INDIANAPOLIS -- When former NFL executive Bill Polian recently dismissed the "Moneyball" ethos out of hand as it applies to football, it showed a distinct sense of Polian's old-school scouting roots -- but also, how the old school and new school don't always meet up in the NFL. While tape will always rule in football, more and more teams are using advanced statistical analysis as a tie-breaker when many players are graded similarly. Between STATS, Inc, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus -- organizations that have all done custom analytical breakdowns for NFL teams -- there's a burgeoning market for the new wave of metrics.
Polian was not convinced.
“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 in January. “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.”
NFL general managers with current positions in the league, however, tend to see it differently, and many of them were happy to talk about it at the scouting combine. Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff and new Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery are two who truly believe that sabermetrics do help the scouting and player evaluation process.
Thomas Dimitroff is another GM who subscribes to the new math. (AP)"It helps us on both sides -- pro and college," Emery told me on Thursday. "All testing and measurable data, you’re using that as a determining factor to maybe separating players. So you may have two players that are very similar, that might have the same grade. Or you might have five at any one position that have the same grade. Then that is a way to help you determine how you stack it, one through five. Those type of metrics – the psychological testing – all those things factor in terms of creating separation between players so if you pick them in the order from the highest to the lowest."
Emery has consulted extensively with several services, and as he said on New Year's Day, it's going to be a major part of the equation as long as he's got a desk in the league.
"I went to STATS Inc., [and] went through all the numbers," Emery told the Chicago Sun-Times. "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."
Dimitroff comes at it from a different angle -- he has built a perennial playoff contender in Atlanta, and the metrics to him are a key way to sharpen the process when one or two personnel moves could make the difference between the Super Bowl or not.
"Analytics are always a big part of the process," he told me. "At times, they've been off to the side and quiet, but it's coming to the forefront a lot more, and people are talking about it a lot more. Teams are more outspoken about people they're hiring in an analytical fashion. Statistical analysis is very important when you're assessing talent on the field -- assessing those numbers when you're coming into the draft, and how they might compare in the NFL, and it's how we evaluate a lot of our players, as well. it's a supplement, and it goes back to making sure you have all the tools necessary, and hopefully, you have a little bit of an edge over somebody else because you have a different approach. I believe that everyone in the National Football League is aware and cognizant of the proper use of analytics; some are just more in-depth as far as how then use them."
The Jacksonville Jaguars are using metrics extensively as they try to rebuild and re-load a team with holes at several positions. Tony Khan, the son of team owner Shad Khan, created a department within the team dealing specifically with analytics, and new GM David Caldwell is of course cognizant of their value. Now, he talks with Khan, whose title is, "Senior Vice President, Football Technology & Analytics."
We're guessing there wasn't much call for that 10 years ago. And one can only imagine what Mike Ditka would say if he'd had to answer to a number-cruncher. But this is the new wave, kids -- get used to it.
"It's something we're heavily involved in, and something we're doing a lot right now," Caldwell said on Friday. "It's a part of the process, and it helps us confirm some of the stuff we already know, and raise some red flags on some of the things we don't know."
Even the executives who still rely far more on tape to lead their processes, and very successfully so, understand that it's important to at least know what the analytical parameters are.
"I think you've got to know what the Joneses are doing, and know what other people are looking at," Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider said on Thursday. "Not necessarily in terms of how much money we spend on a player, or where we put a player on our board, but it's something you definitely have to look at. There are so many different tools out there now. I don't know how Phil [Emery] does it, but It's something that we don't blow off at all. We'll look at it in comparison to the types of grades we put on a player, and then, how that player would fit in with us."
And Denver Broncos Executive Vice-President of Football Operations John Elway, who could easily rest on his laurels as an old-school superstar, also understands the need to check the new panorama.
"A little bit, but the bottom line is, we look at the tape," Elway said this week. "No question that there's a lot to the stats, and those types of things. But the bottom line is, the tape tells all."
That may have been true once upon a time, but in the new NFL, you'd better cross-check your advanced stats if nothing else. Because in the ultimate copy-cat league, keeping up with the Joneses is more complex than ever.
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