Market Inefficiencies in the NFL

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws in the pocket against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., February 2, 2020. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Jon Hartley wrote about potential market inefficiencies for teams to exploit in the NFL Draft tonight. The fact that there are significant inefficiencies to be exploited in a market so lucrative as the National Football League reveals something about the sport of football, and the difficulties of making analytics ubiquitous in NFL front offices.

Teams in the NFL have been slower than those in the MLB and, to a lesser extent, the NBA to adopt analytics regimes. This is partly a result of football’s inherent complexity. Twenty-two players are moving in conjunction on any given play, each of whom has a discrete responsibility. Every play occurs within the framework of a game situation, which has unique strategic dictates. It is difficult to assign blame on, say, a two-yard run snuffed out by the defense. Was it the left tackle’s fault for failing to execute his assigned block on the perimeter defender? Did the quarterback fail to call his receiver in pre-snap motion to get a defensive back away from the play-side? Was the running back too slow to hit his assigned gap? Or was it third-and-1, and the two-yard run in question was not a failure, but a success?

There are countless variables on every play that make the partition of credit and blame — perhaps the central role of data analysis in sports — very difficult. (Though not impossible.)

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In baseball, outcomes are binary by comparison. A pitcher and a hitter are the two central actors on every play, and are disproportionately responsible for the outcomes of those plays. With few exceptions — like when a team needs to score exactly one run in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning — the strategic imperatives are the same throughout the game. (It is always a good thing to hit a double, for instance, whereas in football, there are plenty of situations in which it might be “worth” running the ball to kill the clock and preserve a lead, even if running is a less “efficient” means of moving the ball than passing. What is “efficient” is almost always good in baseball, in other words, while the story is more complicated in football. The relative value of “efficiency” is itself up for debate.)  In baseball, defense and base-running make differences at the margins — and in an analytics-saturated sport, it is the margins that matter — but pitching and hitting are singular in terms of their effect on the result of a play, which makes the partition of responsibility easier.

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