“Rebuilding” is a far more meaningful term in a sport like baseball than it is in the NFL. In a league with a hard salary cap and a liquid free agent market, and where draft picks can make an immediate impact, a team can go from worst to first in a single season. But the Redskins are in a unique situation. The roster has been hollowed by years of poor personnel management — expensive free agent acquisitions, squandering of draft picks, and a short-term mind-set. If any team needs a “rebuilding,” it’s the Redskins.
You might have read the book or seen the movie “Moneyball.” It’s the story of how the small-market, low-budget Oakland A’s were able to win by using advanced statistics. But stats on their own don’t help teams win. They illuminated a strategy to effectively build a team and get the most bang for their buck. The A’s shrewdly engaged in arbitrage based on the mispricing of baseball talent. Statistical analysis showed that sluggers were overvalued and batters with high on-base percentages were undervalued, in terms of their relative contribution to winning games. College players were undervalued and hot high school prospects were overvalued. The A’s either traded away their high-priced veterans for draft picks or let them be signed away by other teams in return for compensatory picks. They used those picks to get the low-cost/high-value players they needed. They also signed players other teams rejected for foolish reasons, such how they looked or being too short.
Major League Baseball differs greatly from the NFL with its salary cap and revenue sharing, but that doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t get the most bang for their buck. In fact, with a hard cap, there’s no other option if you want more talent than other teams. Teams can’t bulldoze their way to wins by spending more than other teams. Whether we’re talking about the A’s or the Redskins, maximizing talent within a budget is the name of the game, and the stats help point the way.
Playing Moneyball in the NFLIn the NFL, the overvalued player is the expensive, highly sought-after free agent, and the undervalued player is the draft pick. Well, it’s not necessarily the pick or a first-year player as much as a player under his initial contract. As I wrote about last season, a 2005 study of hundreds of players found that drafted players in their initial contracts outperform veterans signed for the same price. In other words, to get the same level of performance, a team would have to pay a veteran much more. This is an essential consideration under the rules of a hard salary cap. The most surplus value of drafted players comes at the bottom of the first round and top of the second round. The new collective bargaining agreement greatly enhanced the surplus value of drafted players by drastically cutting initial contract salaries. For example, this year’s top pick, Cam Newton, will earn half of what last year’s top pick, Sam Bradford, will earn on a per-year basis.
Playing Moneyball in the NFL is about jettisoning expensive and under-producing veterans, rejecting the big-splash free agent, and stockpiling draft picks. There are two ways of generating those picks. First, you can trade away soon-to-be free agents to other teams in return for picks or allow restricted free agents to sign elsewhere in return for compensatory picks. For too long, the Redskins have been on the wrong end of those transactions.
The second way is to trade picks for more picks. Overconfidence and urgency run rife in personnel departments around the league, and smart teams can take advantage of this. There are always teams willing to overpay for a pick that they are so certain will immediately turn their team into a Super Bowl winner. A team can sell its first-round pick for a second-round pick this year, plus a first-round pick next year. In the next draft, that team will have an additional first-round pick that could be sold for another second-rounder, plus another future first rounder. Presuming there are enough buyers, a team could generate an additional second-round pick in perpetuity by foregoing its first-round pick in only one year.
The rule of thumb of trading picks is that one round equals one year. If you want my third-round pick this year, it will cost you your second-round pick next year. It’s like saving money in a bank, but with an insanely high interest rate. The miracle of compound interest allows patient teams with long-term perspectives to generate many extra draft picks, the most undervalued resources in professional football. This strategy requires only patience.
There’s one model NFL team that’s in continuous Moneyball rebuilding mode. It releases or trades expensive veterans on what seem like irrational whims. It trades away picks for more and more future picks. In fact, at one point this team had two picks in each of the top four rounds of the 2011 draft. Since 2001, this team has averaged more than 12 wins per year, and has missed the playoffs only twice. By now, I’m sure you know I’m talking about the New England Patriots.
How the Redskins can rebuild like the PatriotsSome may think it’s unfair to make comparisons to the Patriots. Not every team is lucky enough to stumble on a Hall of Fame bound quarterback in the sixth round. But when Tom Brady was lost for an entire season in 2008, the Patriots still managed 11 wins and tied for first in their division behind Matt Cassel, a seventh-round quarterback who hadn’t started a game since high school.
In the preceding decade, the Patriots have averaged more than nine picks per draft, compared to the Redskins, who averaged just more than six. During the same period, New England drafted 41 players in the top three rounds, compared to 27 for Washington. And next year, the Patriots will have two picks in both the first and second rounds.
The list of veteran Patriots traded for picks is long. Drew Bledsoe was traded for a first-round pick. Richard Seymour was traded in the final year of his contract for a first rounder. Deion Branch was traded in his final contract year for a first-round pick, too. Randy Moss was allowed to leave for a third. Mike Vrabel and Cassel left for a second-round pick. Lawrence Maroney was traded for a fourth and a sixth. Stars such as Asante Samuel and Adam Vinatieri were not resigned and allowed to walk. Other notable veterans such as Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, James Sanders, Leigh Bodden, and Albert Haynesworth were released.
And when New England has traded for a player or makes a major free agent signing, it often targets mispriced players. Wes Welker was acquired at age 25 from Miami for a second- and a seventh-round pick. At the time, many experts considered him too short to be an effective wide receiver, despite leading the Dolphins in receptions in 2006. Randy Moss was considered a malcontent and, as he proved in New England, was sorely undervalued. He was acquired for just a fourth-round pick.
Recent acquisitions Haynesworth and Ochocinco were acquired with little or no downside for the Patriots. Ochocinco, a six-time Pro Bowler, was had for just a fifth- and a sixth-round pick. His contract was restructured to make it easy for the Patriots to part ways with the receiver when the day comes. Haynesworth was acquired for only a fifth-round pick, after the bulk of guaranteed pay was already swallowed by the Redskins.
The Patriots are playing football’s version of Moneyball, perpetually rebuilding its team with a long-term mind-set. They are acquiring multitudes of young players in the heart of the draft’s maximum “surplus value” range. This is how a team can build depth.
And the good news in Washington is that it appears this is what Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen are trying to do. They cut ties with veterans like Haynesworth, Clinton Portis, and (admitting their own error in the process) Donovan McNabb. They allowed Carlos Rogers to walk rather than resign him. They maneuvered their way to 12 picks in the most recent draft.
Many fans doubt Shanahan’s commitment to the long term. Because of his age and his status as a premier coach, it’s plausible that he wants to sell out the future to win now. But I suspect he’s playing a bigger game than most people realize. His heart might be in it for the long term, and he could be dedicated to leaving the organization in a much better situation than when he came, even if it means losing now. His time horizon isn’t necessarily when his contract expires after 2014. If he is able to build a potential winner by then, his son, Kyle, would hypothetically be next in line to take the reins. However laughable that sounds to most fans at the moment, that might be his real goal, and that might not be a bad thing for the franchise.
Brian Burke is former Navy pilot who has given up his F/A-18 for the less dangerous hobby of football analysis. He is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a website about football, statistics, and and game theory.