Intro. [Recording date: May 9, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is May 9th, 2023, and my guest is Les Snead. Les is the general manager [GM] of the Los Angeles Rams in the National Football League--the NFL. Les, welcome to EconTalk.
Les Snead: Jacked to be here, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Oh, so nice.
Les Snead: I feel like an outcast though, compared to--
Russ Roberts: Why?
Les Snead: your normal guest, right? I love listening to your podcast, but when you're in sports, you're like, 'Wait a minute, we're not gonna'--I definitely can't discuss AI with you.
Russ Roberts: That's okay. That's great.
Russ Roberts: I'm as excited as you are, because for a long time, I have been interested in decision-making, generally--as I know you know. Sports is an interesting laboratory for that process. Football is a particularly interesting laboratory, because unlike baseball where there's a lot of data, until very recently, there was only limited data in football. So, we're going to get to that in many other things.
But, I want to start with just a simple question. You're a general manager. What's your job description--not literally--but what are your responsibilities, and are they typical of all general managers in the NFL--the National Football League? Or, is each team different?
Les Snead: I get asked that question a lot. It's hard to answer. We'll spend a few minutes on it and we will start at a macro[?] level. But, to answer your second question first, generally speaking, the general manager job is very similar to other ones. At the end of the day, it's become probably as specific as being responsible for how good an NFL team we have. Then it's an element of selecting the players, the coaches, the people that are a part of the ecosystem, the collective, and trying to build as competent a collective as possible. Now with that being said, each team based on ownership, things like that, general managers may get asked to do [?].
At a macro level, I have to write this down, Russ, and then we can really get into details, because depending on the calendar year, your day may be different. There's some micro elements to it. But, number one thing I think a general manager, especially us, that I feel responsible for, is partnering with our ownership, our executive leadership, and our head coach to engineer our vision. So, if we did one thing during the day, it would keep, let's call it that group aligned.
Now with that being said, there's a lot of people involved in a football organization. So, one of the key elements is listening to everyone and utilizing their insight, their knowledge, their wisdom in helping apply that to the Rams to give us an edge.
Definitely being a part of making sure that our systems and processes allow our people to be experts in something and experts in specific missions at specific moments. At the end of the day, you got to help engineer that culture of where there is an element of specificity, focus, alignment.
Symbiosis is really important. We have to work together in harmony. You got to be adaptable, innovative, range, and current. So, that's at the macro level; and you're, like, 'Okay, that sounds like non fun.'
So, here's a good example that has just come up this week. We have a team nutritionist that basically helps our players be better on Sundays, but it's still a year-round job with diet. He has since gotten an opportunity to go in the private sector, and it's an opportunity he can't pass up.
So, out of the blue in May after the draft, we had to find a new team nutritionist. So, at the end of the day, as a general manager, I'm not a micromanager, but I'm a micro-aware of, 'Okay, wait a minute, that wasn't on the calendar. We need to focus on that.' And, oh, by the way, I don't have enough expertise to find our best team nutritionist. So, I have to work with our athletic performance director. We'll engineer a team to go on a search and we'll try to find the best nutritionist we can to replace Joey who's leaving us. So, that's a little bit how our day goes, but I know you can probably ask some questions, too.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, let's talk about different parts of the year. So, let's start with the season when the team is playing every Sunday, roughly. Do you have a typical day in that period? What are you doing? I mean, on the surface you're done: you drafted the team, coached, and you talked about what team players to keep, which ones to cut. Yes, there are injuries, there are things to do. But, on a day-to-day basis, what are you doing during the season?
Les Snead: You're going to find this interesting, and you alluded to it. The team is basically set. We've made our cuts. So, September, October, November, December, and into January is actually a very peaceful time for GM other than the ebbs and flows of the emotions of whether we succeeded on a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or not. Maybe let's call it the natural attrition of injuries and things and how do you replace that? So, at the micro level, I'm probably each week coming in on a Monday and going, 'All right. Is there any major issues that need to be addressed?' Most of the time, there is not. It's very routine. You played a game on Sunday; and on Monday, you're doing an after-action review. On Tuesday, our coaching staff will then begin prepping for the next game, and Wednesday.
So, what I do is spend a lot of that time preparing for the draft. And by that, I'm watching--because at the end of the day, the players we will draft are playing college football that time of year. Because the calendar is pretty regimented--everyone knows what they're doing on Monday, Tuesday--that is a really, really good time for me to focus on that April thesis I call it. The nice thing about the NFL draft is there's a set date. There's a date we're going to have to turn in our thesis, present our thesis to--whatever it is. So, the hard part is being disciplined to prepare for that.
Russ Roberts: Naive question--I know the answer, so I'll just assume. I assume you watch every game of the Rams.
Russ Roberts: Every minute pretty much.
Les Snead: Every minute live; and then we come in on Monday and often on Sunday night after the game, especially when you travel and you're on an airplane traveling. For some fans, we play a game. Even if we play on Sunday night football, the NBC [National Broadcasting Company] telecast Sunday night football. Let's say we're in New York and that game ends at 11:00 Eastern Time. Well, probably somewhere around 2:00 AM Eastern, we're going to get on a charter plane and fly back west. Point being is: oftentimes, you're going to now watch that game and you're going to rewind it back and forth and somewhat evaluate how each player did. And our coaching staff will even evaluate how they executed the tactic that was called on that particular play.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about the personnel evaluation at that--over the course of the season. You have certain players you put into certain roles, and over the course of the season, you find out, of course, that some of them are not living up to what you'd hoped. Others are excelling. Others you think might be better in a different position. How much of that are you involved in versus the coaching staff? So, when you're reviewing that game on the trip home, are you thinking about that the whole time?
Les Snead: Yeah. So, I'll give you a difference between general manager and coach. A coach is going to be very specific and really try to evaluate how that player did that particular day. Did that player execute his assignments? Then, oh, by the way, if he didn't, is there correctable moments? So, where a general manager, I'm more--let's just think your kid is playing Little League Baseball for the first time. There's an element to the general manager's job where--let's say you have a son and he runs out and he plays third base. He's playing his first Little League game and there's going to be obviously some spilled milk and then there's going to be some, maybe, let's call it, huggable moments, where you can pat him on the back and say, 'Good job.'
