America at Large: Sceptics line up as ‘Moneyball’ mould-breaker tackles NFL
Paul DePodesta expected to be nothing less than saviour at struggling Cleveland Browns
Paul DePodesta has excelled is at harvesting the reams of information now available to coaches and scouts. Photograph: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
In 2002, Professor David Romer, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an academic paper for the Journal of Political Economy examining whether NFL teams should try to advance the ball rather than opt for the traditional punt for field position in fourth down situations. Two years later, when the New England Patriots opted to take just that gamble in an AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, their coach Bill Belichick cited Romer’s work with the Bellman Equation as an influence on his audacious decision.
Ahead of the 2014 draft, the Cleveland Browns then CEO Joe Banner spent $100,000 on a study which used advanced analytics to try to predict which college quarterback was most likely to succeed in the league. The research concluded Teddy Bridgewater (now starring for the Minnesota Vikings) was the best of that year’s incoming crop and specifically advised against selecting Johnny Manziel. The data-based recommendations were ignored, Manziel became a Brown, and the biggest headlines he’s made since have been related to drink, turning up dishevelled to training, allegedly partying in disguise in Las Vegas, the type of stuff they were warned about.
Against the background of those two contrasting uses of available information, it’s hardly surprising the Browns last week hired Paul DePodesta, a Harvard-educated economist, to try to turn the club around. When Belichick, the most successful coach of the modern era, is willing to wade through dense pages and graphs of “dynamic programming analysis” in the quest for a slight competitive advantage, one of the worst teams in the sport are hoping somebody whose number-crunching changed baseball can transform their fortunes.
His official title is chief strategy officer but given that the Browns were recently dubbed “the Failure Factory” and are currently trawling for their ninth coach in 15 years, DePodesta is expected to be nothing less than a saviour. A big ask for a 43-year-old whose main gridiron-specific qualification is that he played wide receiver at Harvard, not a sporting powerhouse. Enough of an athlete to be denounced as a jock by his more bookish fellow students on campus back then, he is now at the forefront of the so-called geeks rethinking just about every sport.
It is a measure of the way the embrace of data and quest for knowledge has changed the game in recent years that Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam recently devoted much of a year to touring the country on a fact-finding mission.
He spent time with Major League Baseball and NBA teams, learning how they operated and seeing what systems they had in place that might be used to improve his own beleaguered outfit. That he hired DePodesta at the end of this odyssey suggests Haslam, at the very least, realised something radical and mould-breaking was required to resuscitate the moribund franchise.
Although he spent the past five years heading up player development at the resurgent New York Mets, DePodesta began his major league career in Cleveland with the city’s baseball team, the Indians. However, the club was doing so well back then that nobody was too interested in overhauling its decision-making processes using probability theory and statistical models more commonly found on the Wall Street trading floor. Only when DePodesta went to the Oakland A’s, an underperforming outfit with a visionary general manager named Billy Beane, did he find a receptive audience and a willing collaborator.
Their work together spawned a revolution immortalised in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, the book and the Brad Pitt movie. Distinctly uncomfortable with the level of recognition that suddenly came his way out of both those productions, DePodesta requested his name not even be used in the film. His subsequent struggles as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers – he’s not as adept at handling people as he is numbers, say critics – have led many to think he’s better suited to working his magic behind the scenes rather than front of house.
Where DePodesta has excelled is at harvesting the reams of information now available to coaches and scouts. It took years but he found the best practices for utilising the myriad statistics surrounding every baseball play and player, and then deployed them when considering the wisdom and value of moves on and off the field. The NFL is a different game but the principle of what he’s been hired to do is the same. Figure out how to help the coaches and general manager make more informed decisions when acquiring players and smarter moves involving them on Sundays.
Befitting a character who once unnerved baseball scouts by bringing a laptop into meetings about young talent, DePodesta once said, “You’re only being truly innovative if you’re aggravating someone.” And so it proves. In the same way traditionalists baulked at the technological changes he wrought on the diamond, NFL lifers have ridiculed his appointment. How could a man with a side gig as assistant-professor of bioinformatics at the Scripps Translational Science Institute evaluate the merits of a nose tackle?
“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL?’” said Brian Billick, former Baltimore Ravens coach turned television pundit. “And the answer is, ‘No, you can’t.’ You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game.”
Which is exactly the type of stuff the Luddites used to say about baseball.