Is Moneyball coming (or already here) to the NFL?

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

How important are analytics in the NFL?

We here at Big Blue View often refer to ProFootballFocus.com (PFF) to try to gain an insight from an indepedent source of how New York Giants players are faring compared to other players in the league. PFF is a useful tool that comes in handy for a quick reference for a players performance in certain situations or overall. Sam Monson of PFF recently put forth an interesting commentary on the role of analytics in professional football in today and the changing landscape of football stats and information likening the information in some aspects to Moneyball, but Monson believes that Moneyball for football just won't work.

In order to get an accurate idea of exactly what happened and who is playing well or badly, tape really is the only option. Moneyball for football simply doesn't work the way it did for baseball.

Why not? The numbers just don’t stack up.

A typical baseball season has 677,000 simple plays with which to collect data and analyze numbers. With a 16-game schedule the typical NFL season has just 43,000 extremely complex plays with dozens of factors affecting each one. Clawing through the white noise to find meaningful data is just not viable, the information is too distorted with too many things affecting any single play.

That’s not to say that there is nowhere that statistics and sabremetrics can improve a football team, but I don’t believe that you can accurately scout using numbers alone the way it is possible to do in baseball. The cutting edge in the NFL won’t come from analyzing numbers in isolation, and teams know that.

Now much of the piece is about proclaiming why PFF is better than any other stats or information site out there, and that is to some point true, though PFF is still flawed. But it is interesting to consider the use of statistics in today's NFL culture, especially considering that we are New York Giants fans. And as such we know that many statistical measures of success don't favor the team's most important player, quarterback Eli Manning. And this is where Monson is correct -- stats in the NFL can't be the definitive deciding factor in determining a players effectiveness because of the reliance of statistics on the other 10 teammates on the field at any moment. And for the quarterback many things can decide a great statistical play from a poor one, we saw that in 2010 when Manning had what seemed like an unusually high number of tipped passes turned into interceptions, or through the play of the offensive line and their run blocking issues over the last couple of years. Statistics are good conversation starters, and the most important thing for fantasy football, but on Sundays September through the end of the season, the symphony that plays out over 60 minutes goes far beyond the numbers and thankfully we have a GM who realizes that. The following is from Reese's pre-NFL Draft press conference:

Q: On the use of analytics in football and its application for the Giants front office:
A: You always try and get an edge, but I think for the New York Giants, old-fashioned scouting is what we hang our hat on. We try to put the numbers in and see what the numbers say, but we put our eyes on players and see what our eyes say. I think we depend on that more than anything else, but we don’t put our head in the sand and ignore what the numbers say as well. We try to put it all together and come to a consensus on what we think players are and we depend on our scouts. Again, the scouts are really the unsung heroes of what we try to do in the National Football League. They go out 185-200 days a year and look for these players. We count on our scouts. They do the work. They go see them – they see them practice, they see them play in games, they talk to their coaches. We hang our hat on our scouts and what our eyes see.

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