. But that's not going to happen.

If you talk to any football fan, especially who is older and remember the football teams of the 60's and 70's, they will wistfully recall the Iron Curtain of the Steelers, or the Dallas Cowboy's teams that stayed together for years. Even I witnessed it in the Cowboy triumvirate of Aiken, Irwin, and Smith (with Dion Sanders and Rocket Ishmael thrown in). That was truly "America's team." But in 1994, the salary cap was introduced. Note that it was during Clinton's administration, when undoubtedly people were crying that the players made too much money, and teams like the Raiders and Browns were upset that the Cowboys and 49ers were too good. At that point, the good teams were disbanded, and the ability to have more than one or two good players per team was impossible. Also, it cut down on the managers paying for playing. In other words, veteran players who had lost the prime of their athletic ability still made as much, if not more, than the athletes in their prime. Those with forward sight restructured their contracts to allow teams to get as many qualified players as possible. For example, Kurt Warner, who last year with the Cardinals gave up a million dollars so that the team could keep their leading WR. Those who continued to want money wound up being cut all together, finding themselves unemployed and embittered. Prior experience, without the production that makes it real in any given season, should mean nothing when dealing with contracts and money given to a player for his performance. Pay should be given according to ability, not to his need. And if that sentence sounds familiar, go read Marx. It's there. And so is the NFL player salary cap. Right out of the Communist Manifesto.

The reason, as the NFL gives, for the Salary Cap, is a concept called "Parity." It's an idea that says that everyone should be given an equal advantage over the other. This gives teams that are really bad for years the chance to, through the draft and through revenue sharing, to improve themselves when it might not be possible otherwise. It also allows small market teams, such as the Cleveland Browns or the Indianapolis Colts to make the same profit as the New York or Los Angeles teams (oh, nevermind... :) ). The problem, as I see it, is a overabundance of mediocrity, with so many 8-8 groups at the end of the year, and only a few with great records, and only a few with bad ones (although, going against all principles, those are usually the same teams, year to year.) The reasoning for many teams at the 8-8 or 9-7 level is so that more teams will be in contention for the playoffs come the end of the year, and therefore, sell more seats at the games. And some of this makes perfect Capitalistic sense. But when you tell the owner of a team that he can only spend so much on their team, even if they have dramatically more than that, it throws a socialistic wrench into a totally free market business. In my opinion, a team such as the 1990's Dallas Cowboys, where there were so many players that stayed for so long, it builds a character, an identity, that increases the fan base. Having players move from one team to another all willy nilly, and moreover, cutting some of the best players because they have a salary cap, and can only pay so much to their players, only decreases the fan base, and makes it so that unless you were blindly fanatical about a team, it really doesn't make any difference who you root for. And I could present an argument about this making Fantasy Football all the more popular, but it is not the time for that now.

The NFL does little to help develop the talents of the individual players that populate its teams. Sure, the League wants the players to do as well as they can, to play hard and win games, but only as long as parity is preserved. Once the players have gained talent and experienced, they are expected to make more money than the rookie contracts gave them. And this makes sense. However, since there is a salary cap, there is no way to recruit younger, talented players if the older more experienced players are eating up the salary left in the cap. This is why still talented players, such as Marvin Harrison with the Colts, are cut to make room for younger players. The draft has been particularly bad for those players who exhibited tremendous talent in college. The top draft picks go to the worst teams, thereby ensuring Parity. The problem with this, tho, is that the worst teams rarely have the backup to protect those players who have the most talent. Take Jamarcus Russell, #1 pick a couple of years ago, a QB with LSU. He was drafted and sent to the Raiders, where he was given millions in a rookie contract, and has contributed little to the success of the Raiders. Similarly, this year, UGA QB Stanford was drafted by the Lions. His contract is lucrative, and he has the potential to be a star QB in the league. The problem is that he is playing for the Lions. The team rarely has winning seasons, much less getting to the playoffs. It is no wonder Barry Sanders retired early from such a system. Stanford will be left in the pocket with very little protection from the offensive line, and he will be sacked in abundance, and therefore will get very little opportunity to improve himself. Someone like Archie Manning could sympathize with this, having played for the New Orleans Saints in a time when they couldn't win, either. This is why Archie pulled so hard for Eli to be traded to the Giants from the Chargers, since he felt Eli could not improve with the Chargers system. Maybe he was right... who knows. But Eli did win a Super Bowl over the perfect New England Patriots that year. Looks like a good trade to me. Now he is paid more than his brother (although the MasterCard commercials more than make up for that.)

Honestly, why should the owners for the not-so-good teams shell out their own money to improve the talent in their rosters? With revenue sharing in place, since it has been since the 1930's (gate ticket revenue...since then, NFL licensing t-shirts, caps...etc... has fallen into the same sharing principle) as long as people go to see the games (which is easy to do if you have a lot of 8-8 teams. "Maybe this year we'll get into the playoffs..."), then the revenue for all the teams will be consistent, no matter what effort is given on the bottom level. Thus, Al Davis can invest in his team...but he really doesn't have to. But the image of trying has to be maintained. So therefore, while the players remain the same, and never get blamed for not winning games, the coaches get sacked left and right. Al Davis can't keep a coach for more than a year or two.

I'm not saying that the NFL is evil, and should be boycotted, or any extreme position like that. And I'm also aware of the natural consequences of removing revenue sharing and the salary cap on small markets such as Cleveland. It is what it is. We should acknowledge that. My main concern is that the NFL should look at the natural talent coming out of the colleges and encourage their development by restructuring player contracts so that accomplishments and production is worth more. Devin Hester should be paid whatever the Bears could afford to keep him in the Kickoff return position, where he can become a legend, instead of a normal WR, where he would be good, but not amazing. Hester made the Bears worth watching again.

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