When the Browns hired Paul DePodesta, known best as half of Jonah Hill's character in the movie version of Moneyball, it gave a lot of pundits an opportunity to write a bunch of fairly lazy think-pieces on whether "Moneyball" can ever work in the NFL. Writing about the Moneyballization of various things is a tricky business, as a number of baseball writers don't even properly understand what Moneyball is and is not. Football writers usually just embarrass themselves. Alex Reimer recently wrote this piece on the SBNation flagship, and pulled off a bit of a rare feat. He clearly understands Moneyball, which, given his bio as a Red Sox writer and podcaster, isn't surprising. This is often the hard part. The problem is that his speculation on how Moneyball concepts may apply to football is just completely off.
After giving a decent overview of the history of Moneyball he makes the following statement:
Unlike in baseball, teams are largely on a level financial playing field in the NFL. The advent of revenue sharing and the salary cap, combined with the lack of guaranteed contracts, ensures that no club is at a significant financial disadvantage. The need to find value is greatly diminished.
The subtitle of Moneyball is "the art of winning an unfair game," and it is correct that the Oakland Athletics - on whom the book was based - were at a large financial disadvantage due to their market size and somewhat cheap ownership. But while the A's were forced by financial concerns to get creative, this is not true of baseball at large. Baseball is not without salary restrictions entirely, but in general, baseball teams can recover from poor decisions by simply spending more money if they want. Most teams have the resources for at least a few free agent deals, and in truth there are not actually many "small market" baseball teams. They do not always choose to do spend astronomical sums in free agency, but it is commonly used, and almost never crippling to a team.
Football, on the other hand, does have a hard salary cap, and a wrong move in free agency can be disastrous. Every time you overpay a player in the NFL, it directly impacts your ability to sign and, more importantly, retain other players. Just ask the Saints.
The need for the A's to find an edge may have been great, but when everyone has the same cap, and therefore cannot spend more than anyone else, the need to be smarter with your finite resources is paramount; that is what Moneyball is all about.
Reimer picks what can only be called a curious example:
In the NFL, even an underachieving franchise like the Jacksonville Jaguars can spend heavily in free agency as long as it has the cap room. The Jaguars have gone on a spending spree this offseason, prioritizing short-term gains over all else. The NFL's financial structure allows them to do that.
The Browns may be the NFL's most inept team, but the Jaguars surely would get some down-ballot votes in the category, and while Jacksonville may believe they are close enough to take a big leap with a few major free agent acquisitions, this paragraph reads much more like a description of an inept franchise behaving ineptly. Frankly, the NFL's financial structure does no such thing. Yes, in theory NFL salaries are not guaranteed, but in reality, large portions often are guaranteed, and the way that signing bonuses are paid (with salary cap amortization possible only as long as that player remains on the team) often makes NFL roster management less flexible, not more flexible.
However, I think the I find most objectionable is this bit:
One of the most common questions I get is, Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL? And the answer is, No, you can't," (Brian) Billick said. "You can't quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It's not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they're doing in conjunction with one another.
Most of this is true. Football, with all of its interacting parts, is more difficult to quantify than is baseball, however, it's not impossible, and it is actually probably easier than is commonly understood. If you think baseball is oh so simple, please take a minute to read up on catcher framing data or DRA.
We are actually quite good at determining how separate entities interact with each other. It sometimes takes work and may not always be worth doing, but football is certainly not beyond numerical comprehension. Brian Billick is obviously a very intelligent football mind, but where Reimer understands the basics of Moneyball, Billick does not. The fact is that we know about the analytic side of baseball due to few happy accidents, one of which is the fact that Moneyball was allowed to happen in the first place. Most GMs would not be so cavalier with their secrets, and Theo Epstein famously took issue with Michael Lewis's front office access. The other thing baseball has is freely available statistical information. Anyone with an internet browser can pop over to baseball-reference.com to see and organize stats from 100 years ago, and anyone can use the Brooks Baseball tool (and pitchFX) to look at extremely detailed pitch information for free.
The fact is that most football organizations already use Moneyball tactics, they just don't write books about it, and they keep a treasure trove of proprietary statistical information to themselves. You can see clues in how the Patriots and Packers go about their business. You can see it in trends on positions that are highly valued and those that are not. The downfall of the running back as a popular asset is a pure Moneyball phenomenon. But NFL teams keep this information more confidential than MLB organizations and the volume of statistics held in-house by NFL teams dwarfs what is freely available to the public, so there is no outside source akin to what baseball enjoys. Charting data from organizations like Pro Football Focus is starting to close the gap, and Football Outsiders produces useful information, but the gap between what NFL teams have inside and what we see outside is still enormous.
Reimer then proceeds to contradict everything he had previously written:
At this point, it's clear that the Browns are largely opting to stay out of the free agent market, which produces far more busts than bargains. Given the brief shelf life of the average NFL career, most players who hit free agency are getting paid for past performance rather than future production. Last year, for example, only four of the first 86 players selected to the Pro Bowl changed teams the previous offseason -- and two of them, LeSean McCoy and Brandon Marshall, were traded.
If you think this sounds like the kind of thing Ted Thompson would do, well, you're not wrong. Savvy, judicious use of NFL free agents can pay off, but it is mostly a fool's game, and doubly so for a rebuilding team like the Browns who need as many cost-controlled young players as possible.
I have no idea if DePodesta will have success in the NFL, but analysts like him are nothing new to the sport. He may draw extra coverage because of his involvement in a famous book and movie about creating a winning sports franchise, and his style of analytics is almost certainly foreign to the debacle that is the Browns, but the top NFL franchises have been taking this kind of approach for years. The best franchises understand perfectly well how valuable a center is compared to a receiver or an outside linebacker. They understand it both in general, and specifically in how that value translates into their own schemes. They know which positions and body types are likely to age better and what an individual draft pick is actually worth. This is how modern big businesses are run. The Browns may not leap ahead of everyone, but maybe they'll finally catch up.
*At the end, Reimer notes that the Browns dismissed six of their amateur scouts recently, and compares is to Beane's dressing down and housecleaning of his scouts in Moneyball. It is worth noting that this is almost universally regarded as one of Beane's biggest failures, and basically all advanced baseball people agree that a strong scouting department is extremely important to a winning baseball team. Reimer seems to be implying that DePodesta is doing now what Beane did in Moneyball. I find this extremely unlikely. I suspect that the Brown's scouts haven't had much of a track record and that the organization simply needed an overhaul.