What exactly, though, is positional flexibility? I've seen several different ways to approach it, and in the end, have found that they are all correct.
The first form of Positional Flexibility is the typical one we think of -- "he can play DE and DT" or "He is a 3-4 OLB and can rush the passer as a DE". In other words, the ability to play more than one position -- LB and DE, DT and DE, OT and OG, CB and S, S and LB, WR and QB, RB and Return Man, etc.
The second form of positional flexibility is more subtle - it is the ability to play more than one facet of your position. For example, Paris Lenon is a good SLB, but an average MLB at best -- yet he can play both positions. Boss Bailey was a passable SLB but couldn't play in the MLB or the WLB with any proficieny. Keith Smith was passable with flashes at CB, but he absolutely unraveled when they tried him at nickel back. While Redding can be the UT and a proficient DE, he is really not a good NT. This type of positional flexiblity, while often overlooked, is actually as important, or in many cases, more important than the first type.
Opportunity Cost and Specialization Cost are two of the basic principles of all economic thought (along with Animal Spirits, which really don't apply to my example.).
Opportunity Cost is basically the cost in time, money, or lost opportunity to make one choice over another. We have a cost for everything we do because we have finite resources - money, time, intelligence, physical limitations, etc. For instance, if you have $100,000 and you are Matt Millen, you can use it to either:
- Buy a really kick-ass Lionel Train Set that is an exact replica of the Detroit People Mover, including a scale-model replica of Ford Field with little scale model fans holding "Fire Millen" signs.
- Use it to hire some real pro-scouts
If you choose option one, the opportunity cost is option two, and vice versa. If you spend $5.00 on lunch everyday, you are giving up spending $25.00 on a nicer dinner once a week. You can fill up the gas tank now, or put a half tank in and wait to see what gas prices do. Every time we take action thousands of times a day, we are making a choice between two actions (It always comes down to two through the process of elimination humans use mentally, but I figure I won't make everyone stop reading by trying to get into it here.) There is no right or wrong for opportunity cost -- it is merely the second option you didn't take.
Opportunity cost is also not just measured in money, as I mentioned, but in time and talent. I spend my time with my family, writing a Lions Blog, and working (primarily). I am not in very good physical condition because I do not spend time on it. Were I to spend time on it, then I would have to sacrifice something else that I am doing -- the opportunity cost.
When we are discussing limitations on talent, or the opportunity cost of performing one task over another, that is referred to as Specialization Cost. Even if two people are very close in skill level, each person specializing in what they do best leads to better results. For example, lets say that 5BakerStreet and I go into business -- I can bake 8 loaves of bread, or catch 10 Fish in a day whereas 5BakerStreet can bake 10 loaves of bread, but catch only 8 fish in a day. If we each spent half the day fishing, and half the day baking, at the end of the day we would have 9 fish and 9 loaves of bread. But if we each spend all day doing what we do best, we get 10 loaves and 10 fish. Not only that, but as we specialize in our fields - baking and fishing - we get better at our specialty, but not so good at the other. So by specializing I end up being able to catch 12 fish, and 5BakerStreet can bake 12 loaves -- but we are now only able to bake 6 loaves and catch 6 fish, respectively. This is because as we focus on practicing what we do best, we lose some of the skill and speed that comes with doing something frequently. We haven't forgotten how to do those other things, and can often get back to a high level -- but only if we stop specializing and go back to doing more than one thing.
Essentially then, the opportunity cost of not specializing is the extra fish and bread, whereas the cost of specializing is the loss of flexibility and increase in dependence on one another.
[I hope that all made sense -- I was really trying to condense it. If not, sorry fellow fans. ]
Now lets apply those ideas to a football team. As to the opportunity cost -- there is only so much practice time, and time with position group -- so someone practicing returning kicks, isn't practicing with the other RB, for example. Someone practicing at DT is giving up time practicing as a DE.
Last season, and even now, I see many people ask why it "took them so long" to realize Woody would be a better tackle than Blaine Saipia (since my 3 year old can likely block better, the questions has some merit). He was practicing as a RG, and they had him taking snaps at C to back-up Raiola and since that is the position he played in NE. He was already practicing 2 positions -- when exactly were they supposed to be trying him at tackle? Not like it was camp -- the opportunity cost of trying him at tackle was him losing practice time at G and C -- also, he didn't play tackle since HS, so it wasn't exactly the first thought in their heads. The opportunity cost wasn't too bad trying him at T after they came up with the idea. I don't fault them for waiting too long -- I credit them for taking the risk and trying! After all, I'm sure the first thought in every fan's head when Foster got benched for Scott, and then Scott got injured was "Try Woody!" -- If you take the example above with DetFan the baker/fisher -- I can bake bread and catch fish -- does that mean I can suddenly make great fish sandwiches since it incorporates elements of both -- fish and bread? Ummm....nope. And I would have to give up something to try -- Woody was the same way -- Woody got beat out at RG (bread), Center (fish) so they figured what the heck -- lets try him making fish sandwiches (RT). It may be harder, but Saipia can only make 1 a day, so what have we got to lose?? That was a desperation attempt to find a new "specialist" from someone who had "positional flexibility."
