The Numbers Game: Why The Idea Of NFL Pensions Are Bogus
Since at least March we’ve heard a lot about how the average NFL career lasts about 3.6 years because compensation for former players is one of the key sticking points in the negotiation of a new labor deal.
It’s one of the most misleading number in sports.
The reason is that average includes all the players who are cut each year.
Sure, veterans get cut when their salary outpaces their production, but the vast majority of cuts are one-to-three-year players who were never good enough to play in the NFL in the first place.
If we’re talking about a truly average NFL career, in terms of length, for a truly average NFL player, then we need to go a little deeper than this 3.6-year figure.
A simple analysis of the Green Bay Packers roster tells us all we need to know.
There are currently 85 players on the Packers roster.
That includes everyone who was on injured reserve last year, everyone on the practice squad, and the 2011 draft class. Those 85 players represent 329 years of NFL experience or 3.87 years per player.
It’s almost surprising the Packers trump the NFL average, considering they are still among the youngest teams in the NFL.
However, we all know that those 85 players, which include the likes of Josh Bell, Jay Ross and [intlink id="100" type="category"]Justin Harrell[/intlink], are not all NFL players in anything more than name or grand delusion.
For instance, we know all 10 of the Packers 2011 draft picks won’t develop into bona fide NFL players. Past drafts suggest the Packers will have done well to get five decent NFL players in this draft class.
If you remove the draft from the picture and count all the players who have already proven capable of avoiding a first-year waiver, then you have 329 years of experience among 75 players, or 4.39 years per player.
Of course, that 4.4 NFL years per player would still count everyone on the practice squad and all the other guys the Packers have kept around in the hopes of developing them into productive NFL players, many of whom won’t ever get there.
I would say that’s still misleading.
Are we really concerned with the career longevity of the players who were lucky enough to be drafted or given a chance through free agency and never became viable NFL players?
I’m not. I know that much.
In order to be a little more subjective, let’s eliminate everyone who’s unlikely to ever start in the NFL, whether for the Packers or any other team.
In this process, I was generous. For instance, I counted [intlink id="443" type="category"]Brad Jones[/intlink], [intlink id="1335" type="category"]Eric Walden[/intlink], [intlink id="1058" type="category"]Frank Zombo[/intlink] and Matt Wilhelm as capable NFL starters. All have started at least one game for the Packers or someone else. I counted Jarett Bush and James Jones as starters, believing they could start somewhere else. Obviously, I counted rookies [intlink id="1613" type="category"]Derek Sherrod[/intlink], [intlink id="1616" type="category"]Randall Cobb[/intlink], and [intlink id="1624" type="category"]D.J. Williams[/intlink] as guys likely to get a shot, if not in Green Bay, somewhere else.
Even being generous, I counted 45 actual or likely NFL starters on the entire Packers roster. Those 45 players have 248 years of NFL experience, or 5.51 years per player.
What does this tell us?
It tells us if you’re good enough, or drafted highly enough, to not get cut in your first training camp, then you can expect an NFL career of around 4.4 years.
If you’re good enough to actually start in the NFL at some point, then the average career is around 5.5 years.
To add perspective, any NFL player with even a five-year career makes a minimum of $2.46 million, though nearly all will make more than that. That’s the equivalent of you or I making $123,000 a year for 20 years, and if you factor in inflation and the time value of money, then it’s more like you or I making $150,000 for 20 years.
So, tell me again why modern NFL players would need a pension?