Investing in off-field work pays dividends

Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers is just one example of a player who's worth almost as much off the field as on.

You might have read recently that Troy Polamalu is the most overpaid strong safety in football. That’s the take of’s Bill Barnwell, in any case.

I had a somewhat different take on the issue, but more than that, I was intrigued by the concept of how one determines which deals are bad. For instance, a year earlier, Barnwell had Polamalu in the same spot based largely upon an injury that kept him sidelined for much of 2012. For my part, that seems like a hollow criticism, as though injuries were something you could predict or plan for. Also, I don’t agree with his assessment of Polamalu’s performance.

But it’s not my intent to quibble with the details of Barnwell’s take, because the broad strokes strike me as being way off.

Essentially, the implications of the argument are that the only reason to reward a player is for on-field performance. So even if Barnwell’s take on Polamalu’s on-field value is accurate, it’s only part of the picture.

The average NFL defense played about 65 snaps a game last season, and ideally, you want to play 19 games. That’s 1,235 snaps, which, if you assume five seconds per play, works out to about an hour and 43 minutes of actual on-field “work.” Most players spend more time on a single offseason workout. A film session or team meeting could last hours. In short, on-field performance is a fraction of a percent of a football player’s job description.

Granted, it’s by far the most important part, and the only part seen by most. And since contracts are negotiated competitively in somewhat of a market economy, it follows that any player’s market value will be determined chiefly by on-field performance. So there’s a limit to how much the Steelers are even able to determine what they pay for; the market plays the biggest role in setting the price. The Steelers determine whether to meet it.

Or exceed it. The Polamalu contract, like the Ike Taylor contract, is deemed overpriced by critics because they don’t think the numbers on those deals get matched on the open market. And in all three cases, there’s an argument to be made that the Steelers are paying more than market value.

But pegging contracts to market value essentially allows 31 other teams to impose their player valuation on you. Paying above market value carries a trade-off of less money to spend on other positions, which is a difficult cost to swallow.

The benefit of paying above market value is that you’re not paying an obligatory amount. Paying a premium establishes that certain behaviors carry extraordinary value.

Barnwell’s take on Polamalu includes this: “(he) is often reduced to relying on his instincts and film study to guess how a play will turn out, with little chance of recovering if his guesses are wrong.”

And, like I said, I’m not going to quibble with the accuracy of his evaluation, but the logic. And the logic here is that it’s a mistake to pay somebody who has dedicated himself to film study and used that effort to produce on the playing field beyond what his physical abilities permit. That’s logic I can’t follow.

Most players can’t do the things Polamalu does on the field. But basically every account says Polamalu does everything right off the field, and anybody can emulate his preparation. Paying for the traits others can emulate means that the benefits of Polamalu’s contract reach beyond Polamalu.

You can’t pay just for effort. On-field performance is the only thing that contributes to wins and therefore is the only thing that matters. But that doesn’t mean that tying rewards to on-field performance is the best way to maximize on-field performance.

Maybe, just maybe, the Steelers won’t get their on-field value for the cap dollars they’ve committed to Polamalu in his latest extension. But younger players who are seeking a big payday will know that time in the film room, among other things, will help that reward.

The Steelers have been often criticized for stringing out the deals of older players, but picking on Polamalu’s deal is the worst example of a bad contract, because he’s among the best examples for how to prepare for the game. Paying Polamalu is the best way to establish standards of off-field performance as a part of the organizational culture.

Jarvis Jones, made a first-round pick because of his playmaking prowess at Georgia, put in an awful workout at his pro day, and afterward remarked, “It's about football, right? I'm a football player. That's what I do.” That sounds to me like a guy who didn’t prepare for his workout because he did just fine showing up on Saturdays. The doubter’s take is that his college numbers were a mirage from someone who wasn’t athletic enough to succeed on the next level. The optimist’s take is that he’s someone whose natural abilities were enough to dominate without taking seriously the off-field work that’s the bulk of the job description.

