How NFL Statistics Lead to Wins, Pt. 3: Salary Cap Efficiency Since 2000

Zach FeinAnalyst IJune 20, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 04:  Offensive center Jeff Saturday #63 of the Indianapolis Colts readies the ball for the snap against the New England Patriots on November 4, 2007 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Patriots won 24-20.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even an incompetent owner can spend money. It takes an intelligent one, on the other hand, to spend that money efficiently.

In a time when multi-billion-dollar entities are going bankrupt, teams are looking to spend less money on free agent signings and draft picks.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, were $38 million under the cap prior to free agency. They re-signed just six of their 12 free agents and signed just five others, only one of which—running back Derrick Ward—has a chance to start.

In mid-May, Tampa Bay was sitting at $37 million under the cap, and since then the only transaction they’ve made was signing their fifth-round pick, offensive tackle Xavier Fulton, to a $1.93 million deal with a $181,000 signing bonus.

The Eagles weren’t any better: Sitting $29 million under the cap, Philadelphia re-signed one of their five free agents, wide receiver Hank Baskett, to a one-year deal.

Of their other four free-agent signings, only one was signed to a multi-year deal: tackle Stacy Andrews, to a six-year deal reportedly worth $42 million.

Though they traded for tackle Jason Peters and agreed to a six-year, $60 million contract, Philadelphia currently has $30 million in cap space, according to Pro Football Talk.

More than ever, franchises are cutting back on spending, even making moves to simply reach the salary floor.

But, nevertheless, owners and presidents still want the results on the field; they aren’t tanking games at the expense of saving a few million dollars here and there.

No, they aren’t hoping that their lack of expenditures leads to a lack of wins, but merely a cost-efficient approach of getting into the playoffs.

In the final part of this series, we’ll measure which teams are the best at spending as little money as possible to get the results the fans want. Which teams get the most bang for their buck?

I pulled salary data from USA Today’s salary database for every player since 2000. I then totaled up the cap values for each team, as well as the cap value of offense and defense, respectively, and normalized these values based on the year.

(Note that the sum of a team’s player’s cap values are not the same as its total payroll as noted by USA Today—the sum of total salaries is. But total salary, as shown, includes a player’s full signing bonus, so a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, who had a $25 million signing bonus but a cap value of just $7.97 million, has a total salary north of $27 million. As well, the total payroll went over the 2008 salary cap of $116 million for 13 of 32 teams and does not reflect a team’s actual salary.)

Then, using the regression equation in Part 2, I calculated the wins (we’ll call them xWins)—and, like the team salaries, the xWins from just the offense (xOW) and defense (xDW), respectively—for every team since 2000 and compared salary to wins as well as many other stats of note.

Let’s start with individual team seasons. Do the undefeated 2007 New England Patriots come in as the most profitable team of the century?

In the table below, you’ll find the top 10 and bottom 10 teams since 2000 in each of eight different stats. To find cost-efficiency, salary is divided by xWins—the less a team spends per win, the more economical it is.

I have also included efficiency for both sides of the ball as well. For defense, however, xDWins are first added to games played before being divided by defensive salary. Why? Here’s an example:

Team A spends $50 million on defense, and its defense is worth minus-8 wins; their salary-per-win would be minus-$6.25 million.

Team B spends $60 million on defense, which is also worth minus-8 wins; their salary-per-win is minus-$7.5 million. Team C spends $50 million and gets back minus-10 wins from their defense; their salary-per-win is minus-$5 million.

Team A is obviously the most cost-efficient, but their money-per-win is in the middle of the three teams; there’s no way to sort them for A to come out on top.

By adding 16 to each team’s xDWins, Team A’s defense comes out with the lowest salary-per-win of the three teams. (The 16 is a fudge factor, yes, but it’s the only way to come up with correct results using the salary-per-win method.)

All dollar values are in millions of dollars.

$/W: Salary per xW
O$/W: Offensive salary per xOW
D$/W: Defensive salary per xDW, which is first added to games played
$: Team salary normalized based on year
$ SD: Standard deviation of team’s player’s salaries, adjusted based on team’s average salary; a lower number means a team spread the wealth of their salary between its players
xW: Wins based on the regression equation in Part 2
xOWAA: Wins based on offensive stats only, above the average for that year
xDWAA: Wins based on defensive stats only, above the average for that year

The 2001 49ers had the seventh-lowest team salary since 2000, but their 12.2 xW earned them the top spot among the most economical team of the decade.

Their quarterback, Jeff Garcia, had a cap value of $566,666 yet was elected to the Pro Bowl with a 94.8 passer rating.

Center Jeremy Newberry earned a Pro Bowl berth despite a salary less than $600,000, and safety Zack Bronson had seven interceptions and a salary of $498,000.

Three teams from this past year top the list for the most profitable offenses. The Falcons paid just over $8 million for Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White, two of whom went to the Pro Bowl, and the other of whom (Ryan) had an 87.7 passer rating in his rookie season. Atlanta paid $32 million for 11.9 offensive wins.

Miami’s profit came from its high-paid players: Ronnie Brown was elected to the Pro Bowl after 786 total yards and nine touchdowns in his first 10 games; Chad Pennington was paid $4 million, and his 97.4 passer rating was second in the league; and left tackle Jake Long reached the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. The Dolphins paid $35 million for 12 offensive wins.

