NFL Moneyball Is Hurting the Browns, Jets, Bills and Competitive Balance

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2017

Sammy Watkins is now a Ram, having been unloaded by the Bills.
Sammy Watkins is now a Ram, having been unloaded by the Bills.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NFL should award a trophy to the team that finishes the preseason with the most cap space and the most future draft picks. It can be a silver-dollar sign on a pedestal or a golden construction barricade with engraved police tape reading "closed for renovations." Fans could even hold a parade.

The trophy would give the Browns, Jets, Bills and any other dedicated tankers something to play for aside from the first pick in next year's draft. Many of these teams are so Moneyball-damaged that they will trade away the top pick anyway.

An unprecedented number of teams threw in the towel on the 2017 season before it even began. The Browns released cornerback Joe Haden and guard John Greco, traded offensive lineman Cam Erving for a fifth-round draft pick and flushed Brock Osweiler (and nearly $16 million) down the garbage disposal. The Jets traded defensive terror/resident malcontent Sheldon Richardson for a second-rate receiver and a second-round pick. The Bills gutted their roster of Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, Reggie Ragland and Cardale Jones in an August-long fire sale.

These moves were not shrewd renovation at work. They represented extreme Moneyball run amuck.

As we invoke the much-maligned and misunderstood nine-letter "M" word, we should establish a few parameters.

The problem plaguing these roster-purging teams is not "analytics." Analytics are a data-driven process for making decisions, not a set of commandments, though some analytical precepts (don't overpay a bunch of 33-year olds) are theories in the way evolution is a theory. Analytics are tools, and like any tools, they can be used by experts to build palaces or used by the Three Stooges to bonk each other on the head.

The "Moneyball" pervading the NFL's bottom-feeders now is the elevator-pitch, recipe-on-the-side-of-the-box, watered-down cousin of analytics. According to this new Extreme Moneyball, veterans are worthless once they might have passed their prime; the only thing more valuable than cap space is a future draft pick; and the only transaction smarter than trading veterans for draft picks is trading draft picks for even more draft picks.

For Extreme Moneyballers, rebuilding seasons come in three- to indefinite-year bunches, and a competitive 8-8 season is just a missed opportunity to go 1-15 more cheaply and come away with higher draft picks.

Joe Haden was too expensive to keep, but eating Brock Osweiler's $16-million contract was smart "Moneyball." Try not to think too hard about it.
Joe Haden was too expensive to keep, but eating Brock Osweiler's $16-million contract was smart "Moneyball." Try not to think too hard about it.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

If this new Extreme Moneyball sounds a lot like "tanking," it's because they have more in common with each other than this version of Moneyball has with anything analytical. It's 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.

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 lose 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!

General managers, meanwhile, love the job security that comes with delayed gratification. Hey, Mr. Owner, you knew when you hired me that I had a two-presidential-term rebuilding plan. You can't fire me after back-to-back 2-14 seasons!

The Browns are the standard-bearers for this funhouse-mirror version of analytics, with Pied Piper of Moneyball Paul DePodesta serving as their chief strategy officer.

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.

The Browns flushed their roster in exchange for cap space and draft picks in 2016. It was a smart move which netted them a bountiful draft class in April (Myles Garrett, Jabril Peppers, DeShone Kizer and more) and plenty of fiscal maneuverability. But one year later, the Browns are still purging veterans for future considerations.

Being surrounded by a bad team can undermined the promise of players like DeShone Kizer.
Being surrounded by a bad team can undermined the promise of players like DeShone Kizer.Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

There's a logic shell game undermining the Browns' latest moves. Haden's $11.2 million cap number made him expendable, yet blowing $16 million on Osweiler so they could move up from the fourth round in '17 to the second round in '18 was hailed as economic wizardry. Erving was a first-round pick two years ago who failed to develop, in part because the team around him was terrible. If the Browns keep putting off competitive football until the far-flung future, this year's crop of prospectsincluding Kizer, who's being rushed into a bad lineup because he's the only quarterback with a heartbeatare just as likely to falter because the team around them is terrible.

