This is the final draft of the first chapter of Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL. We’re sending it out to publishers this week, but a) I’d love to share it with the Over The Cap audience as I’ve been unable to post much since March as I’ve been in the process of re-writing my first draft of Caponomics and b) I figured this would be an avenue to reach publishers I don’t have access to.
After about 16 months of researching the salary caps of Super Bowl champions, this chapter is an introduction to a book that is (my best attempt at) the process or the blueprint for how to build a successful NFL franchise.
If you’re interested in publishing this book, you can e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com or find me on LinkedIn.
Process, Quality, Percentages
Every idea has an origin somewhere far before the time that someone thinks he or she hatched it, and we all have books that end up being the foundation for our own thought processes. Historically, in America at least, that’s been The Bible for most people. We worry about or debate whether there’s a God or not, but the real impact, the real important thing is there’s this book going around with these stories in it that help people understand the best way to live their lives.
Through our school education, our home education and our self-education, we find our own books that start to shape our thought processes and foundational beliefs. We have mentors and other sources of wisdom along the way that help shape who we become as well. Oftentimes, it takes sitting down and thinking about the specific question of naming the books or things that have shaped you to even realize they imperceptibly guided you towards something.
In writing this chapter I’ve had to sit down and think about this as I want to explain to you how I came about creating this book, how I came to believe the things I believe that I’m writing in this book. When I read something about a subject, I don’t just want to know the answers, I want to know how the person came to their conclusions. In recent years, my thought process and presentation process have been heavily influenced by the podcasts I listen to, like: The Joe Rogan Experience, The Tim Ferris Show, The Fighter and the Kid, The Church of What’s Happening Now, Joe DeFranco’s Industrial Strength Show, and Nerdist. An underlying theme of all of these shows is they talk to guests about how they came to be who they are today or how they came to write something they wrote or create something; it’s not just a discussion on the result, but a discussion about the process.
It was in college that I was a development editor on Dr. Kevin Elko’s Touchdown and developed a relationship with one of the wisest people one could ever meet. A lot has been discussed in recent years about Alabama, Nick Saban and The Process; Dr. Elko is the sports psychologist behind that mantra, so my relationship with him built that same understanding of The Process in me. The way those podcasts are structured, especially Tim Ferriss’ podcast, and the way my thought process was shifted by Dr. Elko when I was in college makes me appreciate the increased understanding one can gain in a subject from understanding the process behind the actions and results.
At Alabama, The Process is the end result of years of coaching experimentation by Nick Saban combined with all of the things he learned over the years from sources outside of football, like Dr. Elko. The Process for all of us in our field of work and our lives becomes the end result of the experimentation we’ve done over time. It’s not just the end result that’s the process though; to understand someone’s process, you have to understand how they came to that process, the process behind the process. The process behind the process is a series of experiments, a series of failures that help determine the right process for you and the domain in which you apply it.
We first have to identify what the objective is before we go any further. In the NFL, the big, yearly objective is to win the Super Bowl and, while that’s a worthwhile goal, it’s not realistically attainable for all 32 teams every year.
The real goal that an organization should be working towards was articulated by Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun who was reporting on the State of the Ravens news conference after their Super Bowl 47 victory in February 2013. Vensel wrote, “general manager Ozzie Newsome and company made it clear at the State of the Ravens news conference last month that the organization did not plan on going for broke in pursuit of a second straight title in 2013. They said they were more concerned with remaining competitive for the long haul because, if you are in the tourney every year – as the Ravens have been every year from 2008 to today – you’re bound to win one eventually.”
The real goal of an NFL organization is to build a competitive organization to make the playoffs every year because, as Vensel points out, you’re bound to win a Super Bowl eventually. The first step towards the end goal of creating a multi-Super Bowl dynasty is making the playoffs every year, experimenting with your roster based on the lessons each season presents, then continuing to improve on that playoff-caliber roster. That experimentation helps move the roster towards the goal of winning the Super Bowl with the end goal being a multi-championship dynasty.
Some organizations are far away from reaching these goals, such as teams like the Cleveland Browns that Hue Jackson and Paul de Podesta are taking over; but they need to just start the process by developing the foundation for a future team that can compete. The Raiders were recently in this position before the selections of Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper helped them create a three-man core that will be the foundation of their roster for years to come. Every team needs to understand what stage of roster development they’re in just like a new company needs to understand this.
Say you’re just starting up a fashion company with a friend—one of you is the design guy and the other the business guy–you can’t just start spending large chunks of the money you have to start this venture on huge amounts of inventory. You first have to test out your product, see what customers want, see what they like, see how something sells, then slowly build up based on these small experiments that you do every time you put out a product. You start to build an understanding of what it takes to succeed in your industry over time and eventually become the business you envisioned you’d become. It’s not an overnight thing, it’s a slow burn, just like everything in life. As Dr. Elko says, success happens before it happens and it arrives “over a long period of time, all of the sudden.”
This last Super Bowl, number 50, was between a Panthers team that won their division in 2013 and 2014, but who hit a next level in 2015 during a 15-1 campaign in which Cam Newton won the MVP. Their two stars, Newton and Luke Kuechly were back-to-back first round picks in 2011 and 2012 and the team built the rest of the formula around them. The 2015 Broncos were built off the lessons of the Super Bowl 48 loss to the Seahawks. The 2013 Broncos had the best offense in NFL history, but they lost 43-8 to the best defense that season. The lessons from that game caused John Elway to start re-constructing his team to be more defensive centric in preparation for Peyton Manning’s eventual decline and retirement with a low-cost quarterback option coming in the years behind him.
Both the Panthers and the Broncos learned lessons from each season, applied those lessons to what they were building moving forward and that process brought them both to Super Bowl 50. The problem with that though is that there is no time for failures in the NFL as coaches can be fired fairly quickly, so the process for how to build a new coach’s team has to be understood the day he walks in the door. Even Ron Rivera was on the hot seat in recent years as the Panthers started 1-3 before finishing 12-4 in 2013 and 3-8-1 in 2014 before finishing 7-8-1, so he won the division in both seasons, yet was on the hot seat in both seasons. The haste with which success needs to be achieved in the NFL is something that heavily influences any research done in the league. It isn’t just that success needs to be achieved, it’s that success needs to be achieved quickly or you may be fired and never get another chance. This is another reason why standardization of data becomes important; organizations can’t just rely on experimenting on their own team, they have to understand what’s worked in the past and why it’s worked in the past: they have to understand caponomics.
There are hundreds of books that discuss what happens on the field in football and in the NFL, but there aren’t many, if any at all, that discuss the financial side, the salary cap. I started a small business in 2011 just to learn some business lessons through doing it and that process taught me how important the financials are to any business. While we were training at DeFranco’s Gym, Brian Cushing once told me he left another agent for Drew Rosenhaus when it came time to sign his extension with the Texans because Rosenhaus had an encyclopedic knowledge of the salary cap, seemingly knowing every fact about every contract ever signed. It was the combination of these two things that got me very interested in writing for Over The Cap as I have aspirations of being a successful NFL agent, so writing about the salary cap seemed like a great way to learn about it.
I think the thing that caused me to start looking at the salary cap from the standpoint of percentages was that Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Broncos. I saw one team led by Manning who consumed over 14% of the cap, and Russell Wilson who cost the Seahawks less than 1% of the cap, which clearly affected how both teams could be built. Like I said before, Manning was leading the best offense ever, while the Seahawks had the best defense in the league and it was my opinion that his big cap hit seemed to play a factor in why the Broncos defense was in the bottom third of the NFL that year. I also knew that by looking at percentages, I could take the 2013 salary cap percentages, and then use those to calculate where teams would want to land in 2014 and beyond. I started to see the opportunity for more research as more data became available; I’d be able to start to figure out how and why teams should be spending their money.
During the spring of 2014 I first started to play around with these theories. I was in my second semester at Rutgers Business School pursuing an MBA in entrepreneurship and marketing, as I needed a graduate degree to become certified as an agent, and since I was pursuing the degree for the purpose of something NFL-related, everything I studied and the projects I did were through the lens of the football industry.
I started writing for Over The Cap that summer after writing a few salary cap articles on a personal blog. Then, during that summer, Jason Fitzgerald released a few articles on how Super Bowl champions spent their salary cap and used percentages to break down these charges for the Super Bowl winners up to that point. This was a seed that has since grown into the book I’ve put in front of you.
It was during this time I was thinking about the current way the industry talks about contracts, in terms of strictly dollar figures. I realized how unproductive that is because by simply talking about the amount of money players made, are making or are going to make, we don’t have a framework in which to view that figure. Since every team has the same amount of salary cap dollars to spend, then there’s an easy way to standardize the entire economy that we’re talking about. Again, there’s a real need to standardize the data, so that we can understand what the data means.
There will be a few different fields of study in football analytics sprouting up and being given names in the next few years, so what I’m doing with this book is attempting to produce the first book in the field of salary cap analytics with the emphasis on how to create a Super Bowl champion through the salary cap. That’s the big picture goal, understanding how a Super Bowl team is created, but in pursuing this goal, we end up learning about the entire process of roster building. So this isn’t just a book on the “caponomics” of winning a Super Bowl, it should be giving the reader the outline of how to approach the entire process.
Some parts of this book will be very technical with specific lessons learned based on an organization’s past decision, while others will be more big picture like my conclusions regarding the spending for any positional market. In both these situations, we can learn something, but it’s important that we keep in mind something Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “If the Chautauqua gets into the actual details of fixing one individual machine the chances are overwhelming that it won’t be your make and model and the information will be not only useless but dangerous, since information that fixes one model can sometimes wreck another.” While the technical approach can often teach a specific lesson, there are often so many variables that the approach that worked for the 1994 49ers might not work for Team X in 2016. The technical approach is an important part of the process of understanding salary cap analytics as a whole, but it’ll be the big picture stuff that is most applicable to the most people, while the technical stuff becomes a sort of “caponomics theories in action” example for the reader.
If we’re going to create a serious field of analytics regarding the salary cap, then the first step had to be standardizing the data, so we do that with percentage of the salary cap. This is an easy step for us to take as all it takes is dividing a player’s cap hit by the year’s salary cap to come to the percentage, but the meaning behind it must be explained.
If we had to name a Godfather of analytics in popular culture, it’d have to be Bill James. He named his approach sabermetrics in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and that approach scientifically analyzes baseball, typically through statistical data, to try to understand the how and why behind the final outcome of wins and losses. He’s been such an incredible force in the sports industry that Time named him one of the Time 100 as one of their most influential people in the world in 2006. Bill James’ Baseball Abstract was my introduction to my love of statistics like many other kids over the last 30 years.
The Oakland A’s used James’ work in the late-1990s and early-2000s to compete with a very low-budget payroll, which was chronicled in Moneyball, but his biggest success came when he was hired by the Red Sox in 2003. James’ biggest contribution to the game was his emphasis on on-base percentage over the more popular batting average, which allowed the A’s to find players who were being undervalued. When James took his ideas on on-base percentage, the role of the closer and more to the Red Sox and their second highest payroll in baseball in 2004, they were able to win their first World Series in 86 years and have won two more since them with James in the front office.
The previous focus on batting average was wrong because it didn’t account for every way a player can get on base, thus walks were essentially disregarded and that’s a big mistake. A team full of guys with high base-on-balls figures is valuable for two reasons. First, the most important resource to be aware of in baseball is the 27 outs that each team has to score on offense. Second, as Keri says above, patient hitters use up a valuable resource of their opponent’s: the starting pitcher’s pitch count. In a sport that’s increasingly cautious about how many pitches their pitchers throw this becomes even more effective. With middle relievers in baseball usually being guys who aren’t good enough to be starters, set-up men or closers, this is extremely beneficial for an offense.
The Rays took advantage of newer data that came along regarding fielding at a time where the rest of the league was focused on hitting. Jonah Keri wrote in The Extra 2%:
“When the A’s, Red Sox, and a handful of other teams went searching for undervalued baseball commodities, they stumbled upon on-base percentage—especially players who produced high OBPs by dint of hefty walk rates. Load your roster with a bunch of players who knew how to take ball four and you’d score more runs, wear down opposing pitchers more quickly, and, best of all, do all of that without busting the payroll.
In the rush to acquire on-base machines, though, defense hadn’t merely been overlooked. It had been shoved aside. Big, hulking sluggers like Adam Dunn, once knocked for their high-strikeout counts, became nearly deified in sabermetric circles for their combination of power and patience. But for all the good 40 homers and 100 walks a season could do, Dunn would give much of that value back in the outfield with his suspect range and poor instincts. And he wasn’t alone. The prototypical “toolsy” player who could run, cover a lot of ground, and catch the ball—and perhaps struggle some to get on base—had become passé in some quarters.”
Keri goes on to quote sportswriter Henry Chadwick who wrote about defense in 1870 that “the best player in a nine is he who makes the most good plays in a match,” while going on mention the highs and lows created by incredible and memorable plays in baseball history like Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series or Bill Buckner’s mistake in 1986.
