Chip Kelly And the ‘Moneyball’ Theory

There are many theories floating out there about Chip Kelly and his approach to football, most of which are promptly shot down by the coach when presented to him. He would like us all to take our broad brushes and throw them in a vat of turpentine.

One popular thought — brought to life by a Yahoo! Sports article in November — is that Kelly’s decision-making is driven by numbers, that he is using mathematics to guide him, and will spark a “Moneyball revolution” in the NFL.

Like Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane did in baseball, Kelly’s genius comes from exploiting arithmetic that other coaches are too naïve to acknowledge.

“I was told there would be no math,” Kelly joked during his sitdown with reporters at the owners meetings this week. And with that, he began to dismantle the “Moneyball” argument.

“It’s a different game. There are analytics that you study because you can get information. We’re going to study the statistics of our game but to equate it to Moneyball, no. Even Moneyball itself if you really understand it, that’s not what they did. They had three unbelievable rookie pitchers that nobody ever talks about. All they talked about is how those guys are going to take hits or make people walk and do those other things and it made for a great movie, but if you don’t have three great pitchers in baseball it doesn’t matter, you ain’t getting anywhere. Watch the movie, read the book they don’t talk about those pitchers at all, but those pitchers were really, really good. It’s a good story but we’re not modeling ourselves after Moneyball, I’ll tell you that.

“You’re also dealing with a different thing. There is a different amount of money that is spent in Major League Baseball, their payroll is different than what the Yankees’ is. In this league everybody has the same thing.”

When applied literally the idea that “Moneyball” would sweep the league quickly crumbles. The salary cap keeps spending down and  sucks out the middle class (especially with a flat cap). But there are elements of it that are already prevalent both in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

The Bills made headlines by announcing that they will implement a “very robust analytics operation” in Buffalo, and Jaguars owner Shahid Khan recently named his son, Tony, Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics in Jacksonville. The truth is, analytics departments are widespread across the NFL. There is one right in your back yard.

“You’ve got to define what you are looking for from your analytics department,” said general manager Howie Roseman. “If you’re talking about it being part of the process and marrying the subjective to the objective to make really good decisions, that sounds like a good process as you go through this. You want to make sure the tape is really good, the background is really good, and then when you marry the stats to it — marry the measurables — and everything falls into place, that’s when you feel really good about your decisions.

When all of those things come together, as Roseman notes, you are talking about a player that will be selected high in the draft or paid a lot of money in free agency. There are so few players in this league that fall through the cracks. Where analytics are most helpful is as a fail-safe. If statistics indicate that a player with certain measurables rarely succeeds at a given position, you know to probably stay away. Conversely, if a player has great measurables and you missed him during the scouting process, you make sure you round back and check him out.

Kelly, as we have learned, has specific measurables that he wants at each position. Namely, he desires taller, longer players because “big people beat up little people.” That helps refine the search even more.

“We’re lucky to be surrounded by a lot of smart people in this building who are able to tell us what’s important to look for in the numbers by position,” said Roseman. “And it’s also helpful when you have your coaches telling you what they’re looking for at each position — height, weight, speed — and that helps you narrow it down. At least in the past couple years we’ve tried to be a know a lot about a little, not a little about a lot team because there are so many players so as you funnel down the information and get to it, let’s know a lot about those guys.”

The “Moneyball revolution” that Yahoo! predicts is more about game-day coaching decisions. Kelly is known to be an aggressive play-caller, going for it on fourth down where others wouldn’t, trying a two-point conversion or an onsides kick because the mathematical evidence tells him to.

Not so, says Kelly. He cited the number of times he went for it on fourth down — 20 times in 14 games, he thinks — and says that is not out of whack compared to the rest of college ball.

“A lot of our decisions came in the kicking game. If you don’t have a guy that can kick a long field goal what are you going to do when the ball is on the 37 yard line? Will you kick a 52-yarder or are you going to punt it? If it goes in the end zone you have a net of 17 yards. Or do you go for it because you have a good defense and you’re not averse to putting them on the field on the 37 yard line? Those weren’t statistical decisions.”

They were personnel decisions. If he did not have faith in his defense to hold up, he would not gamble.

Numbers don’t play the game.