So, there's an element to the GM as you're trying to see the vision: is that player actually progressing? Is he or she--I mean with us, it's he. Is he evolving? You're looking at, 'Okay, maybe, this was his first game, but where is that player going to be Week 8, Week 16, Year 2, Year 3?' But, the coach is: 'Okay, we asked this player to do these four key critical things this particular game. He did three of four. How do we actually get him to do that fourth one the next week?' So, there's a difference between coaching and GMing. Coaching is a little more microscopic.
Russ Roberts: I got it.
Les Snead: GM is telescopic.
Russ Roberts: How stressful is that experience of watching the game? One of the strange things about being a coach at any level--meaning professionally, or a GM and especially a GM--is that you put a bunch of things in place and you're relying on a bunch of 24-year-olds and 28-year-olds, maybe some 30-something-year-olds, but it's kind of out of your hands. And yet if they don't perform well, you're going to get fired. I would think emotionally, that's kind of brutal.
As a serious sports fan, I have spent some embarrassingly large amount of time yelling at the television. I do understand rationally that the players can't hear me. I do that less, I'm happy to say, but for many fans, there's a cathartic emotional aspect of this, a rollercoaster. But, your job is on the line. What is that like? How do you cope with it? Do you think most general managers have a similar strategy as yours?
Les Snead: You'll appreciate this, and I'll steal from you that there is an element that is definitely a wild problem per se. So, I will say this, Russ: going into it, I will remind myself that at the end of the day, this is an adventure; and there's not many jobs that you can show up to work, let's just call it a Sunday, and know that in those three hours, wow, is your heart rate going to be--there's going to be an element of adrenaline that not many, let's call it, jobs or experiences on the planet gives you in those three hours.
Now, again, that's going into it. When the three hours occur, there's going to be moments where I will yell. I'll try to be calm.
But, as an example, Russ, I can tell you we were fortunate enough to win the Super Bowl--not this past year, but the previous year, Super Bowl LVI. I can tell you that last drive where we were driving to--we were down, so we were going to win or lose the game. Ultimately, we scored and we were going to have to stop them to either win or not go into overtime. But, let's take the offensive drive, where it started, where we went forward on a fourth down. I'm not sure that my body has ever experienced, let's call it, that amount of adrenaline, because I do know post-game, you would think that it's one of the more fulfilling celebrations of your life. But I did have an excruciating headache the rest of the night. And guess what? I would sign up for that headache many more times.
But, I do know on that drive, if you were to ask our owner, our colleagues, they would tell you that, 'Wow, he did not handle that stress or pressure well,' because I was basically curled up in a ball and letting Sean and the team do their thing.
I think it's interesting, because you know--in that moment--I've always said, it's like skiing for the gold medal. You're only going to get so many opportunities to, let's call it, be one of 32 to win that Super Bowl. A couple years before, we had lost that Super Bowl. So, it's like: Oh, you're skiing for the gold medal and you end up with the silver. And you're, like: I think the silver is supposed to be a really fulfilling moment in your life, but wow, is it one of the more depressing moments in your life.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we've talked about this before. I don't know if you heard the episode with Annie Duke where we talked about why is it that if you don't get to the top of Mount Everest, it's not a great enough--you got within 100 yards, half a mile, 500 yards, 1,000 yards. Still isn't that an incredible achievement?
Only two teams play in the Super Bowl every year. Many teams have not gotten close to that in a long, long time. The silver is death. There's nothing glorious about it. It's the equivalent of--it's horrifying.
Les Snead: I got two stories for you, Russ, to probably complete that question. So, let's go back to the Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, Odell Beckham Jr. [OBJ] was with us and he had injured his knee. Knowing we already had an injury to Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, our starting tight end, were out. So, end of the day, our offensive skill players had taken on some attrition throughout the year. And, knowing that OBJ going out was going to affect our second half, we were going to be a less potent offense.
But, OBJ in that moment really came to us to win it all. So, he was having a personal moment in the locker room where he was devastated. And, our athletic trainer--he's our director of athletic performance--he needed to go back out to the game. OBJ was really struggling. I said, 'You know what? Reg, you run back out to the game. Send one of your assistant trainers in. I'll hang with Odell during these moments.'
So, I did. I get back up--I sit with our owner--so I get back up to the owner's suite. And, in that moment, Cincinnati has already, on the first play of the second half, thrown a deep ball touchdown; and we have just thrown an interception. And, Cincinnati got the ball. Point being: by the time I get up, Cincinnati scored 10 points that I didn't see. We're down. And I'm like, 'Wow, I was not expecting this.' And from that moment, I was on edge.
But, going back to the Annie Duke question, I've always found this somewhat--I guess you'd call it amusing--is: If you compared our Super Bowl ring--so, that is probably the idol that you get, the trophy that you get--to let's call it NFC [National Football Conference] Championship--go-to-the-Super-Bowl-and-lose ring--I mean it is laughable, the size of the winning ring to, we call it, 'the losing ring.' It's like coach-speak. It's like, 'You know what? Don't spend anything on the losing ring. That's a losing ring. You want to win.'
And I've often said: You spend however many years in football. Even if you--Let's take Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They've won a lot of Super Bowls, but probably the two, three, or four they lost, that's still 10 of their best years.
So, in our case, that's going to be one of the moments when we are sitting around telling stories. Losing the Super Bowl is going to be probably one of the better moments in your sports timeline. But, why[?wow?] do we treat it like the redheaded stepchild per se?
Russ Roberts: Just curious, going back to Odell Beckham Jr. in the locker room: Are you glad you went and talked to him?
Les Snead: You know what? The answer is yes, because it was the--going back to you say--What's the job description of a GM? In that moment, it was definitely the right thing to do and you just have intuition that that was your responsibility. And also just as probably a human being.
