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Jaguars GM Gene Smith Has a Major Flaw

Bill Barnwell's piece over at Grantland goes into a lot of detail outlining the demise of the Jacksonville Jaguars under the tenure of Gene Smith, and hits on the key theme of the Gene Smith era.


Maurice Jones-Drew typed the above Tweet not long after the Jaguars traded up to select quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in the draft. He had a roundabout explanation on the subject and asserted his support for then-starting quarterback David Garrard, but Jones-Drew never addressed the Tweet specifically. Most, however, assumed that the Tweet was referring to General Manager Gene Smith.

"The Peter Principle" was a satire of sorts written by Laurence J. Peter and Raymund Hull, inadvertently creating Heirarchiology, the Social Study of "any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of rank, grade or class." Again, the work itself is a satire, but it's thesis - "Members (of a hierarchy) are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent" - gets played out in sports. You see formerly productive assistant coaches get promoted and then flounder as the Head Coach; players thrive in a reserve or support role only to get exposed over time as a starter; you see capable talent evaluators become incapable of building teams.

The Jaguars' record under Gene Smith's watch has gotten progressively worse. Bill Barnwell from Grantland did a great job outlining how the Jaguars arrived to this point under Smith's watch. He points touches on topics that Jaguars fans have debated throughout the four year tenure: drafting Tyson Alualu so highly, extending Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis to such hefty deals based on flashes of production, taking a punter in the third round, trading up for Gabbert and Blackmon and more. He could have saved himself 2000 words and just rolled with one bit from the fifth paragraph: "Smith has consistently exhibited an inability or lack of desire to read the marketplace in terms of the players he wants, forcing him to acquire them at the peak of their value or at valuations far above the amount he should pay."

People mistake the concept of Moneyball as convoluted statistical models and computers replacing scouts. However, it's more of an over-arching Economic theory than an absolute, defined practice. The "why" behind it, the whole point of it, is to find "Inefficiencies in the marketplace." It came to a head in baseball with the idea that Batting Average poorly represented a player's offensive value since it failed to account for how often the batter walked. However, the market (i.e. player salaries) was largely defined by traditional stats like Batting Average. In theory, you could sign a player with a mediocre Batting Average and high On-Base Percentage at a fraction of the cost get an equitable amount of production. While the NFL and MLB don't operate under the same economic rules, the supply and demand for certain positions, skillsets, and production constantly fluctuates. Hence, inefficient markets in sports.

Market Inefficiency is at the center of almost every decision regarding roster-building and player acquisition. It's the heart of nearly every debate surrounding the NFL Draft - "Is there a quarterback worth a top five pick?"; "You shouldn't draft a runningback in the first round"; "Planet Theory: there are only so many big, athletic men on the planet, so acquire as many of them as possible." All of these internal draft monologues serve to answer the question of what value a player has from both a historical/theoretical value (the player's value in a vacuum, so to speak) and his relative value (his value in relation to the other players in the draft class, his future NFL peers that play the position, and the economic climate surrounding his position, and whatever schematic trends the league is building towards at that time).

Gene Smith may have merit as a talent evaluator and scout - if that weren't true, it's highly unlikely he would remain employed for so long and rise through the ranks as an Area Scout to Director of College Scouting to General Manager. A General Manager's job begins with evaluating talent, but it ends with building a team - a process that includes a litany of variables, with the salary cap and overall scheme fits as just the tip of the iceberg. Barnwell's article illustrates Smith's alarming lack of awareness when it comes to market value. Smith pays a premium "for the outlier, while getting the regression back toward the mean." Whether it's giving Mike Thomas an exorbitant extension (with little actual production), handing Laurent Robinson a lucrative contract when he could have been had for a minimum contract the season before, selecting a Punter in the 3rd round, or vastly over-estimating players' skillsets* in the Draft yet trading up for them (Justin Blackmon and Blaine Gabbert), and you can begin to see an underlying theme (especially when it comes to offensive skill positions).

Smith preached a base hit philosophy when he was hired, and many fans believe the team lacks talent because the GM has played it "safe" too often. The reality is quite the opposite. Really, his only "base hit" move was his very first draft selection, taking Eugene Monroe in 2008 after he unexpectedly fell into their laps. Since then, it's been home run swing after home run swing, and the strikeouts keep adding up. Tom Coughlin is gone, Shack Harris is gone, Jack Del Rio is gone, Dirk Koetter is gone, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard are gone. This is a team that's been built in Smith's vision the past four years - a vision sold as a team with strong offensive and defensive lines, excellent special teams, a running game foundation with a playmaking quarterback. What's troubling is that none of those things really exists on the Jaguars roster, and the existing problems get further compounded by the almost adamant refusal to identify and admit Sunk Costs. The insanity eventually has to stop.

*I'd like to make the point that talents and skillsets are separate and quantifiable entities. You can have immense physical talent and little-to-no transferable skills. And really, if you don't have the skills to make use of them, using the physical talents themselves becomes an exercise in diminishing returns. We'll call this "the Kyle Boller problem."