Does that even make sense? Let’s give this a shot…
I first read the Moneyball book two summers ago. I was ages behind the rest of the sporting world in actually getting around to read the book, sadly, but ever since that moment I’ve devoted entirely way too much time catching up on the movement that I had missed just years before. It would take a lot of time to sit here and prove to you that I’ve actually done the research, so let me just sum it up by giving my own personal definition of what exactly Moneyball is. To me, Moneyball is the attempt to capture value in a market where it has yet to be captured. Expanding on that, you get to broader definitions like exploiting market inefficiencies, creating new measures of data, and complicated analytics the likes of which you have absolutely no interest in (for good reason).
As I’ve spent time in the past 24 months mass consuming everything I could find that had to do with advanced metrics, I learned that the original principles of Bill James that Billy Beane adopted in Oakland were now being applied to different sports, most notably soccer and basketball where the challenges to capture relevant data increase exponentially because of the freestyle nature of the sports. Fascinating stuff to a sports dork like myself. I became increasingly more captivated with all of this and delved heavily into both of those worlds. When I finally surfaced to live a normal life I came to a curious realization though. Not once have I ever come across an article detailing attempts in the NFL to detail their own personal sabermetric revolution. I went out and fixed that last night learning all about Football Outsiders and the outstanding work they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade (hint, hint, hint for fantasy football purposes). However, I’m still coming up short in one important aspect: who is THE sabermetric team of the NFL? No seriously. Is there any team you’d identify out there as being the team best utilizing sabermetrics? Baseball had the A’s first, with the Red Sox and Rays being most associated with it now. Basketball had the Houston Rockets with teams like Seattle/Oklahoma City, Portland, Dallas, and Boston following suit. In the NFL? I don’t know of one. I have a theory on one (and you can probably guess who it is). But there is no team that I can definitively point to and say, “that’s them.”
So like I said I spent last evening trying to cram as much football sabermetric information into my brain as humanly possible. Eventually I ran across an interesting article by a couple of economics professors who looked to create a model that could definitively predict success in the NFL draft. It doesn’t come quite out and say “this is sabermetrics,” but it most certainly fits into my definition of trying to capture value where it has yet to be captured. In that article, authors David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt do their damndest to see if there are any predictive measures, as we currently know them, that can show whether a prospect will succeed in the NFL. It’s really, really nerdy so to give you the Cliff Notes version, they basically found that being drafted in the first round does not guarantee a successful player and, most interestingly, that the best value to be had in the whole draft is actually in the top half of the second round. Furthermore they found that it doesn’t really matter what round a team selects a quarterback.
Which is to say: teams don’t know s— about s— when it comes to drafting players.
A new perk of getting the NFL Network is the in depth coverage we now have of the actual draft and everything that goes into it. For the first time, we’re granted access into the combine, able to witness the 40-yard dashes of different players live, see their performances in the vert, bench press, etc. It’s pretty dang cool to see for the first time, if only for the inevitable moment each week when Rich Eisen runs the 40 and they ghost race him against 350-pound linemen. Unfortunately for all the unsuspecting NFL teams out there, these ridiculous measurements guarantee nothing when it comes to how a player will perform on the field
One of the most entertaining scenes of the recent Moneyball movie is an early one in the Oakland A’s war room in which Beane first lets his scouts know that they’re going to start thinking outside the box. Although highly exaggerated for comedic effect, the scene offers a glimpse into the type of world and collective mindset that Beane sought out to change when he originally applied the new stats movement to baseball.
It would be hard to forget the particular moment when the old scouts discuss how a player has an ugly girlfriend, surely meaning that he has no self confidence. The camera then cuts out to all the scouts nodding in unison as if this were some ancient hidden constant of baseball that could only be learned after spending at least thirty years involved at the professional level. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll guarantee you’ll laugh. Everyone laughed.
The sad part is the NFL is still in that mindset. The 40-yard dash is the player’s ugly girlfriend and Al Davis is the old scout.