And the neat thing is you try to synthesize a lot of things as like, 'Okay, this is a big moment for Odell Beckham Jr.' It's also a big moment for Les Snead personally; but, oh, by the way, I am into my 50s. I do have some wisdom experiences that he doesn't. And you try to synthesize in those moments that: 'You know what, at the end of the day, whether we win or lose this game, there's definitely going to be some extreme emotions of fulfillment, disappointment, regret--whatever the case may be.'
But, you're only going to get that moment--right?--with another human being who is maybe taking it tougher than you are, because, guess what? He was actually on the front lines, in the front lines making a difference in whether the Los Angeles Rams are going to win that Super Bowl or not. So, in that moment, the answer is yes.
And maybe it's good I didn't see Cincinnati go on a 10-0 run.
Russ Roberts: It's a bargain. It's a bargain.
Les Snead: Yeah. I come up and I'm like, 'What in--?' And the Team President said, 'You just don't want to know.'
Russ Roberts: Well, now that I'm in Israel and a lot of games in my sports life start at 2:30 or 3:20 in the morning--and there was a good chunk of them I'm glad I missed. I'm a Celtics fan. The Celtics lost a brutal game the other night, 116, 115 on an overtime James Harden basket. I'm thinking of my brother, I'm sure watched every minute; and I'm grateful I didn't. But, there are others on the other side.
I assume you saw this recently: Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated from the playoffs and their star player, Giannis was asked if his--I could pronounce his last name; his nickname is the Greek Freak. He was asked if his season was a failure. Did you see that clip?
Les Snead: You know, I did see that clip.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. His answer was, of course was a fascinating answer. He tried to claim it wasn't a failure; and in certain sense, it was not. But, of course, I think in another sense, it was. And that comes back to this point about it--it's certainly related to expectations--but, coming in second, which out of 32 is a huge success, but it didn't feel that way.
Les Snead: Yeah, I thought it was a--that's a quote that I think if we were teaching a class, you probably could start with that quote. And, I can understand what he was trying to articulate, that at the end of the day--and again, it gets into macro and micro moments--at a macro level, the Bucks have been a really good team. At a macro level, they were, I'm assuming, at least first in the East. I'm not sure they were first overall. So, that's not a failing season. But then at the micro level, there is, 'Wait a minute. You were first and you didn't take advantage of it.' So, you're always in sports psychologically because the emotions are so strong--and even for the fans, we feel it as well.
You're definitely having to synthesize wisdom from outside of football. With sports psychologists, psychologists, is: how do you deal with, okay, day-to-day life as a father, as a husband, even as just a GM: 'Okay, we're not failing'? We may even be having a loss in a season, but you're actually being productive. You're actually progressing while we are failing. That's a tough way to live and wake up every day.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, for sure. One of the things I always say is that--you mentioned it earlier--there are only 32 general managers in the National Football League. It's a very tough elite group. If you lose that job, unlike most jobs--most jobs, you lose your job, you find another one. Maybe if you don't get tenure at a university, you get a job at a different university. It might not be as good a university, but you can still be an economics professor. In your case, if you fail or are seen to fail at your job, it's basically--there's a real risk you'll never be able to do it again. I've often wondered what that does to your taste for risk and decision-making, how you interact with the owner over questions of risk.
You're known for being a very risk-taking trade general manager. You've made a lot of what are called blockbusters--huge trades with lots of first-round picks for lots of great players, not knowing for sure what they would achieve and play well for you.
How do you handle that, and are you aware of that? So, when you're in the moment, sure you're yelling or curled up in a ball, but it's more than just--as a fan, I've done that; but it's, this case it's your job, and inevitably some sense of your self. You know, I give a bad lecture and it's painful, but that's different when a team loses the Super Bowl. And vice versa: when you win, you're on a high. I've given many great lectures, Les, but I don't think I've ever had the high of equivalent of a Super Bowl win.
So, talk about that issue of how the scarcity of your job elsewhere affects your decision-making, if you think it does.
Les Snead: It definitely does. I think it's one of those where even when you started in football at the bottom level, entry level, when your playing career is over, it's interesting, right? Eventually, if you're fortunate enough to play college football, somebody is going to tell you you're not good enough. So, even when you're growing up--hey, if you're a professor and you're not necessarily dean or president of the school yet, you're definitely observing, let's call it, other GMs. But, I think the key--I'll bullet down to this--is: it's affected the decision-making tremendously, because when you get a job to where there's 1 of 32--and going back, I simply said many times: Just don't be scared. At the end of the day, make that an adventure.
There's a chance we're successful, but also, there's plenty of big data that says you're not going to be successful. Time will tell. Make it an adventure, enjoy the moments. But at the end of the day, don't be scared to try your darnedest to be 1 of 32. There's going to be an element of risk when you do that, because it might be a little bit easier to try to be, let's call it, 8 of 32. But, when you're making moves and you're working with people to make decisions, to try to thread that needle to go, 'Wow, if we do this,' we may have a little bit better probability of being 1 of 32 than other teams.
And, knowing how much luck is going to play a part in that, especially in the NFL versus some of the other sports, is when you do get to the playoffs, it's one and done.
So, a lot of times in a seven-game series, it can be a little more predictable, but in a one-and-done, there's a lot of luck involved in how that moment goes. We could go back through SB LVI [Super Bowl 56], but point being is: did realize we were in a window for many reasons that we were as close to competing for that Number One spot than we'd ever been. And, you know what? Hey, Stan Kroenke, why would we buy the--
Russ Roberts: [inaudible 00:27:12].
Les Snead: Oh, yeah. Stan Kroenke, why would we buy the LA Rams, the Super Bowls, in[?] our homes? Let's go for it and try to be 1 of 32.
Russ Roberts: So, in that case--just for non-football fans, I don't know if this is too much inside-baseball; I apologize--but you had traded for Matthew Stafford. You gave up Jared Goff, and you gave up a whole bunch of draft picks. You didn't have first run draft pick this year. You tried[?], I think, two first round draft picks for Stafford. He took it to the Super Bowl and won last year. Not very effective on paper: I'm not judging him, but his numerical scores were not very good and he's 35 years old. Was that worth it? Let's say he never plays well again. He's done. Would your owner have said that that one Super Bowl, even if we had to pay for it with the next five years of being barely playoff contenders and maybe not playoff contenders at all, that that was worth it?
