The Bad GM Theory

Today will be a bit high level/abstract, but I think it’s particularly important (given the Eagles draft standing) to talk about one of my favorite current theories regarding successful sports franchise management, namely: The Bad GM Theory (name needs some work).

First, we need to understand what makes a good/bad GM.  In general, it (like all multi-party actions in life) comes down to INFORMATION ASYMMETRY.  I may have discussed this before, so I apologize if I’m repeating myself.  In the NFL, every team is working within the same guidelines.  Everyone follows the same rules (unless you’re the Patriots) and is thus on a “level playing field”.  So how do teams get an advantage?  Two ways:

1) Develop better intelligence (i.e. get better information than everyone else).

2) Interpret public information better than everyone else.

The first option is what scouting is all about.  Teams hire staffs of professionals to go out and evaluate players.  A better scouting staff = better information = a big advantage.

The second part is talked about less often, but is arguably more important.  There is so much public information on every player, that the “better intelligence” angle is extremely difficult to pull off consistently.  Everyone has similar access to players.  Everyone watches the same tape.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, for the most part, NFL teams are working with very similar information regarding individual player evaluation.  The key then is interpretation; what does that information mean?

The Eagles (and every other team) should repeatedly ask themselves one very important question: “What do I know that the other side doesn’t?”  In any particular deal/scenario, the team with the better information is likely to come out on top.  Hence the importance of recognizing Information Asymmetry.

There are two ways to view this, though.  The first and most obvious is to say: I need to be the best at interpreting and gathering intelligence, ensuring I have the advantage in every transaction.

Sounds simple enough, but it’s hard to be very good and only one team can actually be “the best”.

The other way to handle it is to look for teams with WORSE information.  This, as you can probably tell, is where I think teams should focus more energy.  Rather than try to be the absolute best, it seems far easier to me to just identify a subset of teams who are definitively WORSE at both gathering and interpreting information.

Once you’ve identified those teams, every decision should be made with an eye towards taking advantage of those organizations.

Think of it like poker.  If two professionals sit down at a random table in AC, are they likely to play “against” each other?  Or will they, for the most part, stay out of each other’s way and instead focus on the other 6 (or however many) people at the table?  You know, the people who are DEFINITELY worse than them at poker?

So how do you put this into practice?

Step one is accepting the assumption that you are an “average” GM.  It doesn’t matter if you are actually really good (in fact, by just accepting this first part I’d venture to guess you’ve made yourself above-average).  Step two is identifying GMs that are DEFINITELY worse than you are at talent evaluation.

Then it’s just a matter of engaging them.  For instance, you could call up one of these GMs and try to trade with them.

The key here is that rather than relying on something difficult/unlikely (you having the best information), you are relying on something far more reasonable (a bad GM making a bad decision).  You don’t have to be “good”, you just need the other guy to be as “bad” as he usually is.

What does this have to do with the Eagles/Draft?

First, it means that there is a decent chance the Eagles have no interest in one or more of the players drafted in the top 3.  It’s possible that, for the Eagles, the Jaguars and Raiders are both standing there like bodyguards, ready to “take a bullet” for the Eagles by making a poor draft choice.  Especially in a draft like this, with no clear-cut top prospects.

For example, let’s say the Eagles really want Ziggy Ansah.  The Jaguars take him.  By shear virtue of the Jaguars taking him, his quality as a prospect falls, in my estimation.

Also, let’s say a team like the Cardinals wants to trade up for the Eagles pick.  Do it, regardless of compensation.  After all, what’s more likely:

A) A team with a history of poor player evaluations/roster decisions making a bad trade (i.e. being the “loser”)


B) A team with a history of poor player evaluations/roster decisions being able to correctly discern which prospect (from a tightly packed bunch) is going to be both the best player of the bunch and good enough to outweigh the additional draft picks given up as compensation for moving up a few spots?

I thought so.  Now as I said at the top, this is very high-level and relatively abstract.  Front offices change, so you can’t just count on a bad franchise continuing to be bad.  Also, a bad GM can get lucky just like a good GM can get unlucky.  Above all else, this whole idea assumes that Roseman is not one of the aforementioned “bad GMs”.

Regardless, which of these headlines would you rather see during the draft:

– The Eagles made a HUGE draft-day trade with the Baltimore Ravens.


– The Eagles made a HUGE draft-day trade with the Detroit Lions.

Pretty obvious, no?  All I’m doing is extrapolating from that initial reaction.  To distill this entire post into one sentence, let me paraphrase Sun Tzu:

When your opponent is making a mistake, get the hell out of his way.

Or to make it more applicable, when going against a mistake-prone opponent, maximize the amount of opportunities he has to make a mistake.

Most transactions in the NFL are zero-sum games.  I’d rather bank on “losers” losing than on trying to out-think “winners”.

Come draft day, if I was Howie, I’d have the 5 worst franchises on the phone almost constantly, trying to act as their conduit for getting whomever they want.  Move up, move down, whatever; if the other team loses the trade, there’s a good chance I won.





5 thoughts on “The Bad GM Theory

  1. Nothing to glaringly wrong with your logic when it’s kept in an abstract game theory setting, however, at some point you need to stop playing games and trust your own evaluation. You need to be able to identify players that have higher risks of succeeding in your program than the other players available and make moves to ensure you acquire those assets. Otherwise, why would you even have a job.

