By Kevin Braig
The Quant Coach
As the best football players in the United States gathered for organized team activities and the best football players in Europe gathered for Euro 2012
, two media reports caught the eye of the QuantCoach, who — like all the great coaches — never fails to see everything happen all at once.
First, Forbes published its list of the 10 highest paid coaches in the United States
. At an annual salary of $7.5 millio
n, New England football coach Bill Belichick topped the list, which also included seven other NFL coaches and the NBA’s Glenn “Doc” Rivers (Boston Celtics) and Greg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs).
A few weeks later, multiple media outlets reported that Spanish power Real Madrid had extended the contract of Jose Mourinho
— its head football (a/k/a soccer) coach (a/k/a manager) — at an annual salary of approximately $20 million per season. In the NFL, such massive piles of jack are reserved for quarterbacks like the Patriots’ Tom Brady, Denver’s Peyton Manning and New Orleans’ Drew Brees.
That 80 percent of the coaches on the Forbes
list are NFL coaches is no surprise to the QuantCoach. Few would dispute that football play designers such as Belichick, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy (and Dom Capers) and the Saints’ Sean Payton control and influence the game more than a basketball coach or a (don’t make the QuantCoach laugh) baseball manager.
Admittedly, an NBA coach’s play design is probably somewhat undervalued. At the 2010 Sloan Sports Conference, Brian Skinner presented a magnificent paper entitled The Price of Anarchy in Basketball
, which poured a solid foundation for the claim that simply encouraging the best basketball player to take the most shots is probably not the most efficient way to play basketball.
But, there is also plenty of historical evidence that suggests when basketball superstars like Miami’s LeBron James and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant square off in the NBA Finals, the winner will be determined by which superstar wills himself to elevate over the competition.
For example, in the late 1980s, Chuck Daly and his Detroit Pistons’ assistants, Dick Versace and Ron Rothstein, designed the “Jordan Rules,”
which represented “the most concentrated effort to contain one player in NBA history.”
But the measure of success of the “Jordan Rules” in stopping Chicago’s Michael Jordan was modest to put it mildly. In the words of Versace, as long as “His Airness” did not “erupt” for “astro points,” Detroit’s coaching staff gave the “Jordan Rules” a passing grade and moved on to designing a plan for mugging Boston’s Larry Bird or maiming Los Angeles’ Magic Johnson.
It is even less surprising that the Forbes
list of highest paid coaches did not include any baseball managers. At least since Michael Lewis’ Moneyball
painted former Oakland A’s manager Art Howe as little more than a uniformed spectator who thrifty general manager Billy Beane would have liked to charge admission, most Jamesian sabremetricians have recognized that baseball managers are little more than uniformed spectators who occasionally give away the team’s resources (outs) in an attempt to actually become involved in the game.
What is startling about the Forbes
list is that Mourinho is paid nearly three times what Belichick is paid. This discrepancy raises several questions.
Is Mourinho overvalued and overpaid? Is Belichick undervalued and underpaid? Is this gross compensation discrepancy economically rational?
The QuantCoach knows the answers.
In economic terms, both Belichick and Mourinho provide technology
to their teams.
“Technology here means the way in which efforts are transformed into winning probabilities,” Stefan Szymanski wrote in Playbooks and Checkbooks: An Introduction to the Economics of Modern Sports
. Szymanski then expanded on this concept:
"Again, we suppose that each contestant’s effort is weighted in the same way, so that if two contestants supply identical effort, they have the same probability of winning. The issue therefore is simply the effectiveness of effort. At one extreme, we could imagine that the contestant with the highest effort always wins—even if the effort is only slightly higher than any rivals effort.
"In this case we say the technology is perfectly discriminating, and the contest becomes an auction in which the prize goes to the highest 'bidder' (an athlete’s effort [here, a coach’s design] is equivalent to a bid in an auction). At the other extreme, effort might have no effect on the probability of winning (a pure lottery). More realistically, the way in which the contest is decided will lie somewhere between those two extremes.
"Sporting contests are usually designed to be highly discriminating, since the more discriminating the contest, the more effort the contestants will supply. Organizers interested in maximizing effort will want the technology to discriminate as effectively as possible between high and low effort."
