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Ryan Pace and the Price of Opportunity

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Ryan Pace has a tendency to make aggressive deals. He doesn’t always make the best decisions, but his decisions are consistently guided by an understandable principle.

Chicago Bears Introduce Matt Nagy Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It all comes down to Saturday morning cartoons. Younger readers might struggle with the concept, but people of my generation will remember a time that cartoons were only really available at a special time--Saturday morning. I have specific memories of waking up to be sure that I did not miss an episode of my favorite show, and I recall vividly the overwrought frustration I felt when a family trip or event like a wedding prevented me from being able to watch Scooby Doo or Thunderbirds 2086 or whatever other magical entertaining I was captivated by that year.

My children, on the other hand, do not know what it means to have to ‘wait’ for a show to be available. Oh, they understand that there are rules about how much television they get to watch, and they feel their own forms of frustration, but the opportunity to watch cartoons has gone from being a rare thing specific to particular times of the week to a surplus of options, regulated only by parental discipline.

Opportunity, in other words, has lost its meaning to my children when it comes to cartoons. There are NFL fans who also fail to appreciate opportunity.

Opportunity in the draft

It’s mock draft season, and while the Bears are more or less “out” of mock drafts this year, it’s still easy to find fans of almost every team suggesting a dozen trades, where somehow a sixth-rounder, a future fourth-rounder, and a veteran backup guard are flipped and maneuvered into a pair of third-round picks that snag an all-star running back and an edge rusher who will probably be gone by Pick #40, anyway.

Why do fans believe that this is what can and should happen? Because they read on a chart somewhere that it is possible, or out of 100 iterations of a draft simulator programmed to keep things exciting, they were offered a similar trade at least one time. They assume that ‘vaguely possible’ means the opportunity is always there. Over the years, I have leveled many criticisms at Ryan Pace, but the one thing that is obvious about him is that he understands the cost of opportunity.

Let’s look at Ryan Pace’s most famous deal, the maneuvering to get Mitchell Trubisky. A rational fan (if that’s not an oxymoron) will admit that the verdict is still out on Trubisky. However, Ryan Pace did not “give up” three picks to draft Trubisky. Instead, he paid three picks (a third, a fourth, and a future third) to either guarantee the opportunity to make the selection or to deny others the same chance.

To put it another way, if I am crossing my home state of South Dakota and I find my car running low on fuel, I might find myself stopping at a gas station on a highway (likely the only gas station around on that stretch of highway) and paying whatever number happens to be on the pump. I might pay more than I would have had I planned ahead and filled my tank where I knew there was cheaper gas, and I will almost certainly pay more than if I waited until I reached my destination and had a choice of stations in competition for my business. Any halfway competent student of economics understands that I am not just paying for the fuel itself. Instead, I am paying for the opportunity to have access to fuel when I want or need it, under the conditions I want it. This, in turn, rewards the owner of the gas station who planned ahead for how others would value that situation and so on.

Back to Ryan Pace--he believed that there were only a couple of stations that sold the grade of fuel the Bears needed. He wanted to be sure he got the best available fuel. He then paid what he needed to pay to guarantee himself that opportunity. Critics will say he should have waited to see if he even needed to pay the increased price (i.e. maybe the next exit would have had fancy no-look pumps available). I have made that decision on road trips, only to find that the next exit is closed, or that the gas station I thought was there had gone out of business. On multiple occasions when needing fuel, I have also passed by gas stations, annoyed at the price on the pump, only to find as I have traveled that the price per gallon is higher at the next station instead of lower.

Looked at through the lens of opportunity, the cost of trading draft picks makes sense. I generally agree with those who want to trade back and maximize the number of picks, because I think selling opportunity tends to get better results. However, it is ridiculous to think that opportunity should not have a cost.

Consider the much simpler Anthony Miller trade. He wanted a receiver of Anthony Miller’s talent and potential, and he wanted him in 2018, when he could grow with the new coach and the new system. The price of that player was a second-rounder, but the Bears did not have one to send at that moment, having spent theirs on James Daniels. The surcharge on get that ‘extra’ second-round selection (the extra price at the pump because they were at a solitary gas station in the middle of nowhere) was a fourth-rounder.

Time and again, Pace pays the cost to get himself the opportunities he wants. Most mathematical models tell us he is going to be in the wrong over time. Consistently trading up is a way to lose out on value. However, if he finds better-than-expected results consistently in the draft (and that’s a big if, still), then he is leveraging opportunity well.

Using the draft to buy opportunity

Khalil Mack is a dominant football player, but is a single year of Khalil Mack worth two first round picks (with a bunch of other stuff floating around)? No. It’s not. How could it be, especially when that year is not being had on a price-controlled contract like a true first-round draft pick would be? Advanced analytics seemed to like the Raiders’ side of the equation, and despite the Bears’ 12-4 season, there seem to be plenty who are willing to criticize Pace’s aggression. This is so absurd it merits a painfully careful response.

Pace didn’t buy a single year of Khalil Mack.

When Pace traded for Mack, he was really buying the opportunity to sign Mack to a long-term contract and to deny others that opportunity. He then had to pay for a premium edge-rusher, and that was expensive (around $141 million dollars). However, the draft picks were not paid for the services of Khalil Mack. That’s what the contract was for. The draft picks were the price attached to the opportunity to offer that contract.

This is where football fans traditionally want to have it both ways. They want their GM to get second-round picks for halfbacks who went to the Pro Bowl once as an alternate, but they also want their GMs to pay only a future seventh-rounder for moving up sixty spots to select the guard that the team needs.

Do deals like this sometimes happen? Yes. And sometimes when you are lucky, you will pass up a gas station and find a cheaper price at a more convenient exit later on. It’s just not a guaranteed opportunity.

When I was a little kid, I could have slept in and missed my favorite show. I could have hoped then that it would be on again in a rerun. However, I would have missed out on the enjoyment of seeing it that morning and of talking about it with my friends (i.e. Pace could have missed out on a 12-4 season with a new coach), and I also would have been gambling that it could be available again in the future (i.e. that another pass-rusher would be available for those picks in the future).

Because of the way technology has advanced, there is no longer an urgency to getting up on Saturday morning for cartoons. Likewise, for fans who look back a year after a draft, it is easy to say “this is the player who should have been taken” or “the GM should have waited.” The reality is that in the moment, the opportunity to watch your favorite cartoon (or, more importantly, to fill your car’s tank) is not guaranteed. Pace seems to be trying to aggressively take opportunities. I do not always agree with his decisions, but it would be foolish for me to pretend his decisions ‘obviously wrong’ given what he cannot know about future chances to improve the team.