Costly mistakes can still be right decisions

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Moving on from the former Seattle defensive tackle was as controversial, debatable, maybe even regrettable as trading for him in the first place, but that doesn’t make either the wrong choice

When you think of past relationships, how many times were your intentions at the beginning of each affair entirely and thoroughly compatible with your actions at the end? Yes I used redundant adverbs and an extravagant parallel there but it’s because I want to doubly emphasize how strange it is to examine the Seattle Seahawks’ experiment with Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle in 2017 only according to Richardson’s later departure in free agency.

And yes it’s important in roster building to have a plan and to try to execute that plan as consistently as possible, but it’s also a reality that time and events are fluid. Changing climates of team needs and available information will alter strategies on the fly (or at least over some period). It’s pretty snappy to look at the final transaction—Richardson came at the cost of Jermaine Kearse and the 49th overall pick in next month’s NFL Draft, and Seattle may net at best a third round compensatory pick in 2019 but perhaps much less depending on their further additions—as a loss, and therefore a mistake. And maybe that’s the right way to evaluate it on the balance sheet, through your retrospectroscope. But after Richardson agreed to sign with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend, I noticed a chorus of voices claiming the decision to acquire Richardson back on September 1, 2017, could have only ever always been a poor plan if they were just going to divest themselves of him in March all along, or lowball him an offer as has been reported.

But that’s like saying it’s a bad idea to design and call a play, if your quarterback is only going to end up scrambling anyway. It’s taking results-based analysis and trying to disguise it as process-oriented thinking where “process” gets redefined as perfect predestiny. It makes no sense for an attitude that allows for adaptation and a world that requires it.

Indeed, we know the Seahawks build some nonzero probability of scrambling into their offensive designs (or at least they did before the offense’s leadership got dismantled), and there’s little reason to believe they don’t use some comparable principle in place in the front office. Really, John Schneider’s team were already “scrambling” when they went after Richardson at the roster deadline, taking emergency measures to fill the gap on the interior defensive front opened when 2017’s second round pick Malik McDowell injured himself before training camp.

It’s conceivable they did anticipate Richardson in that case as a single-year rental, knowing it would come with the cost to long term capital, in order to mitigate that near term deficiency by keeping premier talent along the line while McDowell recovered and the squad tried to contend for another trophy. Consistently making such moves at a deficit for temporary or uncertain gains may be “what bad teams do”, but if you don’t also build in some net losses in any trades into your modeling of expected returns, you won’t be taking enough risk to maximize the operation of the football club. Isolating the misses and calling them bad process ignores the complicated interaction of these deals as parts of a grander plan, as Kenneth Arthur reminded us on Saturday.

Ah, but Seattle’s moves this offseason seem to signal the dissolution of the grand plan, right? Time will tell, of course, what becomes of the Seahawks’ reconstruction but it’s also important to understand what information was available to Schneider and company at the time they acquired Sheldon Richardson and how much has changed since then. They had no way of projecting $7.5 million in dead cap tied up in Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman with another $15 million potentially dead or otherwise tied up probably without return from Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor, together with a need to pay for replacement performance for (most likely) all those players. They didn’t yet have Duane Brown on the books for another $9.75 million in 2018 with the chance of future extension. I mean these are significantly expensive considerations that wouldn’t have been expected or involved at all in the process of choosing to trade for Richardson.

With that in mind Schneider may well have been initially intending to genuinely evaluate and even hoping to ride with Richardson for a second contract if things had gone better for the organization in 2017, but those other contingencies tightened his budget and forced his hand. And then there’s the question whether Richardson’s one-sack production last year was just too disappointing to reward with another risky superstar deal, suggesting instead it was the conclusion and not the hypothesis that went awry. (I tend to suspect Richardson’s value comes through in other facets not attributed so directly, for example his frequent linemate Nazair Jones’s elite efficiency maybe coming from Richardson commanding scheme attention.) Either way, a more apt critique of the trade might be: “Richardson was never going to be both an excellent performer in a contract year and very affordable in the future, so giving up extra resources to be faced with that decision is always a losing proposition.”

However, discovery also has worth. So that’s why I’m reminded how the value of the experience getting to know someone doesn’t necessarily get cancelled out by how unpleasant or uncomfortable parting ways can be. After a breakup we may sure regret dating or even marrying that partner. It can likewise be very costly both emotionally and in capital terms. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile to find out—because never making that exploration also has opportunity cost.

In that sense, both the decisions, to trade for Sheldon Richardson and to give up on him, can be both regrettable and correct, just as we often tend to feel about these same past entanglements once they form the basis of doing better in later relationships. Of course when we want to try to make good decisions as much as possible both as lovers and hypothetical football GMs, we can’t just treat every process as good just because it is a process. But in the broadest Pete Carrollian terms that unite football philosophy with life and all our activities, that act of pushing yourself beyond an unknown horizon is what Always Compete still means, even when we don’t like how it turns out.

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