Sports Nut

Albert Haynesworth and the Moneyball-ization of Football

Albert Haynesworth 

Actually, Nate, from the uninformed fan’s perspective, I think the myth of the happy action hero has been crumbling over the past decade or so. From Bill Belichick on down, the coaches and general managers have been ever more willing to demonstrate that the players are cogs in a system—or assets on a roster, always fungible and always ready to be revalued.

The Moneyball-ization of baseball was in some ways cheerful and uplifting—when a clever general manager identified market inefficiencies to exploit, it meant that some lucky, underappreciated players would get a crack at the big-league jobs that the old, hidebound system had denied them. But in football, the emphasis on rational decision-making seems to mean an even more ruthless commitment to the idea that the players are meat. Past glory, fan support, loyalty: These are all traps that lead teams to spend precious dollars and roster space incorrectly.

Baseball has downgraded its heroes, too; witness the rise of short-term, lowball contracts for veterans who would formerly have milked the system for more years and more money than their aging curve could justify. But in football, decline is less a matter of age than of accumulated damage. LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, two guys fished off the garbage pile by new teams this year, were very recently among the most productive players in the league, and each one is only 31 years old. That’s a lot younger than Alex Rodriguez or Kobe Bryant.

Westbrook’s case especially demonstrates the limits of compassion in this newly injury-sensitive NFL. When the Eagles’ all-purpose workhorse back picked up his second concussion in three weeks last year, coach Andy Reid said a bunch of words that sounded as if they were expressing concern about the player’s health: “Football right now for Brian Westbrook is not the important thing. It’s making sure that we get him analyzed, tested, and taken care of, and then we’ll go from there. Not that we didn’t do that before.”

In fact, what Reid was saying was, “This guy is useless to us.” For Brian Westbrook, football was not the important thing. It still was the most important thing for the Eagles, and Westbrook had instantly lost all of his football value. The league says you can’t play football with a concussion now.

So with Westbrook due to earn $7.5 million this year, the Eagles cut him in the offseason—for his own good, naturally. The Eagles couldn’t ask him to risk his brain any more; instead, they set him free to risk his brain for the 49ers, while he takes a $6.3 million pay cut. Somebody’s being protected from concussions here, but it’s not the guy wearing the helmet.

Before he went to San Francisco, Westbrook was courted by the football team in Washington. There, owner Daniel Snyder has a weird divided personality. Toward the general public, he’s a heartless bully who will do anything to pry money out of the people who are dumb or unlucky enough to root for his team. But he loves his action heroes. Toward star players, he’s like a cross between Elmo and a busted, cash-spilling ATM.

You can keep your Saints documentary and your Hard Knocks. For me, the greatest offseason entertainment was the round-the-clock denunciation session on Washington-area sports-talk radio when grumpy and out-of-shape defensive lineman Albert “Hey-Hey” Haynesworth—having pocketed a nonrefundable $21 million payout from Snyder—decided he didn’t feel like showing up for mandatory minicamp. (These camps, cutely enough, are not required by the collective bargaining agreement, but this is another area where the coaches’ arbitrary powers win out.)

Haynesworth’s grievance, as he framed it, was that he was a mere cog for the coaches. The team’s new coach and maximum executive overlord, Mike Shanahan, wanted to switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, with Haynesworth’s outsized body plugged in the middle of the three, at nose tackle. Haynesworth believed his proper and natural role was to play in a four-man front, where he could storm through the gaps and gloriously clobber the quarterback.

In mechanical football terms, Haynesworth may have been the one who was correct. That insignificant-seeming shift in position can have a huge negative effect on a player’s performance, according to people who study the game. Maybe the bodies aren’t so fungible, after all.

Even so, the fans and the radio hosts went crazy with loathing. It was particularly impressive to hear LaVar Arrington, whose disdain for Snyder usually fuels his on-air performances, launch one jeremiad after another against the fat, greedy, teammate-betraying Haynesworth.

But cognitive dissonance is a requirement for following the NFL. As someone who roots for the Eagles, I’ve been struggling to deal with Washington’s other big offseason move, the acquisition of Donovan McNabb. On Philadelphia’s end, this was another cold-blooded piece of asset management: The Eagles calculated that 26-year-old quarterback Kevin Kolb represents a better investment in years to come than the 34-year-old quarterback who had led the team to the playoffs year after year. Thanks for the memories, big fella.

For Dan Snyder, this was a chance to pick up the biggest-name action hero on the market. Shanahan has never seemed to be too sentimental (is that how you saw him, ex-Broncos?), but McNabb gave the distractible team owner something to get excited about, freeing Shanahan to do the long-deferred and boring grown-up work of rebuilding the offensive line. The whole thing leaves me rooting for McNabb to have a healthy and respectable, yet completely unproductive season. Lots of well-thrown balls dropped by his receivers.