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Can Moneyball work in the NFL?

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We take a look at some comments by former Colts President Bill Polian regarding the oft-discussed Moneyball philosophy, and whether it could impact the NFL.


It's a slow day, and as I work on a few things for tomorrow, I came across an interesting article about Bill Polian and the Moneyball philosophy. For those that don't watch baseball, didn't read Moneyball or didn't even catch the movie, the Moneyball philsophy revolves around the notion of undervalued assets. In spite of what Joe Morgan and quite a few curmudgeons think, it is not about on-base percentage or drafting college baseball players or any of that. It was initially about the Oakland A's trying to compete with higher revenue teams by finding assets frequently overlooked.

Former Colts President Bill Polian was asked about the applicability of the philosophy to the NFL. He said it could not work because of the salary cap. In his view, the cap means there are no undervalued players and no middle class:

"There is no middle class in football because the minimum salaries are so high, and because of the salary cap, a player will reach a point where you can't keep him," Polian said, pointing out Shane Conlan and Howard Ballard, Bills players from his era who left for richer pastures. "They go. They're going to get big money elsewhere."
"Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw's genius is that they designed a system that has led to all the prosperity we have now," Polian said. "Truly, on any given Sunday and in any given year, anybody can win. Now, you can't win for long, which is why nobody will ever go to four straight Super Bowls again. The system is designed to take good teams and rob them of players. That's the way it is."

Several teams across the league have done solid work getting themselves under the cap, and consistently remaining under it. The 49ers are on such team as they have set their value for a player, and allowed the market to come to them.

This isn't necessarily the proverbial "undervalued asset", but there is obviously incredible value to having a smart set of people managing the cap, and handling team negotiations. But can the NFL find undervalued assets? Cameron Wake came out of the CFL and signed a four year deal that could max out at $4.9 million.

But a good deal on a single player does not really explain the Moneyball philosophy. It is more about finding a specific area to load up on potential talent under the nose of competitors. I suppose FCS and D-II players can occasionally be that area. Strong players emerge from there, but nobody seems to really be trying to emphasize that more than another.

Now that the NFL Draft has a rookie cap, maybe teams eventually start rolling the dice more? Or, at least figure out better ways to spend their draft picks than on forcing a quarterback higher than deserved. The NFL Draft seems like the best option for finding these "undervalued" assets.