At least the Browns are fully committed to DePodesta's flavor of Moneyball. They may be turning themselves into a glorified farm team, but they aren't doing so by half measures.

The Jets, on the other hand, wrecked their roster with a 2015 spending splurge and have now converted to Extreme Moneyball with the fervor of sinners who staggered into a midnight mass.

The Jets' strategy of cutting every veteran making more than minimum wage and waiting to draft Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold initially looked like it was cribbed from the bottom of a message board. But general manager Mike Maccagnan flexed his newfound Moneyball muscles over the weekend by trading Richardson to the Seahawks for Jermaine Kearse and (use your Gollum voice here) a precious second-round pick.

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.

Up in Buffalo, the Bills braintrust of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane is mixing Moneyball with the old-school NFL principle of bringin' in our own guys. The Bills looked competitive before ousting Watkins, Darby and others drafted by the last regimenot overpriced old veterans, mind you, but talented younger players coming off injuries or subpar years.

Talented young players like Watkins should be developed, not traded.
Talented young players like Watkins should be developed, not traded.Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The McDermott-Beane cut-to-the-quick approach had unexpected consequences. Dealing Cardale Jones to the Chargers left them with only rookie Nathan Peterman and uninspiring journeyman T.J. Yates behind starter Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. With Taylor and Yates still in the league's concussion protocol heading into Week 1, the Bills announced the signing of career backup Joe Webb on Monday.

Peterman may be the default quarterback of the future, but the Bills first must survive a year with no wide receivers, because Watkins is gone, Jordan Matthews (acquired as Watkins' quasi-replacement and ballast in the Darby trade) immediately got injured and Anquan Boldin retired, perhaps not seeing much point to staying on. Boldin issued a retirement statement about wanting to focus on non-football challenges, but a source told Ben Volin of the Boston Globe that Boldin might be interested in joining the Patriots.

There's a common economics principle that human beings don't behave like variables in equations. No one is forced to cooperate with some executive's vision of how the perfect four-year plan should operate. Veterans like Boldin retire if they don't want to sacrifice their bodies in a lost cause (see also: the 49ers' mass exodus when Jim Harbaugh left). Richardson and Erving are people, not Madden video game sprites guaranteed to gain plus-2 to various attributes in career mode. Like all humans, they are more likely to develop good habits in good environments and bad habits in bad ones.

Extreme Moneyball indefinite-length rebuilding cycles don't turn draft picks into superstars. They are more likely to turn draft picks into Sheldon Richardson. And the players who do develop can reach free agency and skip town if a team spends too long promising a brighter future just over the horizon.

Time is the precious commodity that Extreme Moneyballers overlook. Careers are short. Contracts are short. The NFL is built to make quick turnarounds possible. 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.

The analytics that are supposed to drive Moneyball involve exploiting market inefficiencies. DePodesta and his peers brilliantly gobbled up undervalued baseball players while other teams spent millions on aging sluggers and prospects with "tools."

When three or more teams are shopping quality veterans in exchange for draft picks, however, the market inefficiency swings the other way. That 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.

The imbalanced transactions create even more disparity. The best teams get better, making the climb to being competitive steeper and the task of developing a roster of overmatched players harder. Every year, the Super Bowl looks further away, while the temptation to crawl into a ball and horde draft picks until the sun burns out or Tom Brady retires (whichever comes first) becomes greater.

Browns, Bills and Jets fans have suffered for so long that extreme Moneyball feels like hope for them. They get to cheer for trades instead of wins and root for USC and UCLA on Saturdays while their teams stumble through Sundays. Waiting until next year with extra draft picks is better than just waiting until next year, which is what these fans have been stuck doing for years. Right?

Lots of taverns have a sign over the bar that reads "Free Beer Tomorrow." Come back tomorrow, and the sign is still there, but the free beer isn't. NFL rebuilding projects are not supposed to work that way. It's unfair to keep asking fans and players to wait until the tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow. Fans might not leave. But players will. And owners will rightfully get fed up, leaving the Extreme Moneyball gurus to discover what a "purge" is really all about.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide.