No disrespect to Mr. Tanier, but his article titled, “NFL Moneyball is Hurting the Browns, Jets, Bills and Competitive Balance,” uses the same tone he uses with his Twitter politics and it’s created not only an inaccurate article, but an annoyingly inaccurate article that will confuse the many people who read that article to what Moneyball actually is, which compelled me to respond to it.
Mike is already one of the best at his craft as one of the co-authors of Football Outsiders Almanac, which is an incredibly useful tool, and as the lead NFL writer for Bleacher Report, but his objectivity is lacking in this article for someone who typically does his job so well. Ideas are nuanced; everything is not some Twitter war. He’s one of the best in the industry at what he does, he’s a fantastic football writer and mind, and a good person, but this article doesn’t take the objective nuanced approach to Moneyball.
I only know a focus on politics stunts objectivity because I too spent too much time focused on politics at one point, but have made a conscious effort to turn my attention to things like podcasts and the philosophies of Stoicism, Robert Pirsig, and William James during the process of writing Caponomics, which will be an NFL version of Moneyball. A focus on Twitter politics forces you into this black and white thinking because of the extremes on both sides and the constant back and forth between trolls. If you’re tweeting about politics, you’re going to hear from trolls, which then pushes your world view into this black and white dynamic where there is only a right and wrong answer, when there’s a nuanced gray in between that. It takes you away from your own principles and into this hyper-aggressive troll land of arguments that takes you away from your own thoughts. You begin to think that the other side has the same views as this crazy troll who showed up in your mentions.
I once followed the lead of some of the leaders in our industry who believe that everyone needs to hear their political views, but I’ve since learned from something Adam Schefter said at a conference I went to: “stay in your lane on social media,” stick to your objective. As the main tenet of Stoicism says, control what you can control. People don’t tell football writers to stick to sports because they’re racist as I’ve seen some football writers suggest. They tell football writers to stick to sports because they’re known for writing about sports, not politics, and countless people I talk to want to be able to go to sports to avoid politics. Oftentimes, those sports writers talking about politics are devoid of principled arguments as well, instead opting for name calling, which is frustrating to anyone who knows that not all of the supporters of politician X or political party X are like Jemele Hill seemed to imply this past weekend.
I wrote Caponomics because I knew I needed to create a principled foundation for myself and all my writing here at Over The Cap to ensure the things I write moving forward are consistent with the principles for building a roster that can compete on a yearly basis. I read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a philosophy book that gave me an understanding of the objective and subjective splits of the world and how to bring that context to the sport of football. In the book, Pirsig writes about maintaining his motorcycle, but the motorcycle is really just a metaphor for your mind and the processes for managing oneself. The book discusses the intersection of science and religion, of the objective facts and the subjective truths that can’t be objectively quantified. Through this understanding, I had the basis for writing my book.
Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson were on the Joe Rogan Experience last week talking about this same phenomenon without realizing they were discussing the truths already gone over in Pirsig’s book. Facts are objective truths that can be measured, but wisdoms can be subjective truths that aren’t provable yet. You can know facts, but might not be wise. As an example in the podcast, Weinstein mentioned that while religious texts couldn’t objectively tell you that you shouldn’t take a dump in the middle of your community because of germ theory, they could tell you that subjectively speaking shitting where you eat is bad for your health because they saw that dysentery followed. Maybe religious texts don’t have anything against pork, but instead they knew that it could make you sick if it wasn’t eaten under the right conditions. They didn’t know what trichinosis was, but they created a religious reason to help people avoid a deadly infection they couldn’t name at the time.
Football is in this stage of existence as guys like Paul De Podesta try to find the right balance between objective measurements and subjective analysis. In this analysis, objectivity is focused on the object you’re analyzing, while subjectivity is focused on what the subject analyzing the object believes. This is why completely subjective analysis is almost useless.As I explain in Chapter 1 of Caponomics, according to ESPN Magazine’s David Fleming, DePodesta is looking to create a 60% analytics (objective) to 40% scouting (subjective) split, while many in the NFL use a 70% scouting to 30% analytics split. Unlike baseball, football doesn’t have singular data points. It’s not as simple as the ball is pitched and the batter does something; there are 11 variables on each side of the ball for each play and sources like Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus do a fantastic job of creating objective measurements for the sport of football. The chaos and lack of complete objective data on the football field compared to baseball means more subjectivity will be applied to building a football team than in baseball.