Les Snead: Internally, we've said yes--and I'll backtrack a little bit--in that we did experience--so, take last year out, we can get to that and there's many variables of that. But we did experience this five-year run when we did hire Sean McVay, our head football coach. So, let's just say some of the things we did, let's just look at it like, 'Wow, they were no-brainer, easy moves, not as risky.'
Here's the case for that. When we hired Sean McVay, we had been building here for five previous years. I mean didn't get over the hump, made a coaching change. Even in that, I was fortunate to get, let's call it, a second chapter. But when we hired Sean McVay, right off the bat he was successful. Right off the bat--he's also head coach offense coordinator--our offenses were, let's call it, top one, two, three in the League. We actually got to one Super Bowl and lost it.
After that Super Bowl, what we did realize and one of the reasons we moved on from, let's call it, a less experienced Jared to a more experienced Matthew is: Okay, we got to the top of the mountain; and it wasn't Jared's fault at all that we lost it. When we got to the top of the mountain, we knew we had a head coach, an offense play[?] in his prime. We had a lot of our other core players, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, to name a few; a lot of offensive linemen, Andrew Whitworth. A lot of our top players were in their prime. The reason we felt like we could make the move to Matthew Stafford was we would give up some young players, obviously first--rounders.
Now again, if you're winning, you're going to be picking later in the first round. So, let's just say from a mom/dad/God-given talent level, they're a little less than [?]--but we were going to give up young players that we could grow with for that opportunity to bring in a quarterback who was in his prime and have this group of players in their primes who are all hungry. They've all had individual success. Some of them may go to the Hall of Fame or not without a championship, but they were all hungry to taste what it tastes like to win that Super Bowl. And we felt like getting that collective together in that moment was definitely worth it.
All teams, whether we would've won the Super Bowl or lost that night, let's say we would've lost in the conference championship game--an element to what we talked about earlier with the Milwaukee Bucks, it wouldn't have been a failure, but maybe in what we were trying to accomplish, yes. But, all teams have to then go through these moments where the collective definitely changes for many reasons. We did know that there would be some, let's call it, changes that we would have to execute whether we won or lost.
But, end of the day, the answer is yes. And, one of the reasons is because we had gotten there before and lost it. That one haunts you.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, sure.
Les Snead: When you got there and lost it, you wake up every day and there's a moment in the day where you'll go, 'Wow, we were skiing for the gold medal and somehow we ended up on the silver medal platform.' You wonder as a human, even though you try to rationalize, 'Okay, you're a good dad,' that regret--we could get into it. I'm sure you have books on your back shelf there that could go, 'Wow, that can eat at you and it compounds over time.' The pain of the loss dissipates while the regret only gets stronger.
Russ Roberts: That Super Bowl that you lost, you easily could have won. It was a very close game. The one that you won, you easily could have lost. It was a very close game. You could have lost two. You could have won two. There are occasional blowouts in the Super Bowl, but these were two that were both extremely close. And, I think it's inevitable that you understand with your head that there's an enormous random element.
Then, on the other hand, I'm sure that regret isn't just: 'I wish we'd won.' It's, 'Why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?' You try to learn from it obviously. But, one of the things you learned was maybe you need a more experienced quarterback. So, that turned out okay.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about Aaron Donald for a minute. I think Aaron Donald--I think most people would say if you had to pick a player to start a team, he might be the first one chosen. He'd be in the first two or three. He is not just a very good player, he is not just a great player: he's probably one of the greatest players of all time. And you have the privilege of choosing him in the draft.
When you picked him, did you do a dance? How confident were you that not just he was going to be a good player but a great player? And, did you dance other times and that never panned out? How confident were you that he was a Hall of Famer?
Les Snead: In that particular pick, probably as confident as you can be. Let's take him as an individual, but there was also the element of--as you'll hear us talk about a lot in football--there's a lot of teamwork involved. A lot of collective involved. And, one of the reasons we picked Aaron Donald is based on some of his physical skillsets--and a lot of intangible there, he definitely harasses the quarterback. And, at that particular time, we had Chris Long. His dad's Howie, does Fox, and we had Robert Quinn. And both of those players could affect the QB [quarterback] from the defensive line position on the edges.
And, a lot of times, when you have two players on the outside edges, the quarterback can step up in the pocket. They can rush from the outside. Quarterback steps up in the pocket--if you can visualize that.
So, we had the vision that while Aaron Donald can affect, let's call it in the middle, and now the QB couldn't really step up or he stepped up into Aaron Donald. So, there was that part of, 'Wow, he definitely fits a piece of this collective and he actually makes the collective even more ferocious.' And that's why we drafted him. But, I think mom/dad/God blessed him with a lot of physical gifts, also blessed him with these intangibles that not every player has. I do think some of the great ones probably have both, where they have this element of physical talent and they have these intangibles that, wow, bring that physical talent to a life that is Aaron Donald.
Russ Roberts: So, when you're evaluating a player like that--and of course, he could have been injured in camp before the season started and never achieved what he has achieved already. If he stays healthy, he'll achieve even more. When you're trying to evaluate--you say he had the skillset, he had the intangibles--how do you evaluate that?
Talk a little bit about the Combine. The Combine is a day where the best players in the country are tested and measured. They run. They run in different ways, and they do all kinds of things.
So, you have a lot of quantitative information from the Combine. You've got tape. So, you've watched Aaron Donald, probably every game he played as a college player. And then you've talked to him. So, you have some idea of those intangibles. Maybe you've interviewed his coach. How do you get a feel for all those different things?
Les Snead: Yeah, fascinating question. We'll start with this. We'll keep it really simple. We often say the simple calculus formula is there's an element of talent. You add it with the players and tangibles and it's going to equal a useful football skill. Each case is different because humans are different; and it's a case by case.
Let's go with the Combine real quick. Combines are going to measure--it's probably one of the few places in football that you can get a definite quantitative measurement. Now what's very interesting is those players doing drills are being tested not playing football.
Russ Roberts: I mean the 40-yard dash is a big part of it, how fast they run the 40. 'Oh, he did a 4:4 40.' A lot of those players never run 40 yards.