Steve Moyer, the president of Baseball Info Solutions, said that defense was still a pretty “nebulous” subject in the early-2000s, but he saw a change in teams’ attitudes from 2005 to 2010 saying, “people didn’t talk about it [defense] at all before.” It was the increasing availability of play-by-play information, which allowed analysts to see what happened on every pitch, along with allowing them to create data on where the fielders positioned on the field and how they faired on balls hit their way. While many teams still ignored advanced defensive stats in favor of trusting scouts’ eyes instead, which seems mind-boggling considering what had just occurred in Oakland, “no team embraced defensive analysis as early, or as devotedly, as the D-Rays.” Keri goes on to write:
“Rather than relying on others’ work, they built their own database, incorporating everything from scouting information to minor league and major league stats for everyone in the organization—and other teams too. Using existing advanced statistics from Michael Lichtman, John Dewan, Tom Tano, Baseball Prospectus, and other leading analysts, they created their own proprietary measures for hitting, base running, pitching, and defense. What they found convinced them that they could vastly improve the ball club, very quickly, with just a few well-placed moves.
If you look at statistics like [wins above replacement] over the past few years, and then specifically at the spread between offensive and defensive contributions, you find that players would get penalized for having higher defensive value,” said Diamond Dollars’ Vince Gennaro. “The undervaluation of defense was just waiting to be exploited.””
The league had forgotten some of the fundamental objectives of the game of baseball and the Rays had the data to exploit it. They had to exploit the undervaluation of defense because they had no other choice. They had to find some angle they believed they could create a competitive advantage for the amount of money they had to spend and attempt to exploit it.
There’s a massive difference between analytics in the MLB and NFL in that the MLB has a luxury tax system, while the NFL has a salary cap. Under a luxury tax, teams whose total payroll exceeds the figure that’s been chosen for that year are taxed on the excess to discourage the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, etc., from outspending teams with the kind of disparity that was starting to increase in the early-2000s. The luxury tax was implemented in 2003 and since then we’ve seen a shrinking of the range between the bottom spenders in the league to the top spenders in the league.
Just going back ten years, in 2006, the #10 team in terms of payroll, the San Francisco Giants, had a payroll that was 46.3% of the amount of money the #1 Yankees spent. In 2016, the #10 San Diego Padres paid their players 56.6% of what the team with the highest payroll in baseball, the Dodgers, paid their guys. In 2008, the year the Rays won the AL East and made the World Series, they were the 29th highest payroll in MLB out of 30 teams and their $43,820,597 payroll was 21.0% of the #1 Yankees who came in third place in the AL East with a payroll of $209,081,577. The Diamondbacks will be the 29th highest payroll in the MLB and they will be trying to beat the Dodgers in 2016 for a NL West crown with a payroll that costs 31.7% of the Dodgers.
While the luxury tax is shrinking the range of spending, it’s not having anywhere near the same effect as the salary cap has in the NFL. It’s not like NFL teams can avoid spending money either; the 2011 CBA has a minimum spending rule of 89% over a four year period, so everyone in the NFL is within this range of spending between 89 and 100%. Teams can roll over unused cap space, but it doesn’t create the kind of disparity seen in baseball. Even today in baseball, teams need to find their own angle to exploit, but in football, with only 100% of cap space today, 100 units if you will, teams don’t have to find something no one else is using, but they do have to create an on-field and salary cap formula all their own.
Keri writes that the Rays were following in the footsteps of the A’s, Twins and Marlins who had “all won with low payrolls, using a variety of approaches ranging from old-school talent evaluation to advanced analytic systems,” but that the Rays were going to take a different angle by using general manager Andrew Friedman’s experience on Wall Street to use a process called arbitrage.
“Arbitrage refers to any financial transaction in which you simultaneously buy one thing and sell another. The thing you’re buying is cheaper than the thing you’re selling, thus netting you a profit. An arbitrageur can complete such a transaction using any number of financial instruments, including stocks, bonds, derivatives, commodities, and currencies. He always believes he has better information than the other guy and can thus make the best trades—of equities, of gold…or of cleanup hitters.”
Keri points out that, especially in nonfinancial circles, arbitrage has taken on the broader meaning “of simply acquiring an asset for less than it’s worth, especially when coupled with selling an asset for more than it’s worth.” The Cowboys dynasty in the 1990s was created by this process as Jimmy Johnson made 51 trades during his time as head coach, which was more than the rest of the NFL combined. Since he came from the college coaching ranks, NFL people discounted Johnson and thought he was crazy for all the draft trades, but Johnson knew that he knew better than the rest of the NFL. And today, Johnson’s “Draft Trade Value Chart” is still used around the NFL to understand the value of draft picks and facilitate trades.
In the 2000s, Bill Belichick has been the best in the NFL at this. Just this 2016 offseason, he traded Chandler Jones, who is to become a free agent in 2017, to the Arizona Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second round draft pick. He knew that Jones would cost too much for the Patriots salary cap formula to be re-signed next offseason. Belichick got an underachieving, but talented former first round pick at guard and a second round pick, which is an incredibly valuable pick as they’re very low-cost rookie contracts that still have a high-potential for being an impact player considering you’re drafting in the first 64 picks.
It’s not about knowing what value is for everyone else either; it’s about knowing what value is for your system, for what your team needs. It’s actually quite philosophical when you think about it.
The Rays took advantage of another Belichick favorite, which is why he finds those draft picks so valuable, by building from within. Rather than wait for players to get to free agency or continue to improve to the point where they wouldn’t accept deals the Rays could afford, the Rays made educated decisions on Carl Crawford, James Shields, and Evan Longoria based on their performance up to that point, but also data.
Keri writes that “studies done by Bill James and other analysts confirmed that baseball players tend to peak in their mid- to late twenties,” so they first locked Crawford up after a breakout 2004 season during which he turned 23-years old. Some of his highlights from that season included a league leading 19 triples and 59 stolen bases. He gave them a .296 batting average, a .331 on-base percentage, 185 hits and 104 runs– a player with the potential to be the cornerstone of a solid team; if they didn’t sign him to a long-term deal, they risked losing him during his prime.
Similar to in the NFL, players and teams both evaluate a number of variables that effect a player’s contract situation. With Crawford, he knew the best time to sign a big contract was after his breakout season since he was still a full year from becoming eligible for arbitration and four years away from being a free agent. Like in football, there is always the risk of injury as well, so that’s four years worth of potential injuries covered.
The Rays were able to offer Crawford enough to be financially set for life, while the Rays received a long-term commitment for a player who could give them a huge profit, in terms of value provided to cost, if he developed as hoped. Keri points out that John Hart, the Cleveland Indians general manager, “popularized the practice of offering long-term deals to players on the brink of arbitration, thus assuring financial security for young stars Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Jim Thome—and, more to the point for Hart, cost certainty for their employer.”
