The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Clark admits the obvious (“The Green Bay Packers are arguably the best franchise in the NFL”), then gives an analytical explanation why. The Packers have “quietly has recruited a regiment of interchangeable players … who can play in a variety of formations and situations because they’re virtually the exact same size and weight. The ideal specifications: 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds.”
This is an excellent example of how market forces lead to efficient resource use, even under a stringent regulatory regime, so long as regulated parties are allowed to comply any way they see fit.
Clark writes (subscription required) that
only 46 players are allowed to dress for an NFL game. Every team has to cobble together its starters, reserves and special-teams players from those 46. “So if you can have one person doing what three people can do, it may only be 46 people dressed out there but it’s like having 60,” said [Packers tight end D.J.] Williams, who at 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds is roughly the magic size. “It’s a great advantage.”
Fifteen players on the Packers’ current training-camp roster are around that size. By comparison, none of the Packers’ rivals in the NFC North Division—the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings—has even half that many.
The Packers value versatility because it allows the team to save precious spots on the 53-man roster. When you watch Green Bay play, it feels like half the team is 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, since those players fill so many roles.
Every professional sport has rules that teams must comply with in building their teams. In some sports, these rules are simple performance standards (e.g., roster limits in football and baseball). Teams are permitted to put together any mix of players they want. However, in other sports (e.g., stock car racing) performance standards give way to design standards that seek to prescribe every conceivable input into the production process. They inevitably fail for two reasons. First, there is always some production margin the regulators didn’t think of. Second, regulated parties invest extraordinary sums to search for and exploit loopholes.
Major League Baseball has recently experienced a rash of incidents involving pitchers cheating — that is, violating the rules by secretly putting pine tar in their gloves in order to improve their grip on the ball. While this is deemed a rule violation, the rule is very broadly written:
3.02. No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance (emphasis added).
Broadly written rules enable easy enforcement, but they achieve this at the expense of effective targeting. They penalize conduct that is unrelated to a genuine regulatory violation, without regard to whether the infraction made any difference. Apparently many baseball players, coaches and managers don’t think pine tar makes any difference.
Still, neither baseball nor football prescribe how teams must build their rosters. They are free to assemble players any way they see fit. This creates incentives for teams to maximize performance by hiring players with multiple talents and skills. Except for the American League, of course, which through the designated hitter rule creates an incentive for teams to retain at least one over-the-hill, one-dimensional hitter, who rarely would be good enough to play in the National League.