Real Madrid and the Patriots both win about 76 percent of their games. Belichick’s New England teams won three Super Bowl titles. Two of Mourinho’s past three teams—Porto (Portugal) and Inter Milan (Italy)—won Champions League titles. (Mourinho also coached Chelsea in the English Premier League in between his stints with Porto and Inter.)
Essentially, the teams they coach have virtually the same probability of winning.
And win probability is not the only thing Belichick and Mourinho have in common.
Each grew up helping his father analyze the game. Belichick began breaking down film at an early age with his father, Steve, a scout at the Naval Academy. As a teenager, Mourinho analyzed teams for his father, Felix, a coach in Portugal.
Neither was a great player himself, but rather got into coaching through a non-traditional door. Mourinho broke into coaching as an interpreter for English Manager Sir Bobby Robson, first in Portugal and then in Spain. Belichick began his career as a virtually unpaid intern who broke down film for the Baltimore Colts’ coaching staff.
Both are perceived as defensive geniuses with an almost bottomless understanding of the importance of turnovers and “situational football.”
“The decisive moments, [Mourinho] argues, are transitions
, the instants when teams spring from defense to attack (and vice versa) after a change of possession,” Grant Wahl wrote in his Sports Illustrated
profile of the Real Madrid manager.
"We work on our ball security every week, with all of our players, all the players that handle the ball," Belichick has said
. "That's a very important part of what we do. We'll continue to emphasize those same things with everybody that handles the ball, it doesn't make a difference who it is. It's important that everybody that handles it uses the utmost care in taking care of it so that we have it at the end of the play. That includes everybody, every week, every play. It's not one player or one thing, it's everybody, all the time."
The Patriots listen or do not play, as running back Stevan Ridley learned in the 2011 playoffs, and also pay attention when Belichick preaches the importance of game situations.
“Coach Belichick does a great job coaching situational football, and having us aware and learning at all times of what’s going on out there on the football field,” New England’s Matthew Slater said
after the Patriots slipped by Baltimore, 23-20, in last year’s AFC championship game.
“You feel so prepared around here going into a football game, it’s unbelievable,” Slater added. “You feel comfortable with everything you might see and things you might not have seen before. I think that’s what coach – he does a great job preparing us for that.”
Mourinho preaches the same attention to situations to his players.
“If the players are of high quality, the game sometimes is nonstop,” Mourinho told Wahl. “You must have great balance. That’s why I believe in having players with the tactical culture to analyze the game. All of them have to be thinking the same thing at the same time.”
Finally, both Mourinho and Belichick share an unabashed conscious disregard for how the media and the fans feel emotionally about their style and approach to the game. Neither one could care less about what a win looks
So, if Belichick and Mourinho are virtually identical in make-up, approach, and result, is it rational that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez pays Mourinho three times more than New England owner Robert Kraft pays Belichick?
Mourinho is probably overvalued and overpaid because he probably does not put as much “effort” into a game, as that term is defined by Szymanski, as Belichick puts into a game.
This does not
mean Belichick works harder than Mourinho.
Rather, soccer’s rules help Mourinho more than the NFL’s rules help Belichick. Because Mourinho gets more help from soccer’s rules than Belichick gets from the NFL’s rules, Mourinho contributes less effort to his team than Belichick contributes to his team.
Precisely, soccer’s offside rule helps Mourinho more than all of the NFL’s rules combined help Belichick.
The official explanation of the offside rule
is rather complicated. A soccer player is offside if: A) he is on the opponent’s side of the field; B) he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent; C) at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his teammates, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by: i) interfering with play; ii) interfering with an opponent; or iii) gaining an advantage by being in that position.
The offside rule both reads like a provision of the tax code and is interpreted subjectively.
Let the QuantCoach simplify it for you:
Soccer prohibits the offense from getting one of its players into the best position on the field to score
(i.e., in front of the ball and behind the defense) and penalizes the offense if it does so.
In the NFL, San Francisco’s master designer, Bill Walsh, salivated at getting an offensive player behind the defense, usually the free or weak safety, to receive a forward pass from Joe Montana.
Walsh candidly acknowledged that he purposefully designed plays to do so, such as his game plan for the 1981-82 NFC championship game against Dallas, which the 49ers won, 28-27.