Objective and subjective splits can differ across positions. A position like quarterback has more statistical metrics than offensive line, thus quarterback can be analyzed more objectively than offensive line. The Patriots have consistently found value on the offensive line because Dante Scarnecchia is arguably the best offensive line coach in NFL history, so he has elite subjective analysis and the ability to improve the play of his line. Their first three Super Bowl starting offensive lines cost 5.09%, 6.57%, and 4.65% of their cap because of their ability to find and develop talent on the line in New England. Productive lower cost veteran wide receivers can be discovered if you understand the objective of offensive football is to move the chains through the short passing game with a big play producer. By dividing the group into the objective, the Patriots have been able to craft pass catching groups with guys like James White and Julian Edelman with big play threats in Gronk and Chris Hogan leading them to Super Bowls.
With all of this said, let’s get back to the matter at hand: Mike Tanier’s inaccurate article that has more cute lines that mock Moneyball tactics, like comparing it to “the football equivalent of saving for a dream house by abstaining from avocado toast, all the while losing jobs because you are too hungry to work after lunch,” than substantive objective thought. His entire article works under the premise that the Browns, Bills and Jets are prepared to compete today, like there’s some magical moves they could have made to be contenders for the next few years during this offseason. He equates building your roster with draft picks to tanking in a way that illustrates his lack of understanding of the value of draft picks as assets for team building. It’s like he doesn’t know that the Patriots and Packers lead the salary cap era with over 200 draft picks since 1994, which comes out to 9.13 per year for the Patriots and 8.87 for the Packers.
These excess draft picks provide the teams with low-cost labor and mitigates the built in risk that some of those draft picks will be duds. Being sure to hit on some draft picks means you decrease the amount of players you have to sign through free agency, which is more expensive labor. Continuing to acquire draft picks even after you’ve built a competitive roster also allows a team to maintain the core of their roster into their second contracts and paired with a large percentage of their roster made up of rookie contract players. The Seahawks have a league-low 19 players with cap hits over one percent of the cap in 2017 because they extended the core they drafted that led them to the Super Bowl, the core they put together with 39 draft picks in the drafts from 2010 to 2013. This draft strategy has continued through to 2017 as they’ve had 77 draft picks in 8 drafts in the Carroll Era, which is 9.6 per draft, which has allowed them to continue to field a great roster with 79.8% of their salary cap invested in their top 20 players. They’ve even traded out of the first round in four of the last five years to avoid the slightly higher costs of first round picks. In 2017, they had six total picks in the second and third round, which is a sweet spot for finding players who have the potential to start right away and cost less than one percent of the cap.
If you don’t have a team that has a good probability of making the playoffs, then finding low-cost labor through the draft is a great way to build rather than trying to be 8-8 (aka Jeff Fisher) every year, which Tanier suggests is a noble pursuit in the article. We’ll now go through the article to help explain what Moneyball really is.
His article targets the Browns, Jets, and Bills. The Browns and Bills in particular are doing this Moneyball/Caponomics process right with both of them stockpiling draft picks, the Browns doing so over the last few seasons and the Bills stockpiling draft picks for the 2018 NFL Draft in particular. He believes these three teams are tanking to get the first pick in next year’s draft, but I wonder what path to success he saw for the Jets this season that tells him they ever had a chance to be anything more than that. The Sheldon Richardson trade moves a guy who Tanier describes as a “defensive terror/resident malcontent,” but as Jason Fitzgerald, our founder and resident Jets fan, has written for Over The Cap the Jets have been trying to trade him for over a year due to attitude issues, uneven play, along with him no longer fitting the roster and being the odd man out with Leonard Williams and Muhammed Wilkerson.
The Jets have no guarantee that a contract he signs elsewhere in 2018 would lead to a compensatory pick, so this trade gives them a sure chance at a pick, rather than keeping Richardson on for another year and potentially getting nothing for him. We’ve seen Belichick trade players a year early for almost two decades now to ensure a return on a tradable asset. Rather than wait for Richardson to leave as a free agent during the 2018 offseason and wait for that potential compensatory pick, they traded him for an inexpensive veteran receiver in Jermaine Kearse with a need at the position with Quincy Enunwa out for the season (who was the only playmaker Jets fans were excited about), plus a conditional second or third round pick and they cleared $5,869,000 of cap space to add to a big cap space total moving forward that will help them compete when they’ve built a roster that can actually potentially compete. Even if Richardson signed a contract that would earn the Jets a compensatory pick, they’d likely not gain that compensatory pick because they still need to spend money in free agency just to field a competitive team in the near future. They then signed Kony Ealy after his release from New England to a one-year deal worth half a percent of the cap and, albeit only one week, he was Pro Football Focus’ 14th rated edge defender against Buffalo with a rating of 83.6.
