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Polian thinks Moneyball won’t work in NFL


The Bills plan to import Moneyball concepts to the NFL. Plenty of NFL people are skeptical.

Our take was/is/will be that baseball’s pitcher-vs.-batter nature is more conducive to such measurements. Football, in contrast, is 11-on-11 controlled chaos, with plenty of good and bad things happening once chaos overcomes control. Great players who command extra attention make their teammates look better. Likewise, no amount of film review can account for the question of whether a player properly or improperly fulfilled his actual assignment on a given play, and whether the play was designed in a way that gave the player a realistic task.

But there’s a bigger problem with Moneyball. As former Bills, Panthers, and Colts G.M. Bill Polian explains it to Buffalo Business First, the primary impediment to the successful use of analytics in the NFL comes from the league’s business model.

“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.”

Still, in any given year there are decisions to be made about who should be paid and who shouldn’t be paid. Some great players get more-than-great money on the first day of free agency for reasons unrelated to football. The smart teams concede the March press conferences to the big-spending owners, opting instead to get good players at a cheaper rate.

But that has nothing to do with analytics, unless a team chooses to use statistical analysis over old-fashioned film study to identify the best players. And that get us back to our original point. Obsessive-compulsive review of stats overlooks the reality that, when the ball is snapped, all hell often breaks loose. Having the right mix of quality players and veteran leaders and youngsters who don’t get overwhelmed on the big stage guided by competent coaches is the way to turn unquantifiable factors into the hard numbers of points scored versus points allowed.