Denver would have ranked much higher if not for millions spent on backups. Its highest-paid offensive player—tight end Daniel Graham—caught 32 passes and was second on the depth chart to Tony Scheffler, who earned $3.5 million less than Graham.

Their second-highest-paid player was center Tom Nalen, who missed the entire 2008 season with a torn bicep and eventually retired because of the injury. And their Pro Bowl quarterback, Jay Cutler, was actually paid less than backup Patrick Ramsey, who had three attempts last year.

Without those three, their salary-per-xOW drops below $2 million.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on these lists is that the 2—14 2006 Oakland Raiders had the second most cost-efficient defense—until you remember that their defense was actually pretty decent. (Their 10.5 points scored per game, however, was the fifth-lowest since 1980.)

The Raiders were fifth in the league in yards allowed per play, third in adjusted net passing yards per attempt (and seventh in opponent passer rating), and 13th in rushing yards per attempt. Their defense was above average in xDW, and only the 2004 Indianapolis Colts spent less on defense than the Raiders.

Five Colts teams make the top 10 for standard deviation of player salaries. The ‘03 Colts, who lead the list, spent $15 million on Peyton Manning, $7.7 million on Marvin Harrison, and over a million on 10 others, including $5.4 million on defensive end Chad Bratzke, who ended up starting just three games with three sacks in what was the final year of his career. They also started five rookies, who had an average salary under $500,000.

Based on pure xOW, the ‘04 Colts had the best offense of the last nine years, with the ‘07 Patriots at No. 2. But after adjusting for league average, the Greatest Show on Turf moniker proves correct—the 2000 St. Louis Rams’ offense jumps to the top.

The ‘00 Rams scored what was at the time the third-most points in a season (540), and had the most passing yards, passing touchdowns, and rushing touchdowns—and the second-highest rushing yards per attempt—in the league that year.

Running back Marshall Faulk had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage for the third straight year (he’d accomplish the feat again in ‘01 as well), and set a new NFL record with 26 total touchdowns despite missing two games. His 81 receptions remarkably placed him just third on the Rams.

Kurt Warner had over 300 yards in each of the first six games of the season (he was on pace for over 6,000) and had 17 touchdowns in that stretch, before a broken hand cost him five games. Backup Trent Green took over and had three more 300-yard games. Warner and Green combined for over 5,492 yards, the highest in NFL history.

Interestingly, only one of the top—10 teams in xOWAA won the Super Bowl that same year: the 2006 Colts. Yet the top three teams in xDWAA each won the Super Bowl, as well as the No. 6 team on the list, the ‘03 Patriots. Certainly, this gives some credence to the belief that defense wins championships.

Which brings us to the most economical franchises of the decade. The Patriots have been lauded for their front-office management—but are they really the most cost-efficient? Or do the rival Colts beat them out?

The table below lists each team’s yearly average this decade along with salary efficiency data.

All dollar values are in millions of dollars.

(Want to be able to sort each column? Click here.)

$/W: Salary per xW
O$/W: Offensive salary per xOW
D$/W: Defensive salary per xDW, which is first added to games played
$/Yr: Team (unadjusted) salary per year
$ SD: Standard deviation of team’s player’s salaries, adjusted based on team’s average salary; a lower number means a team spread the wealth of their salary between its players
xW: Wins based on the regression equation in Part 2
xOWAA: Wins based on offensive stats only, above average (9.21 xOW)
xDWAA: Wins based on defensive stats only, above average (-9.25 xDW)

The Colts and Patriots have spent about the same amount of money this decade, yet the Colts have averaged one more xW per year than New England, whose 10 xW per year ranks them fourth in the league.

The Patriots, nevertheless, have won the most games in the nine seasons since 2000 (102, one more than Indianapolis) and rank slightly higher than the Colts in salary per actual win (just $30,000 less).

Meanwhile, the Dolphins rate No. 1 in terms of offensive salary per xOW, despite a below—average offense as shown by their xOWAA; Miami spent $3.78 million less per year than any other team on offense this decade. (Their total money spent on offense was even less than the Texans, who played two less years than Miami.)

The Colts are on top of xOWAA by a large margin, but they rank fifth in offensive salary per xOW because they spent the most money on offense, as well as the largest percent of total salary on offensive players (59.3 percent).

Baltimore’s defense has been worth 2.35 xDWAA, more than half a win above Pittsburgh’s—but the Steelers spent $4 million less than the Ravens each year, earning them a lower salary spent on defense per win.

The Eagles’ average salary has been the highest in the NFL since 2000, $2 M more than the next-highest team. (In fact, they own four of the 10 highest-spending teams this decade, as shown in the first table.)

Their high salaries drop them from second in xW to sixth in $/W; from eighth in xOWAA to 19th in O$/W; and from third in xDWAA to sixth in D$/W.

Philadelphia is also in the bottom 10 in standard deviation of individual salaries, despite having to pay Donovan McNabb, Javon Kearse, and Tra’ Thomas, among others, in the past nine years.

The importance of salary cap efficiency is reflected, simply, in the rankings: The top six teams in money spent per xW have won seven of the nine Super Bowls with two Super Bowl losses this decade, plus a total of 36 playoff appearances and 45 playoff wins.

In baseball, an owner can spend all he wants in order to win a World Series. With a salary cap and penalties for going over the cap, however, NFL teams must manage their payroll economically in order to stay atop the standings at the end of the season, like the Colts, Patriots, or Steelers.