February 14, 2011

Free Agency: How important is CFL experience?

Trevor Hardy

It’s free agency season in the CFL. And for those teams that are going to be active participants in the CFL’s ‘silly season’ this likely means two things: These teams are going to get older and, as a result, are going to get more expensive. But are these teams going to get any better?

To assess whether there is any actual value to an experienced CFL roster versus one that is not we have studied the roster composition and game results of every CFL game played during the time period of 2006-2010. The results of this analysis provides us with some interesting insights – including one that shows us that, when it comes to adding experience to a team’s roster, there are diminishing returns.

What is the Law of Diminishing Returns?

With CFL Free Agency officially opening at 12:01 am ET on February 16 click here to see the status of your team’s free agents

The Law of Diminishing Returns is an economic principle that states that as an input is added, the marginal amount of output will eventually decline, when all other inputs are held constant.

For example, let’s say you own a restaurant and employ one chef (this is your “input”).  Let’s say that chef can make 10 meals per hour (“output”).  Suppose you decide to add another chef to help out. Between the two chefs, let’s assume that they can make 30 meals per hour because they are working together.  This appears to be a good decision because adding one chef results in an increase of 20 meals per hour.

However, at some point, it will likely be that adding more chefs will result in smaller increases in output.

For example, adding a third chef in your restaurant seems like a good idea, but now between the three of them they can make 40 meals per hour, or only 10 more meals than before. This could be a result of the chefs cluttering up a small kitchen, making it harder for them to produce outputs.

In our example, the Law of Diminishing Returns takes effect at some point after adding the second chef.

With respect to our CFL veteran experience study, we’re going to assume that experience is our “input” and team success – winning the football game – is our “output”.

Measuring Experience

There are a number of different ways to measure the experience of a CFL roster:

1. Veteran status, as defined by the CFL Collective Bargaining Agreement;

2. Age; and

3. Number of games played at all levels, including college and professional.

For the purpose of this analysis, I’ve decided to measure experience as the number of CFL games listed on a team’s 42-man roster. I’ll acknowledge that there might be some flaws in this measurement, including the fact that this measurement doesn’t account for:

1. Football experience outside of the CFL.  For example, for game #1 of Toronto Argonaut’s 2010 season, Cleo Lemon’s “experience” using my measurement was zero games, even though he had played professionally in the NFL for six seasons; and

2. Players named to the 42-man roster that don’t actually play in the game. For example, a team’s third string Quarterback.

Despite these shortcomings, I feel that using the number of times listed on a CFL 42-man roster as my experience measurement results in meaningful results, as both the number of professional games experience outside of the CFL and the number of players who don’t play in the game are relatively insignificant.

Context: Understanding experience

It is probably useful to provide some benchmarks for context, as this experience measurement is not one that we see every day.

During the 2006-2010 period of analysis, I observed the following:

1. The average CFL roster on any given game day had 2,304 games experience;

2. The least experienced roster was the one fielded by the Montreal Alouettes versus the Edmonton Eskimos on October 31, 2008. For this game, Montreal had a 42-man roster with 694 games experience (Edmonton won 37 – 14);

3. The most experienced roster was the one fielded by the Toronto Argonauts versus the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on October 27, 2007. For this game, Toronto had a 42-man roster with 3,823 games experience (Toronto won 16 – 8); and

4. The number of games experience is normally distributed, with a standard deviation of 437 games.

The Results: Does experience matter?

1. The most experienced team won 57.5% of the time. I don’t think this result is very surprising, in that we intuitively understand that experience has value;

2. Adding experience increases the likelihood of success. For example, having at least 189 more games experience than your opponent resulted in a win 61% of the time;

** You might be wondering where I got the number 189. I calculated this number based on a standard of a full season (18 games) multiplied by a full roster (42 Players). Therefore, 756 games represent one full season of roster experience for a team, and 189 represents ¼ of this (756 x ¼ = 189) **

3. Having at least 378 more games experience (1/2 season) than your opponent resulted in a win 64% of the time;

4. Having at least 567 more games experience (3/4 season) than your opponent resulted in a win 70% of the time; and

5. Having at least 756 more games experience (full season) than your opponent resulted in a win 65% of the time.

It appears that it is at this point that the Law of Diminishing Returns begins to take effect with a CFL roster.  In other words, an experienced roster appears to be an important variable to success, but having too much experience might mean the team is too old and banged-up.

Conclusion: Experience matters to an extent

The job of a CFL General Manager is a very difficult one, especially when weighing decisions around free agency. A free agent is likely to bring valuable experience that has been proven to be an important component of team success.  However, the General Manager must balance this consideration against those of player cost, as well as the experience of the rest of his roster.

In the CFL, there is a Law of Diminishing Returns. Experience is good – but only to a certain point.