Did Bounties Make the Saints Defense Better—or Worse?

Illustration by Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Since the National Football League announced Friday that an investigation had uncovered a bounty system by which the New Orleans Saints paid players to injure their opponents, most news media coverage has focused on how widespread these programs are, along with the ethics around them. When players are being paid $1000 for a “cart-off” and $1500 for knocking a player out of a game, there are certainly ethical implications. But there’s another question: Has the bounty system worked? Did the team’s blandly named “Pay for Performance” system improve its defense and help win games?

Gregg Williams, the now-embattled defensive coordinator (now of the St. Louis Rams) who ran the bounty system, was hired by the Saints before the 2009 season to revamp the team’s defense. He had an impressive record as defensive coordinator at the Tennessee Titans and the Washington Redskins; according to press reports, he had run similar bounty programs at both places. But the arrival of Williams and his bounty program didn’t greatly improve the Saints’ defense. In 2008, the year before Williams arrived, the team ranked 23rd in the NFL in total regular-season yards allowed; in 2009, his first year, they ranked 25th, though the team did rank second in the league in takeaways. In 2010 the defense had a standout year, ranking 4th in total yards allowed—although with far fewer takeaways. In 2011 the team’s defense reverted to its porous ways, dropping back to 24th—and finishing 31st in the league in takeaways.

So giving players a financial incentive to hit viciously doesn’t necessarily make for great defense. Is it possible that it might backfire? Some findings from the psychology literature suggest that it could. A set of experiments conducted by Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, and Nina Mazar found that increasing the size of a financial bonus actually decreased people’s performance on tasks that required concentration. Test subjects, the researchers suggested, were distracted by thoughts of the bonus. And while $1000 isn’t that much to a star linebacker making $3 million a year, it’s a lot of money for a special-teams player who makes a fraction of that.

What’s more, for the high-paid star, the bounty might be counterproductive in an additional way. Work by Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini has found that paying people what they perceive to be small amounts of money can sap their motivation. A player, even a star, might be willing to play his heart out and risk injury for his teammates’ respect and his coach’s praise—and press reports suggest that praise from Williams mattered a great deal to his players. But if a dollar amount is put on that effort and the price doesn’t feel very high, it undercuts the perceived value of playing hard.

As Ariely sees it, from a pure efficacy standpoint, the problem with Williams’s bounty system is that it rewarded players in the wrong way: It focused on what they did in the heat of the moment during a game. Rewards cause people to think more about what they’re trying to accomplish. Athletes are well aware of the dangers of over-thinking what they do in crunch time. (There’s a growing psychological literature backing them up). “If they think about the money, it takes away from the natural flow of play,” Ariely says. “One of the things we know is that when we have a very automated response—for example, if you play tennis, and think very carefully about your stroke—this will actually backfire.”

That doesn’t mean, Ariely emphasizes, that there’s no way to design an effective opponent-maiming bounty system. The key, he says, would be to focus not on games, but on rewarding players for what they do in practice, where habits and instincts are ingrained.

“If practice was all about hurting the other person—if every time they played against their team members, the coach would train them to basically get the natural instinct that hurting the other person as much as possible was the way to go—then it would become their natural habit and then it could work.” Of course, he adds, that would also have the unfortunate side effect of depleting the team’s own stock of players, as they competed, day after day, to destroy each other.

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