by Joseph Mattern - 09/20/2005
I have a theory regarding the NFL that runs counter to most conventional wisdom. It's only a theory, but my hypothesis is that NFL backups are often better than the starters. On its face, this claim sounds ridiculous, I know, but bear with me as I list reasons which support this theory.
1) The NFL is not a pure meritocracy.
>From a player and management standpoint, roster spots on NFL teams are jobs that need to be filled by workers (the players), and as such, the team looks to fill these spots with the players best suited to achieve the goals of the team, namely winning the Super Bowl (At least, I hope that is the goal of every team, but I digress). Like any job, the people who make these hiring decisions (coaches, GM's, etc.) are just human, like you and me, and therefore fallible and subject to their own personal biases, likes, dislikes, unique philosophies, and pressures from inside and outside the organization. What follows then, is that invariably some players fall through the cracks or for whatever reason, are not given the opportunity to excel in a particular situation.
Coaches and organizations are sometimes overly loyal to aging stars to the detriment of the team. There is a fine line teams must walk between what these players have done and what they are doing now and will do in the future. Often, there are players who can do more farther down the depth chart, but except in cases of injury, those players won't get the opportunity to dethrone the star.
The NFL salary cap is great, and it has helped to create parity in the league. That said, star players and bonus baby draft picks gobble up cap space, and from a business standpoint, are more valuable than other players. In other words, if the owner of a team is going to spend millions of dollars on one guy, you can bet that player will be playing on Sundays, barring injury or a huge talent discrepancy. Was Tim Couch really better than Kelly Holcombe in Cleveland a couple years ago? I don't know, but he was making a lot more money.
The NFL is a tough business, and running backs take a lot of punishment over the course of the season. That physical wear and tear adds up, and a lot of times the backup, even if he's not as talented as the starter, is less beat-up and has fresher legs midway through the year, and may be able to perform better because of that, at least on a limited basis.
5) Systems and Personalities
Sometimes a player is just not in the right situation to showcase his talents. You can be an All-World receiver, but if you're stuck in a system that loves to run, your opportunities will be limited and you may get stuck behind a slower guy who is a better blocker but who has worse hands than you. Another factor is how the player gets along with the coaches. If there is a bad relationship there, a player would probably have to have immense talent or a huge contract, or both, to see any meaningful playing time.
So what does this wacky theory have to do with the sports bettor? Maybe nothing, but maybe a lot. If an important offensive player gets injured, you may be able to get a great price or a good number betting that side. If the backup is better than the starter, then obviously you're in great shape even as the money is piling up on the other side.