Les Snead: Yeah, we often say the only time you run 40 yard is when you've thrown a pick six and everyone's now chasing the other player to the end zone. As he said, that's underwear Olympics; it's not football.
So, there's a lot of central nervous system that comes into play where, based on the luck of the draw of how your human brain and central nervous system is wired of, 'Hey, can you actually--?'. We say those drills are usually A to B drills or A to B to C. There's not a lot of gray in those drills. You can train to run A to B in a 40 in some of the shuttle drills, A to B to C. But, in football, there's an element, where it's not A to B. It's really A to Z. And: How fast can you play football? So, that's an entirely different part of the equation, but we definitely use the Combine and it's definitely effective.
You have a history of going way back to what this defensive lineman did in these drills to what they do today. And, over time, even those players have gamed that system; and you can prepare to win the Combine, but you might not be as good a football player.
So, to answer your question, it is a calculus equation, because each time you make a decision on a football player, you're making a decision on a human being. Right? And the intangibles are very in important, and we say it many a times. We're on an A to a D scale, A being the best. You have A physical talent. Maybe for whatever reason--let's just say you grew really big and strong, but you really don't love football. You like football. You know you can make money in football, but maybe you would rather be doing something else. You're less conscientious. That compounds over time.
So, A plus C, you might end up being a B football player, right? And that can be good enough. Where, Aaron Donald is AA, so he ends up being a double A, right? He's A+A+, and you end up A+. You see how the math can go. Where you might be a C talent, A+ intangibles, and end up playing to a B level. Two players can play to a B level. But, oftentimes, I think, in football, in a business where you're collaborating, the player who is playing up to the B level per se--that C with the A+ intangibles--over time, the compounding that goes on in a locker room, those players are maybe more appreciated. Where, over time, the player who is maybe playing down, there's an element of frustration that builds; and we could get into team building and how that affects team building.
Russ Roberts: Well, you know, obviously, a player could be a very important contributor with a B or a B-, because those particular skills are needed in a certain way. Aaron Donald filled[?] the middle, that other people could do other things.
I'm curious: you make your assessment. There's all kinds of random things that happen. I mentioned injury. There's emotional things that happen to players obviously that derail their careers. Some can't handle the pressure. Some can't handle the money. It's a brutal sport, especially physically. How do you evaluate after the fact? In other words, you thought they were an A and a C, but it turned out they were a C and a C, or a C and an F. Does that change from year to year? Can you improve? Do you try to do better? How?
Les Snead: We're always doing after-action reviews. Let's say this, continuity having success. We like to chat a lot about now is, in this organization, myself, Sean, because we've had success, we're fortunate to have continuity. But, with continuity now, you definitely can test some of the things we were rating better, but still statistically, even a ten-year testing your systems--ten-year is probably right. You'd probably have many economists on this say, 'Hey, that's really not a subset,' but just think about the team that is just starting. But, we're always trying to look back to measure it. There's so many variables, not just with the human being, but also with the collectiveness--
Russ Roberts: Sure--
Les Snead: of the group playing together. Because very few players in the NFL--Aaron Donald is one of them--and we like to say, 'Can they change the math?' So, to keep this simple for your listeners, some defensive linemen teams will go into it, go, 'Okay, we'll block that defensive lineman with this offensive lineman.' In Aaron Donald's case, no team ever does that. They go in, 'We'll block Aaron Donald with these at least two offensive linemen.'
Now, there's only so many players that can do that. What if you don't have those players? Well, now, let's call it your defensive line. Consistently, I would say normally, there's four defensive linemen, sometimes five players rush. How do you now design schemes, have this collection of players that somewhat change the math, or as a collective calls as much chaos as maybe that player who changes the math?
So, there's many ways to try to figure the equation out. That's the neat thing about football that maybe makes it popular is, there is this sophisticated collaboration going on with humans--and very probably unique in life--where for three hours, there's these 53 men, some playing more than others, some more important than others, some's getting paid more than others, but they're actually chasing the same goal.
Obviously, you're President of a university. You've been a part of business, similar dynamics. But, is there ever that moment in a three-hour window that everyone is chasing--all they can think about is we need to--it's just a math equation. We need to have more than them at the end of the game. So, that's what's neat about this.
Russ Roberts: Well, the brutal part of it is--just to bring a little direct economics in--it's a zero-sum game. The 53 people are chasing it. Across the line of scrimmage, there's a different 53. And only one group of 53 can be successful on any given Sunday. I think that adds obviously to the intensity.
I've often observed that I don't think fans have any understanding of what it's like to be a professional football player. They watch it. I don't care how much you watch. You don't really appreciate the violence of it, the pain, suffering, the dreaming, the teammate--the camaraderie.
I always look at the players after the game that hug each other from each side. They were in a war. Nobody died, usually, which is great, but it was pretty intense. Yet after the game, there's an intense mutual respect, because those 106 people--the two teams--know something that we on the outside don't know that they go through that bonds them together, even though they're in a zero-sum game.
Les Snead: There's probably a camaraderie when you do get together because you all have been through something together that is somewhat unique to each of you. Sports probably fast forwards it, or it's like, 'Hey, listen to your podcast in 3.5 speed.' Because interestingly, each year, I have in my office--and I can't pronounce his name--Sisyphus pushing up the boulder--but I think that's the one, rught? But, point being: you push the boulder up to the hill. Either one team wins it, and bam, it rolls back down to the bottom.
So, each year, you're going to come together and not only work together, but work against each other as well in a physical way and also in a way where, let's call it, the physical endurance of training of a group of coaches trying to each day get you to go past yesterday in terms of your physical endurance stamina. We all know what that's like. If you've ever been in running or even did a 5K, you have a PR [personal record] or your record in 5K. Some slower than others, depending on how good a runner you are, but you know what? You're going to come back the next week and try to break your personal record, and then the next week, break your personal record.
So, I do think that physical element of training and working together--and then working against each other to sharpen each other's saw--somehow brings a camaraderie.
