Just how much more valuable than Russell Wilson was RGIII? According to Wonkblog, not

After the Seahawks knocked off the Redskins in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, Wonkblog published a piece by Neil Irwin (I’ll be honest – I thought Ezra Klein was the sole author on Wonkblog, until I actually looked) titled Russell Wilson is a more valuable quarterback than RGIII, and other insights from the economics of the NFL. I read that post soon after it was published, but I haven’t had time to address it since. Finals and whatnot. Plus, now they’re both out of the playoffs so it’s not like I’m rubbing anything in. The post’s premise was pretty simple:

The NFL, unlike Major League Baseball, has a hard salary cap. In 2012, no team could pay its players more than $120.6 million. There are ways to game the system for a year or two through the timing of bonuses, but over time, that is the binding constraint under which every NFL team operates. The goal, then, is to put together the best set of players you can within that constraint. To outperform, management needs to find ways to pay players less than they are worth, so that it can fit more top-quality players on the team’s roster while still fitting under that cap.

The post goes on to discuss the costs invested in the acquisition of various players. For instance, even though he’s the biggest star on the Redskins, RGIII still makes much less money than many of his teammates because he’s a rookie:

A draft pick is now essentially a license to get a player for something below his value. RGIII’s $3.8 million price was a steal. Griffin was the sixth-ranked quarterback in the league in the advanced statistics prepared by Football Outsiders; if he were the sixth-highest-paid in the league, his salary cap hit would have been the $11.7 million that Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans made. The gap between those two numbers, about $8 million, is the “surplus value” that Griffin’s lower salary gave the team, helping them be more competitive at filling other positions.

But Wonkblog points out that opportunity cost is not just the difference between a player’s salary and his value on Fedex ‘field’. You also have to consider what the Skins had to give up to get RGIII on that the crappy, poorly-maintained and season-ending playing surface in the first place:

Still, surplus value alone doesn’t tell the full story. The cost of a player is not just what he is paid, but what was given up to hire him. Opportunity cost matters. And Griffin did not just fall into the Redskins’ lap. The team traded not merely its own 2012 first-round draft pick to get him, but its 2012 second-round pick and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014. In other words, three extra opportunities to gain very good players at a below-market price were handed over to the St. Louis Rams in order to get Griffin.

So on one hand, Griffin offers surplus value of around $8 million a year for as long as he stays healthy and remains on his rookie contract. But you also have to subtract the surplus value that the team would have gained from those three other players. As Kevin Meers wrote at the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, Griffin will need to have performance on par with sure-fire Hall of Famer Tom Brady, winner of three Super Bowls, to be worth what the Redskins traded away for him.

And this is where we come back to the calculation promised in the title of the Wonkblog post, a comparison of RGIII with Russell Wilson:

Contrast that with the winning quarterback in Sunday’s game. Russell Wilson, also a rookie, was the eighth highest performing quarterback this season, which would make him worth something like Ben Roethlisberger’s $9.9 million. Instead, as a third-round draft pick, Wilson cost the Seahawks only $545,0000. That $9.4 million in surplus value is not only higher than Griffin’s, but the Seahawks didn’t have to trade anything away to get him, so you don’t have to subtract any opportunity cost.

And this is also where Wonkblog subtly undervalues RW3. Did you catch it?

Wonkblog calculated RGIII’s opportunity cost as “three extra opportunities to gain very good players at a below-market price.” Three extra, meaning their second round pick in 2012, and their first rounders in 2013 and 2014. For Russell Wilson, on the other hand, “the Seahawks didn’t have to trade anything away to get him, so you don’t have to subtract any opportunity cost.”

But that’s not true. The Seahawks’ opportunity cost in drafting Russell Wilson was his salary, plus their third-round pick. And the Redskins’ opportunity cost was not just three other players — it was also their first-round pick this year. Wilson’s value to the Seahawks should get an extra boost not only from the fact that they didn’t have to trade up to land him, but also from the fact that they got to spend their first round pick on Bruce Irvin. Meanwhile, Washington managed to spend its third-round pick on Josh LeRibeus, who I’m sure is great. But I’ve never heard of him.

He was picked four spots ahead of Russell Wilson.

It’s a small point – as I said I’m nitpicking – but the actual pick used to select each player only increases Russell Wilson’s surplus value to the Seahawks. Maybe Wonkblog didn’t explicitly calculate that particular value because it was so obvious – but then again, isn’t the whole point of opportunity cost to assign value to things whose values seem obvious?

One more small point: Wonkblog cites Football Outsiders for the proposition that RGIII was the sixth-best QB in the NFL and RW3 the eighth. But as I already pointed out in my expose of the New York Times’ shameful comparison of the two players, that statistic fails to take into account each quarterback’s respective strength of schedule by adjusting for the quality of the defenses they faced over the (small sample size theater!) sixteen-game season. Plugging in those numbers, Football Outsiders still had Russell ‘the man’ Wilson ranked eighth in the NFL – but RGIII fell all the to 12th.

Russell Wilson wasn’t just a relatively better value; he was a quantifiably better player.

Seattle is blessed, is what I’m trying to say here. Or as @DangeRussWilson would have it, #Blessed #GoHawks


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