Starting Rays pitcher James Shields was signed in January of 2008 after only 52 major league starts and Longoria was locked into a six-year deal six games into his MLB career in 2008.
The 2007 Devil Rays, as they were still known, were terrible and Andrew Friedman had known that they were going to be unable to compete with most of their best players either still being in the minors or not being prepared to perform well in the majors. So rather than do what the organization had done for seemingly every year prior and spend a few extra million to still finish with 70 wins, they hatched a plan to put themselves in a position to win the division in the future. The 2007 Devil Rays had a payroll of $24,123,500, which was only 68.1% of their 2006 payroll of $35,417,967 and 55.1% of their 2008 payroll of $43,820,597. While they got some great seasons from players like Carlos Pena and BJ Upton at the plate and Shields and Scott Kazmir on the mound, their defense was horrendous. Here are just the low-lights from The Extra 2%:
- Ranked last or nearly last in the majors in every fielding category
- .980 fielding percentage tied for second-worst in baseball
- “Michael Lichtman’s ‘ultimate zone rating’ figured the Devil Rays’ defense cost the team 47.5 runs (nearly five wins) that year, the second worst mark in the MLB.”
- “John Dewan’s ‘plus minus’ system tabbed the D-Rays at -107, meaning that Tampa Bay made 107 fewer defensive plays than the average team—the worst mark by any team from 2006 through 2008.”
- Their “defensive efficiency rating,” which is a stat created by James that measures the percentage of balls in play turned into outs and that Baseball Prospectus had been tracking since 1954 found that the 2007 Tampa Bay were the worst in the 53 years the stat had been counted. They converted only 65.6% of balls in play into outs, which means opponents hit an insane .344 when putting the ball in play against the Rays pitching.
But it wasn’t just building from within that worked as Friedman traded for improvements as well. They traded outfielder Delmon Young, shortstop Brendan Harris, and minor leaguer Jason Pridie to the Twins as they were “overloaded with young outfielders” and in return they received Matt Garza, who had an 11-9 record with a 3.70 ERA for the Rays in 2008, plus slick fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan.
Young was a Top 3 rated prospect from 2004 through 2007 before having a terrific rookie season in 2007. At 21-years old, he played all 162 games for the 66-96 2007 Devil Rays with a .288 batting average, 186 hits, 65 runs, 13 home runs and 99 RBIs. Keri points out that Friedman saw Young as an overvalued commodity for a few reasons. The first one is that he struck out 127 times with only 26 walks as a rookie, he didn’t hit for the kind of power that the organization had hoped to see, and “despite impressive athleticism, he was a terrible defensive player with lousy instincts.” Add in the off the field issues he was already having, like the April 26, 2006 incident where he threw a bat at an umpire, and the Devil Rays rightfully saw a player who they believed had a perceived value that exceeded his actual value.
They traded Young, plus Harris who was a terrible fielding shortstop for them in 2007, and received two players in Garza and Bartlett who ended up improving their team’s ability to prevent runs in a huge way. As a fielder, Harris was 12 runs worse than the average shortstop in 2007, prorated over 150 games and Young was a poor fielder as well, so they upgraded two of their nine fielding positions with that move, while adding a potential ace. It worked out for the Twins as well as Young provided them with three and a half years of solid hitting production, which helped them win the AL Central in 2009 and 2010, but for the formula the Rays were attempting to construct, he didn’t fit. The Rays made a move that paid off in a big way without negatively affecting their small budget. The last big move in the field was shifting Akinori Iwamura from third base in 2007 to second base in 2008 to completely replace their horrible fielding up the middle in 2007 with a combo that ended up being the best double-play combination in team history.
To recap, the 2007 Rays were historically bad with the worst defensive efficiency rating in the 53 years of that stat being compiled. In 2008, they replaced their horrible double-play combo of Brendan Harris/Josh Wilson at shortstop and Ty Wigginton/B.J. Upton at second base with Bartlett and Iwamura. While Iwamura was a great third baseman having won six Gold Gloves at the position in Japan, moving him to second improved that position, while inserting Longoria at third gave them a player who earned Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2010. Upton had played all over the field up to that point, but they moved him to centerfield and saw an 11-run defensive improvement there, so they improved their fielding right up the middle of the field. In baseball, outside of catcher, most would say that the three most important fielding positions are centerfield, shortstop and second base, so the Rays improved drastically at three of the most important spots.
The Rays also needed to improve their bullpen and several of the 22 trades they made between the end of the 2005 season and opening day of 2008 were for relief pitchers. The two that stand out are the trades for J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, which didn’t seem to be big deals at the time, but paid off in a huge way in 2008. Howell was struggling in the minors as a starter when they traded for him; they eventually moved him to the bullpen and he responded with a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA in 89.1 innings pitched in 2008. Balfour was coming off injuries that saw him lose his entire 2005 season and most of 2006. He was another low-cost, high-potential move for them as Friedman’s scouts saw that he had regained his pre-injury velocity, while Friedman’s analysts told him that Balfour’s strikeout success in the minors since his injury (more than a strikeout per inning) “suggested that some dormant skills might be on the verge of busting out.”
To bring it back around, the cost savings of the Crawford, Shields and Longoria contracts made budget room for all these small deals, gave the Rays cost certainty with three key players and locked them into contracts they’d outperform. Addressing Shields first, he only cost them $11.25 million from 2008 to 2011 and he gave them a 14-8 record with a 3.56 ERA in 215 innings in 2008 before dipping a bit in 2009 and 2010, then coming back with a 16-12 record and 2.82 ERA in 249.1 innings in 2011.
The Crawford contract had a maximum value of $35 million, yet he produced a whopping $108.9 million worth of value for the Rays over the life of his contract according to the baseball analysis website FanGraphs, which “shows every player’s earned value on a year-by-year basis, based on a formula that measures a player’s batting and defense (or a pitcher’s pitching), then scales it against the going rate for free-agent talent in a given season.” Longoria signed a six-year contract worth $17.5 million in 2008 with three team option years at the end of the contract that brought the potential value of $48 million. Through 2010, three full seasons into the deal, FanGraphs’ win value statistic showed that he earned the Rays nearly $85 million and the 30-year old Longoria is currently in the last year of that contract in 2016. The Rays locked one of the three best third basemen in baseball to a contract worth $48 million through his prime. That’s huge value savings.
Both the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays found ways to compete with a low-budget roster because they found what I’ll refer to as “Quality” where others weren’t looking. In essence, this is a discussion about defining what Quality means for your organization and then finding that value. As I’ve already discussed, considering that the MLB has such a disparity in spending, both teams very much needed to find value where others weren’t looking. They didn’t just need to define Quality, they had to define a Quality that they could capitalize on.
