Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Dec 2005

Numbers Guy is Really the Future of the NFL

SFWeekly.com offers an interesting glimpse into the life of Paraag Marathe, the 28-year-old director of football operations for the 49ers (with FO's own, Aaron Schatz, quoted several times in the article). Marathe has an MBA and was a management consultant before joining San Franscisco, and a big part of his job might best be described by this quote from the article:

"The name of the game is not finding the best players, as conventional wisdom says," according to Marathe. "The name of the game is finding the best possible players for the lowest price. ... It's just being smart about managing your money."

Not everyone has embraced Marathe's reliance on statisical analyses, especially since he doesn't have a "football background," but that quote sounds a lot like something Bill Belichick might say, and I have yet to hear anyone question his football pedigree.

Posted by: P. Ryan Wilson on 29 Dec 2005

25 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2006, 7:25pm by Jonramz

Comments

1
by TomC (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 3:27pm

Great article; thanks, Ryan. But my question is for Aaron:

When the inevitable happens, and someone like Jim Schwartz offers you a job in an NFL coaching staff or front office, what happens to FO? (And no, I'm not just sucking up; it's clear from the way Schwartz refers to Aaron that he considers him as talented and potentially useful as Marathe, if not more so.)

2
by Daniel (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 3:53pm

#1: Not to denigrate Aaron, but the beauty of knowledge is that it doesn't rely on one individual. If and when Aaron is running his own football team someday, the knowledge and information we've learned on FO will continue because other people will pick up the slack. The institution is bigger than any one person.

3
by Chris (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 4:10pm

This was a terrific article, and I'm glad to see NFL teams looking at everything they can to determine what makes a successful coach instead of just hiring whoever is popular at the time.

I liked the Nolan hiring a lot because it made a lot of sense - Aaron had said previously that Defense from year to year is more variable - Which means that while it may take years to create a good offense and is easier to maintain once you've created one, its been proven that a good defensive minded coach can make a team competitive relatively quickly (Del Rio & Jacksonville, Gregg Williams with the Skins, Lovie Smith and the Bears, even Bill Parcells in his first year with the Cowboys).

I also like reading about a team that understands the concept of "Bang for your buck". The Patriots won their Super Bowls with a bunch of above-average players that were signifigantly cheaper than a team with 4 or 5 all-stars devouring all the cap room.

4
by TomC (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 4:19pm

Daniel, I agree with you, but my question was more about the site itself than the philosophy it espouses. There's no way it would work as it does without one person wasting -- I mean "spending in a most productive manner" -- most of his waking hours on it.

5
by Vash (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 5:25pm

The Jameseans are invading football front offices! Hurrah!

6
by Jeff (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 5:26pm

Sounds like the NFL version of "money ball". Question is can "money ball" build champions as opposed to simply competitive teams that can't win the big games, i.e. the Oakland A's?

7
by Ferg (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 5:37pm

Re 6: Ask the Patriots.

8
by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 6:04pm

Jeff,
With everybody able to spend roughly the same amount, the team that spends smartest has the advantage. The A's haven't won yet in part because they aren't able to spend nearly as much as a number of other teams. That doesn't mean their strategy has kept them from winning the big games. That they've gotten to big games at all means their strategy has worked.

9
by Kal (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 6:07pm

It's the opposite of moneyball as I understand it; it's deciding that a team of good players is better than a few great ones and a team of average ones.

I think the difference there is coaching. Above-average but not great players do very well in a system that is well-coached and can shine, but put them in a badly-coached team and they'll likely suck. Put a great player on a bad team and they may do really well in spite of things. That isn't to say they wouldn't be doing better on a better-coached team; it's saying that the degree to which they'll improve is not as drastic.

10
by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 6:26pm

I don't see how that's the opposite of "moneyball." The goal of "moneyball" is to get guys with skills that are undervalued. The A's have eschewed "a few great players" by letting Giambi, Tejada, Mulder, and Hudson go in order to maintain the overall quality of the team. I wouldn't say they're well-coached, but most of their players are above-average, yet were able to be acquired for very little.

11
by Kal (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 6:37pm

Yeah, I screwed up and didn't know what I was talking about. Moneyball is entirely what this guy was doing. Sorry.

What I'm more curious about is how one would rate the success of SF this year over last. From a DVOA perspective, they are far and away the worst team in the NFL, right? Like so bad no team ever has been worse that we've seen. Has Nolan's hiring worked? Has Alex Smith?

12
by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 7:21pm

but that quote sounds a lot like something Bill Belichick might say, and I have yet to hear anyone question his football pedigree.

Well, just to state the obvious, Belichick DOES have a traditional football background, which is why he ends up getting less grief than Marathe does for saying the same thing. And if Marathe and/or the author wanted to make their case that GM's don't have football backgrounds, McKay is a bad example, growing up as the son of a former college and NFL coach. That makes a huge difference. None of that has anything to do with whether Marathe is good at his job, I'm just pointing out the difference that drives the popular perception.

To me, one thing that I really hope to see when people try to evaluate use of new analytical techniques in football is the separatation of the success or failure of new techniques like statistical analysis from the success or failure of any single front office person that tries to use it.

For instance, I've seen plenty of bonehead management consultants with MBA's in my industry with no feel for the industry in general or even for the specific business with which they're consulting, but that doesn't mean that I think the idea of management consulting in my industry is bad. But they need to be able to develop a feel for the chosen business, even if it's not in their background.

13
by matt millen (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 7:37pm

That article is all nonsense, of course; what's needed is someone with real experience, like me. A man who can make real good decisions in the heat of battle....

14
by asg (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 7:43pm

Great article!