“We were quite sure we could force automatic adjustments in their pass coverage by using two tight ends and a man-in-motion,” Walsh said. “We could almost be assured single, man-to-man coverage, even forcing the weak safety Dennis Thurman to cover Dwight Clark.”
Because soccer’s offside rule prohibits his opponents from getting their players into the best position on the field to score, Mourinho usually adopts a defensive design that is incredibly effective at preventing the opponent from scoring and patiently waits for a turnover.
But Mourinho’s design is not stylistically popular as it allows—indeed encourages—the opponent to control the ball. Simply stated, Mourinho understands that if the rules of the game prohibit the offense from getting a player into the best position on the field to score, then the value of controlling possession of the ball is really not that great.
It’s a ballsy design without the ball.
Also, conceptually, in ceding ball control to the opponent, Mourinho’s design is the polar opposite of Walsh’s design, which conceptually resembled the more popular soccer style of short passing and ball control known as “tiki-taka.”
“Our objective was to make 25 first downs a game and control the ball with short passing and selective running,” Walsh often said. “Our argument was that a chance of a completion drops dramatically over 12 yards. So, we would throw a 10-yard pass.”
In Inter Milan’s 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the 2010 Champions League final, Mourinho’s team controlled the ball for just 33 percent of the first half (a 2-1 ratio), yet led 1-0 at the break.
“The match ebbed and flowed with momentum in the opening 15 minutes but, just as had been predicted all week,” Sebastian Hassett wrote in the Sidney Morning Herald
, “Bayern were eventually sucked into attacking Inter, who were only too happy to push their defensive line as far back as possible.”
Afterward, the media was not complementary of Mourinho despite his team’s victory.
“Seeing a team play eight players in defense will not inspire children to take up arms and charge around to the nearest green to recreate Inter Milan’s game plan, but somewhat sadly, it will inspire unimaginative coaches all over the world,” Willie Gannon wrote on Bleacher Report
In 2011, Mourinho’s Real Madrid squad topped Barcelona—the equivalent of Walsh’s 49ers and the world’s most skillful practitioners of tiki-taka
—in the Copa del Rey final
in extra time, 1-0. According to Rob Draper of London’s Daily Mail
, Mourinho deployed a game plan of “constant tactical fouls followed by incessant hounding of the referee” to achieve the upset.
Again, the soccer snobs were not amused.
Draper wrote that soccer legend Johan Cruyff “dismissed Mourinho
as a coach who cares only about results rather than good football.”
Clearly, Mr. Cruyff is no Bill Parcells, who famously said of a coach, “You are what your record says you are.”
Moreover, in Scorecasting
, Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim found a perfectly rational reason that validates Mourinho’s defensive style.
Moskowitz and Wertheim found that rowdy and boisterous home crowds impact subjective officiating and that in soccer the home team wins more than 60 percent of the time when ties are disregarded. In soccer, the home team wins or ties approximately 74 percent of the time.
The 2011 Copa del Rey Final between Real Madrid and Barcelona was played at Estadio Mestalla in Valencia, Spain
, which is “renowned for its steep terracing and being one of the most intimidating atmospheres in all of Europe to play.” In other words, it was a good venue to deploy a game plan that included hounding the referee to influence the subjective officiating.
Further, Mourinho’s most remarkable career statistic is that over a nine-year period, his teams at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid never
lost a home game. In other words, Mourinho’s teams won or tied at a clip of 26 percentage points more than one would have expected them too.
In Quantifying NFL Coaching: A Proof of New Growth Theory,
the QuantCoach calculated that over the course of just a single NFL season, outstanding coaching and play design made a 25.4 percent contribution to the 1989 Super Bowl champion 49ers, who played well enough to win every game that year even though they finished 14-2.
Based on the fact that Mourinho’s marginal success rate in home games over the nine-year period (26%) was almost exactly the same as the marginal play design advantage the 49ers’ coaches contributed in 1989 (25.4%), the QuantCoach concludes that either Mourinho contributed the same “effort” the 49ers coaches contributed in 1989 for nine consecutive seasons with four different teams
, which seems unlikely, or something else was helping Mourinho’s play design and he received credit and compensation for it.
That something else is the offside rule, as subjectively interpreted by the referee, who Mourinho is known to “constantly hound.”
