Can a Moneyball approach work in the NFL?
That’s the question everyone is asking this week in response to the Browns hiring Paul DePodesta, the analytics maven who was prominently featured in the book Moneyball and played by Jonah Hill (in a largely fictionalized role) in the movie. DePodesta has had success applying the analytical approach commonly referred to as Moneyball during his tenure with the Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics and New York Mets, but many in the NFL world are skeptical that the same approach can work in the NFL.
Count Super Bowl-winning former Ravens coach Brian Billick as one of the skeptics. Billick said today on Mike & Mike that Moneyball simply isn’t going to work in the NFL.
“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. “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.”
Billick is clearly correct that statistical analysis in football is not as advanced as it is in baseball. Most football analytics people would freely admit that. Baseball is a fundamentally different sport, in which one player’s performance is less reliant on his teammates’ performances, and therefore the statistics of a baseball player are a much better reflection of his own value than are the statistics of a football player.
But DePodesta is presumably smart enough to know that. The question, then, is not whether football statistics are as beneficial as baseball statistics, but whether DePodesta’s analytical approach to football statistics can find advantages over teams that don’t use the same approach. That’s a question that we haven’t seen answered yet because no NFL team has gone all-in on analytics the way teams like the Oakland A’s have in baseball. But DePodesta’s hiring is a big moment in the NFL: If he finds strategic advantages that help the Browns become winners, other teams will seek to emulate his approach. If DePodesta fails, analytics in football will take a hit.
Even more important than the fundamental differences in the sports of football and baseball are the fundamental differences in the business practices of Major League Baseball and the National Football League. For starters, the whole idea of the “money” in Moneyball was that the Oakland A’s had a lot less money to spend on players than the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Anaheim Angels, which meant that the A’s had to find a way to compete on the cheap. But in the NFL, with revenue sharing and a salary cap, that’s really not an issue. The Browns have the same amount of money as a big-market rival like the New York Jets, and the same amount of money as a small-market rival like the Buffalo Bills.
So where DePodesta thrived at finding ways to help small-market teams compete by identifying valuable but inexpensive players (and then helped the big-market Mets win the pennant by identifying valuable players for a team that could spend whatever it took to acquire them), in Cleveland he has a different job. With the Browns, DePodesta isn’t looking for better values as much as he’s looking more broadly for better strategic practices. His success or lack thereof will go a long way toward determining whether the rest of the league agrees or disagrees with Billick’s premise that Moneyball can’t work in the NFL.