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When Bullshit Was King: The 2005 NFL Draft, Insiders and Outsiders

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Paul recently mentioned the kind of extraordinary numbers Aaron Rodgers is putting up; even adjusted for era, and in substantive as well as freak show accomplishments, he’s one of the very greatest NFL players ever. It always amazes me that the Packers were able to get him with the 24th pick in the 2005 Draft. Rodgers was not a diamond in the rough. I mean, whenever someone turns into Aaron Rodgers you’re somewhat lucky, but QBs with his level of NCAA performance at his age are much more likely to become good NFL QBs than not. A QB prospect like this should go in the top 2 or 3 picks of the draft barring extraordinary circumstances.

What’s even better is that 3 running backs were selected with the first 5 picks of the draft. Could the idiots who would blow a top 5 pick on a running back — a silly decision in contemporary football even if Aaron Rodgers isn’t on the board — at least identify really good ones ex ante? Well, the picks were Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, so no. Did those teams at least have solid starters at QB? Nope: they had Gus Ferrotte, Kyle Orton/Rex Grossman, and Chris Simms/Brian Griesie.  The Packers did have a Hall of Fame QB rather than a terrible one, but they jumped on Rodgers anyway because Thompson knows what he’s doing.

Bill James’s classic early essay about insiders and outsiders is, alas, not available online. But whenever someone is on the losing side of a sports argument — “trading Nick Foles and the equivalent of the 39th pick for the right to pay Sam Bradford $13 million was perfectly reasonable,” say — you can always retreat to the “the insider knows more than you do” argument. Chip Kelly stayed up all night analyzing that dogshit stock Sam Bradford game film. Who are you to criticize his actions?

But, as James said, the fact that insiders know much more about many aspects of the sport doesn’t make them more reliable analysts of everything. His example was Fred Lynn, who insisted that he would hit better in Anaheim than he had in Boston and was paid like it by the Angels, although he reliably had an OPS 300 or 400 points better at Fenway. Sometimes an intense knowledge of the details prevents you from seeing the big picture. Sometimes outsiders can see things insiders who know a lot more about many things cannot. In 2015, running backs are for the most part correctly valued by NFL teams, and the exceptions tend to be outright joke organizations like the Mike Holmgren-led Browns. But the massive overvaluing of running backs in the 2005 draft is an example of something on which outsiders were ahead of many insiders. Going back to the 1980s, any remotely sophisticated analysis of the question would show that the quality of a team’s pass offense and defense was far more important to its success than the quality of its running game and running defense; proto-sabermertics showed this conclusively.  This has been repeatedly confirmed as analysis has become more sophisticated, the marginal quality of a team’s passing game has if anything increased in importance. But a lot of insiders clung to GROUND AND POUND sentimentality for a long time. It was a prejudice — the SMASHMOUTH running game is REAL AUTHENTIC FOOTBALL and the forward pass WHY NOT PUT PLAYERS IN A DRESS — that could be supported by a statistical illusion (for strategic reasons, good teams tend to run more often, so if you use the measures of bulk yardage that were generally printed in newspapers and featured on broadcasts rather than measures of efficiency, it looks like good teams reliably run more effectively than bad ones even though they don’t.) In addition, a lot of coaches cut their teeth in the NCAA, in which there’s a much greater spread between good running games and bad ones and the attrition of individual running backs is less of a problem.

Nick Saban’s justification for taking Brown reflects a lot of this:

In four games against LSU when Saban coached there, Brown carried just 35 times for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Saban liked what he saw — especially a short fourth-quarter run in a close game.

“It’s not one of the plays that are on the highlights, but he ran over about nine guys,” Saban said. “It was only about a 7-yard gain, but I had to say to myself, ‘Man, what a competitor.'”

Looking at the record as a whole, Brown didn’t even play particularly well against elite competition, but THERE WAS THIS ONE PLAY THAT ONE TIME AND HE DID THIS AND WOW. In terms of personnel evaluation, there’s no magic to game film. Sometimes it reveals things that aren’t in the statistics; many times, you lose sight of the forest for the trees. Perhaps Chip Kelly’s study of Sam Bradford game film was part of a dispassionate analysis. Much more likely is that he got tired of seeing Nick Foles’s flawed game up close, focused on Bradford as an alternative, saw what he wanted to see in the film, and then decided he had to get Bradford whether or not the cost was reasonable.  This last step is the real key, the flaw that often distinguishes bad organizations from good ones. It was completely reasonable for the Bills to evaluate Sammy Watkins as the best wideout available in the 2014 draft. It was not reasonable to think that the difference between Watkins and Mike Evans or Odell Beckham Jr. was worth an additional first round pick. There’s a reason good organizations are lot more likely to trade down than up.  I’m sure Ryan Grigson spent a lot of time analyzing that dogshit stock Trent Richardson game film,  and you can always find isolated footage showing that despite all evidence Richardson is a beast, and before you know if a first round pick you could have used to fill one of your team’s many holes is out the window in exchange for less than nothing because you have to have the player. In fairness, Saban (who wasn’t formally in charge of personnel but seems to have been the dominant decision-maker) did want to trade down — he is a Belichick disciple, after all.  But when the right offer didn’t come, he made a huge blunder that sent his NFL career on the path to oblivion.  The reason to do systematic analysis, as James said, is to avoid paying the price for believing things that aren’t true.

Sometimes insiders do know things that even sophisticated analysts don’t, and in cases where the evidence is ambiguous and someone has a good track record deference is warranted.  But a lot of times more systematic analysis is right. To reiterate, by any statistical measure Sam Bradford is a below-average QB, and the more sophisticated and context-sensitive the measure the worse he looks.  (This isn’t surprising — as an ultra-conservative thrower playing on generally bad teams, Bradford was well-situated to piling up safe yards in garbage time against soft coverages that make his numbers look superficially more efficient but don’t constitute any actual value to his teams.) This data was something Kelly should have paid more attention to.  Between the relative lack of importance of the marginal quality of a team’s running game and the relative fungibility, short shelf life and unreliability of running backs, under modern conditions it’s virtually never a good idea to invest a premium draft pick in the position, but it took an agonizingly long time for teams to figure this out.   A lot of GMs sacrificed their jobs to old-timey nonsense about the surpassing importance of the running game.

A final point of interest.  Saban’s time with Miami is generally remembered as just a bust.  But he did take a 4-12 team and improve it to 9-7, with Ferrotte at quarterback.  The improvement wasn’t quite as great as it looks in the record — “only” 80 points — but it was real (and, by the same token, his second and last Miami team was better than its 6-10 record suggests.)  His ability as a coach didn’t completely abandon him — but when you do stuff like “take Ronnie Brown with the second overall pick” all the motivational ability in the world will only get you so far, and of course when you show you don’t know what you’re doing it undermines your ability to lead the team. (Matt Williams ordering good hitters to bunt with 3-1 counts is much more damaging in making him look like a buffoon than for the direct effects of the suboptimal strategy itself.)

To be clear, all kidding and co-blogger trolling aside, I’m not saying that Kelly is doomed to a short and unexpectedly brutish career as an NFL head coach.  He has already won 10 games twice with retread quarterbacks, and the division being what it is could even return to the playoffs with his emaciated talent base this year.  I’m sure even Saban would acknowledge that Kelly is a better tactical coach (as opposed to recruiter/talent developer.)  But if he’s going to succeed in the long term, he’s going to need someone else to collaborate in picking players.  Tactical innovation just can’t overcome talent mismatches in the NFL like it can in the NCAA.   And you just can’t win in the NFL in 2015 with huge investments in running backs.

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