Chicago Bears playing Moneyball?

Chicago Bears playing Moneyball?

The Chicago Bears made an interesting move early this week, hiring Mitchell Tanney to be their director of analytics. Tanney was manager of sports analytics for STATS LLC for two years, helping to create and manage the company’s advanced football statistics for NFL and collegiate football analysis.

More notably, Tanney was the product manager of STATS’ ICE platform, a system that aligns a team’s analytical data to player records and scouting video. He also analyzed 30-plus years of historical data to identify key statistical categories that influence game outcomes to create “winning formulas for NFL franchises,” the Bears said.

Bears’ general manager Phil Emery said later of the hire, “We needed somebody with an expertise in filtering through subsets of data to make sense of them in terms of which pieces are important and which pieces can be put together to give a clearer picture of projecting performance; whether it’s on the field in situational football or in scouting, projecting players moving forward.”

These are not concepts entirely new to the NFL, but they do seem to be gaining traction recently as an important piece to the grading puzzle. At the end of the day, the tape will always tell the tale best, but why not take pains to look at things from every angle and gain every possible advantage? And that is what the Bears seem to be doing.

The move really should come as no surprise either. Back in January, Emery told the Chicago Sun-Times the team would begin to look at additional ways to evaluate players.

“Yes, we’re going to pay attention to the coach’s grades,” Emery said. “Yes, we’re going to pay attention to our internal scouting grades. But let’s look at this another way: I went to STATS Inc., went through all the numbers. Went to Pro Football Focus, did all the numbers. Spent quite a bit of time with their people, watched how they grade tape, how they triple check all their facts. So I trust all their data; that’s it’s unbiased, that it doesn’t have my hands in it, that it doesn’t have our coach’s or scout’s hands in it, or anybody else in the league. They are simply reporting fact. Some ways to look at it is in a very Moneyball way, crunching the numbers.”

Obviously Emery felt strong enough about the idea of that unbiased, analytical opinion that he hired Tanney to provide him with just that. Other NFL franchises, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons, for example, are also putting strong emphasis on incorporating analytics in the evaluation of players.

Additionally, the Bears appear to be ahead of the curve on an NFL trend that has teams stocking up on youth and devaluing mid-tier veteran players, signing most free agents to single-year, minimum deals. And it’s part of a growing dichotomy in the league between the middle and upper ranks of players.

Players in the “elite” group are seeing outrageous deals on long terms, while young players on the rise are also cashing in on a relative scale. But for players like Brian Urlacher and Charles Woodson, a one year, deflated deal is about as good as it’s going to get. And even for relatively young players in the so-called “serviceable” category, gone are the days of landing a respectable payday.

Teams simply are no longer willing to offer players extraordinary contracts for anything less than extraordinary production. Think of it like a full NFL ranking scale from 1-10; No. 1 being your undrafted free agents, and No. 10 being your Tom Bradys. Once upon a time, that scale had plenty of fours, fives and sixes. Today, however, it has far more twos and threes.

The reason for this change is simple enough and mostly two-fold: The NFL/NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement makes is easy to negotiate rookie contracts; easier in terms of the process, and easier in terms of the checkbook. Secondly, NFL teams are sticking to a “draft and develop” approach, which helps them to hopefully build successful teams on a budget — all assuming the staff is doing its job, which comes full circle to the Bears’ hire of Tanney.

So, sure, I supposed one could liken this trend to that of the Oakland As’ Moneyball in many ways. Whether or not it pays off in the end remains to be seen, but I certainly doubt it will hurt.

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