These are basic premises of Moneyball. Why would you spend more money today to be 6-10 rather than roll that money forward into a future year when you’ve got a better plan of attack? This isn’t “tanking”; this is about spending money efficiently to actually get yourself out of the hole that teams like the Browns, Jets and Bills have seemingly been in forever. You don’t dig yourself out of a hole by holding onto assets that aren’t worth their value and not taking the steps that create a better future than present.
Moving onto the Browns, there are some decisions they’ve made that can be reasonably questioned. The release of Joe Haden seems like a crazy release on paper, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 88th best cornerback out of 110 graded players in 2016 with a 46.0 rating. It doesn’t make Moneyball a failure because you want to release a player who used to be great like Darrelle Revis, but who holds a $13.4 million cap hit. Releasing him turned that into a $7.3 million dead money charge, which is $6.3 million in cap space. The organization must have decided that: a) the players behind him were capable of playing; and, b) they’d rather have the $6.3 million in cap space than hold onto a player signed by the last management team who wasn’t performing at a high level. In fact, the Browns have three cornerbacks with PFF grades for 2016 better than Haden’s 46.0: Jamar Taylor ranked 20th at 82.0, Jason McCourty was #57 at 72.1, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun was the 69th ranked cornerback at 61.3. It’s not really a complicated or controversial decision in any way. Haden was once the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he isn’t today, part of why the Browns were unable to trade him. In the Week 1 match-up between the Steelers and Browns, Boddy-Calhoun came out of the game as PFF’s fourth best cornerback with a rating of 88.3, McCourty was the 26th best corner at 76.8, while Taylor was 89th of 91 with a rating of 33.3 as he was tasked with covering and attempting to tackle Antonio Brown for most of the game. Haden had a 41.6 rating that ranked 79th against the Browns receivers.
Tanier cites the release of interior offensive lineman John Greco as another sign the Browns are tanking. Greco is a 32-year-old lineman who no one else has re-signed and had zero dead money versus a cap hit of $3,075,000. Like with Haden, they decided they’d rather go with one of their young, inexpensive players they can develop rather than invest money in a player who won’t provide the value of his cost. The Browns traded Cam Erving for a fifth-round pick. He was a first round pick in 2015 under the previous regime who had a PFF grade of 36.8 in 2016. In school, that’s like you didn’t study for the test and didn’t even bother to cheat.
The Brock Osweiler trade doesn’t look good, but they received a second round pick in 2018 and a potential starting quarterback for a fourth-round compensatory pick. They didn’t flush $16 million “down the garbage disposal” though, they lost $16 million in cap space, but the $16 million charge was from Osweiler’s contract in Houston, so it’s money that Houston paid him in the form of a guarantee. It cost them nothing in real dollars, but does eat up cap space that could be used elsewhere. Cutting him because they decided he wasn’t worth keeping on a roster with three young quarterbacks in DeShone Kizer, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan has nothing to do with tanking.
All of these moves have resulted in over $38 million in dead money for the Browns this year, but that’s not a big deal considering that they have over $61 million in cap space with an adjusted cap of $217.8 million. And, they also have so many draft picks that dead money won’t affect them as much other teams as they have such a high potential to acquire low-cost labor. The Osweiler deal seems like a weird decision and it’s definitely confusing, but my belief is they took the gamble knowing that if it didn’t work out it wouldn’t cost them anything in real money and they didn’t know they’d be able to draft their 2017 starter Kizer in the second round when they made the trade back in March. These decisions don’t happen in a vacuum that we get to critique six months later with 20/20 hindsight vision; it requires a nuanced approach to try to understand what an organization is doing.
The Browns tied the 1997 Miami Dolphins with a cap era record 14 draft picks in 2016, they had 10 more in 2017, and they are currently projected to have another 14 in 2018. Every player won’t work out, but that’s 38 draft picks in three seasons, theoretically that means they could have 38 players on a 53-man roster on low-cost rookie contracts. They won’t have 38 on rookie contracts as they’ve already released some of the draft picks from 2016 like wide receiver Jordan Payton, but it does mean they won’t have too much of a need to spend big money in free agency. It isn’t tanking to have 38 draft picks in three years—it’s doing the same thing the 1990s Dallas Cowboys dynasty did when Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones made 51 trades, with most of them involving draft picks, to build up the roster that earned them three Super Bowls. The Cowboys were doing “Moneyball” before Moneyball was a thing. It’s not some new-age stuff; we just now have more tools to quantify what the value created can be, so Tanier’s analysis is wrong from an objective and subjective standpoint. Compiling draft picks doesn’t mean you’re tanking; it means you’re trying to build a sustainable path to success.
