In a news conference on Tuesday, Russ Brandon, the new president of the Buffalo Bills, said he wants to take a page from Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” concept and apply it to the NFL according to Tim Graham of the Buffalo News.
“We are going to create and establish a very robust football analytics operation that we layer into our entire operation moving forward,” Brandon said. “That’s’ something that’s very important to me and the future of the franchise.”
The Bills surely aren’t the first team in the NFL to try to use this concept and moving forward, probably won’t be the last.
But, let’s look at the bigger picture on this.
What is Moneyball?
Moneyball is the word that derived from another word.
What is Sabermetrics?
Sabermetrics is the specialized analysis of baseball statistics, used with objective evidence to measure in-game activity. The “Saber” is actually an acronym for SABR, which stands for Society of American Baseball Research. Its pioneer behind this concept is none other than Bill James, who brought this concept to the forefront in 1977 with his book Baseball Abstracts. In 2002, he was hired as a special advisor to the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox would use this method to break the Curse of the Bambino and win their first World Series title in 86 years in 2004 and again in 2006.
But the person to really make “Moneyball” famous was Billy Beane, who used this concept for the cash-strapped A’s in 2002 to become the first team in 100 years of baseball to go on a 20-consecutive win streak. While the A’s haven’t gotten to the World Series yet with this concept, other low payroll teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays got there in 2008 and the Florida Marlins won the World Series in 2003.
But this is not baseball, this is football. And Brandon didn’t actually mention “Sabremetrics”, he mentioned “analytics”.
So what’s “analytics”, you ask?
Analytics is a way to discover meaningful patterns in data, such as statistics and operations research to quantify performance. It’s a concept used more in the business corporate world, but nonetheless, it’s about “identifying and using undervalued assets to create and sustain a competitive edge” according to Beane’s biography.
So, can Moneyball work in the NFL?
It’s a case of Apples and Oranges. When a baseball player is on offense, they hit, run, get on base and steal. But when it comes to football, the X’s and O’s are much more complicated, making statistics to identify undervalued players extremely difficult when compared to baseball.
I’m sure there is a way that you can identify undervalued players, it’s done every year in free agency with methods most of us are unaware of.
But besides the statistical difference between baseball and football, there is one big important factor that makes applying this concept to the NFL.
The NFL has a Salary Cap while MLB has none.
So, in a way, the Salary Cap is already a way of playing Moneyball. It’s building a roster based on a budget. Some teams will over spend for big name players while others opt to spend low for role players in the hopes of achieving the same goal of winning the Super Bowl.
If MLB were to institute a salary cap, it might put the A’s on the same level as the New York Yankees as far as spending money. But they’re not which is why Beane adopted this style, as a way to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.
But in the NFL, the salary cap was designed to level the playing field, which makes the team’s best players leave to strike it rich with a new team willing to overspend.
Now, knowing all that, can Russ Brandon find a way to bridge the analytics/moneyball style approach used in baseball and modify it to apply it to the Bills for the NFL?
Well, he certainly has the background to make such a transition. Brandon used to be the executive director of business development for the Florida Marlins, now the Miami Marlins. During his time with the Marlins, Brandon explained he learned a lot about the value of the analytics approach from GM Dave Dombrowski, who is now the president, CEO and GM of the Detroit Tigers.
“Dave was all about scouting,” Brandon said. “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.”
Buffalo Bills current General Manager Buddy Nix, who is 73 years-old admits to being a bit old school and not up to speed with the new concept of the benefits of analytics.
“You know, obviously, I’m old-school in more ways than one,” Nix said with a laugh. “It’ll be something I’ll have to get used to because I go a lot on feel and what I see.”
Moneyball, was turned into a hit movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Buddy Nix’s quote will remind some of the scene in which Billy Beane is at odds with the old school scouts and his new school approach.
Let’s just hope Buddy Nix at least knows who “Fabio” is. You can be sure something along those lines will happen in meetings, probably more than once.
The moral of this tale is the same problem Brandon will face is what Beane faced. The key to proving the doubters wrong will always lie in the results.
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