Regression is quickly becoming the most interesting site in the Deadspin network (if the least funny). A recent article actually quantifies a superstar General Manager as more valuable than the best player in the game. You can get his actual paper here.
I’ve skimmed the paper — the writing itself could use some improvements, I would argue, but that’s a stylistic question — and it seems solid to me. Undervaluing things that should be overvalued and vice versa is a skill, perhaps a tradition, in MLB. (Hi RBI and Saves! We love you! Don’t change!)
Yet, while I agree with his conclusions, I raise a further point. Consider that an MLB roster consists of 25 players. Ideally, if all else is equal and nobody gets hurt, you will have 8 or 9 regular players, and five starting pitchers. So, the “meat” of an MLB roster should be 13 to 14 players (depending on league). The rest are injury replacements, situational players, and relievers. Okay. Ignoring the minor leagues for the sake of simplicity (although one could argue that a GM’s influence on the minors is as important, or more so, than the majors), that means he has 13 or 14 critical decisions to make where he can make an immediate, direct impact.
Now let’s look at the NFL. You have 53 players on a roster, and no minor leagues, so this comparatively easier to make sense of. You, nominally, have 22 starters in the NFL. However, unlike MLB, the depth chart doesn’t stay static because, especially on defense, players move around and formations shift. So, out of that 22 starters, I’d offer the following players as “true starters”, in the sense that they’d play every snap in a perfect world where injuries aren’t an issue.
— The quarterback
— The offensive line
— The #1 and #2 WR
— The #1 and #2 CB
— The safeties
— The middle linebacker (or two)
— The nose tackle
That means that an NFL team should reasonably expect these 14 or 15 players to play every snap. The other positions are situational (your defensive front seven will shift positions quite frequently and take plays off) or based purely on formation (absence or presence of a TE or FB or nickelback). That’s… about the same as MLB. You can even argue it’s fewer, because there are nose tackles who don’t play every snap (although few of them). According to Bleacher Report, the average NFL GM makes about $2 million a year. We could argue NFL GMs are undervalued, and I think that’s accurate, but given the number of impact decisions they have to make, but with a much larger roster (and therefore with more margin for error), they should be undervalued relative to MLB GMs.
Consider, finally, the missing element: player development. When you hire a GM in any sport, but particularly MLB and the NFL, the public thinks their job is to make the team better now. It’s actually to make the team better tomorrow. To do this, MLB has, at minimum, six teams (considering one AAA, one AA, High A, A, and two rookie league teams) are devoted to each major league team for this very purpose. In the NFL, you have the 53 man roster. That’s it. If you want to argue that the NCAA is the minors for football, I can’t argue on the whole, but recall that there’s no former affiliation and that talent is much more randomized in this sense.
When we add the player development aspect back into the equation, I would actually consider the NFL executive to have the more difficult job, strictly based on having fewer options to work with. Therefore, I think that if MLB executives are undervalued (and they are), NFL executives are more so, and also deserve some more cash for their trouble.