The Buffalo Bills announced that they would be forming an analytics department to take a Moneyball approach to the NFL. In a great bit of getting ahead of the story, Tim O’Shei of Buffalo Business First interviewed former Bills and Colts GM Bill Polian, a week before any of this became news within the organization. Polian, who has long been opposed to analytics in football, says that a Moneyball approach would not work in the NFL.
“Could Moneyball work in the NFL?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” Polian said.
Well there’s a bit of genius denied, huh?
Polian explained his reasoning, which is actually based in the same mechanism that has allowed the Bills to survive in the first place: the NFL’s salary cap.
“As a practical tool, Moneyball does not work in the NFL because there are very few undervalued players and no middle class because of our salary cap,” said Polian, who’s now an analyst for ESPN.
He says this in the same year that a rookie quarterback standing under 6 foot put up a passer rating among the league leaders, and when a handful of teams are using a pistol formation to great success. Me thinks that Bill Polian does not understand what was behind Moneyball. It isn’t spreadsheets, it’s finding a market inefficiency and taking advantage of it to buy wins at a reduced cost. Believe me, a salary cap has no impact on a team’s ability to use a Moneyball approach. A sports team, whether constrained by salary limits or not, should still seek to maximize its resources.
Look at how Seattle has built their team in a few years, focusing on big corners and getting that smaller quarterback that fell because of his size. What about the 3-4 movement last decade? In the early part of the century, most defenses were not running it, so those that did had a larger pool of athletes to choose from, who did not fit traditional 4-3 defenses but were perfect for the system. It’s not about spreadsheets. It’s about using information and finding underutilized areas.
Yes, data is not as useful in a vacuum in the NFL as MLB. Team interactions make merely looking at individual data risky. However, teams still have many areas they can take advantage, and the game of football is versatile enough to foster creativity.
- We know about fourth downs, so I won’t harp on it. The information is out there, and teams that are more aggressive will benefit in the long term. A team looking to gain advantages can look to any number of strategies that would improve the chances of winning.
- Teams can find market inefficiencies in types of players, particularly if the skill set is not particularly valuable in a more common system (see 3-4, or players effective in zone blocking, etc)
- Teams can use data on aging curves and injuries to project for future contracts. Not just on who to avoid, by the way, but finding exceptions that provide value, such as older running backs that can be utilized for cheap, or previously injured players that provide value.
- Teams can combine film with data to look for tendencies and find situations and play calls that provide value.
When Bill Polian says Moneyball cannot work, I would say that the concept has always worked in football. Teams that are first to market or find inefficiencies and take advantage of them always have an edge, whether it be Paul Brown in the 1950’s, or the Cowboys and their intricate scouting in the 60’s and 70’s, to any number of innovations that have now become dogma in the game.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]
[h/t: @billbarnwell, photo via USA Today Sports Images]