In 1989, the first year of the Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson era, the Cowboys had 15 draft picks in the 12 round draft and used a first and fifth round pick in the NFL’s Supplementary Draft as well. This was also the year they went 1-15 as they traded away their seemingly only good player, running back Herschel Walker, after their fifth straight loss to start the season. In the trade, Dallas received linebackers Jesse Solomon, David Howard, and Alex Stewart, running back Darrin Nelson, cornerback Issiac Holt, then Minnesota’s first, second and sixth round picks in 1990.Minnesota received, Herschel Walker, then the Cowboys third and tenth round picks in 1990, plus their third rounder in 1991.
The key to the trade for the Cowboys was that each of the players had a conditional pick attached to him if he were to be cut before February 1st, 1990. This is where things got complicated and Johnson and Jones got exactly what they wanted.
Nelson refused to report and was traded to San Diego for a sixth round pick and, because of the conditions attached to the trade, the Cowboys also got a second round pick in 1991 from the Vikings. According to Steve Wulf in an ESPN piece titled, “The Great Trade Robbery,” Johnson thought Stewart was lazy, so he cut him right away to get the second round pick in the 1990 draft that was tied to him. Considering he was an eighth round pick in 1989, it’s absurd that the Cowboys got a second round pick out of him in a trade that happened in October 1989. It’s not like Stewart was a high performer either; he was dealing with a wrist that broke a few weeks before the season.
With all of the players left tied to conditional picks, Johnson instructed his coaches to not start them to make it clear to Lynn that all he wanted was the draft picks. This helped him eventually work a deal with Lynn that lessened the draft cost for the Vikings and allowed the Cowboys to keep Solomon, Howard, and Holt.
As I wrote in an old draft of an article on the 1995 Cowboys, which applies to Tanier’s article: “what Johnson points out is that people overlooked him because they thought, ‘what does this guy from the college game know?’” Like the way Tanier poo-poos the baseball guy in his article. I went on, “It was the arrogance around the league, the arrogance that so many people in history have gotten when they see someone doing things different and don’t expect anything to come from it that let the Cowboys sneak up on the NFL in a way that none of them could have predicted because that wasn’t the normal way of doing business.”
After that 1989 draft, they had six picks in the 1990 draft before a staggering 18 in 1991, with seven in the first three rounds and 12 in the first five rounds. In 1992, the Cowboys had 15 picks including two in the first, second and third rounds with nine in the first five rounds.
Not only was Tanier’s negative approach to the Browns tactics wrongheaded from a historical standpoint, but as Kevin Cole pointed out in a tweet that alerted me to this madness, the Browns aren’t throwing away 2017. They released players who weren’t good and signed players like outside linebacker Jamie Collins, inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, wide receiver Kenny Britt, and right guard Kevin Zeitler. These moves were even done right and well by a Moneyball standard, which might be why Tanier omitted them. When you have a narrative, and you’re ideologically committed (and you want those clicks), the ego will protect the narrative.
Collins was traded to the Browns from the Patriots for a third round compensatory pick in 2017 and then re-signed to a lower first tier edge defender contract worth around 6-7% of the cap through 2020. With so much cap space, these cap hits could end up being one to one and a half percent lower against the Browns adjusted salary cap in these upcoming seasons. While he had a subpar 2016 with a PFF rating of 47.6, he was one of the best in the NFL in 2014 and 2015 with PFF ratings of 88.8 and 89.2. Pro Football Reference gave him an Approximate Value rating of nine, just three points shy of his career high of 12 in 2015 and on par with his 2014 rating, so it might not have been as bad a season as PFF suggests. He may have been distracted by his desire to get paid Von Miller money on his second contract, which was the biggest reason the Patriots moved on from him as they saw no path to re-signing him.
Kirksey was PFF’s 23rd best linebacker in 2016 with a rating of 81.1, so the Browns re-signed him to a five year deal with a contract that peaks at about 4.8% of a projected 2020 salary cap of $207 million. Inside linebacker is one of the lowest cost markets to the point where it may be undervalued. Growing up in the 1990s, linebackers were the glory position for us as they always had been—they were the quarterback of the defense. While the game has trended more towards passing, linebackers still provide huge value in their ability to generate defensive stops and cover. Bill Belichick has supported this conclusion during his tenure as the Patriots head coach by drafting guys like Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower in the first round and signing them to manageable contracts.
