The Wall Street Journal reports today that the National football League’s new policies intended to improve player safety have significant effects on competitiveness. When combined with past rule changes that benefited offense over defense, the prospect of fines levied predominately on defensive players is expected to further tip the competitive balance in favor of offense.
Kevin Clark reports the entirely predictable incentive effects on both offenses and defenses of fining defensive players for hits that result in injury:
Defensive players—fearful of penalty flags and hefty fines—are shying away from making big hits, especially on wide receivers running pass patterns across the middle of the field. Offenses, searching for an edge, are creating plays specifically to exploit the safety rules.
Essentially, the biggest scheme change over the past year is a deliberate shift toward daring defenders to get fined.
“Wide receivers are crossing through the middle of the field and laughing,” said Rodney Harrison, a former hard-hitting New England Patriots safety who is now an analyst for NBC. “It’s a joke now.”
Harrison said there was a time when a safety’s only concern was hitting a receiver who came over the middle so hard that he dropped the ball. “Now their concern is looking up after every play and saying, ‘I can’t afford $30,000,'” he said. “The entire league has realized these guys have had to change their temperament, and offenses have changed their whole approach.”
The number of throws toward the middle of the field has risen each of the last five seasons. Last season, there were 2,287 throws into the middle of the field, up nearly 18% from 2008.
This has already led to a predictable increase in scoring:
The change in rules and the resulting shift in strategy are largely responsible for the league setting a 47-year high in points scored per game, people inside the sport say.
Fines will exacerbate this competitive imbalance. To adapt, cornerbacks and safeties will play for interceptions to avoid hits that could result in fines. That, in turn, will result in more big plays on offense (when plays for interceptions fail) and, of course, more scoring.
The quest for a technological solution to concussions in football (or similar contact sports such as hockey and lacrosse) is probably ephemera. As helmet technology improves, thus reducing the medical risks associated with any fixed amount of concussive force, maintaining the same level of defensive effectiveness requires intensifying that force. Offensive players will take greater risks precisely because improved helmet technology reduces the severity of consequences. This phenomenon is called risk compensation, risk homeostasis, or the Peltzman Effect, after University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman.
Economic incentives such as the NFL’s new fines are likely to be more effective in the short run at reducing concussive injuries than improvements in helmet technology precisely because they disincentivize the behavior that leads to injury. In the long run, however, defensive players will seek to restore competitive balance other ways, such as targeting receivers’ knees.