For both teams, I believe their definition of Quality is most closely associated with the word efficiency. The A’s found a better indicator of offensive efficiency in on-base percentage than what was being used at the time, batting average. A few years later down in Tampa Bay, the Rays found their low-budget efficiency through defensive efficiency, which was undervalued due to a lack of understanding, or interest in it, at the time. The final product of this, efficiency, echoes of something Pirsig writes referencing his internal narrator, Phaedrus. As Phaedrus writes, “philosophical systems that are supposed to be greatly opposed to one another both seem to be saying something very close to what Phaedrus thought, with minor variations. Time after time I thought I’d found whom he was duplicating, but each time, because of what appeared to be some slight differences, he took a greatly different direction.”
This message doesn’t just apply to Major League Baseball; this is a message that applies across all sports, as efficiency is the definition of Quality in sport with Quality in this area resulting in the consistency to compete every year and eventually win a championship through that yearly consistency. It’s not unlike any business in any industry. Great businesses don’t become great by shooting for a metaphorical Super Bowl one year; they become great by shooting to hit their own definition of Quality in their field.
I didn’t watch a game this season, but the reason why the Golden State Warriors became the greatest regular season basketball team in NBA history seems simple to me: they have historically efficient three-point shooters. The Warriors were second all time with a 41.6% three-point shooting percentage, which was only edged out by a 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets team that shot 1210 less three-pointers than the Warriors shot. The Warriors shot 1.8 times as many three-pointers as that Hornets team, so they hit 486 more threes than that Hornets team.
While they were slightly less efficient in terms of three-point shooting percentage than that Hornets team, they had such great shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson who hit 402 and 276 three-pointers respectively to rank first and second in the NBA. By himself, Curry hit 68% of the number of three-pointers that the most accurate three-point shooting team in history hit, so the Warriors must have seen an opportunity to construct a team in this manner. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Curry has flourished into the MVP player he is today under all-time great shooter Steve Kerr.
The Quality the Warriors defined was simple and it allowed them to identify and acquire the players they needed to build around in Curry and Thompson. The Warriors locked Curry into a four-year, $44 million contract after his 2012-13 season in which he returned from an injury-shortened year before and jumped from 14.7 to 22.9 points per game. That was largely driven by an increase in threes per game from Curry to 7.7 per game from 4.7.
While I don’t think the Warriors could have seen Curry developing into the mega-star he is today, their hypothesis was simple and they saw that his 44.6% three-point shooting percentage was extremely valuable and could be expanded on as they had just done in that season. This year, the 2015-16 season, Curry shot 11.2 threes per game and achieved his second best three-point shooting percentage of his career at 45.4%.
Let’s just look at that number by itself in terms of round numbers, so let’s use 100 shots to make it simple. If Curry hits 45 out of every 100 threes, that means he scores 135 points. DeAndre Jordan led the NBA with a field goal percentage of 70.3%. As a big man, most of his shots are twos, so if he’s hitting 70 out of every 100 two-pointers, then he’s scoring 140 points. Considering the emphasis that Marc Cuban puts on making intelligent, analytical decisions as a businessman, as a “shark,” I can really understand why he was going after Jordan now.
Jordan is an outlier with Dwight Howard coming in at 62.0% at number two, so the second best two-point shooter in the NBA will be outscored 135 to 124 on every 100 shots taken by Curry and Howard. Curry was actually third in the NBA this year with a three-point shooting percentage and his career average of 44.4% is proof that this efficiency is sustainable. The added bonus is that Curry was also eighth in the NBA with a 56.6% shooting percentage on two-point field goals, so he was dominant there as well. Curry is the master of efficiency in the NBA and his speed, quickness and athleticism allows him to create open looks all over the court. Klay Thompson was sixth in the NBA with a 42.5% three-point shooting percentage, while Warriors small forward Brandon Rush was tied for tenth hitting 41.4% of his threes.
Again, I’m not a big basketball fan, but I would assume the Warriors came to the conclusion that three-point efficiency was an undervalued commodity and they were able to exploit that inefficiency in the marketplace. They identified great three-point shooters so they could lock them in at a lower cost, like they did with Curry, then built a complete team around them, while increasing the opportunities for Curry, and other sharp shooters, to shoot three pointers.
The Warriors beat LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals because they had the most complete team with their sixth man, Andre Igoudala, winning the NBA Finals MVP. A massive reason they were able to do that is because Stephen Curry was the 2014-15 NBA MVP, but had a contract that cost the team only $10,629,786, or 16.87%, of the $63 million salary cap, while LeBron cost $22,970,500, 36.46% of the Cavs salary cap. In 2015-16, another MVP campaign for Curry, he is the fifth highest paid Warrior, which is why they were able to build a historic roster. They had the most efficient scorer in the NBA as their fifth highest paid player because they had identified his skill as an undervalued asset and locked him into a long-term deal before others realized the Quality that could be built through this strategy. Curry was a great player before that contract and he’s flourished into a historic player because they’ve just expanded on that role as he’s grown in his career, while creating a roster around him that can play the high-paced style of play that allows him, Thompson, and Rush to create three-point opportunities.
Curry has become the centerpiece of his own kind of Moneyball and he may become known as the greatest shooter of all-time. As the game puts more of an emphasis on shooting efficiency, especially with the increase in data, Curry will become synonymous with shooting the basketball like the Gracie’s are with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Two names synonymous with perfect and deadly technique.
The lack of interest around the MLB in defensive stats during the hitters’ era of the 1990s and 2000s that the Rays took advantage of reminds me of the QB centric narrative pushed around the NFL. Teams get so desperate for a quarterback in the NFL that there’s no longer a middle class in the quarterback market. Veteran starting quarterbacks start at $16 million per year with Andy Dalton’s contract that was signed 18 months ago, and the market for back-ups is at $7 million per year with Chase Daniel’s deal. Brock Osweiler has started seven games in the NFL, yet his $18 million per year is 82% of what two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion Aaron Rodgers makes per year. No disrespect to Osweiler, but from a value standpoint, something’s up with that.
The Rays were also in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, two big-hitting ball clubs, so they couldn’t compete with Goliath at their game, they had to create their own strategy. In the NFL, the first goal is to win your division or compete enough to win a Wild Card should someone beat you out for the division, but the first strategy should be to build a roster that can beat your division. It’s a lesson we see with the way teams have responded to the Patriots by increasing interior pressure on the defensive line as the Patriots decrease the amount of time Tom Brady takes to throw the ball after it’s snapped. Remember, although sport has both sides of the classic and romantic split, the science and the art, everything that accomplishes the objectives of the sport can be broken down into some numbers.