Kevin Zeitler was PFF’s seventh best guard in 2016 with a rating of 86.5 and because interior linemen are slightly less expensive than offensive tackles, it’s another Moneyball move. While Zeitler’s contract peaks around 7% of the 2018 projected cap of $179.5 million, PFF’s 41st best left tackle, Russell Okung, signed a contract with the Chargers that peaks at 8.4% in 2018. Okung was just released by the Broncos this offseason. He was on a one-year prove it deal disguised as a five year contract with no dead money in 2017 that would have paid him 7% this season, so he’s been already determined to not be worth that cost by another organization, a testament to Okung’s agent’s ability to get that paper.
Kenny Britt isn’t going to blow you away, but he produced 1000-yards as Jared Goff and Case Keenum’s number one receiver in 2016, so he could be a serviceable number one on a contract that sits squarely in the second tier of the wide receiver market that’s between three and six percent of the cap with a peak cap hit of 4.9% of the projected $193 million cap in 2019. Belichick has consistently found his receivers in the second and third tiers of free agency and, as Jason and I have pointed out numerous times, this is where value can be found in the receiver market, while the top tier is typically slightly overvalued on the free agent market. Jason Cole made a list in 2013 of the 20 worst contracts of the salary cap era and six of the contracts were receivers, so it’s historically been an issue. Britt was PFF’s 40th rated receiver, but his contract is in that sweet spot where he can be a veteran leader providing 800+ yards for a decent price.
With his critique on the Bills, Tanier again misses the point. He writes that “the Bills gutted their roster of Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, Reggie Ragland and Cradle Jones in an August-long fire sale.” Watkins was traded with a 2018 sixth-round pick to the Rams for cornerback EJ Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick. Darby was traded to the Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick.
Watkins is oft-injured to the point that the Bills didn’t even pick up his fifth-year option in 2017, but even so, he has a decent likelihood of becoming a first-tier receiver when he enters the 2018 free agency market. The Bills decided they’d rather have Matthews, who has the potential to be extended at a lower-cost as a second-tier receiver, but who could be valuable at that lower price, plus Gaines with a second and third round pick than Watkins, Darby and the sixth they gave up. Their 2017 draft trade that allowed the Chiefs to draft Pat Mahomes gave them a 2017 first rounder they used on cornerback Tre’Davious White (who replaces Darby and had already become their best cornerback according to beat writers), 2017 third round pick they traded to the Rams to draft linebacker Matt Milano, and a 2018 first round pick. They traded back-up quarterback Jones for a conditional draft pick. The trade of inside linebacker Reggie Ragland to the Chiefs netted them a fourth round pick in 2019.
The Bills moves in the first year of a new regime may be the least confusing of the three teams. Mr. Tanier mocks the concept of coaches “bringin’ in our own guys” when talking about the Bills, which is something every team does because every coach runs their own systems with their own system requirements for each position. Not only that, the Bills are moving from Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense to a 4-3 base, so changes are going to come. While Ragland might have fit Ryan’s plans, he might not fit McDermott’s. While the mobile Jones might have been a system fit for Greg Roman’s West Coast offense that’s always had mobile quarterbacks back to his time as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator from 2011 through 2014, he might not fit what Rick Dennison is looking for in his West Coast offense that he ran under Mike Shanahan in Denver from 2006 to 2008, then Gary Kubiak from 2010 through 2013 in Houston and again in 2015 and 2016 in Denver. You only need to know who Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning, and Trevor Siemian are as quarterbacks to see how he might no longer fit.
The Bills now have two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft with two picks in the fourth round of 2019. Judging off my research, each of the first four rounds are a reliable place to find NFL caliber starters, but starting in the second round rookie contracts sink below one percent of the cap for the first four years of the player’s career and sink below half a percent of the cap from the third round on. This is at a time where veteran NFL starters cost between one and a half and three percent of the salary cap. Add in the picks in the last three rounds they have three more picks, plus the conditional pick for Jones to build their roster. Again, this isn’t complicated.
They went 7-9 in 2016, so they have some pieces, but few consider them a real contender. Bills’ ESPN beat writer Mike Rodak predicts a 5-11 season after the trades they made, while ESPN’s Football Power Index predicts they’ll win only 6.6 games. It’s unlikely that Watkins, Darby, Jones and Ragland were going to make them a 10-6 playoff team. They could actually be minimizing the time it takes for the new regime to rebuild with these moves. Rodak writes that the starting lineups projected by NFL Nation reports have “the Bills with the 10th-oldest starting group on offense with an average age of 27.45. Defensively, the Bills have the sixth-oldest starting lineup, with an average age of 27.33.”