    If you’re deciding whether or not to trade down with one of two teams with similar offers on the table, I’d certainly recommend trading with the team that’s historically a poor drafter rather than a team like the Ravens. Simply because there’s a better chance that the worse team will select a worse player and leave more high quality players available for you. But, I feel like that’s common sense and doesn’t really require an entire post to explain.

    It seems like your espousing forgoing having much of an opinion on or desire for certain prospects and simply seeking out shitty teams to trade down with, on purpose, simply to have them weed out the busts, by selecting them, leaving you with a better chance at picking up a stud player. If that’s the case, I just simply disagree with this approach to team building completely. Each player is different as is each situation and each team. These are not merely a set of probabilities. One must have specific wants and desires as far as team building is concerned and should have strong feelings about the players they select or they simply have no business building a team.

    • For example…you’re sitting in the draft with Calvin Johnson ranked highest on your board and he’s available to be drafted, but the Lions have offered you a pick to drop down 1 spot with them. By your theory, even if you wanted Calvin Johnson and thought he was great, you’d feel like he was a worse prospect if the Lions selected him simply because probability says the Lions draft particularly poorly in the high first round. So, you drop down a pick with those idiots, the Lions, and pat yourself on the back for missing out on the obvious bust they just picked, Calvin Johnson? And, years later when he’s the best WR in the league you make yourself feel justified in missing out on that player by telling yourself, that you are secure in the fact that you’re nothing more than mediocre and really don’t know what you’re doing, so the best course of action was to just let the Lions try and screw up in front of you ’cause you didn’t have the stones to make the pick based on your own eval? If I owned a billion dollar company, like a football team, and you were my GM trying to sell me that idea, I’d fire you immediately…on the spot.

      • I’m going to tag on to your astute reasoning and point out that simply identifying that bad GMs have a higher overall error rate fails to incorporate (what I perceive to be) a key function: the level of public information indicating to the bad GM that the pick is a no-brainer.

        Allow me to explain: the earlier in the draft you are, the less likely it is that even a bad GM will continuously make a mistake. Take the Lions for example; their high first round picks have been studs (Suh, Johnson, Stafford). This is probably because even a bad GM has a hard time deviating from accepted public information that Megatron is the consensus #1 wide-out. Another example: name one team that would have gotten the Andrew Luck or RG3 pick wrong last year. Even the Colts, arguably a bad drafting team, nailed it.

        Brent’s “bad GM theory” should only become relevant as the draft progresses outside of the early picks. Their is less public information and consensus regarding players found outside of the early picks. Because of this, it is likely that draft pick location will correlate with a higher error rate for bad GMs. As Brent correctly identified, this could be either due to (1) asymmetrical information, (2) poor information processing, or (3) both. Both is obviously the answer, but poor information processing becomes magnified when their is less public information available. This means a team has to rely solely on the “bad GM” to determine whether to draft J. Jarrett in the second round.

        Last point: making a draft strategy around the bad GM theory is bad because the strategy fails to account for every team picking between your pick and the bad team’s pick. Lets say we think the Cardinals are idiots and will miss on the #4 pick. This says nothing about whether the Lions or Browns will miss or trade out on their pick. In fact, the theory can be loosely interpreted to suggest that some smart team should pounce on the Lions or Browns pick because bad GMs will make bad deals. This relationship can also be extrapolated to justify trading as far down as possible because their are bad GMs and they will let higher ranked players fall.

        A better draft strategy would be to simply say that when a bad GM offers you a great deal, you jump on it if your board justifies the move. If you know that the bad GM will make an error and they are the team picking right after you, get a few free picks from them (see Browns last year). Sorry for the long-winded post; the reply took on a life of its own when I started typing. (>^_^)>

  2. Valid points, and I’d like to reiterate that this was meant to be very high-level and not something to be committed to 100% as an actual strategy.

    Clearly you need to form your own opinions and proceed from there. HOWEVER, in forming tose opinions, you need to take into account other team’s potential moves as well. That’s where the whole Game Theory concept comes into play.

    I’d much rather be picking 2nd or 3rd than 4th, and didn’t mean to suggest that id RATHER have a bad team pick in front of me. Just pointing out a different way of looking at things.

    You referenced Calvin Johnson, but I don’t think that’s a particularly good example. He was an amazing prospect. For true, once-in-a-generation prospects, it doesn’t matter what team is picking, it’s hard to screw that up. While the Lions hit on Johnson, they missed terribly on Charles Rodgers, Ernie Sims, Chris Claiborne, and Joey Harrington (all top 10 picks). Notice none of these guys was a consensus “elite” guy in the sense that Calvin Johnson was. For the record, the jury is still out on Stafford (though I actually like him).

    In a year like this, though, with lots of prospects grouped together and no “can’t miss” guy like Calvin or Suh, I think we’re very likely to see a bad pick or two in the top 5. We obviously won’t know that for some time.

    The general idea is that its OK to accept the fact that, this year, we have no idea who the best player is (or will be out of the guys available at #4). So trading down, particularly with a bad team, appears to be a good strategy. I’d rather take the compensation and slide down a few spots than try to hit on what’s clearly a VERY difficult decision.

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