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|09-07-2009, 07:20 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species
Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species
By KC Joyner
The Football Scientist, KC Joyner, is a Fifth Down contributor. He breaks down fantasy football matchups twice a week on ESPN.com’s NFL Insider section. His 2009 Fantasy Football Draft Guide is now available for immediate download. Lab results for “Scientific Football 2009” are available for those who order the book now.
In Richard Dawkins’s book “The Selfish Gene,” he describes at length the competition between selfishness and altruism in evolutionary genetics. Genes have to be selfish in order to propagate their characteristics, but an overabundance of that trait can be quite harmful to the species. Once the members of that genetic pool establish a dominance over other species in their area, that selfishness can and usually is turned inward with very negative results. Destroying other organisms to dominate the battle for resources opens the door for survival – destroying your own organisms for that same dominance can lead down the road to extinction.
Altruism is the counterbalancing trait that keeps selfishness in check. A species’s long-term odds can be greatly improved with the safety nets that come when members of a biological hierarchy look out for one another. This benefit does not provide unlimited benefits; too much of this type of evolutionary socialism will stunt the advantages to be drawn from a species’s best and brightest. Too much time spent helping your extended progeny could mean not enough time spent on trying to beat your rivals, and that can mean the end of the line as well.
Dawkins is clear when he points out that organisms don’t choose which evolutionary trait is better for them. It comes down to a battle of evolutionary strategies. Whichever balance of selfishness/altruism works best will be the one that is passed down over many generations.
N.F.L. teams get to choose their balance of selfishness and altruism. In general, selfishness in pro football revolves around one thing: money. Everyone — owners, coaches, players, scouts — wants a bigger piece of the multibillion dollar industry that is the National Football League. Just as selfishness isn’t an innately negative evolutionary trait, it also isn’t necessarily a bad thing for an organization. It is the primary motivator to make coaches and staff members work ridiculously long hours. It also spurs players to go through the oftentimes brutal price that has to be paid to keep a roster spot.
Altruism in the sporting world is the desire for a team victory. Just as this attribute is seemingly secondary in many cases in evolutionary biology, it can also be hard to find in the league. The reason for this is simple. At the end of every week during the season, everyone gets paid but only half of the league wins. The ubiquitous nature of the paycheck will naturally overwhelm its relatively finite motivational competitor and thus make altruism a rarer trait.
That rarity means teams have to make a conscious effort if they are going to balance the focus on dollars with a focus on wins. Every franchise tries this to some extent, but few have this balance mastered like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won two Super Bowls in the last four years.
The proof for this can partly be found in the cumulative rankings for the last five years in the Forbes player-costs-to-win ratios. This is a measurement done each year by the editors at Forbes that gauges how well a team turned its player payroll into wins relative to the rest of the league. A team that scores a 100 in this category would be average, while a team that scored 130 would be considered 30% better at turning player salaries into wins.
From 2005-2009, the top five teams in the cumulative rankings were: New England (889 points), Pittsburgh (814 points), Indianapolis (806 points), San Diego (706 points) and the Giants (653 points).
The Rooney family accomplishes this by placing a nearly equal emphasis on making money and winning. They balance self-interest and group interest and prove one can care about both concurrently. There are many teams who could learn a lot from this and positively impact the evolution of their own franchises along the same lines.
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