Regulation And The Green Bay Packers

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Kevin Clark offers a novel theory for the Green Bay Packers’ long run of success under GM Ted Thompson: a clone army.

Deep in the wilds of the Upper Midwest, Green Bay quietly has recruited a regiment of interchangeable players. The team’s novel idea is to find players—usually linebackers, tight ends or fullbacks—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.

As Packers tight end D.J. Williams explained, 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 Williams, who at 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds is roughly the magic size. “It’s a great advantage.”

It’s Moneyball adapted for football. Find a hole in the market — in this case, players who are a size that other teams shy away from — and mercilessly exploit it. Fellow regulatory scholar and (and fellow Packer fan?) Richard Belzer points out a lesson this teaches about regulation:

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…

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.

In other words, regulation works better when it sets a standard without prescribing exactly how to meet that standard. The NFL has a 53-man roster limit, but it doesn’t prescribe how many linemen or quarterbacks the team must carry. That’s up to the GMs. Not only does this type of regulation open up another level of competition for fans to enjoy — front offices, not just players, trying to outmaneuver each other — but it prevents cheating. Lessons abound.