So, I would say this, I can't even as a general manager sit with Andrew Whitworth, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Donald and relate to what they've gone through. Even though we're both in the NFL, I've just never done what they've done.
Russ Roberts: So, I've been on my job here for two years as president of this college. I've never done anything remotely like it. I've learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes. You've been a general manager now for how long?
Les Snead: I started in 2012.
Russ Roberts: That's 11+ years. That's a long tenure for a general manager. A lot of them don't last that long. Can you share a mistake you made? Not a pick. Don't say I picked so and so and it didn't pan out, but just a procedural or educational experience you had from this job where now you know not to do that anymore? And when you started, you were clueless.
Les Snead: Yes. I think when you first get a job, whether it's an element of ego, whether it's not experienced, there's this element you want to prove that you have the answers. At that particular time, the St. Louis Rams hired me to be general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, and I'd never been a general manager. So, ironically, with the least amount of experience as a general manager, somehow there's just, 'Hey, I want to show that I have all the answers.'
I think when you're fortunate enough to not succeed, get a second chapter, begin to succeed, you do realize that the best way to approach most decisions, especially most big decisions as a leader is, 'Okay, I might have a clue of what the answer might be, but boy, let's approach it like you don't really know the answer and let's try to do everything possible to find the best answer. And then let's do everything possible to apply that answer and let's do everything possible to work to make that answer work as good as it possibly could work.'
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about the draft for a minute, which we just finished. There are two things about the draft I find comic or tragic or--it doesn't matter. I find them awful, but there's something funny about them. The first is sports writers will tell you who the team's going to pick. I used to pay attention to that as a fan. I'd say, 'Oh, wow, I wonder if we could get so and so.' Then you find out they're clueless. They don't know anything. Part of it is you have to also anticipate what the other teams are going to do, who is available. But, a lot of sports writers know nothing about the game, I assume.
Then after the draft, they grade the team. They give, 'Oh, so-and-so's draft was a C+,' which is hilarious to me. So, my question is, do you read any of that? I'm going to make it a little broader. Have you ever learned anything from an amateur? Has there any ever been a column that your wife shared with you or that a buddy shared with you and you went, 'Oh, wow, yeah, we need to beef up our offensive line,' or whatever is the insight? Because my suspicion is that even serious fans have no idea what they're talking about and they're engaging in a form of entertainment but not education. Is that true?
Les Snead: Excellent question. I think there's an element of truth and then there's an element of--I'll put it to you this way. It is funny with sports writers and they're going to try to pick the draft and they're going to grade you. The neat thing about the NFL, which is cool, is a lot of fans are passionate. I can even get letters and you're like, 'Wow, someone took the time to really write this.' I don't think I've ever took the time to--I didn't write the Four Seasons with that much passion to maybe improve my stay next time. Although the Four Seasons do a heck of a job.
So, going back to it, everything before the draft is like speculation. It's speculating all prices. The draft is actually, I call it an IPO, right? That's the Initial Public Offering. Then after that, you can then measure the stock price of that draft pick probably in real time.
What you can get from, let's call it, some of the mock drafts, what you probably can get is the players who are probably going to go on Days One and Two. So, the Thursday night first round, what you probably will never get is in what order they're going to go in. Really, you can chuckle sometimes where a team may pick a player and then someone says, 'Well, that's a reach.' But, at the end of the day, I bet you all 32 teams have the players ranked differently based on the way they rate players and also based on how they fit their schemes. Nowadays, the NFL is covered by a lot of people. Each sportswriter probably has the players ranked; but you can definitely use that at times to figure out, let's call it, probably who the definite Day One and Two, the first 100 players are, but in no order.
Going back to your thing, I have a policy where I--two things--I'm very curious. So, if I spend time to read or listen to a podcast, I would rather listen to your podcast than another one on the NFL. That is probably just a curious--and I'm intentional about like, 'Wow, is there something Russ talks--is there something one of his guests talks about that maybe we can--right?--synthesize, bring to the NFL, apply it that may be better than just reading another or listen to another NFL podcast?' But, there's often times where if you get into the wisdom of crowds, there's an element where if a lot of the fans are saying one thing, there's probably a subset of truth to what they're saying.
Now, like many things, they're not nuanced. Sometimes you can listen to it and go, 'Well,'--a lot of times if I listen to something like that or read something, you'll try to go, 'Okay, is that worth listening to or is it not?' If you say it's not, can you actually give a reasonable--and try to be as unbiased as possible--why we shouldn't listen to the passionate fan?
Russ Roberts: But, are there a few, say, YouTubers or others who you think actually understand the game? Do you have any feel for that?
Les Snead: I would say there's definitely some that are more nuanced, have more depth than others. And you'd probably have to find that in the podcast realm, because in the entertainment business, especially in television, shallower themes are going to sell and obviously based on attention spans and the algorithms of keeping people attention and drawing their attention. There are some people--journalists, bloggers, passionate--that definitely are more nuanced than others. But, I can say this: ESPN [Entertainment and Sports Programming Network] often--nothing against ESPN; they've done an unbelievable job of amplifying sports--but they're going to sell some of the shallower headlines.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure. I'm thinking about things where a coach makes a decision, not so much a draft pick, but sometimes a draft pick. But, a coach will make a decision and even smart fans will say, 'He's an idiot.' And, my thought always--which you'll not be surprised at--is, 'Well, it's possible he knows something you don't know and you may not even have an idea of what that might be.' It could be he had a bad night the night before and he's literally not capable of playing up to his level. I mean, as a Patriots fan, famous example is Belichick never played Malcolm Butler in a Super Bowl game against the Eagles where his defense is getting destroyed. And he doesn't let--we thought--one of his better players on the field.
And a more modest example: There'll be a playoff series in basketball and a guy literally doesn't come off the bench. And, the fan goes, 'He was averaging 16 points!' It turns out he's a horrible matchup for that team. I don't know--I don't know--Bill Belichick has never talked about it. I hope he writes a book about it someday. But, for Patriots fans, that was an unbearable decision. But I assume Bill Belichick wanted to win the game, and I also suspect he knows more about football than I do. He's also a human being. He could make decisions based on not the most rational things. But, it appears to be something--his human qualities don't always manifest themselves dramatically in the public eye, at least. Any thoughts on those kind of events?