Football Team starters need to primarily be composed of Specialists -- it allows each starting position to be honed in on what they do best, and perfecting their craft. That way, the lowest cost (time wasted practicing a position they don't play, time lost honing primary skill) is producing the highest benefit (more production from each position). That is 25 players --(22 starters on O and D, 1 K, 1 P, 1 LS). How about the other 28? Sure, they need to practice their primary positions, and rotational guys take up about a half dozen slots or so. That still leaves what Marinelli refers to as the "last ten guys on the roster being the most important".
[as I go through here, I will be rating players on a fictional scale of 1-10 for explanatory purposes]
Roster Size is the biggest limitation (other than the cap) an NFL team faces. So the opportunity cost of keeping a player is the loss of the next best player for that slot. The more things that a person in the last 15 spots on the roster can do well, the stronger the roster will be. For instance, lets say you have the final spot on the roster. While it would be nice to have an extra CB and S, you only have 1 spot. Someone who can play both at say, a 6 (out of ten) is of more value to the team then either a CB or S at a 7 -- you don't know which you will need. Where it gets more complicated for coaches is lets say that CB-7 is also a ST-10 versus CB-S-6 who is only a ST-7. Is the 3 points of ST play and one point of CB play worth not having access to an additional S at 6?
While we love to analyze and critique a teams' moves (in the draft, and regarding the roster) we can now see a glimpse how even in this cursory look the variables that need to be considered, and the gambles coaches have to take when putting their roster together can get out of control and pile up very very quickly.
What the Lions have lacked in the first part of the Millen era has been not just in the starters, but the "rest" of the roster -- a 9 goes out and is replaced by a 5. Ouch. Having quality depth is one of the most important, and hardest, things to do in the NFL. Guys that are too good aren't happy as back-ups, and cost too much against the cap. However, get too far down the scale, and next thing you know you have too big of a drop off from your starter to your next-in-line.
So...back to specialization. If the primary backup to, say, the SLB can also play WLB that is great. Or, if the SLB-9 can play MLB-7, then the team can carry a second SLB-8 and know that if the MLB-9 is injured, the SLB-9 can become a MLB-7 and they will end up with MLB-7 and SLB-8 versus MLB-9 and SLB-9 as usual. Only a 3 point total drop off with just one player. If the SLB can't play MLB, then you need to take up and extra roster spot with a player who is just a ML-7 to get the same quality on the field in the event of an injury. The Lions have been very bad at this in the past, but seem to be progressing the last couple of offseasons. They still have a long way to go.
This all entered my mind as a result of an email with JJLions in which we were discussing a "what-if" the Lions take Mayo in one, and Dizon falls to them in 4 and they take him as well. In the 3 player scenario you have Mayo as the MLB-9, Dizon as the SLB-9, MLB-7 and Lenon as the SLB-8, MLB-6. Here you only have to keep 3 LB, but have 2 backup MLB, and 2 starting level SLB. They start with Lenon at MLB, Mayo at SLB, and Dizon at SLB. Whoever ends up as the better MLB out of Dizon and Mayo ends up winning that job entering next season, but the other will likely still be able to play at a good level in the middle as well. This would allow the Lions to keep 3 LB where they had been keeping 4. That opens up a precious roster spot for another player.
Take Safety as another example -- Bullocks and Alexander will be the likely starters, with Smith as the backup. But they also have Pearson who can play S, Nickle back, and is a 10 in ST. Even if he ends up as the 4th safety, he has great value. Blue is primarily a run-stopping S, but again a great ST player. So if you save on a LB spot and backup Nickle Back spot due to Dizon and Pearson, there is room to keep a player like Blue, or a LB like Johnny Baldwin last year that they wanted to develop. The more roles that the lower-end players on the roster can fill, at as high a level as possible, is what separates a Detroit from a NE almost as much as the starters themselves. Due to substitutions, injuries, and the high importance of special teams, those players are vital to the health of an NFL franchise. Due to the limitations of the cap and the roster size, teams must make the most of each contract dollar and roster spot available. While they have excelled at screwing that up in the past, it seems with the last 2 off seasons, this off season especially, they are replacing the lower level people on the roster with higher quality players, and upgrading starters -- which leaves the guys they replaced as better backups, and the former back-ups unemployed. Its a start.
Special Teams is an area where I have seen the most improvement from the Lions this off season -- I think Marinelli knows he didn't place enough emphasis on the ability of his "last ten guys" to play ST last year, and that is why Kwan still has his job. When you look at the roster cuts when Marinelli arrived, and made before 07, an unintended side-effect was essentially gutting the ST units. This was because the guys who they had on ST, while they were good at ST, were pretty much mediocre to a man at their positions. So as Rod upgraded the starting players, he missed out on the ST aspect. It is an error I can see they corrected this off season as nearly every player they brought in for depth and competition are also excellent ST players.
Watching the games last year, the schemes (especially against Hester) were often good -- but the execution by the ST units was awful. If they are that bad next year, I think Kwan will be looking for work, but don't bet on it. Now that he has the ST contributors he needs, my gut says we see a big improvement next season.
you may have noticed I put LS as an essential position -- from an opportunity cost standpoint, the difference between a TE who snaps, or a dedicated long snapper may be missing on 1-700 versus 1-1000. But in the context of the NFL ask the 2006 Cowboys how much of an effect one bad long-snap (from a non-dedicated LS, BTW) can have if it comes at the wrong time. Better safe than sorry on that score.
What do you fellows think? I know there are more examples, and I'm sure there must be better ways to explain this, or nuances I missed. This is an involved and complex topic. Post away and we shall look into it further together!