Oregon’s Moneyball Approach to Football
Oregon has recently hit its golden age. Last year it played for the national title against an established football power and the year before played one of the greatest football programs in the Rose Bowl. It’s shocking, especially to Oregon fans who grew up with this team in the 70’s and 80’s, that Oregon was competing with them in the biggest games in college footballs. Some of these fans of the pre-Belloti years may call in the golden age of Oregon football because tickets were easy to come by and security was much less strict on alcohol being present in the student section, but in terms of on-field production, what we’re currently witnessing at Oregon is unprecedented.
The college football elite is one of the stingiest clubs to make. They are the old money of the country clubs that sit smoking cigars in suits after they’ve played 18 holes and tipped the caddy half of what they should have (With the SEC teams sitting in a rocking chair on their wrap-around porch looking at their vast plantations and muttering to themselves, “It’s good to own land.”) Programs like USC, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, routinely haul in the best players every year and compete for national titles, almost every year (Georgia and Michigan are in a funk right now, I know, but this holds true over a century of football). These programs are like the Yankees of baseball, where they hold money that can influence their programs by creating better facilities, spend more money on recruiting, thereby getting better talent that can be coached by the highest paid coaches in football. The fact that Oregon has been able to be a constant in the upper-echelon of college football since 2007 is pretty amazing. They’ve been doing it in a way that baseball teams try to get a leg up on the Yankees every year, specifically the Oakland Athletics, who has a general manager who is known for finding value and market inefficiencies.
In 1998 Billy Beane became the general manager for the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics had been working with sabermetric stats, essentially very advanced statistics that are called OPS+ and VORP and continually frown upon useless standard statistics such as RBI’s. Beane found that the most effective and undervalued way to win baseball games was to score as many runs as possible, and thereby targeted players who got on base any way possible. This included walks, which are not taken in to account in the batting average, but are factored in to the OPS statistic.
The Athletics were working on a smaller payroll than the Yankees by about $84 million. This means that they couldn’t sign the same players, or even go after the same players, because ultimately the Yankees would sign for much more than the Athletics could afford. So Billy Beane found the players nobody else wanted, by finding guys who got on base without getting outs and drafted college athletes, not high schoolers. They were efficient with their money and picked guys that would help them score as many runs as possible.
Mike Belloti first realized a market inefficiency in college football when he saw Utah play
in 2003, going 10-2, and in 2004, when Utah busted the BCS. The Utes were scoring more points than other teams and winning, big, with players that weren’t as athletic or highly ranked as Oregon’s. Oregon made the jump to the spread offense in 2005 with the hire of Gary Crowton. Oregon was now fully committed to the spread, a leveling of the playing field between them and college footballs aristocracy.
Belloti himself saw that in order to win football games you had to score as many points as possible. This goes beyond the John Madden remark of saying whoever scores the most points wins. Belloti believed that teams that scored tons of points won more often than teams that allowed very few points, specifically citing some of the Arizona defenses that held opponents to incredibly low scores but still lost games. Any athlete that came to Oregon and was fast was put on the offense. This trend still continues, Jeff Maehl was a safety when he first came to Oregon until he was converted in to a wide receiver in 2007. Kenjon Barner was a defensive back until he started taking reps at running back in 2009. Both of those worked out pretty well.
Players like Julio Jones and Terrelle Pryor, while great fits in Oregon’s offense, are always going to join the college football aristocracy. Why not, when the teams they are joining are always competing for national titles and send plenty of people to the NFL. Oregon has some benefits thanks to Uncle Phil with facilities and a program designed to be “cool.” Instead of going after the big catches, Oregon’s coaches have gone after players that fit the schemes really well. LaMichael James was considered an undersized back. He still is considered undersized for the NFL, but he’s one of the fastest players in college football and whose one cut and go running style has allowed him to break almost every rushing record in Oregon history, and finish third in the Heisman last year.
With the spread offense speed kills. Oregon went after guys who were the fastest and quickest, who could break down any defender in the open space the spread offense creates. All the preparation that teams do to hide coverage’s and plays on the defensive side of the ball are almost wasted, because when the Oregon offense spreads itself sideline to sideline, the defense has to show their hand in order to not be taken out of position. When the defenses get spread out, the slower players are attacked with the speedy backs that maybe lack ideal size, but can break the ankles of defenders. Using a spread offense allows programs to go after the right players, the fast ones, which doesn’t always mean the most well-rounded in terms of total football talent.
One of the great mysteries surrounding Billy Beane and his discoveries is that he shared all of them, in great detail, in a book that was released in 2003. It went in to what they look for in a player, what statistics are important, and how they drafted. The strategies Beane and the Athletics had made them in to one of the best regular season teams in baseball, even though they had one of the lowest payrolls in professional baseball. It could be that Beane knew that his secrets would get out anyways when parts of his staff were hired away to other teams.
The Boston Red Sox hired a sabermetrics expert and now use advanced statistics when picking players. In fact, almost every baseball team has some sort of group that only works on finding inefficiencies in baseball and finding where the best value is. They work tirelessly on finding out which statistics are useful and which ones are the best. Over time, teams starting going after the same players the Athletics were benefiting from, the ones nobody previously wanted.
It has yet to be seen if Oregon will fall victim to the same copycat behaviors the Athletics fell prey to. There are plenty of high school athletes to fill BCS team rosters, but if the USC’s, Ohio State’s, and Georgia’s all change to the spread and other systems that require the same players Oregon’s system does, Oregon will lose the benefits of attacking inefficiencies in recruiting. Right now Oregon is the only one of two teams in the PAC-12 that uses the spread, the other being Utah. However, many teams in the Big-12 use the spread and many SEC teams use spread formations as a staple in their playbooks.
While Oregon is in it’s golden age, it needs to capitalize the level of play on the field, the “coolness” of the program, and frankly, Phil Knight’s money. If it doesn’t, it could be on the outside looking in in the long-term. Chip Kelly has brought the program to new heights and has the ultimate opportunity of turning Oregon in to a new money team, which is exactly what it is. Bankrolled by the Nike founder, always wearing the coolest uniforms, and using the most innovative offenses and defenses, Oregon is the exact opposite of what Ohio State, Georgia, Penn State, and other “traditional” teams are. I imagine Oregon walking one day in to the smoking room that Florida, Texas, and the other football aristocrats hang out and sit down wearing a volt suit. Imagine Chip Kelly pulling out a cigar and noticing the others with their pipes and when he reaches for a lighter there’s a national championship ring on every finger. I’ve got an idea as to what a new money team like Oregon might say to the traditional powers after national championship runs.
“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”