The definition of the word Quality as I’m using it comes from Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the narrator’s attempt at defining the term for himself and his students. He creates a visual hierarchy for himself with “Quality (Reality)” at the top that divides into “Romantic Quality (Preintellectual Reality)” and “Classic Quality (Intellectual Reality).”
Before going further with the narrator’s visual hierarchy, I have to explain what romantic and classic mean in this context. The book divides human understanding into two terms—classical and romantic understanding. Classical understanding “sees the world primarily as underlying form itself,” while romantic understanding “sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.” The classic side proceeds by reason and laws with a style that is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economically and carefully proportioned. The romantic side is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative and intuitive. The classic side is the science, while the romantic side is the art. The purpose of classical understanding “is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of the chaos and make the unknown known.” The classical side is all about the facts, while Pirsig writes that the romantic side “does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition, and esthetic conscience” and “feelings rather than facts predominate.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first published in 1974 and Pirsig’s description of that time period, using classic and romantic understanding, still rings true today and gives a great example for us to frame the difference in thinking:
“And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture—two worlds growing alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself. No one wants it really—despite what his antagonists in the other dimension might think.”
He writes that the romantic often sees the classic mode as dull, awkward, and ugly, while the classical thinker sees the romantics as frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, and interested primarily in pleasure seeking, shallow and of no substance. While the romantic looks at the classic as an oppressive “death force,” the classic looks at the romantic as “a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society.” As Pirsig says, “by now these battle lines should sound a little familiar.”
It’s not that either side is right or wrong, it’s not that either side is better or worse because when they’re combined the right way, it creates classic Quality in the sense that it works and romantic Quality in the sense that it looks good. Thinking of it that way, it’s no wonder that Pirsig chose travelling on a motorcycle in his real and metaphorical journey as motorcycles can last forever, unlike cars, while keeping their beauty, a true mark of Quality.
Bill Walsh started his offense while with the Bengals in 1970, then perfected it during the late-1970s and 1980s while the head coach of the Stanford Cardinal and San Francisco 49ers. He was in Silicon Valley as it was starting the process that resulted in the Silicon Valley we see today; he was at the birth of the modern Renaissance.
During the 1970s, Steve Jobs, the future leader of the Valley, experimented with psychedelics. He had an experience on LSD that he calls “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” According to The Guardian, a study done by Imperial College London saw that brain scans of subjects tripping on LSD showed regions of their brain that were once segregated speaking to one another “as if the drug reversed the restricted thinking that develops between infancy and adulthood.” To put that “restricted thinking” in plain terms, they’re referring to things like bias. David Nutt, who was a former government drugs adviser in the UK said, “this is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle psychics.” According to some, not only can LSD treat depression, but it can deepen our understanding of consciousness itself.
Walsh was in Silicon Valley when this entire technological counterculture was being developed and I have no doubt that he was influenced by this culture. Silicon Valley is the place where the renaissance is occurring because it’s the place where many of the brightest people in our society work to construct a Quality that has both sides of understanding. Steve Jobs created that ethos in Silicon Valley, the marriage between the technology (science) and the beauty of design (art). Silicon Valley is filled with the kind of romantic minds that can find the inspiration to believe that something like virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from reality is possible, yet they’re not those smelly hippies that you’re grandpa keeps referring to. These people were not radicals, they were revolutionaries.
On his journey on the motorcycle, Pirsig’s companions are his son Chris, who is on his motorcycle with him, plus John and Claire Sutherland. While Pirsig loves the classic side of the motorcycle, understanding how it works so he can take care of it, John Sutherland could never get into that. The reason wasn’t that John didn’t understand the importance of it, as he knew he could be stranded somewhere without the ability to solve his problem, but the reason was that John understood the world through the romantic frame of reference. As Pirsig explains, because John and his wife both see the world through a romantic understanding, they see technology as an ugly thing and they often can’t figure out what it is that makes them feel this way either. The thought of motorcycle maintenance frustrates John because he doesn’t even know where to start with it, so he can’t get interested.
The origin of the word technology actually comes from the Greek word, tekhn?, which originally meant “art.” When the word added –logia to the end of it, it became technologia, which meant “systematic treatment.” The word was added to the English language in the early 17th century and Merriam-Webster’s definitions today are:
- The use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems.
- A machine, piece of equipment, method, etc., that is created by technology.
Pirsig combined these definitions to say that “technology is simply the making of things.” As a nod to the Sutherlands he points out that their disdain for technology can’t actually be because technology is in itself ugly because “the making of things can’t by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things.” By the definition of technology we see above, a paintbrush, a pen, a crayon, and anything else that can be used to create art is a technology. Pirsig wrote this before CGI (Computer-generated imagery), and even before the personal computer, but with the explosion of technology in the time since he wrote this book, so much of art today is created on computers. Movies are no longer just shot on film, an entire movie can be created using CGI imagery like Avatar.
The critical aspect of what Jobs created by marrying art and technology is that he set a new standard for creating technology products that stands today. In reference to the ancient Greeks, Pirsig points out, they “never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them”..
It was in this dual understanding of Quality that Walsh created the offensive system that transformed the way the game of football was played. Steve Young was quoted in a March 2007 Sports Illustrated profile on Walsh as saying:
“I don’t know if people realize the innovation he has brought to this game on so many levels. From a business perspective, I’d compare it to Silicon Valley, where Andy Grove, Steve Jobs and some of the other pioneers really changed business. Bill Walsh, around that same time, brought the same kind of mentality to football. In terms of how you deal with people and the kind of environment you create, his was a very enlightened approach.”
Young added that Walsh was doing the same thing as these Silicon Valley CEOs, “just in a different venue – football.”
Coming back to the hierarchy with “Quality (Reality)” at the top, we often ignore the “Romantic Quality (Preintellectual Reality)” and stick to the “Classic Quality (Intellectual Reality)” side. At the time, the narrator, Phaedrus, was trying to understand what definition of Quality he should be teaching to his students and he realized that he was wrongly teaching the romantic side, when his intention was to teach the classic side because that’s the only Quality that can truly be defined in any sort of quantifiable way.
Romantic Quality is the one that Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality because he was teaching this lesson through a creative writing class; the Quality they were looking for was the Romantic Quality. First, the reason Phaedrus was using the term “Reality” when discussing both “Intellectual” and “Preintellectual” because he notes that “the past exits only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.” There is a small time lag before we intellectualize something, so at the time, Phaedrus felt he had properly identified Quality through this reality that exists before intellectualization.