Les Snead: Yeah. Yes, that's a really good question. Usually, I answer it: Bill Belichick, I'm pretty sure, wanted to win that game. He intentionally didn't play Malcolm Butler for what he thought was a good reason. I bet you if we could ever get Bill to open up, all of a sudden, I bet you he could write a book on that decision. You're like, 'I can't believe that much thought went into it.'
A lot of times whether a team goes forward on fourth and one or not can easily get scrutinized--and should be. It's entertainment and that's what keeps the fans engaged in the days between the games. But oftentimes, you can ask a coach, 'Well, let's just say you didn't go forward on fourth, if it didn't work out, would you go for it again?'
But, a lot of times a coach will go into: Okay, in this particular game, we came into it with these short yardage runs. We actually practiced this menu of short yardage runs. For whatever reason on this particular day, that other team was really, really stuffing those short yardage runs. Our best offensive lineman is our left guard. He had a high ankle sprain that game, but he was suffering through it and playing. And, in that moment, yes, I thought it probably would have been a good idea to go forward on fourth and one. But wow, are we going to now run a play that we really haven't practiced all week? And: Is that better? But, the plays we've been running or we came in to run on short yardage aren't working. Wow, our best lineman to follow in the run game is actually injured in this moment. So, we punted instead.
It's often nuance like that that you get in a snap of a finger, 'Oh, yeah, we were deliberating. Should we go for it? Should we punt?' It's nuance that the fans probably don't have.
And oftentimes I say this: The reasons decisions are made and, like you mentioned, are often not public knowledge--it's internal knowledge that probably will never--in that case, Malcolm could have woken up with a severe case of the flu. At that moment, I'm sure we've had that you would put IV [intravenous]--I mean there would be basically a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals] unit set up to get this particular player ready for that game. But, for whatever reason, modern science couldn't have him clicking. I mean, I don't think that was the case, but--
Russ Roberts: I don't think so, but it's a nice story--
Les Snead: A lot of time the reasons are not, unfortunately, public knowledge.
Russ Roberts: So, you mentioned that fourth and one. Obviously, a huge random element, plus some inside information. Do you and your coach process those? I know he processes it with his coaching staff. Do you get to weigh in on those kind of decisions and such when they're significant? Or more importantly, a lot of coaches have a set of practices they're going to implement in those situations. They may not go for it every time, but they might have a certain set of defaults that they'll use. Do you strategize on those issues?
Les Snead: We will usually debrief them, but the prelude of it all, the preparation of it all is the coaching staff. And, during the game, I am not on the headset with the coaching staff. So, in that moment, there is reasonable systems and processes in play where you may have someone that's into the analytics of giving you--all right, this is from a probability standpoint of time--if we do get into a four down situation, this could be the time in the game to go for it. And at that point, what that allows coaches to do is: let's just say a head coach has an offense coordinator. He can maybe communicate to the offense coordinator, 'Hey, here's--I think--that will give you four downs to get a first down, instead of three on this drive.' Right?
So, you're always planning in those moments, trying to plan ahead. And there's processes, reasons in place to help you do it.
But in that moment, in the Super Bowl, when we went for it on fourth and one or two and did the Jet Sweep to Cooper Kupp, I mean that was a Sean McVay in that moment. This is going to be our best chance to keep the drive alive, to go down and score, because we had stalled and our offense wasn't clicking. And he just had that intuition that, 'Wow, are we going to really punt again to a high-powered offense and ask our defense to bail us out one more time?' And, one more score by them and it is probably checkmate and game over.
Russ Roberts: I apologize. I'm not a Rams fan. I have two sons who happen to be Rams fans, who were born and partly raised in St. Louis. But, when you said 'Jet Sweep,' I got butterflies. That's a very gutsy call, because a Jet Sweep--which is a long play, it takes a while to develop; again, you're opening yourself up to incredible criticism--which is true in every play. If it doesn't work, obviously, it was the wrong call.Which is not true. But the fans always are going to kill you for it. But, that was a gutsy call.
Les Snead: Gutsy call. To tell the story, too: Our starting tight end, Tyler Higbee, didn't play that game, didn't dress. Our backup tight end, who is the key lead block on that play, was injured during that game. Our third tight end, who almost was not dressed that game, was the lead block on that play. But, the neat part of the story, and if you're a real Rams fan, you will probably have seen this somewhere along the way, was: We worked that play at the Rose Bowl, maybe the, probably the Friday practice before the Super Bowl. Because where we're located in Thousand Oaks, California, there's these Santa Ana winds and it was going to be windy, I believe that day.
So, we went to the Rose Bowl to have a less windy practice. But, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford fumbled that exchange a couple of times. And, they went back after practice to maybe change a little bit of Cooper's alignment to get the timing right. You think about the intangibles, the conscientious of those two players. And then in that moment, when Sean called the play, that was the play he was going to call. And. it worked out. You know what I was thinking, Russ. I hate to interrupt you but I have to.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Les Snead: I know Kara had told me that your two sons were Rams fan and I kept trying to think--as I was preparing for the podcast, looking at your bio I saw probably the ties to watch you in St. Louis. I was like, 'Ah, that has to be the tie to the Rams.' And, boy, Russ, you used to really enjoy walking on that campus on a nice spring or fall day in St. Louis.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I saw the Rams play there. I saw Kurt Warner, in your weird indoor stadium that you had there. It was a peculiar kind of stadium. Very loud, extremely loud. And I loved Kurt Warner, and the greatest show on turf, before they went up against the Patriots. I loved that team. Of course, when they played Patriots, I rooted for the Patriots, but I didn't realize how much my sons cared about the Rams already. That was a great lesson in parenting. My brother and I--I've been a Patriots fan since 1963 when they lost 51 to 10 to the San Diego Chargers in the AFL title game.
So, 1963, we're talking about almost four decades; and it's our first--we've lost I think two Super Bowls before that, one of them at the time that was the Super Bowl loss of all time. And so, we win; and I start jumping up and down. I mean we're really excited. I look over at my oldest son, who I think at that point is six years old, is crying. And I had to stop dancing. I just had no--I'm ashamed that I didn't realize how much he might care as a six-year-old.
