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Garbage Time: A Professional Sports Myth

For avid sports fans and players, we've all heard the phrase "garbage time" at some point in our lives. Garbage time refers to a part of the game, usually the last quarter or period, where the game is, virtually, already decided and any stats that occur do not matter. In high school, coaches may put in players who do not get a lot of playing time during garbage time. In football, it could be a 3rd string cornerback, in basketball, it could be the 4th shooting guard, and so on. Either way, putting those players in the game will most likely not affect who wins or loses. When you get to the professional level, and sometimes even college, garbage time does not exist. The myth of garbage time is directly correlated to player financials and statistics. Let me explain:

Across professional sports, players do not play for free (obviously). The players are signed under a contract. In this contract, it lays out how much a player will make during a year, how much they will make during a game, and different bonuses they may be awarded during their time with the team. These extra benefits may include a signing bonus, a playoff bonus, a championship bonus, and so on. Some of these bonuses are stat incentives. Let's take Nick Foles in 2018 who, at the time, played for the Philadelphia Eagles. Part of his contract's bonus structure would award him an additional $1,000,000 for playing just 33% of offensive snaps and making the playoffs during the 2018 season. Against the formerly known Washington Redskins, Nick Foles was in for the injured Carson Wentz. During the fourth quarter, Nick left the game with a rib injury. This put him just four snaps away from the threshold (357 out of 1,092 offensive snaps). This equates to 32.7%. The Eagles, because they treat their current and former players better than almost every professional sports team, decided to honor this incentive, even though he technically didn't hit 33% (Joel Corry at CBS Sports). For other contracts, snap percentage could be replaced with stat requirements.

In 2019, Ryan Tannehill received an additional $1,000,000 for having a passer rating higher than 96.0 on a minimum of 224 pass attempts (Tannehill finished with a rating of 117.5). That same season, Todd Gurley missed out on an additional $5.45 million for not hitting 1,200 rushing yards or 1,650 scrimmage yards (rushing and receiving combined). Yes, he had his fair share of injuries, but he played 15 games in 2019, compared to 14 in 2018. Gurley also played on roughly 75% of snaps in 2019, compared to a little over 86% of snaps in 2018. A 11% snap difference is big, but his stat difference was even bigger, justifying him to not receive a bonus due to less playing time. In 2019, he amassed just 68.5% of his rushing total from 2018, and 35.7% of his receiving total in 2018. He also tallied just 58% of his total yardage total compared to 2018. In conclusion, Gurley lost 42% of his total yardage, with just a decrease in 11% of his total snaps played. But what does this have to do with garbage time?

Photo: NBC Sports

Players across the league have incentives similar to the players listed above. Tannehill played at an elite level and got a proper bonus. Other players, who are part of certain schemes or packages (Byron Murphy for the Cardinals as a nickel back, or J.D. McKissic as a receiving back for the Wasington Football Team), may have smaller incentives, both in requirements and reward. This means that, most of the time, they will not be taken off the field in order to have a fair shot at hitting their incentives. The only real time a player with these bonuses would ever be taken off the field, is if it was late in the season, and they either hit their threshold, or have no chance of hitting it. Because of this, it is hard to determine if garbage time actually exists in the NFL. Now, let's take a look at the NBA.

*I should note that player's incentives with smaller contracts are difficult to find since the numbers for them do not stand out as much as others. Almost every professional athlete who steps on the field or court during a game has some form of bonuses they can potentially receive.*

In the 2019 offseason, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Kyrie, like most superstars, has a lot of bonus potential. Here is a breakdown of these incentives, per Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks:

  • Playing 70 games

  • Playing 60 games and averaging fewer than 2.4 turnovers per game

  • Playing 60 games and averaging 4.6 free-throw attempts per game

  • Shooting 88.5% on free throws

  • Making 2.8 3-pointers per game

  • Committing fewer than 2.1 fouls per game

  • His team scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor

  • His team allowing 106 or fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor

Each incentive is worth $125,000, totaling to $1,000,000 if he hits all eight. This past season was strange due to COVID (almost every team played 10 games less than usual), so I am not sure how incentives were handled. There is no public record of what is being done about it, but I am certain they will take the percentage of games played and stat averages, compared to previous seasons, and apply it to the incentives. Kyrie also missed a significant amount of time due to injury, so it is unlikely he will receive any bonuses regardless. Kevin Durant had less incentives, but they were more team-success concentrated:

  • His team making the playoffs

  • His team winning at least 43 games

  • Playing 50 games

  • Making an All-Star team

Each incentive is worth $250,000, totaling to $1,000,000 if he hits all four. Similar to the NFL, there are roles that players are assigned that put them on the floor in specific situations (3-point shooters when losing a game, big men when a team needs a crucial rebound, etc). There is no one specific player that goes in during these moments, but their specific play styles are used during them. So what happens when a team is up by 30 with less than two minutes to play? Clearly, it is virtually impossible for a team to come back from that. But either way, players won't let their opponent take a completely open jump shot. Even then, there was only a 35.8% chance to make a 3 pointer in 2020. Plus, players won't just randomly give the ball to the other team to help inflate the other player's steal numbers.

Photo: Bleacher Report

In the NHL, players are constantly rotating, even when the game is close or a team is up big. The MLB will see one or two pinch hitters a game, if that, even in blowouts. For these reasons, there is no way to determine a true garbage time situation in either sport, especially since baseball games can, theoretically, go on forever.

So let's bring it back to football, since I'm more comfortable talking about that and that's where garbage time is usually referred to. Let's take a look at Patrick Mahomes's historic MVP season in 2018. The only time Mahomes came off the field was against the Raiders in Week 17. The fact that the Chiefs were up 28-3 in the fourth quarter when he was pulled has less to do with Oakland getting destroyed, and more to do with getting Mahomes ample rest before their playoff run. The Chiefs had a bigger blowout against the Bengals (45-10 final, 38-10 going into the fourth quarter), and Mahomes played every single offensive snap. Attributing Mahomes getting taken out against the Raiders due to a blow out would be contradictory to their decision to keep him in against the Bengals, which had a higher point differential. Speaking of point margins, that season, the Chiefs had a point differential of +144, which means their games were decided by an average of 9 points a game. The league average for the remaining 14 teams with a positive point differential is 5.03 points a game. That is almost 4 points less than what the Chiefs averaged, which is equates to one possession per game. Because of this, we can objectively determine that the Chiefs did not experience garbage time during the 2018 season, despite having the second highest point differential and the most points scored.

Even though this is one example, isn't it a little farfetched to believe garbage time exists, even though the 2018 MVP, who crushed his opponents game after game, was never taken off the field until Week 17? And even though defenses may put in special teams players who play minimal snaps, they are still professional athletes running standard defensive schemes. If anything, the defense should be playing more sound since they normally aren't taking as much risk in blitzing or bluffing the defensive look.

Another thing to consider, most big plays that happen during garbage time are usually teams capitalizing on their opponent's mistakes. But isn't that when most big plays happen? We see top tier cornerback's blow their assignments every now and then, and big time stars miss free throws or wide open dunks; so how can we be narrow minded when a mistake is made in the final moments of a game, when the same mistakes are made by the best players across each league?

Photo: GettyImages

Final Notes:

With both contracts and the actual fundamentals of professional sports to consider, I conclude that garbage time, in professional sports, does not exist. I do believe, however, that it exists at the high school level, and somewhat at the college level. For college, just replace contracts with scholarship. There's no bonus incentive there, but college's pay certain players more than others, and coaches want to get their money's worth out of the students. For high school, blowouts happen at a more rapid rate due to a wider gap in athletic ability. Also, most coaches know when the game is won and lost, and high schoolers are not getting paid to play. There is no bonus incentive to keeping a player in the entire game.

The next time you hear the argument, "well, he only scored because it was garbage time" or, "it was only a close game because the other team let them score in garbage time", refer to this blog. And, if you don't want to refer to this blog, use common sense! Professional sports are loaded with world-class athletes, so why would garbage time even be a factor? But what do I know, I'm just a washed up long snapper. I digress, garbage time is a myth across professional sports and the idea of it only diminishes the actual production of professional athletes.


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