“Buffalo’s 22 starters boast an average age of 27.59, fourth in the league. Only the Cardinals (28.23), Ravens (28.00) and Patriots (27.82) have older starting lineups than Buffalo.”
“It is a peculiar spot for the Bills. The six other teams projected by FPI to win fewer than seven games — the Jaguars, Rams, Bears, Browns, 49ers and Jets — all fall within the 12 youngest starting lineups in the NFL.” All of these teams have more cap space in 2018 than the Bills, so they’re going to need all the draft picks they can get to maximize their roster’s potential into the future. Their old roster is driven by having just 20 draft picks from 2014 to 2016 with only six of these picks still on the roster to start the 2017 season. They haven’t made the playoffs in 17 years, so you might was well try something. The goal of every organization should be to remain competitive for the long-haul, it’s not about making a one-year swing at it like many teams do. The way to do this is through the draft and the right free agent moves at the right time, not to throw money at players at a time where it would be better to save that cap space for a later date, when you do have a chance.
After Tanier lays out these moves as the basis for why Moneyball is a failure, he goes deep in the snark, which pulls him further from the truth. He writes, “Jets and Browns fans who have adopted the “we love tanking” coping mechanism love the pseudo-scientific trappings Moneyball terminology provides: Who cares if we lost 42-3 every week because we cut all of our decent players? We cleared $31 million in cap space and have four second-round picks in the next two years! Let’s see who has the last laugh!”
This is just wrong. I don’t understand the path to immediate success he sees with the Jets and Browns. I don’t see where Joe Haden adds the talent to bring this team to the playoffs. I don’t understand which free agents Tanier believes would have turned the Browns into an immediate playoff team. He’s creating false arguments that don’t acknowledge the realities with which he should be dealing with. Would Sheldon Richardson have made the Jets a playoff team? Maybe he thinks the Jets are tanking because they didn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because he and Mike Freeman have convinced themselves everyone’s missing out on Steve Young. Nothing the Jets do right now is going to make them a contender.
They were one of the oldest and worst rosters in the NFL in 2015 and 2016, so whatever they can do to get assets to get younger is something they should do. If you’re going to have an older roster, then you better be competing because of the short windows of success in the NFL driven by short careers. If they did go sign expensive free agents this offseason, it might have helped them go 6-10 and further delay the rebuild, but it wouldn’t have put them in the playoffs. Their roster has been in a tailspin ever since Mike Tannenbaum restricted them to just 17 draft picks between 2007 and 2010, just 4.25 per season, which has played a part in leading them to the old, crappy roster they have now. They’ve averaged just 6.5 draft picks since 2007. The Jets had 12 picks in 2014, but that was under Rex Ryan and offensive guard Dakota Dozier is the only player left on the roster. They had nine picks in 2017 and they’ll have nine draft picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, so they’re taking steps to get younger and cheaper, which they need to do. With about $20 million in open cap space in 2017, which they will be able to roll into the future, they’re putting themselves in position to make smart free agent manuevers in the near future once they’ve built up a roster with more cheap rookie contract players. Todd Bowles went 10-6 in year one, so they’re hoping they can give him a chance to do the same with a roster built to his needs.
Tanier goes on: “DePodesta’s brand of analytics worked wonders in baseball, in which 18-year-olds are drafted into multiyear farm-team stints where their progress can be tracked with precise metrics. It’s an alien world from the NFL, where whole careers rise and fall in the span of a baseball prospect’s minor league gestation, and where the stats which fuel decisions are sparse, wonky and counterintuitive. What works in baseball is likely to either backfire or take too long in the NFL.”
As you see here, Mr. Tanier accidentally proves the opposite point, but he’s so committed to being anti-Moneyball he misses the point. Because NFL careers are so short, you need to stack your roster with rookie contract players.
Mr. Tanier might be right when he wrote that Kizer is being rushed into the lineup, but it’s not because he’s the only quarterback with a heartbeat. Cody Kessler wasn’t great, but he had a 65.6% completion percentage on a bad offense with a decent 7.1 yards per passing attempt. Kessler could continue to develop into an efficient quarterback, which is valuable on a team that seems to be building a strong rushing attack on offense and a formidable defense. Kevin Hogan, who was just named Kizer’s back-up over Kessler, is an interesting prospect as well with a 65.9% completion percentage in college and above average mobility.
Kizer completed 66.7% of his passes for 7.4 yards per attempt on the way to 222 yards with one touchdown to one interception against Pittsburgh. All while being sacked seven times and while the rushing offense averaged a paltry 2.3 yards per attempt. He was pretty good with an 85.7 quarterback ranking that was 18th in the NFL for the week, a good first step for the rookie. His quarterback rating outpaced Marcus Mariota, Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, and Andy Dalton.
