There is a theory in economics referred to as the Weak Link Theory. Sparing all of the complicated details, the theory boils down to this: just as a chain can contain a weak link, making it ineffective, so too can an economy. If there is a weakness anywhere in production, the economy itself will falter and be less effective. However, if you make an improvement to the weakest link, you therefore improve the economy as a whole.
In their book The Numbers Game, former footballer Chris Anderson and behavioral economist David Sally applied this theory to sports. By looking at a team sport (soccer), the duo developed five options a manager/team-builder can make to improve the weak leak—ignore it, reinforce it with better play from teammates, substitute for it, improve it through increased effort and skill practice, or outright replacing it. Their theory is that in team sports that force players to rely on each other to achieve a common goal, the weak link theory is the best way to build a team into a contender.
So how does this apply to Philadelphia? Well, for a city starved by a need for championship glory, there is an awful lot of wanting and wishing every offseason among the fan bases of the four major sports teams. Every year, one can tune to a local radio station and hear excitement over pending free agents, disbelief over a lack of action, anger over missing out on “that guy,” and then the cycle repeats itself over and over and over. If fans understood that the GMs of the teams they love represent a shift in thinking toward weak link theory, perhaps their frustrations may be diffused.
Now, this theory isn’t exactly ideal for every sport. Basketball, after all, is a strongest link sport. The best player on a basketball team can often carry everyone else, as long as those players fill a marginal role effectively (see James, Lebron). Therefore, it makes sense for teams to do everything they can to acquire the best possible talents on the basketball floor to achieve success. For as much acclaim as the San Antonio Spurs get for playing a “team game,” that game is much easier to play when you have multiple future Hall of Fame players on the floor. This is what Sam Hinkie understood and this is where the Sixers are (hopefully) heading in the future. Likewise, baseball is largely an individual sport masked in a team setting. The sport presents an opportunity to blend strongest link theory (paying top dollar for a dominant player) with weak link theory (making an upgrade on a 8-hole hitter). There is evidence to suggest that Phillies GM Matt Klentak is attempting to do this as he rebuilds the Phillies roster and farm system.
The truth is, we are a long way removed from the Dream Team, the Holmgren era, and the Amaro moves that plagued Philly teams of seasons past. The renewed focus of analytics and the practices of the best teams in the four major sports have led to a refocusing of team building in front offices across the country. In particular, the Eagles and Flyers have shown this approach in recent offseasons, much to the chagrin of many hoping for a splash signing. Hockey and football, more than baseball and basketball, are team sports that require everyone to work toward a common goal and move as a unit to achieve success. Therefore, if we look at the moves of GMs Ron Hextall and Howie Roseman, we can see the weak link theory at practice.
The Flyers sign Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon
When Ron Hextall was handed the keys to the front office, it was understood that the Flyers would enter a rebuilding mode. Hextall’s ability to stealthily deal off bad contracts and bad players accelerated that rebuilding process and has kept the Flyers competitive throughout the rebuild. We all know about the anticipation of incoming talent, especially on the blue line, but Hextall’s current offseason moves have provided a key insight into his thinking of improving a hockey club.
Dale Weise is not a flashy signing, certainly not in a year where there were many players signed to 6-million dollar contracts that could have been brought in to improve scoring. However, the signing shows Hextall’s dissatisfaction with the performance of his bottom six players. For years, the fan base clamored for improved depth and a fourth line made up of less face-punchers and better skill players. Adding a player like Dale Weise shows a special attention being paid to the weak link theory. If there is skill on the fourth line, they can play more minutes, decreasing minutes for the top-six forwards. While some may think a decrease in minutes is not ideal, I’d argue it is actually better from a performance standpoint to have a guy like Claude Giroux at 100% for three less minutes a game than at 90% for three more minutes a game.
Boyd Gordon was largely panned as a signing, but assuming he makes the big club, he provides a penalty kill specialization that will allow Claude Giroux to not have to play the penalty kill. Again, this increases the amount of time G can play without wearing down. Improving the weakest link provides a benefit for the entire chain.
The Eagles sign Bradham, McKelvin, Brooks, McLeod, Other Brooks
The Eagles mortgaged their future for the next few seasons to draft Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. The merits of this move have been exhausted, but it is clear that GM Howie Roseman could sleep better at night based on the moves he’s made to support the dramatic decision. And these moves reflected an addressing of the team’s weakest links.
Remember—weak link theory does not mean “sign the best available guy at the weakest link area.” The goal is to simply improve the output of the weak link area to reinforce the performance of the rest of the team. Finding secondary players that can keep coverage of their opponent for just that much longer allows your stud pass rushers like Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham to get to the quarterback and make a play. Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, and Rodney McLeod represent upgrades at each secondary position that should provide this support. Paired with the drafting of troubled but talented prospect Jalen Mills, the Eagles made moves this offseason for long-term secondary success. In the same vein, guard Brandon Brooks was not the highest rated linemen on the free agent board. But he does provide an upgrade to last year’s guard play at a value that will allow the team to make other moves in the future.
Time will tell if these approaches prove effective for the Philadelphia sports landscape. The downside to weak link theory is that it requires patience before the payoff—and I think we can all admit that patience is often lacking in a city that feels entitled to a sports trophy. Based on recent championship winners in hockey and football, where true weak link theory can be practiced, the Eagles and Flyers are on track for being true contenders over the next five seasons.