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Marvin Lewis and the fear of playing rookies

Putting numbers to Marvin Lewis’ strategy of playing under-performing veterans as opposed to young players with high upside.

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Anybody who has followed the Bengals during the last decade has likely noticed a particularly odd trend utilized by head coach Marvin Lewis. Ok, maybe they have noticed several odd trends, but the one that I’m speaking of is Lewis’ fear of playing rookies – especially on defense.

When interviewed after the Bengals’ Week 17 victory over the Ravens, Lewis was asked about whether the team should have played their younger guys sooner. His reply was a disturbing acknowledgement of this fear, referring to how playing youngsters puts “everybody in jeopardy” based on what they know and don’t know regarding the team’s scheme. He also added that rooies “have to prove it”, but basically admitted he doesn’t give them a chance to do so, while also blaming the lack of preparation time teams have to teach rookies.

Lewis puts the young players in the odd situation of not letting them play because they haven’t proven themselves, but won’t let them prove themselves because he won’t let them play. It’s like the teenager stuck with the circular predicament of not being able to buy a car because they don’t have a job, but can’t get a job because they don’t have a car.

Instead of giving the young players a chance to either succeed or fail, Lewis lets them sit on the sidelines while playing veterans. If the youngsters were lowly regarded kids, or if the veterans were a “who’s who” of All Pro caliber players, then this philosophy would seem to be reasonable. But often the youngsters are high picks with plenty of upside who are getting benched in favor of underwhelming veterans.

Only four teams allowed rookies to play less than the Bengals allowed their rookies to play in 2016. Interestingly, the Vikings and Redskins are two of those four teams and are both led by former Bengals assistant coaches.

For years the Bengals have opted for the likes of Robert Geathers over Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko over DeShawn Williams, Rey Maualuga over P.J. Dawson and Nick Vigil, and there are countless other examples. Aging veterans have continued to grace the field for far longer than their best days, while young player who were held in much higher regard watched from the sidelines. Such was the case for Dre Kirkpatrick, who became a starter in year four. Even refusing to activate William Jackson III from the Injured Reserve this past season in favor of a veteran special teams player, is yet another example of this philosophy.

Basically, Lewis opts to stick with an underperforming investment instead of taking a chance on one which has the potential for a much higher return, but could also have a lower return. To put this strategy into investment terms, Lewis is essentially putting his savings in a low yield bond fund instead of pursuing a growth stock mutual fund.

The bond fund is much safer, but is only getting you a fraction of the growth fund. But how much are you losing by taking the “safe” approach? Let’s put some numbers to this and see what Lewis’ strategy looks like converted into money.

Let’s say you invest $5,000 into a pretty solid fixed income fund (bond, CD, money market, etc...) which gets you about a 2% return. It’s not a great return, and barely keeps up with inflation, but you know in 25 years the money will still be there, and you won’t lose anything. At the end of 25 years, that initial $5,000 investment will be worth about $8,200.

Now let’s say you invest that same $5,000 into a middle of the road growth stock mutual fund. It has some good years with double digit growth, and a few bad years with zero or even negative growth. Over the span of 25 years, if it merely followed the S&P 500 for the last 25 years, it would have brought you an 11.1% return for a total of over $48,000.

Bengals returns with subpar veterans
Scott Schulze

Even with the ups and downs of the market, the difference is $48,200 vs $8,200. Pursuing the higher yield mutual funds ultimately brought a return which was 587% better. This is essentially what Marvin Lewis is doing on the football field by insisting on stubbornly sticking with safer, under-performing players vs taking a chance on players with a higher upside for increased performance.

Let’s say you feel that the difference between the likes of Robert Geathers, Domata Peko, Chris Crocker and Rey Maualuga compared to the upside of rookies who sat on the bench like Carlos Dunlap, Dre Kirkpatrick, and George Iloka is not as big as big as 2% to 11.1%. Ok, we will split the difference and say the upside rookie brings a modest 6% return. You still end up with more than double the return over the low performers, with about $19,000 at the end of your 25 years.

Bengals investing with subpar veterans
Scott Schulze

While the analogy may not be perfect, it compares the player personnel strategy of Marvin Lewis opting for safer, underperforming players over those with high potential who are not as guaranteed to bring a positive return. And then it attempts to give a graphical representation for how this coaching strategy is limiting the Bengals’ chances for optimal success by pursuing less productive investments.

Lewis has been given $5,000 and both the growth stock mutual funds and low yield fixed return fund for his retirement. But he continues to opt for the low yield investment, and the Bengals’ lack of success over his tenure (zero playoff victories) is clearly visible.

Even though we are talking about football and not finances, I suppose I should add the familiar footnote that all investment advice is to be taken with a grain of salt, as past performance is no indicator of future returns.