Of course, Mourinho deserves and in fact receives a great deal of credit and compensation for understanding the rules of soccer so deeply and rationally designing his game plan to work in sweet harmony with the rules of the game. But, the line that separates Mourinho’s contribution to his team’s success from the independent contribution of the offside rule to that success is more difficult to determine than offside itself.
As a result of this ambiguity, Real Madrid probably overvalues and overpays Mourinho to the extent it compensates Mourinho for effort that is really being provided by the offside rule itself.
After all, if Belichick had known the night before the game that every time San Francisco’s Jerry Rice blew by his New York Giants’ free safety, it would most likely be a penalty instead of a touchdown, he probably would have put in a little less effort and gone to bed earlier.
Belichick also would have appeared to be an even more dominating defensive genius.
Not only is Mourinho overvalued and overpaid relative to Belichick because Mourinho is credited some when he should not be, but it is also likely that Belichick is undervalued and underpaid relative to Mourinho because Belichick is debited some when he should not be.
Specifically, Belichick is inappropriately debited when his players “shirk.”
“Whether athletes ever shirk is an interesting question,” Szymanski wrote in Playbooks and Checkbooks
. “The commitment required to become a top athlete is so great and the rewards so huge that it seems hard to imagine it ever happens. However, shirking can be broadly defined. Suppose the coach assigns a task to a player as part of the team’s defensive plan, but the player deviates from the assigned task—this is a form of shirking that may arise out of the player’s pursuit of personal glory or simply a failure to recognize the importance of the plan to the team. Such things do happen.”
Consistent with Szymanski’s broad definition of shirking, it is the QuantCoach’s view that every time Tom Brady throws an interception or one of his teammates on the Patriots loses a fumble, shirking occurs because Belichick clearly did not include the loss of possession as part of the play design irrespective of his player’s motivation (if any) for the player’s (flawed) execution. Players — not coaches — are strictly liable for turnovers.
A sideline conversation between Walsh and Montana that David Harris retold in The Genius
demonstrates the point.
“What was that?” Walsh demanded when Montana came to the sideline after throwing one particular interception.
“That was an interception,” Montana declared boldly.
“Yes,” Walsh agreed with a smile, “and a darn good one. But let’s not do it again.”
Walsh faced an insurmountable difficulty in trying to ensure that Montana never did it again. He could not — nor would he have wanted to — remove all of Montana’s spontaneity because then he would have had a less productive player on the field.
“Overcoming this kind of shirking is hard since coaches seldom want to remove all autonomy from players, for sometimes the unexpected action wins the game,” Szymanski wrote.
In other words, it is simply impossible for a coach like Walsh or Belichick to remove all shirking without removing all of a quarterback’s autonomy and that is a price an NFL coach with Joe Montana or Tom Brady cannot and should not pay.
But that doesn’t mean the NFL coach’s contribution should be diminished when his $20 million per year quarterback commits a turnover. Rather, to rationally determine the coach’s contribution and compensation, turnovers usually should be disregarded.
Of course, players, media and fans frequently and incorrectly debit the coach for a player’s turnovers. Thus, it is likely that NFL owners also debit their coaches for failures resulting from turnovers that are so visible and easy to observe.
In contrast, shirking in soccer is more difficult to see.
Because shirking in soccer is so hard to observe, soccer matches are much more susceptible to fixing than NFL games. In May, ESPN The Magazine published an explosive profile of a syndicate insider and rampant international match fixing
and stated “the world’s most popular game is also its most corrupt.”
A few weeks later, Italian authorities arrested more than a dozen people as part of wide-ranging investigation into match-fixing in soccer.
"The searches are connected to what's happening with Siena," said Cremona prosecutor Roberto Di Martino. "There are seven, eight games being looked at and there have been statements that make us think they were manipulated.”
"It's devastating news," former Italy and current Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni said. "If the authorities are acting it's because there's something there."
Fortunately, neither Mourinho nor any of his past or current players have ever been implicated in any match fixing investigation.
“I came to Italy an honest man and I will leave as one,” Mourinho said in 2010
, a few months before he transitioned himself from Inter Milan to Real Madrid.
He’s also one hell of a coach and a play designer — the best in the world in soccer — and worth millions of dollars to Real Madrid.
But he’s not the best football coach in the world and he’s not worth almost three times more than the man in New England who is.