Philadelphia • One of Wharton School professor Cade Massey’s recent research projects started as a consulting deal with a National Football League team.
The franchise asked Massey, "Who is best at the draft? Who should we be paying attention to?"
His answer was surprising.
"I went out and looked at the data," said Massey, sitting in his office on the fifth floor of Huntsman Hall at Penn.
"It turned out, there are no differences in teams’ abilities to draft."
There are clearly "huge differences" in outcomes, Massey was quick to point out.
"Some teams have great years, other teams have bad years - and it matters," Massey said. "But those differences aren’t persistent year-to-year, which tells me that they are chance driven. Something between 95 and 100 percent - I’m not exaggerating - of team differences in the draft is driven by chance."
There is skill involved in selecting players, the professor said.
"It’s just that teams are equally skilled, in a very uncertain environment," Massey said.
That eye-opening conclusion probably won’t be received with a lot of "darn rights" within the NFL. But Massey, who previously worked at Duke and Yale, and coauthors NFL power rankings that were published in the Wall Street Journal, has punctured NFL balloons before.
An earlier paper he co wrote, titled "Loser’s Curse: Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the NFL Draft," basically flipped established beliefs about the worth of NFL draft choices. It got plenty of attention across sports.
On a basic level, this all makes sense. How much credit do the Patriots deserve for drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round? If they’d known Brady was going to be half as good as he turned out to be, they obviously wouldn’t have let everyone else have a crack at him for five-plus rounds.
But Massey’s work goes deeper than that, into the real value of picks. For years, NFL teams based the worth of draft choices on something that came to be known as The Chart, and gave a value to each pick.
Except, according to research data collected by Massey and coauthor Richard Thaler, it was all wrong. Top choices were overvalued once you factored in their salaries.
"The genesis of that paper is the ‘99 draft," Massey said. The consensus was that Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch was the top pick, as he turned out to be. Of course, Couch didn’t turn out to be the top QB. That was the year Donovan McNabb was drafted.
"We thought when you looked at ‘83, the lesson should have been, you don’t know which of these quarterbacks are going to be the good ones," Massey said. "(Dan) Marino was the sixth (QB) taken. (John) Elway was first, but there’s (Tony) Eason and (Todd) Blackledge in between."
For the football-history impaired, Marino was a bit better than Blackledge or Eason. But Massey’s point isn’t about scouting ability. (Alleged character issues were the reason for Marino’s fall in the draft.) It’s about overconfidence. "They’re too sure that they can predict the future," he said.
That’s Massey’s real interest. The NFL draft happens to provide the data.
"This isn’t about the NFL draft," he said.Next Page >
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