Brett Hundley, Sunk Costs, and Quarterback Decisions

National media outlets have made quite a stir over Mike McCarthy’s testy response to a reporter who asked if the Packers would consider bringing in a quarterback from outside the organization to stabilize the position after Aaron Rodgers’ injury.

“I’ve got three years invested in Brett Hundley. Two years invested in Joe Callahan,” he barked. “The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be.”

Setting aside how out of context this question and answer actually was, McCarthy’s response is encouraging. At the first available opportunity, in the face of a question everyone knew would be asked (including by us), McCarthy strenuously supported his new starting quarterback. That’s commendable.

On the other hand, it’s also exactly what you’d expect him to say. Hundley wasn’t great Sunday, but there are plenty of built in excuses (limited practice time, a hostile environment on the road, a difficult defensive opponent) for his play. McCarthy has no reason to say anything other positive things about Brett Hundley because there really hasn’t been a situation where the Packers have been able to get an honest look at Hundley’s skills. They’ve never run an offense built for him with plays best suited to his skill set, and until they get a look at Hundley in that sort of situation, it’s hard to really say they know anything about him.

But on a third hand (you have three hands in this scenario), McCarthy’s response indicates a predisposition toward the sort of thinking that could put the Packers in a difficult situation if Hundley struggles at any point this season.

Sunk costs and the NFL

One of the most easily accessible economic principles is the sunk cost fallacy. A “sunk cost” is a resource you’ve already spent and can’t get back. The sunk cost fallacy refers to a situation where you allow resources you’ve already spent to influence your decisions in the future.

For example, say you buy a ticket several weeks in advance of the release of a movie. Between the time you buy the ticket and the date of your showing, the movie gets crushed by critics and it seems like it’s probably terrible. Things are so bad that by the time your showing comes around, you don’t want to go any more. Do you still go?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the best decision is actually to stay at home. If you don’t go to the bad movie, you’re only out the cost of the ticket. But if you do go (embracing the sunk cost), you’re paying with both your money and your time. Instead of going to the bad movie, you could have just stayed home and done literally anything else and not cost yourself twice for the same decision.

This situation plays out all the time in sports. A team drafts a quarterback in the first round but very quickly that quarterback turns out to not be very good. More often than not, though, the team will continue to play that quarterback (at least for a while) out of some sort of obligation that comes with the draft status. Even though it’s generally pretty obvious early on whether a player is going to pan out or not, teams will continue to throw their resources (most notably playing time) behind bad players just because of the obligation that comes with a high draft picks.

The costs of Brett Hundley

The Packers have every reason right now to back Brett Hundley as their starting quarterback. It’s true: Mike McCarthy and the rest of the coaching staff have already invested loads of time (and, due to the trade up required to draft him, several draft picks) into Hundley and his development, and they haven’t had a lot of opportunities to really see the fruits of those investments.

Now they’ll have that chance, and if Hundley succeeds, great! The resources have been well spent and the Packers’ season could well be saved.

But if Hundley falters and the team fails as a result, there’s little reason to stick with him. If the Packers still aspire to make it to the Super Bowl, they should be willing to do whatever is necessary to get there, including making a change at quarterback somewhere down the road. Sticking with Hundley only exacerbates the cost of putting so much effort into his development in the first place.

None of this is to say that Hundley will struggle or even that there would be someone capable of rescuing the season available should the Packers choose to go in that direction. But if it comes down to it, the Packers can’t be afraid to make a move just because they’ve invested resources into their third year man.