In an organization in which the top contracts in history have been given to a quarterback who drank like a champion and whose growing second chin was an annual training camp scandal, followed by an outside linebacker ridiculed as fat and lazy while unable to stay off the trainer’s table, even the optimist’s take is unlikely to pay dividends.

But when that same quarterback comes to work seven days a week and aging DBs whose watchword is preparation get above-market rates, there’s little doubt that taking drills seriously is a prerequisite of the job. That’s an environment most likely to bring any talents that Jones – or any other young player – has to the surface.

While paying a premium in salary cap dollars can establish incentives that contribute to a team-wide culture in which off-field effort is at the apex, younger players might respond better to direct incentives.

For players on their first contract, their monetary compensation is determined before they play a snap, and as of the latest CBA, is basically dictated by draft slot. In this case, the only real way to directly incentivize behavior is playing time.

Many Steelers fans want their high draft picks to play Week One. And for Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, the threshold to beat out their competition is somewhat lower than what Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward faced at the same position. It might be a foregone conclusion week one that each is the best man for the job at his position.

But is getting the job the best for each man?

Most observers seem to agree that Heyward’s on-field performance surpassed Ziggy Hood’s well before he passed Hood on the depth chart. For my part, after the first Ravens game in 2012, I wrote the following in an email to friends: “Ziggy Hood shouldn't be getting his job back. Cam Heyward played better than Ziggy has all season.”

So it was November 2012 when it first appeared to me that Heyward had surpassed Hood on the field. He wouldn’t get the starting job for almost a calendar year, including 10 more games.

At the time, it was confounding to me that Heyward wasn’t getting more snaps. But while the team would arguably have been better off in late 2012 with Heyward at left defensive end in place of Hood, the long view is a different story.

Hood’s work ethic is much renowned. Nobody I saw hustled more, and maybe James Harrison and Taylor inspired as much expressed awe in their peers in terms of their off-field training. And by withholding playing time for Heyward, the Steelers were challenging him to match the off-field dedication Hood displayed.

In 2012, they could’ve gotten a little better on the defensive line by promoting Heyward. But they would’ve been sacrificing the one fulcrum they had exert leverage on his behaviors.

And perhaps if Ben Roethlisberger hadn't been on the shelf with a severe injury, the coaches would've promoted Heyward after the Ravens game. But upgrading the LDE spot doesn't make a team down to its third-string QB a Super Bowl contender. After that, Roethlisberger came back at well less than 100 percent, and the team dropped three straight games. Even if the on-field difference between Heyward and Hood were much more pronounced, the payoff was almost certainly not going to be enough to offset an injury at the most important position.

Maybe if Roethlisberger played close to the standard he set in the first half of the season, if Polamalu came back from his injury at a higher level, if Taylor hadn’t been part of a M.A.S.H. unit at cornerback that had the illustrious Josh Victorian covering Dez Bryant, if Harrison and LaMarr Woodley weren’t dinged up while producing 10 sacks – maybe if circumstances were more aligned with a Super Bowl run, the short-term gains outweigh the long-term possibilities.

In any case, the team withheld playing time, Heyward was pushed to elevate his off-field performance, and – at the cost of short-term benefits in 10 games in which the team had much bigger problems than LDE – the Steelers get a monster of a DE who learned how much the team values putting in work off the field. And the payoff in 2014, 2015 and beyond looks to be huge.

I don’t see anybody on the roster who can legitimately hold off Shazier or Tuitt and offer the same lessons that Hood offered for Heyward. So it’s reassuring that every report I’ve read on either rookie has coaches praising their off-field dedication.

But if Tuitt happens to be watching Cam Thomas from the sidelines on opening day, getting the “Heyward treatment,” I won’t be complaining, because the Heyward treatment pays dividends.

And if Johnny Manziel is throwing passes for the Browns on opening day, they’ll have given him the one reward they have to give him without him demonstrating the off-field dedication they want to see from him. He might be the best quarterback they have on Sundays, but he’ll be a better quarterback in the long run if he has to keep pace with Brian Hoyer on the other days. Withholding the starting job sends that message.

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