The Rams-Bruins Double Standard
Admit it sports fans, we constantly indulge in the double standard. Two teams, personalities, or circumstances could be eerily similar and yet we have such polarizing inconsistencies towards them that it makes Capital Hill seem logical.
We find Greg Popovich to be charmingly quirky but Bill Belichick to be the NFL’s Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet both are 5+ time champions that have led iconic modern dynasties with an antibiotic-like disdain for the media.
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Steph Curry is the All-American boy that refreshingly keeps everything light-hearted, yet Tom Brady is a cold, calculating, robotic personality that isn’t vulnerable enough with the media. Yet both are transcendent superstars that have redefined their positions, have gorgeous wives, beautiful children, and a Hollywood-like aura.
We deify Simone Biles for her courage and yet vilify Naomi Osaka for her weakness. Yet both women prioritized the prize of inner peace and mental health over any Olympic or Grand Slam trophy.
We do this all the time, and in Los Angeles, we’ve done it again. Pitting Les Snead’s visionary genius against Chip Kelly’s strategic myopia.
The Snead Score
The secret sauce to the Ram GM’s overwhelming success and adulation is a perfect understanding of a very simple mathematical ratio, Performance-Per-Dollar (PPD). In a salary-cap-laden sport, this single metric turns jesters into wizards, and vice versa. Simply put, PPD states that if Player A costs 10X more than Player B, Player A must be 10X BETTER than Player B, otherwise your team will be more set up for success by picking Player B. If Player C is only 2X better than Player D, but costs 5X more, Player C only has 40% of the value of Player D. It’s remarkable how few NFL GMs truly understand the powerful simplicity behind a standard mathematical quotient.
Now, through the magical beauty of revisionist history and a Super Bowl ring the size of a small asteroid, we forget that Snead has had to learn PPD the hard way. Since becoming part of the Rams’ brain trust in 2012, Snead has strategized four top 10 NFL draft selections: Tavon Austin, Greg Robinson, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff. Three of those four players by any practical definition were busts: none of those three went past their rookie contract with the Rams (extensions were signed but the player was traded before getting to that contract), nor did any of them have a true significant personal accolade while being in the Ramily.
It gets mathematically interesting with Gurley. He was first-team All-Pro for back-to-back seasons (2017, 2018), not to mention 2017 Offensive Player of the Year, but those represented 67% of his only three elite seasons in the league. In fact, Gurley’s career was so tragically short that it made Terrell Davis’ longevity feel like that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or LeBron James.
As great as Gurley was for the blink of an eye, if Snead had the chance at a re-draft, he wouldn’t hesitate. Simply because financial theory concludes that the Rams didn’t get first-round return-on-investment for a long enough period. Ram die-hards and quant junkies alike, please steer your eyes away from the following: Gurley’s Net Present Value (NPV) was less than zero.
Those experiences were a turning point for Snead: he realized NFL teams don’t get what they pay for during the NFL’s three-day April “player-palooza.” The draft pays top 10 picks 3X-4X more than the rest of the first round, and pays those first round guys 3X-4X more than the rest of the draft. But for that to be financially justifiable, those guys getting paid 3X-4X more than the next level of prospect, need to be 3X-4X better. Outside of a generational Patrick Mahomes or an Aaron Rodgers or an Aaron Donald, how often can a player even be 3X better than an average guy at his position? Let’s put it this way, you probably have a better chance of getting hit by lightning multiple times in your life.
This is what Snead realized: PPD is very real, powerful, and misunderstood. So let other teams be the degenerate gamblers playing this fixed poker game, while I trade away all my first-round picks for guys I know are proven commodities with tangible value-added PPDs. The Rams haven’t drafted a first-rounder since Goff in 2016, while Snead’s reputation and the Rams’ valuation have soared. A reputation that was solidified BEFORE the Rams won the Super Bowl, with the 2021 season only adding to his mystique.
The Chip Counter
While Snead is taking his 37th victory lap, Kelly has been taking it on the chin the past few months. Several media outlets and anonymous PAC-12 sources have recently been quoted as being puzzled at best, and unimpressed at worst, by Kelly’s strategy for the Bruins. Some don’t believe what Kelly is doing right now can even be called a strategy, while others believe he’s incapable of even having another strategy. That he’s somehow used up all his brain cells on the modern spread offense he perfected at Oregon, and he’s now as creatively barren as a flea market in Beverly Hills.
The essence of the media’s discontent lies with the Bruins only making 54 offers to Class of 2023 prospects, while Stanford has made 94, and most other Power Five schools are between 180-240. But Kelly, much like Snead, has come to realize his success will also be determined by a non-conventional metric, one that isn’t the benignly basic number of offers, but rather the Targeted Conversion Ratio (TCR).
Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, and USC can blast out a bunch of offers everywhere. This “spray and pray” strategy works when you have a very recognizable football brand, no student-athlete academic limitations, and a demonstrated pipeline to the NFL. Those teams can rely on their past history, make a couple of phone calls, arrange a general visit and let the facilities, stadium, and other players “sell themselves.” They’ll each be relentlessly competing with one another for most elite players but even if each gets one out of 10 players from the pool, at 200 offers, they’ll have their elite class of 20 signed, sealed, and delivered.
UCLA is more complicated, nuanced, and multi-faceted. 80% of their class needing to have a 3.0 GPA when the NCAA baseline is a 2.3 requires radically different thinking. The Bruins don’t have the football brand or the NFL pipeline of those schools above, but they offer so much more for the entire individual.
At PAC-12 Media Day, Kelly called the four dimensions of the UCLA student-athlete, “like the four legs of a chair – academic, athletic, social, spiritual.” Kelly has realized there’s no point in spending two meetings each on 10 players because the UCLA value proposition has more depth. There’s more of a story to be told, and it needs to be told to a certain type of player with the curiosity and willingness to hear it. Kelly prefers the TCR game: spend 10 meetings each on two targeted players and see which of those players he closes.
The additional challenge to Kelly’s TCR strategy is only one other school in the conference has more resources, pedigree, and autonomy to play it slightly better – Stanford.
Kentucky’s John Calipari zigged with his one-and-done college basketball model while the rest of the NCAA zagged. He won a national title, played for another, and had four trips to the Final Four in his first six years. Then, a slightly better brand, Coach K and Duke, decided to play Capilari’s game and he hasn’t been to a Final Four in seven years since.
Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets believed the analytics of small ball and long-range shooting would disrupt conventional NBA thinking en route to a title…and they were right. The only problem was that the Warriors with Curry, Klay, and Durant had three of the 10 greatest shooters ever…and that trio was decisively better than the Rocket sharpshooters’ James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon.
This is where Chip combining TCR with the transfer portal is sheer brilliance. Stanford will never be a serious transfer portal player because they don’t agree with it philosophically. As an alum, I’m well aware The Cardinal believes a student-athlete can only maximize and immerse in their Stanford experience with a beginner’s mindset straight from high school. It’s too rigorous and unique a place to acclimate from another institution.
Don’t judge Chip on the generic thinking of the masses. We don’t dare do that with Snead. Judge Chip on the game he’s playing: TCR and transfer portal success. For come January, with 10+ wins and a major bowl victory under his belt, Chip will once again be showered in the reverence Snead has been bathing in for the past half-decade. So much so, that it will make this period feel like a distant, ethereal, and incomprehensible mirage. Because as fans, we activate retractions even better than we indulge in double standards.