This is the Seahawks formula; Wilson wasn’t the player he is now in 2013. He was accurate with a 63.1% completion percentage and 26 touchdowns-to-9 interceptions, plus efficient at 8.2 yards per attempt even if it was for only 210 passing yards per game. Accuracy and efficiency are very valuable, so saving money at quarterback while still achieving those two can be extremely valuable and allow your organization to build a complete team around that lesser quarterback. Just like in Seattle, the Browns have an interesting three-quarterback competition like the Seahawks had with Matt Flynn, Tavaris Jackson and Wilson. Similar to the Browns with their 38 picks, the Seahawks and their 39 from 2010 to 2013 built the roster around the young, inexpensive, efficient quarterback they took in the 2012 draft. This is another example we’ve seen work that Tanier is omitting from his memory.
He’s right that quarterbacks can falter if they have a bad team around him, but there aren’t many moves the Browns could have made this offseason that would have turned them into a playoff team. I again think Mr. Tanier has his images of Kaepernick running through his head. The big signings in free agency he seems to advocate for aren’t the path to success in the NFL. It doesn’t work unless you’ve already developed a solid roster. Big signings don’t typically work also because, as Tanier pointed out, NFL careers are short so these expensive investments that he’s suggesting to put the Browns over the top are extremely risky. Making big investments in the Browns roster today is more money spent to continue to be average. The team has to have enough talent already on the roster for one or two big free agent moves to really shift their fortune.
Tanier goes on: “Richardson, while an unreliable goofball, was also a mega-talented 26-year-old former Pro Bowler. He’s the kind of player a successful organization uses as a building block, not a bargaining chip. Richardson developed a lot of bad habits for the Jets, which is exactly what happens when talented players get stuck on rotten, hopeless teams. That’s a common danger Extreme Moneyball teams court when they send the message that winning won’t matter for a while.” I don’t know when Mr. Tanier believes the Jets have played “Extreme Moneyball,” which is a ridiculous use of the term meant to strengthen a weak point. You see this often with good writers, especially in modern journalism, where they’ll use strong language to cover up their lack of a strong point.
Was it when they signed a 30-year old cornerback in Darrelle Revis to a five-year contract in 2015 with cap hits over 10% of the cap in the first three seasons? Football Outsiders Almanac states that defensive backs typically decline after age 29, so the biggest move the Jets have made in the last three years was anti-analytics and anti-Moneyball. Were they using analytics when they drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round even though Pro Football Focus didn’t give him a draftable grade? In the first two years of the era of General Manager Mike Maccagnan and Head Coach Todd Bowles the Jets had six and seven draft picks, they had nine in 2017, but it’s a false narrative to say the Jets have been Moneyballing it. They may be starting to move in that direction now, but they’ve simply made one trade to rid themselves of a player they didn’t want and get a valuable draft pick and a professional wide receiver on their roster.
As another writer friend of mine told me after reading the article, Tanier missed the actual best point of his article. Building a bad culture can create bad habits, but the point is surrounded by nonsense.
Tanier writes: “Time is the precious commodity that Extreme Moneyballers overlook. Careers are short. Contracts are short. The NFL is built to make quick turnarounds possible.” Yes, careers are short, which is why they’re piling up draft picks. Yes, the NFL is built to make quick turnarounds possible, with excess draft picks as they don’t have a 100% success rate, so you need enough to ensure you have success in the draft.
As I write in Caponomics, One.Cool.Customer of SB Nation’s Blogging the Boys, did a study that “judges a successful pick as a player who becomes a ‘primary starter,’ which is someone who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last six seasons, which was from 2010 to 2015 at the time of the article. This means that even those drafted in 2014 and 2015 were judged off this, so it’s likely that even a percentage of these picks became primary starters for the first time during the 2016 season.”
Here’s what he found in his analysis:
To ensure a roster gets these starters, they need to acquire the picks to do so. It also disproves his next inaccurate statement in the paragraph: “One rebuilding year of cap purging and draft binging? Fine. After that, you better start competing, because the process of competing is what develops talent, not waiting for a magical draft haul.” All three of these teams need more than one good draft to compete. You can’t replace a bad roster in one draft. There’s an obvious math issue there. They haven’t been playoff teams for years for a reason and this isn’t about a “magical draft haul,” it’s about building a roster. It’s about having the excess of picks to find the core for your roster.