His first metaphysical hierarchy had “Reality” at the top, which then broke down into “Subjective (Mental)” and “Objective (Physical)” with Phaedrus ignoring the Objective side. He divided Subjective into “Classic (Intellectual)” and “Romantic (Emotional)” and eventually came to the realization that the Quality he was teaching was the Romantic side, but he should have been teaching the Classic side.
There are NFL fans who love the game for the beauty of it, the excitement of it, but don’t understand the strategy, the plays that are called, the way the team is built or any other sort of under the surface facet of the game. Then the are the fans who love the NFL because they see the strategy, they want to understand what kind of strategy an offensive or defensive coordinator is employing, they love the offseason and the team building aspect of it or they love the game for another technical sort of reason.
The first fans love the game for the romantic side of things, they love the game for the “preintellectual reality” of it, they haven’t intellectualized the reasons for the beauty they see on Sunday, they just know they love it. These are typically the more casual fans and, eventually, as they gain more knowledge of the game through their fandom, they begin to dig deeper as they seek an understanding of what’s occurring on the field every week. When a fan starts to dig into the salary cap information on Over The Cap or Pro Football Focus’ player ratings and rankings, then they’re starting to get into that “Classic (Intellectual)” side.
Phaedrus struggles throughout this meditation to find a way of melding classic and romantic beauty into one theory of Quality. He realized that the two kinds of Quality were divided in terms of time:
“Romantic Quality always correlated with instantaneous impressions. Square [Intellectual] Quality always involved multiple considerations that extended over a period of time. Romantic Quality was the present, the here and now of things. Classic Quality was always concerned with more than just the present.”
When discussing the motorcycle in the story, it’s okay to focus on the present, to focus on the beauty of the motorcycle and not worry about if it works or not, but if you’re not aware of the inner workings and underlying form of the cycle, then when it stops working, you might be stranded in the middle of the wilderness without the intellectual tools to solve the issue. Phaedrus writes that these “were just two different time aspects of Quality, short and long” and since the present that the “Preintellectual Reality” exists in is connected to the past and the future, Classic Quality must be understood if you want to fully enjoy the motorcycle.
Phaedrus now fully comprehends the folly of his analysis of Romantic Quality because he now sees it through the prism of the motorcycle rather than through a creative writing course, which can only be judged on ones own subjective measures.
With the metaphysical hierarchy we were first discussing that has “Quality (Reality)” at the top, Phaedrus only addresses the “Classic Quality (Intellectual Reality)” side and breaks that into “Subjective Reality (Mind)” and “Objective Reality (Matter).” This is a division between the subject’s mind and the object’s matter, between what the subject thinks and what the object actually is. Phaedrus realized that the Quality he needed to teach was the whole thing, this process that breaks down into a division between subjective and objective.
This is the very same thing, the very Quality, that Paul DePodesta is trying to define in his new position as the Chief Strategic Officer of the Cleveland Browns. In an article for the April 2016 edition of ESPN Magazine, David Fleming wrote that most NFL teams “begrudgingly use analytics without fully embracing the concept” with use in scouting, drafting, trades, practice time allotment, play calling and clock management. He goes on to mention the difference that DePodesta will bring to the Browns:
“What will differentiate DePodesta and Cleveland is extent to which Browns use data science to influence decision-making. DePodesta would like decisions to be informed by 60 percent data, 40 percent scouting. Present-day NFL is more 70 percent scouting and 30 percent data. DePodesta won’t just ponder scouts’ performance metrics but question their very existence. Will likewise flip burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems. Objective data regarding, say, a player’s size and performance metrics—example: Defensive ends must have arm length of at least 33 ½ inches—will dictate decision-making. Football staff will then have to produce overwhelming subjective argument to overrule or disprove analytics.”
In the NFL, the subjective side is scouting, while the objective side is the data, the analytics. What DePodesta is attempting isn’t radical; it’s rational, he’s changing the equation from 70 percent subjective and 30 percent objective to 60 percent objective and 40 percent subjective. He has his 20 years of experience in the MLB with the Indians, Athletics, Dodgers, Padres, and Mets, so that 60/40 split is likely the product of the years of doing this in the MLB. That 60/40 split could adjust slightly over time considering new technologies on the horizon like RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips that track every player’s movements on the field, plus the experience of building an NFL team is different than the process in the MLB.
With so many variables at play in the NFL, with so many different ways to win, each team’s definition of Classic Quality will be influenced by the subject, by the team, by what the people in the organization believe. The very act of choosing which data to pay attention to and which data to ignore can be very subjective. While the core principle of increasing efficiency influenced both the Athletics and the Rays, each subject, each organization, chose how they were going to accomplish that. While the data in this book will show what kind of spending has worked for Super Bowl champions, it’s up to each subject, each organization, to choose how to use that objective data to mold a champion.
The real crux of Phaedrus’ philosophical debate is that one’s definition of Quality only depends partly on the Quality itself. Part of a definition of Quality comes from the “a priori” of images that the subject has accumulated in their memories. Merriam-Webster defines a priori as “relating to what can be known through an understanding of how certain things work rather than by observation” or better said as “presupposed by experience,” “being without examination or analysis,” or “formed or conceived beforehand.” A priori is another word for our internal bias.
What Phaedrus means is that any definition of Quality that involves a subject, which is any definition of Quality that we can perceive, is influenced by the subject’s experience. While we can attempt to be as objective as we can, in an inexact science like football, it’s important to call on your own subjective experience to some extent to create your definition of Quality.
Bill Belichick didn’t come to the conclusion that quick, short receivers would work based on an unsupported belief, he saw it work every day in practice as the Jets Assistant Head Coach/Secondary coach from 1997 to 1999 as the unassuming 5’10”, 188-pound Wayne Chrebet would beat his defensive backs all week, then produce on Sundays. His subjective experience was that players like Chrebet were valuable to an offense, while the objective data that supported his understanding of this was their catch rate and average yards per target.
Ten years after his first day in practice against Chrebet, Wes Welker burst on the scene with 112 catches on 145 targets, which is a 77.2% catch rate. He had 1175 receiving yards, so 10.5 yards per catch and 8.1 yards per target. The 2007 Patriots went undefeated until running into the Giants in the Super Bowl and the “possession” receiver Welker was a big reason why. While the Patriots pieced together 115.6 rushing yards per game, good enough for 13th in the NFL, it was Welker’s ability to move the chains that made up for a season of injuries at the running back position for the team and helped an imperfect team go perfect through 18 games. Their 45 rushing yards in the Super Bowl are a good reminder that imperfections get exposed when you’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport.
