One of the most basic topics in economics is comparative advantage. This post will explore its application on the football field. In economics comparative advantage is typically used as an argument for free trade. “It is an economic theory first advanced by Robert Torrens and David Ricardo that analyzes international trade in terms of differences in relative opportunity cost. The theory suggests that countries should specialize in the goods they can produce most efficiently rather than trying for self-sufficiency and argues strongly in favor of free international trade.” Comparative advantage – Definition In essence say the United States, produce ten units of corn per hour worked and two units of rice for each hour worked, and China can produce nine units of rice per hour worked and three units of corn per each hour worked, then assuming no tariffs, transportation costs, etc, it is most efficient for the United States to stop its production of rice, and for China to stop its production of corn, and for the United States to thus trade its surplus corn to China in exchange for rice. Similarly this concept can be applied to football, most notably at positions that come in pairs, safety, wide receiver, and defensive end. Take last years Baltimore Ravens for example. At safety they started Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard, and at wide receiver they started Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.
By 2012 injuries had robbed Ed Reed of his ability to tackle, though he maintained his elite coverage ability. Conversely Bernard Pollard is in essence a glorified outside linebacker, standing 6’0 230 pounds, Pollard is a tremendous hitter, and had more tackles than any other Raven, however, Pollard’s coverage ability left something to be desired. Baltimore thus unknowingly (I assumed) deployed its comparative advantage during the playoff run. In economic terms, on a scale of 1-5, 5 being best, Ed Reed could produce one unit of run support , and five units of pass coverage, whereas Bernard Pollard could produce two units of pass coverage and five units of run support. Ed Reed played deep, specializing in pass coverage, and Pollard was routinely found in the box, specializing in run defense. Together, they formed one of the top safety combinations in the NFL, as this deployment of comparative advantage was able to largely mask the glaring weaknesses in their games. However, when Baltimore realized that they would be unable to afford to resign Ed Reed, they were forced to cut Bernard Pollard, because it would be near impossible to find another safety who could so well mask Pollard’s weakness in coverage.
Similarly, the Ravens starting wide receivers were Torrey Smith, and Anquan Boldin. Smith is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, and Boldin, who can a 4.71 forty yard dash at the combine was likely the slowest starting receiver in the league. Again the Ravens deployed economic theory to their advantage. Smith specialized in deep routes, whereas Boldin specialized in routes that required body positioning, short routes, patterns over the middle, and end zone throws. Though neither receiver exclusively ran these patterns, this specialization allowed the Ravens to thrive.
Comparative advantage is in simple terms about allow people to do what they do best. Good coaches recognize players strengths, and weakness, and deploy their players in such a manner. Bad coaches fail to do this, and force their players to play outside of their skill set. Weaknesses can be masked in football, if players are allowed to specialize at a specific niche in which they excel. Another example of this would be running back by committee. A team like the Saints this past season had an ideal pass catcher in Darren Sproles, a power runner in Chris Ivory, a balanced back in Pierre Thomas, and a pounder in Mark Ingram. Though individually none of these backs are anything special, together, they formed one of the best combinations in the league. To conclude most teams lack players that thrive in all aspects of the game, and by specializing and deploying combinations, teams can mask their players weaknesses and form elite units without elite talent.