A couple of weeks ago I spent about 1,000 words felating the New England Patriots for what I theorized was their own unique attempt at practicing sabermetrics within the game of football (and yes, this is the anonymous team I mentioned earlier). In that piece, I introduced you to the brain behind the Patriots dynasty and told you how him and Belichick have spent a lifetime outsmarting their football counterparts. I brought up a couple of the unique practices I postulated were their attempts at Moneyball and how the rest of the league seems to have yet to catch up. I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about all of that and so I’d like to take the time again to explain the unique things New England does in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Please understand that I obviously have no way of proving any of this because I don’t have access to New England’s front office. But the series of ways in which the Patriots have distinguished themselves seems to indicate to me that it’s more than luck or coincidence, and actually a trend. Without further ado, the list:
-A highly passing oriented offense that pretty much mimics the true spread offense used in college. It’s a natural extension of Bill Walsh’s first west coast offenses which came up with the idea that a 5-yard pass is just as effective as a 5-yard run, only the Patriots utilize it to the extreme. The basic premise behind it all is that they’ll dink and dunk you to death with underneath routes until you defense cheats and then they punish you with a long throw. Although more and more teams are making the switch to this style, the Patriots have even added their own unique wrinkle. It used to be that they’d make you pay with Randy Moss until they figured out that having a big name receiver maybe wasn’t the best idea for disguising your intentions on offense. So instead they went out and found two tight ends of the same height and even bigger size. As fantasy owners can attest, getting Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez on the roster was probably the best pick up anyone will make all year. Brady has torched teams this season hitting them on streak routes straight through the middle of defenses.
-My second idea is an extension of how I ended the first. The Patriots want to be underestimated and they found that the best way to do this was to utilize players you’ve never heard of to beat you. Specifically players of the vertically challenged nature, but also the small name recognition. No seriously, did you think we’d ever live in a world where Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez would be legitimate starters in fantasy football? There’s no way. They even went so far as to create an even bigger con by grabbing Ochocinco so that defenses might waste time focusing on him rather than the real players who were going to beat them. It’s like how Oakland grabbed David Justice and Scott Hatteberg to replace Giambi and Damon and were just as successful, if not more so.
-A further extension of this which I have no way of proving because 1) I don’t know the metric they’re using and 2) am probably reaching is that the Patriots have figured out that you can get equal, if not more, production from two or three semi-talented players that you could get from one ultra-talented player, and likely for way cheaper (again think OBP for Justice and Hatteberg in baseball). As an example, the Patriots would never have paid Chris Johnson that fat contract he just got under any circumstances whatsoever. Never. Even if they had had the fortune of drafting him, they still would have let him walk for the likes of Edelman, Woodhead, et al. I have a big theory behind this that the wear and tear on these hybrid players is considerably less than the beating a guy like CJ2K takes on a regular basis. Think of just the pure physics involved with a run versus a pass. On runs you have a running back just getting close to hitting his full speed at the line of scrimmage meeting a linebacker doing the same but in the opposite direction. Not to mention the prospect of linemen falling awkwardly on you knee/leg/ankle. Now think of your average pass route. More times than not the receiver comes to a complete stop in order to create the necessary space to catch the ball, thus reducing the overall impact of any tackle or hit that occurs. Sure you get your anomalies once or twice a season like Austin Collie or DeSean Jackson’s brutal hits last year. But for the most part being a receiver has far more long-term sustainability than being a running back. It’s another reason I’m guessing teams are slowly making the transition to passing-oriented offenses versus running ones.
-Draft picks. People have long wondered why Belichick is way more content to stockpile draft picks and trade out of the first round when the Patriots had a ton of glaring needs, most notably on defense. As the research indicates, it turns out that the guys drafting the players really don’t know anything, so why waste the resources necessary to secure a first round pick when you could get a second, third, and a sixth in return? You have just as likely a chance to hit later in the draft as you do early, only with a considerable amount less money spent. It wasn’t until I witnessed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s achievements in the NBA that it all finally clicked. For those unfamiliar, OKC GM Sam Presti figured out a long time before anyone else that cheap contracts and the stockpiling of draft picks were way more important than wasting cap space on free agents. It appears that the Patriots have done the same.
-An extension of the draft pick philosophy is the freedom this allows the team when it comes to signing and retaining players for the cheapest amount possible. Despite being one of (if not) the most successful franchises over the last decade, New England’s owner Bob Kraft is notoriously cheap when it comes to signing players, including all-universe QB Tom Brady. As a result, he figured out that it’s definitely more profitable to stockpile young talent on the cheap rather than fill needs right away with one big name player. This allows them the flexibility to eventually tie down the players that really matter (Brady, the offensive line, etc). Unlike the NBA though, the NFL offers teams the chance to get out whenever they like because of the nature of non-guaranteed contracts. As a result the smartest guys in the room are afforded the opportunity of parachuting out of any bad deal they might find themselves in. That’s like giving the house even better odds than they already have in Vegas.
-Drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick is the most Moneyball thing that ever happened…ever.
Perhaps the single greatest article that I’ve read so far in my attempt to became a more intelligent football fan is this piece by a writer/blogger named Chris Brown. He runs a website called SmartFootball.com and it is the single greatest place on the internet to actually learn about what happens during a football game. Comparing ESPN’s NFL shows to his work is like comparing arithmetic to AP calculus. It’s outstanding. Go there now.
In that piece I linked Brown comes up with a great theory debunking the notion of “NFL offenses” versus those in college. He basically says that the NFL is so profit-oriented and so well produced now that there is basically no incentive anymore for coaches to be progressive in developing new ideas. There is simply too much at stake financially for these teams to go out and dare to be innovative. It’s the same problem Hollywood is going through right now and how they’ve been reduced to making remakes, sequels, and board game-inspired movies. He estimates that 80% of what every NFL teams use in their playbooks are the same basic routes and running concepts that have been around forever in the modern game. For the most part teams stick with that old 80% of plays and it’s likely to stay that way forever.
In this respect the NFL isn’t the most Moneyball league of all time. Throw in the obsession with horrible drafting techniques and you have what appears to be the least progress-oriented professional sports league in the world.
On the other hand though Brown focuses the large part of his article devoted to that other 20% of NFL offenses. He doesn’t quite come out and say it, but what he hints at is that the 20% of new innovative ideas and plays are exactly what make the NFL the most popular sport in this country. It’s those 20% of bold and radical gimmicks, trick plays, and creative new offensive sets that have the potential to forever change the game. Brown indicates that the beauty of the NFL is that there is always the potential for any single one of these radical concepts to be so effective that it might one day actually make the transition over to the negatively connoted 80% of plays that teams rely on. But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to how Brown describes the Wildcat:
I will have a future post delineating how I think the wildcat will be used and expanded upon this fall. Unfortunately, I don’t see the storyline being quite so rosy as the NFL finally breaking down and going all out with Eric Crouch types at quarterback. I can safely predict that some of the teams that are discussing their wildcat will be completely inept with it: they will do things like going five-wide with their quarterback split out, their runningback or wideout alone in the backfield, call for no motion or faking, and then expect him to plunge into the line for some kind of great effect. That team, its coaches and its fans, will declare the Wildcat a bust. Some other team, maybe the Dolphins again, will expand the package and see success with it. But then what? The worst case — though possibly the most likely — will be this:
The offense will fade from prominence, and will be relegated to NFL Films productions about the “WACKY WILDCAT” days of yore, where they will show somebody running free downfield while they speed up the footage and play Benny Hill music. Then they will show a clip of someone stuffing a particular play, and the voice-over will announce that the Wildcat, like all other gimmicks, was figured out and defeated. The NFL types will nevertheless congratulate themselves for having discovered it in the first place. Someone will be called on air to talk about how it was a travesty of the game, in some bizarre platonic ideal sense.
But there is a slight counter narrative. One is that the wildcat, as some kind of hype-machine and maybe even explicit look will die down, but the concepts will infiltrate the NFL and it will finally, and slowly, co-opt ideas that have been successful in every level of football elsewhere. Some will still deride the flashes as gimmicky, but seeing as that most didn’t understand it to begin with, most probably won’t even notice. Take a look at the clip below: the Ravens, using Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith ran the zone-read, and the highlight guys began a small war on what to call it. (Smith also takes a rather bizarre inside angle with his run.)
And in that sense the NFL is the most Moneyball league of them all. Think about how you have the theme pounded down your throat every week how the NFL is a “copycat” league. While cliche and boring, it’s definitely one of the universal truths of the modern game. The fascinating part though is that at any moment something that might seem crazy and outlandish today might just become tomorrow’s must-have offensive weapon. You know like the forward pass, catching running back, and now the ultra-athletic tight end were before it. There’s not really much else teams can add to the games of basketball or the games of baseball anymore. But football? Hell, have you heard about the A-11 offense? The possibilities are endless.
And I guess in a nutshell I actually just described the process of innovation in any sport and why its important that every league continues to embrace the possibilities of thinking outside of the box.
In the wake of Steve Jobs tragic death last night, what could be more appropriate?