Super Bowl And Race
February 07, 2012, 02:41 PM
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A reader writes:

The Patriots have had a lot of success with a lot of white guys on their team. More specifically, they let white players play positions most commonly handled by black players: running back (Danny Woodhead), defensive back / kickoff returner (Julian Edelman), receiver / punt returner (Wes Welker). They're almost the Duke of the NFL.


Those three played at obscure to formerly obscure college programs: Div. II Chadron St., Kent St., and Texas Tech. And they're all under six feet tall, too. They look more like Mark Wahlberg starring in an inspirational sports movie than real life Super Bowl players.

On the other hand Rob Gronkowski, the Patriot's 6'-6" 265 lb. superstar tight end who was hobbled with a sprained ankle, looks like the college football player in a 1940s joke:

Professor of Philosophy [peeved at the intelligence of scholar athletes recruited by the college's football coach]: "Mr. Gronkowski, can you tell us who is the author of The Critique of Pure Reason?"

Big Dumb Football Player [sweating, clueless, and apologetic]: "Professor, I can't ..."

Professor [surprised]: "Correct!"

The Giants, on the other hand, are a prototypical team with black players in black roles (RB, WR, D line) and white players in white roles (line, special teams, QB). They also have pretty good call and response chemistry: 

 

The racial angle wasn't played up because Eli is white, but the Giants have far superior athletic talent. If you gave a Martian a book about the last 20-30 years of American sport, especially football and basketball, and then showed him the roster of each team, he'd have no choice but to assume the Giants are 2 or 3 touchdown favorites. 

The Patriots came close, but it will be interesting to see which approach wins out over time.

With the exception of Brady and the two young tight ends, the Patriots looked like a team that has been drafting late in each round for most of the last decade due to their winning records. It looked like a roster brilliantly scrounged together from overlooked leftovers. 

Way back in 2005, Inductivist looked for me at the won-low records of NFL teams over the last 2.3 years to see if there was any correlation between teams' performance and their racial makeup. He found correlations around zero for starters, suggesting that teams were not overlooking white starters: i.e., no market inefficiencies caused by racial bias for starters.

On the other hand, he found positive correlations between the number of white nonstarters and wins. Perhaps white second stringers tend to be more versatile, or are less poisonous to the locker room atmosphere when they aren't starting or whatever. I never heard if anybody redid this study to see if the effect remained true. This is just not the kind of thing that people talk about. 

Or maybe NFL coaches had noticed their oversights and rectified this market inefficiency. This year's Patriots certainly looked like their ruthlessly intelligent coach Bill Belichik was trying hard to find cheap but effective football players who don't look like the stereotypes. Over the last 11 years, New England has averaged better than an 11-5 record in the regular season, and 13.5-2.5 over the last two seasons. It's very hard to keep a dynasty going in the NFL where the system is rigged in various ways for parity. It looks like possibly one of the ways they've stayed in the hunt is by exploiting market inefficiencies in utility players. But it's hard to tell without doing another statistical analysis. You might think that in this age of Moneyball that this type of analysis would be done all the time, but then you wouldn't under this age of Moneyball.