Spending Big Means Nothing in the NFL

August 14th, 2011 by Lee Eldridge

I’ve long made the case, even before the hiring of general manager Scott Pioli, that you build a team through the draft, not free agency. In a related story from Sam Mellinger in the KC Star this morning, it appears that there’s no correlation between money spent and winning games in the NFL. I’m not surprised.

Sam starts out by explaining:

The amount of cash that teams commit to players has no impact on their success.

Not some impact. Not a little impact. Zero impact.

That’s according to documents obtained by The Star through league sources, numbers that show that today’s NFL can be conquered equally by big spenders and small. Analysis by third-party sources confirms that there is no connection in the amount of money teams spend and the amount of on-field success they have.

The Chiefs have spent time defending their approach to free agency. They have come under fire from both the media and fans for not being more aggressive in pursuing the high profile free agents and spending more money. We’ve watched teams like the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins commit huge amounts of money to the “best” free agents on the market, yet have little to show for it.

The Chiefs had one of the lowest payrolls in the league a couple years ago as they started their youth movement. But now as their best players become due for new contracts, the Chiefs are spending more money retaining players like Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles and Derrick Johnson. They are now in the middle of the pack in regards to money spent, with deals looming for Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Flowers.

Sam goes on to explain:

Since 2001, the highest-spending team in each season won an average of 8.3 games. The Packers and Colts won the Super Bowl in years they spent the most money, but six other seasons the biggest spender didn’t even make the playoffs. The Giants won their Super Bowl while being ranked 30th in spending.

Over the same period, the top quarter of spenders each year won an average of 8.4 games. It’s consistent too: No year averaged more than 9.4 wins (in 2009) or fewer than 7.1 (2005).

The last 10 Super Bowl winners have ranked, on average, 15th in spending. The Super Bowl loser ranked 16th.

A connection between spending and winning just does not exist.

Keep in mind these numbers reflect actual cash spent, not the funny-money manipulation of salary-cap numbers.

Through deeper analysis and conversations with personnel men throughout the league, logical reasons for the disconnect between big spending and big winning begin to surface.

First, as Washington and Dallas and a few others have proved, free agency is an extremely inefficient talent pool.

Second, big-spending teams are often desperate teams with a coach or GM clinging to his job. Free agency is often used to cover holes or chase bad investments, so steady and improving teams are better at resisting those temptations.

And third, under the old collective-bargaining agreement, top draft picks commanded huge contracts from bad teams.

The article is worth reading, and a vindication for the Chiefs from some of their critics.

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