This is something we saw at UFC 196 when Holly Holm and Conor McGregor, two fighters who we began to believe were unstoppable, were both stopped by the Brazilian jiu-jitsu of Meischa Tate and Nate Diaz. While Holm and McGregor are terrific stand-up fighters, Tate and Diaz had the advantage on the ground and took advantage of that once they were able to get them there with both fights ending via submissions due to rear-naked chokes from Tate and Diaz. Like a well-rounded UFC fighter, Belichick is known for attacking a team’s weakness, which is why it’s so important to him to create a well-rounded roster. The UFC’s Flyweight Champion, Demetrius Johnson, is referred to by a growing number of people as the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time because of his ability to beat his opponents in seemingly every way imaginable.
While in the MLB the A’s and Rays were looking to compete with far less money than the top of the market, the NFL doesn’t have that issue, so the subjective and objective conversation becomes much more interesting. In the MLB, if a low-budget team finds some on field advantage that they can take advantage of at a low-cost, it doesn’t matter as much what the subject’s beliefs are, they have to listen to the data and use that data to capitalize on a potential advantage. Since every team in the NFL has the same amount of money, it takes an understanding of how to combine the two to create a team in the coach and organization’s subjective vision, taking into account both of their experience.
In a sense, the Browns are the perfect place to try DePodesta’s beliefs out because, unlike the Ravens or Steelers with their distinct styles of football, the Browns have no subjective reality to call on because they’ve only had two winning seasons since they came back into existence in 1999. The Browns have been the metaphorical equivalent of the flaming bag of poop from Billy Madison and DePodesta is hoping that his data puts that fire out like Ted’s boots were able to.
As long as he’s given the opportunity to follow through with his plan for building the organization, DePodesta, Hue Jackson and the rest of the staff there will at least turn the Browns into a stable franchise. I believe they’ll build the Browns into one of the better organizations in football within the next half-decade as they’ve already made intelligent decisions that show they’re finally taking the long view as a franchise. While Robert Griffin III hasn’t performed to the level he played as a rookie, his two-year, $15 million contract is an intelligent, low-cost risk. The trade with the Eagles gives them five draft picks instead of the two they traded, including a 2017 first rounder and a 2018 second rounder, which is another sign that they’re going to do things right in Cleveland under this regime.
The core principle of what DePodesta is doing is simple, he’s bringing a more objective process to a league that relies on the subjective process of scouting far too much. It’s accurate to say that the NFL is years behind the MLB, but new technologies like RFID chips will help close the gap between the two sports. Like I mentioned before, baseball benefits from the fact that the one-on-one match-ups (pitcher vs. batter, for instance) have always been isolated for the benefit of the statistician and the new technologies coming to the NFL are going to isolate this data for us.
Bill Belichick has been marrying objective data with a subjective scouting process for years; you see it all over his roster with players like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis and James White all having near identical measurables at the same exact role for his offense over 16 years. The reason why the Patriots have been so dominant is that they’ve been using this kind of objective and subjective mix since Belichick has been there and he’s the main decision maker in the organization. Considering that no one can outwork Belichick as there isn’t enough time in the day to catch up to where he is at in terms of subjective data collection, there’s no one better to mix the two and that’s the main reason why they’ve been so successful.
Many, myself included, point to Belichick’s years in Cleveland as the valuable experience that made him a better coach for when the Patriots opportunity presented itself, but there might be something else to it. As you’ll see in the Patriots section of this book, the Patriots were able to create numerous yearly salary cap advantages on the offensive line, at running back and with their pass catchers whether they were tight ends or receivers. Belichick’s understanding of the exact objectives that he’s trying to accomplish on offense, defense and special teams creates the salary cap advantages because he finds value where others aren’t looking. While the rest of the NFL was looking for the big, prototypical number one receiver, Belichick breaks that down into what that receiver produces and then finds a way to create that production through a group of lower cost receivers. The group of lower cost receivers can end up costing less than Calvin Johnson, while providing a much higher value than the Lions’ pass catchers provided.
While some organizations look for the one, big player who will change their fortune, Belichick is constantly looking to improve every spot on his roster in some way incrementally. What’s most benefitted Belichick is his complete understanding of the objective of the sport allows him to figure out the classical aspects of every position, of every role, of every need on his team. Pirsig points out that to gain the high Quality that transcends the classical and romantic split is to have “both the ability to see what ‘looks good’ and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that ‘good’ are needed,” blending the classical and romantic.
Many teams, like the Redskins and the Dolphins, seem to look for the big names, the top of the market players in free agency, but Belichick’s built a dynasty by going after players who didn’t look the part, but who accomplished the objectives–and every move he makes has the objectives he’s after in mind. This offseason alone has been a treat to watch. They signed Chris Hogan, who provides them with a big, strong, physical receiver for short to intermediate routes, but still provides the speed to threaten deep. As Brady continues to age and see arm strength slowly deteriorate, the Brandon Lafell, more vertical receiver becomes less of a necessity, especially with Rob Gronkowski’s ability to threaten deep as well. For years now, Belichick has used short, quick receivers in the slot as their skill set was undervalued as players like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola provided the team with seven to nine yards per target, which means an average of seven to nine yards per play thrown their way. While they might not catch every ball, they catch between 65-75% of them, which results in those 10 to 12 yards per catch rates they usually have, and you’ve got yourself a really consistent way of moving the football in chunks.
James Lavin wrote in his 2004 book, Management Secrets of the New England Patriots, that Belichick has gone after specific kinds of players who were undervalued. Lavin points out that he had found value in players who were injured, played in a system that didn’t allow them the opportunity to shine, were overshadowed because they played with other great players, lacked ideal NFL strength/size or were saddled with the “trouble-maker” label after cleaning up his life. With the salary cap era, Belichick has known he has to find value in inexpensive ways to create an advantage and he’s used every avenue to do it, while maintaining a formula that pays Brady about 10% of the cap with the next highest cap hit on the team being in the 5-6% area, which sets the tone for building a well rounded roster.
What Belichick has created in New England is the end goal for any organization and it’s certainly something the Browns are trying to emulate. The key thing to understand comes from Pirsig again, “a real understanding of Quality doesn’t just serve the System, or even beat it or even escape it. A real understanding of Quality captures the System, tames it, and puts it to work for one’s own personal use, while leaving one complete free to fulfull his inner destiny.”
By understanding the core principles of salary cap management, which I’ll try to explain in this book, NFL organizations can do what Belichick has done in New England. When the organization has a complete understanding of how to create value within this salary cap system and create their own formula that they can maintain, they have turned the salary cap into an advantage and they’ve gained control over the entire System.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL” and host of The Zack Moore Show podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. He graduated from Rutgers Business School in 2015 with a double concentration in entrepreneurship and marketing after playing football at the University of Rhode Island where he graduated with a degree in communications and business.