It's Super Bowl week in the U.S., which is probably even obvious to many readers from outside of North America. As we watch the game, most fans will be focused mainly on the team outcome, as opposed to focusing on individual player stats.
American football isn't as stats-obsessed as baseball, but people tend to want to be able to measure the individual impact of individual players at different positions, even if those stats aren't a perfect indicator of an individual's performance or of how much they contributed to a team's victory or defeat. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked why we can't easily measure the performance of offensive lineman? I guess my reaction is “who cares” if we can't measure it?
The WSJ article, “The Mysteries of the Offensive Line,” poses the core question:
To those of us who like a little statistics with our football, one of the great exasperations of the NFL is that there's no simple way to measure the performance of one of the game's most integral units, the offensive line.
Really? It's a “great exasperation?”
As a society, and in our workplaces, we're typically obsessed about measuring individual performance – often used as an input to promotions, performance reviews, and incentive compensation schemes. Dr. Deming and more modern writers like Daniel Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) emphasize how individual measures and incentives can harm teamwork and can be dysfunctional.
Sometimes judgement is required to understand how an individual contributes to a team – the same is true in football. As our good friend John Hunter reminds us:
In Out of the Crisis, page 121, Dr. Deming states:
“the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable (Lloyd S. Nelson, director of statistical methods for the Nashua corporation), but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”
Deming realized that many important things, that must be managed, cannot be measured. Both those points are important. One, you can't measure everything of importance to management. And two, you must still manage those important things.
So it might be unknowable to gauge how the Left Tackle or Right Guard on the Green Bay Packers performs on Sunday.
From the WSJ article:
This season, Ben Alamar, a former high school offensive lineman who founded the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, decided to try his hand at something few people outside NFL front offices (and insomnia treatment centers) have ever attempted: grading the performances of offensive linemen.
…analyzed hundreds of passing plays. Based on the outcome, and the player's actions, each lineman was given a grade of successful or not successful.
This grading or judging is going to be inherently subjective, based on the reviewer.
This reminds me of one of the common dysfunctions of corporate performance review systems – a subjective ranking by a manager is turned into a numeric score, which leads some people to wrongly call this an “objective” system. Quantitative, even “good/bad”, isn't automatically somehow objective.
How is a subjective “score” of a lineman's performance better than no score at all?
The lineman interviewed for the story, of course, see the dysfunction in trying to give them an individual score in a team sport:
The NFL linemen we interviewed for the story said there could be scenarios where a player's effectiveness might be difficult to calculate. In some blocking schemes, they say, it can look like a player missed a block when it was actually someone else's responsibility.
Tennessee Titans guard Jake Scott says he thinks individual stats for linemen would be nice, but that they're not always going to say much. Modern teams, Mr. Scott says, are moving away from individual blocking assignments and more toward new schemes and zone blocking techniques that involve the entire line acting in unison.
Wouldn't individual scores, especially if tied to annual contract incentive bonuses, run the risk of harming the team's performance? Isn't almost any workplace a team sport?
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