Jonathan Bales

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Contract Performance Impact

Friday, August 29, 2014

I’ve done some research in the past that suggests that players who are in contract years don’t actually perform any better than those who aren’t (or if they do, the effect is quite small). That doesn’t fit the narrative that players who are on the verge of signing a big contract will perform better during games, but I think it’s still true.


That doesn’t mean that money has no effect on players at all, though. Money is a powerful incentive in all sorts of fields, so it makes sense that it would be the same in the NFL. Specifically, I’ve always wondered how signing a big contract affects player performance. Do players stop trying so hard after landing a big payday?


To be clear, I don’t think players (for the most part) give any more or any less effort during games based on their financial situation. Football is a violent sport and players get graded quite rigorously on each play, so I don’t think it’s likely that many guys are continually dogging it. But it could be the case that players just don’t prepare for the season in the same manner when they don’t have a financial incentive to do so.


There seems to be a social stigma attached to doing something for money, especially playing a game, but we all do things for money (and we all pretty much try harder with more money on the line). I like to write about fantasy sports, but I wouldn’t do it as much as I do now if I didn’t get paid. Or what about if I won the lottery and suddenly was $100 million richer? Even though I love what I do, I imagine that would have an effect on my day-to-day motivation.


When that financial incentive to perform disappears (or weakens to a strong degree), it makes sense that performance will decline. But do the numbers fit the narrative?


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Post-Contract Numbers


I looked at the largest current contracts at each position in terms of guarantees, analyzing 60 players in total. I charted the average fantasy rank for each player at his position in the two years before his contract and in the two years afterward (when applicable).


Here’s how things look at the quarterback position.




Of the quarterbacks I analyzed, the average drop in fantasy rank was 3.5 spots. While that might seem insignificant, it’s actually 38.0 percent of their pre-contract rank.


The effect was much stronger at running back.




The running backs finished with an average rank of 11.1 in the seasons before their contract extensions, but only 19.0 following the deals. That’s a drop of 71.2 percent.


We have to be careful with the numbers on running backs because of the ridiculous aging curve at the position.





If I were a GM, I’d almost never give a running back a new deal. When that happens—typically around age 25 or so—you’re looking at a player who is likely to see a pretty precipitous drop in efficiency, regardless of his contract situation. That means it can be difficult to tell exactly why post-contract-extension running backs drop in fantasy football, but age is almost certainly a contributor.


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Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series and founder of RotoAcademy -- a fantasy football training school. He can be found on Twitter @BalesFootball.
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