My question: Where does the 49ers' cap situation stand now, after this year? How much of the dead money is gone? What fraction of their cap will be available for salaries in 2006?

15
by David A. (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 8:44pm

All the money-talk should just be common sense by now. I think it was John Madden who, for years, talked about how he couldn't believe that teams didn't just hire one guy with numbers/business smarts whose only responsibility would be to manage the cap. Moving on... Interesting that there's no specific mention of WHICH player-evaluation techniques Marathe favors. For instance, I remember reading somewhere that the Niners were using precise body measurements as a determining factor in their late-round draft picks, a la the Cowboys of the late 1960s, the idea being that if a guy has the same body measurements as Michael Strahan, he's more likely to play like Strahan. Um, I'm more than a little skeptical. Compare to the FO methods, which are results-oriented, trying to identify trends in players and teams, explain those trends, and then make predictions based on those trends. A true Moneyball approach is, as Marathe says, getting players for less than their actual value, like Jennings, who was perceived to be very valuable, but was still undervalued. Another way to do it is to get players that are unwanted for irrational reasons and in spite of their results. Warren Moon is black. Doug Flutie is too short. Jerry Rice can't run. So, which NFL players out there are undervalued for irrational reasons?

16
by Glenn (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 9:15pm

Just to drive home the point a little more....Belichick has a degree in Economics, so he didn't just pull his theory on cap management out of his butt.

17
by Vern (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 9:25pm

The Patriots stress evaluation of talent relative to "how the player would do in the Patriots scheme."

18
by Bill (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 12:03am

I do kinda find it funny that Matt Millen couldn't even successfully link to a picture of himself.

19
by primantis (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 12:59am

How much involvement did this Marathe guy have in the Alex Smith pick? That decision would seem to be counter to his ideals of getting the best talent at the best price.

20
by emcee fleshy (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 2:43am

Matt Millen raises an interesting idea - The Lions are the perfect control group for an experiment: Fire Millen, plug in the FO guys and check back in four years.

The formulas seem to still be maturing, so it might not be time yet. But eventually not a bad idea.

Besides, I'm curious to see what MDS would do to Charles Rogers. And even if the whole thing is a disaster, it couldn't be a bigger waste of time and money than anything else the Ford family does. (Have you driven an entire sector into the ground lately? Ford makes me want to buy airline stocks.)

21
by admin :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 2:54am

Here's the problem with complaining about the Alex Smith pick. The number one pick is going to make an absurd amount of money no matter who is chosen. The 49ers did not receive a trade offer for the pick that they deemed to be of equal value. The 49ers can't pass on the first pick if there's nobody worth taking -- the public relations hit would be ridiculous. They were stuck rolling the dice in a draft with no clearly dominant player. As I noted in the SF chapter of the book, the 49ers did not have the technology to build a time machine that would have taken them back so they could draft Julius Peppers or Orlando Pace. Who were they supposed to take?

22
by Bill (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 3:55am

Who were they supposed to take?

Mike Nugent.

Lock that kicker position in.

Hey, the Tigers drafted Matt Anderson #1...

23
by Flux (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 10:32am

Re: #14. I believe the article said the 49ers were $20m under the cap next year.

As for this year, they were really in salary cap hell last season, when they hit rock bottom and were eating more dead money than anybody. this year they're still getting some bad contracts off the books, and AFAIK they're playing a ton of cheap guys and 1 year guys and rookies. I imagine they expected to win maybe 4 or 5 games this year with their roster, and probably hope to jump to 7 or 8 next year, add a few more talented mid-level free agents, and then get into fringe playoff possibility by '08. I certainly hope they can become respectible, simply because i've lived in the Bay Area for 3 years and will be here for the foreseeable future, and it would be nice if at least one of the teams were worth watching.

24
by Richie (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 6:50pm

Here’s the problem with complaining about the Alex Smith pick. The number one pick is going to make an absurd amount of money no matter who is chosen. The 49ers did not receive a trade offer for the pick that they deemed to be of equal value.

Maybe equal value could have been trading for ANYTHING a team would give you, just so you don't have to pay for the #1 draft pick.

25
by Jonramz (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 7:25pm

As far as the #1 pick was concered for the 49ers. Taking a player w/ the #1 pick because he is the best player of a bad draft class and having to pay him #1 pick money because they got bad trade offers does not make sense.

If you view it this way then you are thinking about the team as a 1 year deal. The amount of money they are paying Alex Smith is something that will hinder the team for the next 5 years. Especally with them having to pay another Top-5 pick this year.

The draft and picks and the "point system" the picks are worth are not equal year to year. This is the flaw with the draft pick "points system". Last year the #1 pick was not worth as much as it was when either of the Mannings were coming out. Therefore last year the "bounty" they could have gotten for the #1 pick would have been less than what the chargers got, but it may have been a better deal when taking into consideration the talent available to be drafted. We'll never know however, due to the fact of not know what the 49ers were offered.

This is where scouting comes into the equation. And why a guy like Bill Walsh was so effective. You will never be 100% correct on your picks, but the more picks that you have, the better the chance of getting successful players. This is also assuming that your scouting believes that the talent/money ratio is equal.

I personally believe that the niners should have traded down, just on the fact that wouldn't have to spend so much money on a QB coming out of a gimmick offense of a mid-major team. (As I type this he threw his 1st TD) At least the niners are doing the right thing of throwing him into the fire, b/c he needs the real world experience.

To all you niners fans, I hope that he develops the accuracy he needs to survive in this league.

Me...? I'm a bills fan, don't get me started on what my team needs.... that is a team in need of a fresh approach. And yes, I am available :-)