There's no questioning the credentials of former NFL executive Bill Polian. When you build teams to a championship or near-championship level as Polian did with the Buffalo Bills (1986-1993), Carolina Panthers (1994-1997) and Indianapolis Colts (1998-2009), you've got a history that will have people very interested in what you have to say. Polian says a lot in his current capacity as an analyst for ESPN, but he has nothing good to say about the trend that has more NFL teams exploring sabermetrics as an additional way to evaluate players.
"Absolutely not," Polian recently told Tim O'Shei of Buffalo Business First, when O'Shei asked Polian if those types of principles could work in the NFL. Polian, who has long been dismissive of an approach to team building that incorporates advanced stats, believes that financial constraints get in the way of principles that have personnel executives thinking outside the box.
“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 said. “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.”
Beane didn't mean stats over scouts, though that's the argument used by people like Polian and other Luddites like Joe Morgan when they rail on about Moneyball's ineffectiveness over time. What Beane was trying to do was to fight the exact issue Polian talked about – the churn of your best players to other teams – by using any means necessary to find undervalued assets, and constantly discovering new ways to do so. For Beane, it started with on-base percentage as a super-stat, but his sabermetric concepts were rooted firmly in an understanding that physical tools were specifically important. Beane didn't always hit the jackpot, but he maintained competitiveness despite a severe financial disadvantage.
How does this apply to the NFL? We might argue that the need to find new ways to evaluate personnel and find those undervalued assets. Despite what Polian believes, there are undervalued players all over the place – and that's kind of a silly thing to say.
You need look no further than this Sunday's wild-card matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, when a Seattle team led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson will tussle with a Washington franchise helped greatly by sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, who finished second in the league in rushing yardage. Wilson lasted until the third round of the draft because many teams questioned his ability to start in the NFL at 5-foot-10 5/8, while Morris dropped even lower in the draft because his Florida Atlantic career didn't impress teams with big-school biases, and he was thought to be straight-line slow by some. Those stories are all over the NFL.
Too small, too slow, too small a school, we don't like his (insert cliché here). That player goes off to another team, and your team owner is looking at you, Mr. GM, wondering why you weren't ahead of the curve. Mike Freeman of CBS Sports recently reported that the quick rise of Wilson had a lot of NFL people under the proverbial gun for not seeing what the Seahawks saw, and taking the risk they were willing to take.
Such moves don't move Polian, however. He seems to believe that there is no consistent way to establish success through advanced and creative organizational thinking.
“Truly, on any given Sunday and in any given year, anybody can win," he said. "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.”
But several teams are taking to those advanced metrics as a way to balance out the more traditional ways of doing things, and with great success. The San Francisco 49ers were one of the first teams to do so when they hired current COO Paraag Marathe in 2011. The former venture capital and private equity adviser for Bain & Company quickly reached out to the people who were trying to do for football what Bill James did for baseball a generation ago, and he incorporated those ideas into the franchise's more traditional outlook. In his second year as COO, Marathe is a key cog for a team that has lost just seven regular-season games over that period of time.
Many other NFL teams have followed suit by either consulting with people like Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, the staff of STATS, Inc, and Pro Football Focus, or by hiring their own in-house analysts to crunch efficiency data and find out which metrics best correlate to winning. In the end, that's what Moneyball is all about, in whatever guise it's presented – finding new, and different, and better, ways to win. The fact that Polian doesn't think it works in the NFL may explain why he doesn't currently work in the NFL. Certainly, it would put him on the wrong side of the curve.
In a New Year's Day explanation of the ways in which he evaluates his offensive line, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery cited metrics put together by STATS, Inc. and Pro Football Focus as part of the overall equation. Not the entire equation, but an attempt to find the right kind of balance between coaching, tape evaluation, and statistical analysis.
"Yes, we're going to pay attention to the coach's grades," Emery said. "Yes, we're going to pay attention to our internal scouting grades. But let's look at this another way. I went to STATS Inc., [and] went through all the numbers. Went to Pro Football Focus, did all the numbers. I'm familiar with STATS Inc. We're one of their contracted teams. Spent quite a bit of time with their people, not only their programmers but went to their offices, watched how they grade tape, how they triple check all their facts. So I trust all their data, that's it's unbiased, that it doesn't have my hands in it, that it doesn't have our coach's or scout's hands in it, or anybody else in the league. They are simply reporting fact. Some ways to look at it is in a very Moneyball way, crunching the numbers."
And the Bills recently hired their own "numbers guy" in the person of new team president Russ Brandon. When Brandon was the executive director of business development for the Florida Marlins, he learned about the practical value of advanced stats from Dave Dombrowski, now the main man with the Detroit Tigers.
"Dave was all about scouting," Brandon said on Jan. 1. "He was also about layering in the analytics to what the game presented. We've seen it in the NBA. We've seen it more in baseball. It's starting to spruce its head a little bit in football, and I feel we're missing the target if we don't invest in that area of our operation, and we will.
"We are going to create and establish a very robust football analytics operation that we layer into our entire operation moving forward. That's something that's very important to me and the future of the franchise."
Current GM Buddy Nix reacted in a Polian-like fashion, but if he wants to stick around -- with the Bills or anywhere else in the NFL -- he'd better learn to breathe where the oxygen is.
"You know, obviously, I'm old-school in more ways than one," Nix said. "It'll be something I'll have to get used to, because I go a lot on feel and what I see."
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with using a lifetime of football acumen and instinct when it comes time to make key decisions. But those executives who willfully bury their heads in the sand and avoid the advantages other personnel people are using will eventually find that they're playing checkers while the rest of the league is playing chess.
Most likely, they'll also discover that they'll have a lot more free time to do so.
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