Tanier writes, “When three or more teams are shopping quality veterans in exchange for draft picks, however, the market inefficiency swings the other way.” It’s true that excess talent on the market could decrease the value teams are willing to give up for them. It hasn’t swung market inefficiency the other way. Teams aren’t giving you less for Sheldon Richardson because the Browns and Bills are trading players too. He also ignores the salary cap concerns that go into every single one of these trades. It still matters what the player will cost, how many years are left on his contract, and potential next contract costs, which has an effect on what a team will be willing to give up. As we just saw this last weekend, the entire NFL was trading players as rosters shrank from 90 to 53 players for the first time as the NFL got rid of the cut-down to 75 this preseason. It’s not just teams that are tanking who are trading. Almost every team is making trades to maximize the quality of their rosters for what they need heading into the season after taking stock of their roster during training camp. This isn’t decreasing the return on these trades.
He goes on that this “allows contenders like the Seahawks and Steelers (teams which use analytics as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer) to bargain-hunt while a bunch of teams try to out-stink each other in search of whichever college quarterback led the latest late-night comeback.” If they were doing this, then the Bills probably would’ve drafted Pat Mahomes this year. The path to a rebuild isn’t solely based on the quarterback, it’s about building the roster around the quarterback, then either having the quarterback already developing on the roster and ready to help the team compete at a high level or inserting the quarterback. The Browns spent years drafting quarterbacks to bad teams with no talent, which helped lead to each quarterback’s failure. In 19 seasons since coming back into the NFL in 1999, the Browns have started the season with a different head coach eight different times. This hasn’t helped them find success, but they’re hopeful that the well-respected Hue Jackson is finally the answer, which is why they’re comfortable being patient.
Tanier ends the article with an argument of fairness in regards to the fans of these rebuilding organizations saying: “it’s unfair to keep asking fans and players to wait until the tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow.” Well, Jets, Bills, and Browns fans have already been doing that. Should the organizations just continue to subject them to a decade of 6-10 and 8-8 with a one-off playoff appearance at some point? The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, Cleveland hasn’t been since 2002, and the Jets haven’t been since 2010. What are you talking about man?
Tanier wrote about Moneyball the same way I see many sports writers tweet about people who disagree with them politically. They’re to be marginalized, misrepresented, and mocked from behind a screen. There are a lot of problems in our country and the world that need to be solved. You’ll find no disagreement from me on that end, but whether it’s football, politics, or our personal lives, an unemotional, objective, and fact-based approach that has a quantifiable goal in mind is what’s necessary to create the right changes to accomplish that goal.
On the social justice issues that these writers promote, I’m with them, I agree change needs to happen. I’m with guys like Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin on our need to reform our criminal justice system in this country, but that will be done with objective, fact-based arguments, not by branding the entire NFL, and anyone who disagrees with you on the quality of Colin Kaepernick as a quarterback, as racist. In 1970, before the War on Drugs was started by Richard Nixon, only 0.16% of the US population was in prison. Today, 0.62% of our population is in prison. As Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman admitted to Dan Baum of Harper’s Weekly in 1994, the War on Drugs was all about harassing Nixon’s political enemies, which were the antiwar left and black people: “we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Re-read that. Let it sink in.
Since these laws have been enacted, incarceration rates for black Americans have skyrocketed as they’ve been unfairly targeted by these laws in particular as a means of raising revenue for the state and prison industrial complex. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, police arrest black Americans for drug crimes at twice the rate of whites despite similar use rates. According to the FBI/Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data and U.S. Census Data from 2010, the black arrest rate for marijuana was over 700 per 100,000 citizens, while white arrest rates were below 200 per 100,000. Again, despite similar use rates. According to the ACLU of DC, while blacks make up 50.7% of DC’s population, they are arrested for 90.9% of all drug arrests. One way to stop the police brutality we see is by decreasing the number of unnecessary interactions between police and citizen, so ending the War on Drugs would be a great step toward that.
This is all a very important conversation and the conversation will be changed by the objective and measured, not by the loudest person screeching that everyone who disagrees with them is racist. Do some objective research if you’re going to have an opinion as that will actually help you build a bigger boat, rather than throwing good people off the ship. Look to our nation’s response to the hurricanes the last few weeks, there are a lot of great people in this country you might disagree with, help them agree with you rather than run them off your team.
If you want to learn what Moneyball in football really means, e-mail Caponomics@gmail.com with EMAIL LIST in the subject line to join the Caponomics e-mail list and be alerted when my upcoming book goes on sale this fall.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL and The Process For Building Super Bowl Champions,” and NFLPA Certified Agent. You can follow him on Twitter @Zack_OTC.