The Short Demand for Short People

Posted on May 1, 2007 by

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By popular demand (and this is clear when we look at the popularity of his posts) guest blogger Steve Walters is back. For those of you with extremely short memories, Steve teaches economics at Loyola College in Maryland but remains a fan of his hometown Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins.

On the second day of last weekend’s NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens did something fabulous. In the fifth round, they snagged this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Ohio State QB Troy Smith.

I argue that this was a genius move by Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome not because I attach any significance whatever to the hardware that sits on Smith’s mantle. I haven’t run the numbers, but my guess is that Heisman winners have, in the past, disappointed more often than they’ve impressed as pros.

What’s remarkable about Smith is that despite having the coolest trophy in sports, and despite having played superbly in one of the most visible programs in one of the best conferences in college footballdom, Smith has somehow managed to be under-rated and, therefore, under-valued. All because he is (gasp) SHORT. A mere six feet (recoils in horror).

The ongoing bias against short field generals is progress of a sort. Not too long ago, you may remember, when quarterback jobs were open, Blacks were told they need not apply. Heaven knows what college coaches told themselves as they converted talented Black QBs into defensive backs and wide receivers, or how NFL GMs rationalized ignoring the relatively few who’d managed to slip past the position sentries in college. But it’s possible that their “reasoning” sounded a lot like former Dodger exec Al Campanis’s ill-fated remark, in explaining why there were so few African-American managers and execs in baseball, that they “lack some essentials” to get the job done.

The prejudice against short QBs can also be rationalized. They get a lot of passes batted down at the line. They can’t see downfield as very well. You have to design a different, rollout-style offense especially for them.

Now, these things might actually be true, at least to some extent. But if they were, in technical jargon, truly “disqualifying,” then you wouldn’t be able to find any successful short QBs in the pro game.

But, of course, you can. There are two pretty good six-footers active right now named Drew Brees and Michael Vick. If you go back just a couple of years there was Doug Flutie (another Heisman winner), generously listed as five-ten. You can probably come up with several more examples. If six feet was the magical height threshold below which all passes got stuffed or all downfield receivers were invisible, we’d never have heard of any of these guys.

So if short stature is not disqualifying, is it a non-trivial disadvantage? I don’t know. And what’s more, I’m not sure anyone in the NFL has any good, hard evidence on this score, or has ever commissioned a study to quantify any possible trade-off between height and efficiency (e.g., if shorter QBs are less effective passers, do they make up for that by being better runners or sack-avoiders?).

Maybe some of you dear readers will fill the empirical void. There are lots of possible ways to do this, but it won’t be easy. One problem is that there’s just not much variation in the heights of QBs these days: those now active range in height from six feet even to six-five. There aren’t any Eddie LeBarons (variously listed as 5’6” to 5’8”) anymore, and we don’t know whether that’s due to irrational prejudice or real inability to compete. Statistically speaking, though, the lack of variation in height in the remaining sample will make it difficult to test whether stature actually affects performance (holding other influences constant), or to accurately measure any trade-off.

Until and unless the numbers have been carefully and thoroughly crunched on this, all we’ll have is anecdotal evidence that something odd and possibly inefficient is going on in the league. As one Ravens official remarked after the draft, “can you believe this guy lasted until the bottom of the fifth round? If he was two inches taller, he would’ve been a first-round pick.”

In a league with a hard salary cap, exploiting possible inefficiencies is even more important than it is in baseball, where teams can overcome prior mistakes by simply inflating the payroll. And Ozzie Newsome has struck gold before. Eleven years ago, he stole a “stumpy” linebacker in the second round; Ray Lewis (6’1”) has been the core of the team’s defense ever since, and is a sure Hall of Famer.

There are no guarantees that Troy Smith will even make the Ravens’ practice squad in ’07, of course, much less start a journey to Canton. But at the cost of a low-round pick, the Ravens might have found a successor to Steve McNair (6’2”). Fans of underdogs everywhere will want to watch this situation closely.

–Steve Walters

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