Russ Roberts: It's--fandom is a crazy, crazy thing. A lot of kids follow their parents and a lot of them don't. Now, that turned out that way.
Les Snead: Russ, you said you were a Celtics fan. This time of year, I'm trying to stay away from the motions of NBA playoffs. I'd rather just enjoy; but I am actually in our garage riding a stationary bike and I just hear Kara scream, but it wasn't a scream of joy. It was a scream of disappointment. But it was that Celtics game that I guess went overtime and they lost at the end. What we're talking about is I'm, like, 'Okay, I think the Celtics--.' I didn't need to ask her, but I just had an inkling they just lost the game in a somewhat unbearable way.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, just to pick the other side of that--I don't think I've ever told the story on the program before. But, when the U.S. hockey team played the Soviets in 1980, I was in grad school. I was in a workshop and the workshop overlapped with the game. So, I did not want to know anything about the game. I wanted to go home. I had recorded it. I wanted to wait till it ended. I was going to watch the game and enjoy it--with great anxiety, because of course, the United States had no chance to win that game. I think they played the Soviet team a few weeks before and lost to them 17 to 4 or some horrible, brutal thing. But, I thought, 'Who knows? They're playing really well.'
So, I'm walking home from this workshop seminar, and it's dark because I think it's winter. And I'm making a big effort not to run into anyone I know so that they won't tell me, 'Can you believe?' or 'Oh, can you believe?' So, I'm walking along; and I hear this roar that comes up out of the neighborhood. And this is Hyde Park, neighborhood of Chicago. Not a lot of sports fans there, but it didn't matter. It was the Olympics, and it was the United States against the Soviets. I didn't check, but I was pretty sure the United States had beaten the Soviets. Of course, they had.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about the camaraderie in your business. You've alluded to it earlier. How often do you talk to other GMs, or GMs in other sports?
Do you share lessons, stories, tricks, secrets for handling your family, your emotions, etc., or is it somewhat lonely? I mean, it's a very small club. You guys should all go on a retreat together and hang out and share insights, but you don't. So, do you know many of them? Any of them? How often do you talk to them and when?
Les Snead: It's a small club. We're very competitive. You know all of them. We get together probably at least once a year at what we call our NFL Annual Meetings and oftentime at the Combine, but you're going to be, based on probably generation, some version of age, closer to others than some. We're so competitive, we probably do not do ourselves justice in the collaboration of probably helping each of us cope through the ebbs and flows of it. But, there's some you're closer to than the others. And, we're going to have always talk because that's just business.
But, you mentioned the general managers in other sports, whether it be baseball, the major leagues, or NBA [National Basketball Association], or even NHL [National Hockey League]. I definitely have reached out and built relationships with some of those GMs. Often in those cases--and I'm sure it's because they're a degree of sport removed--often more open about and more vulnerable to maybe some of the pain points that you're going through. It seems to be that those are the more fruitful conversations. I think it has to do with in the NFL, we're trying to get an edge on one another. So, we're less open with each other.
Russ Roberts: But, you do talk to them obviously because you have to make trades with them. You know the characteristics, the personalities. Do you ever tease each other, like, 'Man, that draft pick didn't work out. What were you thinking?'
Les Snead: Yes, you do, especially the ones you're closer, because you think about it, all of us--there's a subset of us and I'm now one of the, fortunately as you mentioned, longer-tenured GM. So, there's a subset of us that grew up in this business together from entry level--if you want to call it, starting in the mail room to now--tight journey, which is often the case in sports. And then there's a younger group that you know less because you weren't necessarily out on the road scouting college football players with that group. But that group that you grow up with and on this journey, you're definitely closer to. And those are the ones you probably can joke a little more: 'What were you thinking there?' Things like that.
Russ Roberts: You've been a GM for 11 or so years. We said it's a long time. Generally, coaches, general managers, they get fired. Some of them find a new job. The fact that you've won a Super Bowl, it gives you a lot of street cred, I think. If you ever did struggle, I think you'd probably get another opportunity. But, maybe not. Do you ever think about what's next? I mean, do you want to die with your cleats on? Or, do you have aspirations to do something else? Do you spend any time thinking about that?
Les Snead: I do. Every now and then, I'll sit down and I have this list of, in my notes next chapter. And there may be a thought that comes to mind. I'm fortunate enough--again through Kara--for a birthday present one time connecting me with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. And he's asked--if you ever meet Jim or have a conversation with him, he asked really, really good questions. So, he's always challenging myself on maybe what's next.
But in all honesty, when I first heard about your podcast and he was, like, 'Oh, he's President of a school in Jerusalem,' like, I did write that down in notes like: 'Oh, that's a cool: next chapter.' I don't know what you have to do that with it. I think because I'm curious, there is this element of, 'Wow, is there a way to experience something else down the road?' When that time comes, I'm not sure.
What I do know is: you're not--you definitely have to be honest with yourself. There's probably a shelf life to be a general manager. And at the end of the day: Are you still passionate enough? Do you still have what it takes to come in every day and spend all your energy trying to build a sharper sword amongst a lot of sharp swords? And that takes a lot of energy, both physically and mentally. I think the moment you realize, 'Okay, wait a minute, maybe I'm not up to that task,' you should probably step away. But, I haven't thought about enough, Russ, to have a definite next chapter. But, when you get into the early 50s, there is that 'Okay, maybe I should have a little bit of a list in the drawer.'
Russ Roberts: But, you still like your job.
Les Snead: Oh, love the job. Definitely love the job. I think you definitely have to--the longer you're in it, if you are somewhat in love with the atelic part--the processes, the systems, the day-to-day doing--and not necessarily addicted to the results, you have a better chance of sustainability and a better chance of a fulfilling career.
There comes a point--in my tenure, there's an element of: What can you give back to those who are going to come behind you? How can you lead and fight forward as well and try to take some of the wisdom that you've earned and be as innovative as possible?
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Les Snead. Les, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Les Snead: Enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.