Off the Grid: What the NFL’s Moneyball looks like, Greg Cosell and more

To deny the usefulness of next-level football analytics at this stage of the game is to embrace a fiction in one’s own head.
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When the Browns hired former baseball executive Paul DePodesta to be their chief strategy officer on Jan. 6, the response was tentative at best. Most of the skepticism surrounding the move was rooted in the fact that the Browns and owner Jimmy Haslam were at the helm of this decision. If the Patriots had hired DePodesta, we’d all be talking about how forward-thinking this move really was. But when you’ve cycled through 61 different coaches, three general managers and two team presidents in less than four years, your choices are ripe for criticism no matter what.

Beyond the “That’s so Browns” comments, however, was the latest example of a long-standing bias against the full-scale use of analytics in the NFL. Brian Billick, the former Super Bowl-winning coach and current NFL Network analyst, trotted out a new version of an old mindset when he was asked about the DePodesta hire on ESPN Radio last week.

“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,” Billick said on Mike and Mike last Thursday. “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.”

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This mirrors what six-time Executive of the Year and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian had to say about the idea in December 2012.

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“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,” Polian told Tim O’Shei of Buffalo Business First. “There is no middle class in football because the minimum salaries are so high, and because of the salary cap, a player will reach a point where you can’t keep him. They go. They’re going to get big money elsewhere. ... Truly, on any given Sunday and in any given year, anybody can win. Now, you can’t win for long, which is why nobody will ever go to four straight Super Bowls again. The system is designed to take good teams and rob them of players. That’s the way it is.”

Well, that may be the way it was. I wonder how both men might change their tunes if they were still in the league. Billick hasn’t coached since 2007, and Polian hasn’t been a general manager since 2011. That’s nearly a decade for the coach, and half a decade for the GM. Half a decade is half a lifetime in football years. In reality, so many teams are doing whatever they can with different kinds of analysis to get an edge in everything from situational tendencies to free agency to draft philosophies.

As a writer for Football Outsiders from 2006 through 2012, I had a firsthand look at how many teams wanted to know what site founder Aaron Schatz was thinking, and I’ve talked to enough of those people to know that most teams are now doing far more than dipping a metaphorical toe in the water.

How do teams on long-term losing tracks change their thought processes, and how do teams that consistently win stay ahead of the game? In that regard, the Moneyball motif is simply another tool to use to forward a team’s effective mentality and ability to win.

“The problem with a discussion of analytics in football is that it seems like we’re stuck having the discussion in a framework based on where baseball stood in 1982,” Schatz told me. “Enough of the ‘scouting vs. stats’ nonsense. The stodgy old men of the football commentariat are obsessed with what analytics can’t do instead of thinking about where it can be a useful tool. Nobody who does football analytics believes that numbers can measure everything, or that we don’t need scouting.”

DePodesta’s return to football is the culmination of a longtime dream, but as he said in the statement announcing his hiring, this is about more than throwing a series of Excel spreadsheets at the Browns’ obvious problems.

What may make DePodesta the man to reform a dysfunctional organization can be found in an open letter to Dodgers fans in 2004 titled “The Genesis, Implementation, and Management of New Systems.” You can read the whole thing here, and it’s a fascinating look into his particular vision of management principles.

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“When I joined the Cleveland Indians in 1996, the baseball world was really rich for reform ... crisis was emerging and the existing operating paradigm in baseball was totally incapable of solving these new problems,” DePodesta wrote in that open letter. “I had a distinct advantage over everybody else in the industry at the time in that I knew absolutely nothing. I’d played baseball in college but that was about it. Because I knew nothing I observed everything critically and took nothing for granted. I spent my first few years with the Indians analyzing all of their systems, from contracts to player development and scouting. Because I had no preconceived notions over how an organization ought to be run, this was an education for me.”

That approach shows why DePodesta could be extremely valuable to the Browns. He doesn’t know the macro-level details of how an NFL team is run, but who would want to know how the Browns have been run, anyway? Who on earth would want to pull from any of that junk? DePodesta clearly impressed Cleveland’s brass as an executive who would look at every system in place, tear it down to the studs if necessary, and rebuild in a more intelligent fashion.

Whether you’re talking about baseball, football or any industry, that’s the true essence of Moneyball. You destroy the things that you’re “supposed to do” when they don’t make sense, and you replace the old models with structures that work in the new world.

DePodesta put it very well: “The A's, like everybody else in baseball, had ceased to do one very critical thing—to ask the naïve question: ‘If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?’ ” 

And that, folks, is the naïve question every organization must ask itself, no matter what its on-field product looks like at the moment.

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Several different NFL executives have embraced metrics in the last few years, and former Bears GM Phil Emery provided a good example of how things can go wrong. I spoke with Emery at the 2013 scouting combine and was impressed on the surface by how far he’d come. However, Emery—who talked with everyone from STATS, Inc. to Pro Football Focus to get a better handle on what numbers could do for him—was fired at the end of the 2014 season after just three years, and the Bears’ record got worse in each of those three seasons. It didn’t seem at any time that the Bears had truly embraced a new way of thinking, and if all you’re doing is looking at a few advanced stats based on someone’s game-charting, the Luddites like Billick and Polian are right: That won’t get you anywhere.

