Sports have gone through many important revolutions. It’s difficult to list the more important ones. Lifting weights and nutrition plans. Integration of professional sports. The creation of free agency and drafts. Salary caps in many of the major sports. Like these, there have been many other big changes that have changed the way that athletes play, coaches make decisions and front offices run teams.
And then there are some important revolutions that occurred for certain sports in particular. A coach coming up with the shotgun formation in football, a three-pointer being defined in basketball, and a wave of data-driven analysts questioning everything we know about baseball.
That last one seems important right now for football fans because little by little, we are experiencing the NFL’s version of it.
With no sports on TV, many of us have had to find alternatives to fill our free time. Personally, I’ve filled my days watching sports movies and reading sports books. Just to keep things as normal as possible, you know.
The last book I finished reading was “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis. I had seen the movie many times before but until I read the book I fully understood the magnitude of what General Manager Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s had accomplished in Major League Baseball.
With a low budget to build a team, the Athletics were able to find inefficiencies in baseball’s market for players. By doing things differently from every other team thanks to their data analytics, they were consistently able to find bargains and win as many games as the teams with the highest payrolls did.
In the book, Lewis describes the history of baseball statistics and how many of them were completely overrated, such as batting average, the main number you hear when discussing ballplayers. The author talks about Bill James and a growing community of “sabermetricians.” People from all over the country who looked at baseball in a whole new way with stats major league teams didn’t even care about.
They found managers and front offices were biased and made decisions in a largely subjective fashion. In other words, they thought baseball should be played differently and its players should be evaluated differently.
As I read about this, I couldn’t help thinking about one of the newest trends in the NFL. By now, you’ve definitely heard about it it.”Analytics.”
Thanks in big part to social media, word on analytics has spread around very quickly. Thanks to available information, we’re hearing about DVOA, EPA, CPOE, and all these new metrics that paint a clearer picture of how good players and teams are.
We’re also hearing what for many seems like an out-of-this-world idea… that teams shouldn’t be punting as much on fourth down.
But this is hardly a new idea. Brian Burke analyzed win probability models since 2008 and is considered one of the pioneers in analytics. Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim discuss going for it on fourth down in their 2011 book “Scorecasting.” Sites like Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus had also looked at this kind of question.
I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other pioneers in the analytics community, but the point is that these aren’t new ideas. Some really smart people have been thinking about this for a long time, yet mainstream fans are only now finding out. More importantly, only now do NFL teams seem to be paying attention to these radical thoughts.
Here is where the Baltimore Ravens come in. Although perhaps not as revolutionary as the Oakland A’s in MLB, the Ravens were one of the first teams to turn to analytics.
In baseball, Bill James’ army of sabermetricians had been around a long time, but they were easily dismissed by teams as baseball nerds that didn’t understand the sport. But Billy Bean and Paul DePodesta bought in and began what’s now known as Moneyball.
Well, last year, the Ravens fully bought into analytics for their in-game decisions, becoming the most aggressive team in the league in fourth down (finally paying attention to the fact that most coaches around the league would rather punt even if it wasn’t the decision that increased their chances of winning the game.
In 2019, the Ravens went for it on fourth down 24 times and converted 70% of them into a new set of downs. The first team with such a conversion rate since the 1996 Chicago Bears, according to Pro Football Reference.
Oddly enough, the Ravens’ failed fourth-down attempts in the playoffs cost them the game against the Tennessee Titans. To this, the media’s response was not surprising. Headlines claiming that the Ravens’ revolutionary ways were proof that football can’t be reduced to numbers by guys who don’t get what the game is all about.
Funny. When the Moneyball Oakland A’s fell in the playoffs in 2002, the media’s response was the same. It’s easy to ignore hard facts, and that’s what many in the game did. The same happened for a moment in the NFL back in January when Baltimore was eliminated. Despite many sportswriters and analysts willing to dismiss the Ravens decision-making, the analytics revolution is here to stay.
Many teams around the league are going all-in on analytics. The San Francisco 49ers and Ravens already had advanced analytics departments, but many teams are climbing on board. The New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman has said his team is investing in analytics tools. Cleveland Browns HC Kevin Stefanski has also commented on his team buying in (Paul DePodesta, assistant GM for the Oakland A’s during Moneyball is currently in the Browns’ front office) and Mike McCarthy’s Dallas Cowboys will also make heavy use of analytics to win football games.
Surely, there are more teams doing the same.
Little by little, NFL fans are witnessing football’s version of “Moneyball.” How long will it be until every team becomes efficiently aggressive on fourth down? How long until volume stats like passing yards are replaced by efficiency stats like DVOA or EPA? How many teams will stop paying big contracts to running backs?
In the words of Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Billy Beane in the 2011 Moneyball film, it’s time for NFL franchises to adapt or die. We’re here for it.