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Gridiron Academy: O-Ring Theory and the Dallas Cowboys

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Harvard-Professor Michael Kremer developed the O-Ring-Theory in part based on the 1986 Challenger disaster. The O-Ring, worth a couple of bucks at most, was defective and caused the explosion of a multimillion dollar spacecraft and the loss of seven lives.

The O-Ring Theory in essence postulates that in otherwise equal production processes, the worst input factor (or 'weakest link') will determine the overall quality level of the final product.

Henning Voepel from the World Economic Institute in Hamburg, Germany, reapplied the theory to team sports and found that like in the economic theory, the weakest player on a team (the 'weak link') determines the overall quality of a team. To judge the true quality of a team, you can't simply add up the quality of the individual players, you actually have to multiply it in order to adequately account for the impact a of weaker player. Based on these findings, he developed the Zidane Clustering Theorem. Named after the former French international soccer player Zinedine Zidane, the theorem argues that a balanced distribution of quality across all players is always better for a team.

Let's see if and how this could apply to the NFL and to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Galácticos

Allow me to digress into the world of soccer just this once. At the turn of the century, the Spanish club Real Madrid assembled what basically was a global all star team of offensive soccer talent.

They acquired Portuguese midfielder Luís Figo for a then transfer record of about $76 million (€60 M) in 2000. Another record transfer brought French international Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid for about $95 million (€74,5 M) in 2001. Brasilian Striker Ronaldo joined the team in 2002, David Beckham was brought on board in 2004 and Michael Owen in 2005. Together with the Spanish striker Raúl and Brasilian international Roberto Carlos the team became known as the "Galactic Squad".

In NFL terms this would be the equivalent of a team with the following players manning the offensive skill positions: Chris Johnson & Adrian Peterson at halfback, Andre Johnson, Miles Austin & Wes Welker as receivers, Vernon Davis & Jason Witten as tight ends and Peyton Manning at QB (backed up by Tony Romo of course). Scary. 

On defense though, the "Galácticos" chose to go with cheap talent. In NFL terms, think the 2008 Detroit Lions defense. You get the picture of what happened: The incredible talent on offense coupled with the incredibly low talent on defense resulted in a low overall team value and a failure of galactic proportions on the playing field. Again, the cheapest link caused the catastrophic failure of an extraordinarily expensive machinery.

The Clustering Theorem

The Zidane Clustering Theorem postulates that given finite resources (read: salary cap), the most successful teams will be those that have an even distribution of quality across all positions.

A simple example using an O-Line should illustrate the point. Let's assume that the NFL is in perfect equilibrium, i.e. for every $100 K you spend on your O-line you get a 1% improvement in quality. You have $25 M to spend on your O-line and have three options:

Option 1: You spend 5 million on each position, and get players with the same quality level of 50% for each position.

Option 2: You invest 9 million in a star left tackle (90% quality) and make do with 4 million for each of the other positions (40% quality).

Option 3: $9 M for a star left tackle (90% quality), $6 M for an above average left guard (60% quality), $4 M each for C and RG (40% quality), and you put a cheap $2M rookie at RT (20% quality).

All three options cost you the same amount of money, and all options give you 250% quality if you add them up. Which one would you chose?

The clustering theorem argues that to judge the true quality of the three O-line options, you can't simply add up the quality of the individual players, you have to multiply it. The table below shows that Option 1 has a clear advantage when you multiply the quality of the individual players.

LT LG C RG RG Total Cost Total Quality
Option 1 50% 50% 50% 50% 50% 25 M 0.31
Option 2 90% 40% 40% 40% 40% 25 M 0.23
Option 3 90% 60% 40% 40% 20% 25 M 0.17

Here again, the weakest/cheapest link is the reason for a lower overall quality (for a simplified version of Kremer's O-ring theory with slightly more complex math, go here).

The idea of an equilibrium in the NFL is not so far fetched. The salary cap does act as a great equalizer and limits the amount available to invest in talent. This is also why the draft is such a critical piece of franchise strategy: the draft is the only place you can get high quality at relatively low cost (outside of the top 10 or so picks), because in free agency you may get high quality, but you're very likely overpaying for it.

Dallas, along with a couple of other teams, has been one of the shrewder teams in the NFL on the business side of things. They have made some very good team business decisions (with the occasional exception) recently, avoided overpaying their players, built a core team with a lot very good players but not too many superstars and locked up key talent early. We saw recently (Hey, Big Spender) how the Cowboys had one of the lowest numbers of top ten salaries in the league. If indeed teams, more than individual players, build championships, the Cowboys are headed in the right direction.

O-ring theory and the Dallas Cowboys

The Zidane Clustering Theorem has two underlying hypotheses that explain how the performance of an individual player is influenced by the players around him:

1. Over time, the performance of a given player will improve if he is surrounded by high quality teammates (i.e. those who are more likely to complete their task successfully) and vice versa.

2. The higher the initial quality of a given player, the more his performance will improve over time if playing with high quality teammates.

Out of these two hypotheses, we can develop our own pet theories:

The Barron Paradox: Alex Barron is a former first rounder with unquestioned athleticism. However, the FootballOutsiders Almanac is undoubtedly spot on in saying that he "is an experienced but horribly mistake-prone lineman who thinks the snap count is just a suggestion". But perhaps that is more a reflection of the overall quality of the Rams' O-line. O-ring theory suggests that playing alongside an arguably higher quality O-line in Dallas may elevate Barron's performance to a higher level than in St. Louis. I for one am keeping my fingers crossed.

The Bryant Postulate: There is little doubt that Dez Bryant will fare well with Tony Romo throwing to him as opposed to some lesser QBs. Arguably the most talented wide receiver in this year's draft, O-ring theory suggests that the sky may be the limit for Bryant playing in the Cowboys juggernaut of an offense. At the same time, Bryant may himself help improve the quality of the other receivers by forcing opposing defenses to take some coverage off Jason Witten or Miles Austin.

The Scandrick Conjecture: Playing alongside two Pro Bowlers in Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick is bound to improve even further. Already one of the best slot corners for two consecutive seasons, this season may see Scandrick getting the recognition he deserves.

The Ball-Hamlin-AOA Juxtaposition: While Alan Ball appears to be slotted in as the starter for now, who will end up playing ultimately depends on which of the three has the highest ceiling, and how soon that player's current performance matches or surpasses the incumbent player's performance.

The O-line Conundrum: The four theories above all assume an upward trajectory of each player's quality and performance. But what if there is a drop-off in a player's performance? Following O-ring theory logic, a decline in the play of one Cowboys offensive lineman would have a knock-on effect on all the other linemen, the extra TE's needed for blocking assignments, a more nervous QB etc.etc. This would not be a good place to be in, so here's hoping the coaches have plans in place that would ensure a consistently high quality of the O-line.

I'm sure there are many more theories to formulate, but at the end of training camp we'll hopefully all be a lot smarter as to if and how the Cowboys have managed to ensure a consistently high quality across the whole roster.