I’ve talked with Jaguars senior vice president Tony Khan more than any other of the NFL’s leading analytically-minded executives. Like the Browns now, the Jaguars were a hot mess when Tony's father, Shad Khan, bought the team in January 2012. On the precipice of continued organizational failure, the Khans had two choices: They could try a new version of the same old thing and hope their guys were better than the other guys, or they could dig for new ways to think about established processes and win by spotting previously undervalued assets. Jacksonville’s slow and steady ascent in recent years, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is the personification of that vision.

A big part of Tony’s job has been to marry his deep diving with analytics to the more traditional evaluation done by general manager Dave Caldwell, head coach Gus Bradley and their staffs.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Dave over the last couple of years, while he’s been discussing evaluations he’s made from tape,” Khan told me in 2014. “We’ve done a lot of analysis with the raw data. So, I’ve got a good stack of numbers to compare to Dave’s tape evaluations, and we match a lot of things up. I go in and we compare notes, to a certain extent. We watch a lot of these guys, and we talk through it, and I think Dave takes it into account. You’re putting the two things together, and it might result in asking a question about a player you might not have graded so highly [based on tape]. Is there a reason to re-evaluate a guy based on these statistics?”

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Pro Football Focus now consults with 20 different NFL teams and has an angel investor in former Bengals receiver and current NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who has come around to understand the big picture. As a lot of people are now doing. More teams than ever before have their own analytics departments, but even the teams that don’t are outsourcing to organizations like PFF.

Bill Belichick has been digging into analytics for years. His work with Patriots director of football research Ernie Adams is largely secret but fairly legendary. Whether it’s the Cowboys using computers in the 1960s to create the first player databases, or coaches like Dick Vermeil delving into as much as they could find back in the day, performance-based metrics actually have a fairly long history of success in the NFL.

Do analytics need to be merged with scouting to work correctly? Absolutely. Do analytics need to be central to the thinking of any front office? Without question. But to deny their usefulness at this stage of the game is to embrace a fiction in one’s own head.

Sounds like what the old Browns were doing, right?

Podcast: Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup

There are few better football minds in the business than Greg Cosell. He’s been with NFL Films since 1979, invented the game-tape TV show format in 1984 with Steve Sabol as the executive producer of NFL Matchup and watches more game tape on a daily basis than just about anybody in the media. I sat down with Greg for a special divisional round preview podcast, and here are a few snippets of his analysis:

On Kansas City’s defense: “First of all, they have quality at every level of their defense. The defensive line, linebackers and secondary, combined with a scheme that can do a lot of things. Because [defensive coordinator] Bob Sutton has worked with Rex Ryan, he’s done a lot of things on his own, and he has very good blitz concepts. So, you get a combination of personnel and scheme that is very effective. They’re difficult to play against. They can match up man-to-man on the outside, they have a multi-dimensional safety in Eric Berry, and in today’s NFL, that style of safety can really help a defense. They can rush the quarterback from the perimeter, and they’re strong and physical from the inside. Most people know about [defensive tackle] Dontari Poe, but a lot may not know about [ends] Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard, who are really good players. Last year, I started to notice Josh Mauga at inside linebacker next to Derrick Johnson, and in a defense filled with names, Mauga doesn’t get much attention, but he’s a really good player who fits well within the context of this defense.”

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On what makes Arizona’s passing game special: “What good offensive coaches do, and you obviously need a veteran quarterback to execute this at its highest level, is based on coverage. You’ll have routes on one side of the formation that are zone routes, and routes on the other side that are man routes. The quarterback will read the coverage, and let’s say it’s zone. He’ll work to the zone side of the route concept. If it’s man, he’ll work to the man side. Normally within those concepts is some kind of deeper throw. None of this is 100%—nothing is 100%—but that’s what the Cardinals often do. There have been numerous examples of that over the years, and this year in particular, you see a quarterback in Carson Palmer who’s so comfortable with the offense. It’s a high, high-volume offense. There are a ton of plays in it—a lot of concepts, and the really good passing games are about concepts.”

On how Aaron Rodgers has been forced to create big plays outside of structure: “There’s a fine line there between it being a positive and a negative. The positives are the great plays we see in the highlights all the time, but we don’t see the negative plays. We don’t see the incompletions. We don’t see the breakdowns, and there are more of those. On their fifth possession against Washington in the wild-card game, where they ended up scoring, he hit James Jones for 34 yards, and that was classic Rodgers. The play was the quick game with pick-a-side, and he didn’t pick the right side, and he ended up moving around, navigating the pocket, and finding Jones late in the down. It was a classic second reaction play, and it’s the kind of play that gets Rodgers into his own kind of rhythm. But it comes back to that whole point: Can you live with that? Can you be consistent with that? Clearly they weren’t over the last two months of the season.”

On how Russell Wilson has turned things around as a pocket passer: "I would say that this has been all Wilson to me. I know [center] Patrick Lewis is a better player than Drew Nowak, but it's not like their offensive line miraculously became the 1992 Cowboys' O-line. It's not like Doug Baldwin automatically became Jerry Rice. The other players are all the same. But when the quarterback drops back, hits his back foot and throws the ball with timing and rhythm, isn't it remarkable what happens? We just talked about Aaron Rodgers being kind of an off-beat, jazz-beat player, right? Well, Russell Wilson became a rhythm player. And all of a sudden, it looks different because there's a rhythm and a continuity to the passing game that did not exist before. [Offensive coordinator] Darrell Bevell has also done a very good job with some route concepts, which we didn't see as much before, which provides Wilson with the ability to get the ball out on time." 

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