The Buffalo Bills appear to be the latest team to jump into using the tools of analytics to help gain a competitive advantage. With yet another team getting into analytics, there is of course a story on them becoming the next Moneyball team, and how some very smart people think that the Moneyball approach will not work in the NFL. This happens in part because the term Moneyball has become synonymous with Analytics, but Analytics and Moneyball are not the same thing.
To be clear, Moneyball is the term, coined by Michael Lewis, that describes a strategy for using statistical analysis to identify undervalued players and strategies. The As and many other teams have utilized this strategy to maximize the value that they are getting out of their payroll. It can be effective and in some cases (like the vastly outspent As) an essential strategy, and one that utilizes analytics.
While Moneyball utilizes analytics in the form of statistical analysis, it is not the only use of analytics, or even always the most valuable. The Yankees, for example, have no use for Moneyball, as they do not need to worry about identifying undervalued players, they are happy to pay over valued players, as long as the player can help them win. That does not mean, however, that the Yankees have no use for analytics.
Analytics is about utilizing certain tools to assist the decision making process and gain a competitive advantage, and those tools can be employed within the context of a variety of strategies for team building. Identifying undervalued players is one strategy, but there are many alternatives. Identifying the best players, regardless of salary, is another, and utilizing the tools of analytics to assist in player development - to create the best players - is yet another.
The distinction is important, because too often, very smart people like Bill Polian, view the use and tools of analytics through the prism of Moneyball, which limits the potential competitive advantage that analytics can deliver. Polian may be right that the Moneyball strategy will not be that effective in the NFL (he may be wrong too), but that does not me that teams like the Bills, Ravens, Saints, or Patriots cannot get a competitive advantage from utilizing analytics. Consider an NFL team that chooses to use analytics to support the player development process. Analytics can assist in providing players immediate feedback on their performance based on statistical analysis, coach grading, or some combination of the two. Information systems that visualize this type of feedback, even overlaying it with the video from the performance itself, on a player's iPad or phone can significantly aid in player development.
Decoupling analytics from Moneyball is important because it allows teams to see how they can use the tools of analytics without being limited to a Moneyball type strategy. Instead they can envision how analytics can best be used to support their strategy for building a winning team.