Lessons in Problem Solving from the NFL

As we wrap up week #4 for the 2018 season of America’s favorite athletic competition-based entertainment, the National Football League has already given us an important lessons in effective problem solving. More precisely, they are lessons in how we should not attempt to solve problems. The specific problem is regarding the way defensive players tackle the quarterback and how this affects the integrity of the game.

Let’s begin with some background. In the 2017 season, several promising quarterbacks were lost for the season early on due to on-field injuries. For at least one of them, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, this was attributable to being sandwiched between the defender and the ground. Rodgers broke is collarbone, and the Packers achieved an uncharacteristic 7 wins and 9 losses on the season. Such injuries are unfortunate not only for the player and the team, but also for fans of the sport who had to watch inferior performances by the backup QBs. The NFL wishes to maintain high ratings, strong stadium attendance and advertising revenues.

The NFL responded by instructing its referees to be aggressive in calling the “roughing the passer” fouls. Specifically, defenders are penalized when they make a good, clean tackle but allow themselves to fall on top of the QB. The reason for this solution is because Aaron Rodgers was injured in this way last season. As former Seattle Seahawk linebacker and radio sports commentator Dave Wyman said, “It not the Matrix out there,” on the football field, meaning that unlike in that movie, several hundred pounds of athlete cannot stop in mid air and change direction. The NFL appears to have jumped to a solution, a sure way to invite unintended consequences and ineffective problem resolution.

The unintended consequences so far in the season have include altered outcomes of contests due to roughing the passer calls negating game-changing plays. We have seen defenders hesitate when chasing the QB in the backfield, or shepherd them out of bounds rather than bring them down with a tackle. One Miami Dolphins defender was injured and is out for the season because of an awkward motion he made while he trying to avoid falling on the QB he was tackling. These things have not made the quality of the sports entertainment product better.

When we do problem solving it is critical to state the problem in terms of the customer. When we don’t we can end up attempting to solve the wrong problem. In this case of tackling the quarterback, who is the customer? Is it the quarterback? Is it the League? Is it the fan who pays to see games and the stadium or watches them on TV? In the NFL’s current approach there is a tradeoff between short-term fan satisfaction and protecting the quarterback long-term. If the player and his health was the customer, the countermeasures may have been different. It is not clear.

From the point of view of customer experience and integrity of the game, one could argue that more skill position players are injured and lost for the season in collisions or being crushed. Each year offensive linemen are injured when they end up at the bottom of a pile of other 300 pound men while attempting to protect the quarterback. While the OL position is less glamorous than the QB or skill positions, they are essential to a team’s success. Poor offensive line play results in ugly games. It also results in more hits on the quarterback. But the NFL is OK with 300 pound linemen falling on top of each other.

It is rare that a problem has a single cause. Focusing in on what seems to be the single obvious solution only blinds us to the reality of the situation and the web of causes. Assuming the NFL wants to solve the problem of “quarterbacks critical to quality of the NFL product are suffering injuries” there are several avenues of root cause investigation.

  • What factors, game rules, or offensive strategies, such as the bias towards more passing plays, increase the chance of the quarterback being a target of tackles?
  • How might the shorter training camps and reduced practices negotiated in the last labor agreement be affecting on-field injuries?
  • What has changed in the players’ use of performance enhancing drugs, legal or illegal, and how do these affect injuries?
  • Why, if it is illegal to tackle kickers and punters, is it legal tackle the QB?
  • Why are there not enough good backup quarterbacks?

It is ironic that a league of 32 teams that allegedly live and dive by the quality of their coaching staff did not seem to have sought out a problem solving coach.