A New Market Inefficiency: Moneyball and the Case for Terrell Owens


When Terrell Owens signed with the Seahawks, reactions around here and other sites ranged from shocked, to disappointed, to disgusted. Some were intrigued but few were excited. As readers of this site will likely come to know, I am a fan of playing devil’s advocate. This particular case strikes me as the perfect opportunity. I can say with conviction that I think that T.O is an excellent pickup for the Seahawks and I am very pleased to have him on this team.

What if I told you that there was an available wide receiver who produced 983 yards on 72 catches (for a more than respectable 13.7 average) including 9 touchdowns? What if that year his DYAR* (Defensive Yards Above Replacement-measuring the outcomes of playing involving the player compared to the performance of the average easily acquirable “replacement level” player) was 30th in the league that year revealing low end #1 receiver/high end #2 receiver production. What if I were to say that he has the perfect athletic profile (6’3 225 and recently confirmed sub 4.5 second forty) for the Split End position where the Seahawks lack an established starter? What if I said that this mystery receiver was willing to sign for the veteran minimum? What if I stopped writing as if I were Morpheus from The Matrix? That information is misleadingly omitting any weaknesses of Terrell Owens but it should be enough to get you interested.

The main concern regarding Terrell Owens relates to who he is as a human being. Has Terrell Owens had attitude issues? Yes. He has done things in the past that were selfish and detrimental to his team and also things that were downright bizarre. The past is the best indicator of the future but before we should assume we are in for a massive helping of “Bad T.O.” recall that he has been well behaved at his most recent stops in Buffalo and Cinncinati. Why? Because it was in his best interest to do so. People tend to be motivated by incentives related to their self-interest. In T.O’s recent career he has become aware that he is running out of chances in the NFL and as such has cleaned up his act in an effort to keep his career going. If T.O blows his chance in Seattle due to an attitude problem he stands very little chance of getting another gig in the NFL. It’s in his best interest to be well behaved. We all know that T.O. has a long history of doing what is in his best interest.

Weighing the pros and cons of Terrell Owens reminds me of the book (and I guess the movie) Moneyball. On a very simplistic level Moneyball is about how a baseball team with very little money is able to compete using advanced statistics as an evaluation tool. As a deep-pocketed football team this premise seems not to apply to the Seahawks. However, Moneyball is really about the Oakland Athletics taking advantage of market inefficiencies to utilize their resources, however scare, better than anyone else. The A’s found players whose market value did not reflect their actual value of the baseball diamond. This is where the idea of the Terrell Owens signing comes in. Terrell Owens has played football at a very high level for a long time and has done so quite recently. Terrell Owens as a football player is worth well above the veteran minimum. His market value is extraordinarily low and yet his on-field value has potential to be very significant. His price has been depressed by concerns regarding his age and recent injury history but more significant are concerns about his attitude. These concerns are not illegitimate but they are also not proportional to the discount on Terrell Owens. If we accept that Owens is a man of questionable character then how much should that bring down his price? 25%? 50%? Even if you think Owens is only worth half of his on field value due to character risks (character risks that are not illegal and put him in no position to be suspended by the NFL I might add) that would mean he is still sign-able at half the market value of a 2nd receiver. The veteran minimum is well below that threshold. Players with character question marks often have their price brought down to a level at which they can be had for a fraction of their true value. This over correction by the market is something that the Seahawks should take note of in a league with a salary cap where spending more is not an option and spending smarter is the only way to succeed. Pete Carroll seems to understand this and bringing in Owens is a terrific example.

Ultimately I understand the consternation caused by the signing of T.O. but we need to step back and think before we judge too harshly. Owens has been a questionable teammate in the past but there are reasons to believe he will be better in the future (his desire to not go broke comes to mind). Terrell Owens is not a felon and his presence does not tarnish the Seahawks nor reduce them to a bunch of morally bankrupt criminals. T.O may well resort to his old ways and if he does he will be shown the exit in short order. The risk is negligible. The potential pay-off is many times as significant as the risk the Seahawks are undertaking. How many teams have a player who can produce like Owen likely still can as a second receiver? How many of those teams are paying this second receiver the veteran minimum? It is tempting to fall into a trap by overemphasizing the off-field risks associated with Owens, but the reality is T.O. produces. I for one would rather have a player with more questions off the field than on it. The Ruskell era was full of “high character” guys without elite athleticism with mixed results. Why not trying something different on the cheap? Terrell Owens deserves to have his value severely reduced by his age and his character concerns, but there is a difference between reduced and virtually nonexistent. That difference is what makes T.O. a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited.

*Explained much more intelligently than I am capable of here: