Numbers crunching starting to change NFL thinking

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Numbers crunching starting to change NFL thinking

Postby Pudge » Sat Aug 18, 2012 2:23 am ... l-thinking

Numbers crunching starting to change NFL thinking

Posted Aug. 17, 2012 @ 5:59 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Fans and media have asked the question for years, wondering when the sabermetric world of baseball — brought to the mainstream via the bestseller list and Hollywood, through “Moneyball” — would migrate to the NFL.

Something certainly has been lost in translation with advanced numbers crunching between the statistically integral nature of baseball, a sport comprised of one-on-one matchups, and football, a team sport where 11 players (in theory) work together toward a common goal. Another problem: Numbers often lie, or at least mislead, in football as adjunct metrics. It’s not always as clean and quantifiable, we’ve found, as it is in baseball.

However, there clearly is something to be gained from advanced statistical analysis. It’s being done around the National Football League, perhaps slightly on the margins, but the connection is being made with more teams than you would think. Its integration into football culture has been slow but progressive.

ESPN has developed its own Total QBR number in an effort to more accurately quantify quarterback play over what is deemed to be the antiquated formula of passer ratings that still populate statistical ledgers but are taken less as gospel these days.

Several statistics-driven football websites have developed their own metrics and have grown in popularity with numbers-hungry fans. Pro Football Focus combs through every NFL play to determine grades on every player, regardless of position, including tougher-to-quantify positions such as offensive linemen and defensive backs. Football Outsiders uses incredibly arcane numbers such as the stumble-off-the-tongue DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) as sort of a football equivalent to the Bill James-developed “win shares” in baseball. And people are paying attention to them.

These numbers-based systems are now leaking their way into mainstream football thought. More interestingly, NFL teams are paying more attention to statistics and how to use them better. Some teams — not all, certainly — have developed a utility for these numbers in how they craft their rosters and make strategic decisions in games.

Full-scale revolution? Hardly. But it’s another tool in the shed, and an increasingly important one, too.

As a new generation of football thinkers take over head-coaching, coordinating and front-office positions, the NFL has become more open to out-of-the-box ideas, using fascinating statistical evidence to debunk many long-held football axioms.

One of the leaders in this field just happens to be an old standby. STATS LLC, which has been a global leader in sports statistics (not just in football) since the 1980s, has created content that embraces this new approach to statistical management, and NFL teams are buying in.


STATS is not trying to reshape football thinking, necessarily, although it has come up with some interesting new ways to interpret the numbers. It is just providing teams with a shiny new tool with which to do so.

Although the company won’t say which NFL teams have purchased the ICE (Interactive Collaboration and Evaluation) program it developed, STATS will say that four NFL clubs already are on board and it expects “around a dozen total” to purchase the software to help them run their franchises.

What does it do?

Well, ICE does more than just cull typical football stats; those can be found in myriad places. The web-based system has been developed to meld situational football numbers (including STATS own new metrics such as “successful plays” and “explosive plays” for offenses, “burn percentage” for DBs, and more), NFL and college player profiles (sortable by any number of criteria such as height, experience or contract status), a comprehensive video component (the viewer is able to mine, say, every 3rd-and-long play by the Eagles’ defense in 2011) and scouting reports that the team can input themselves.

The system brings together the past — tape study and scouts’ observations — and marries it with the future, diagnosing complex situational numbers and making sense of them. And the beauty is in the flexibility: Teams can use and combine whatever numbers they believe are important and manipulate them in dozens of ways to help them shape their decisions.

If a general manager wants a tall receiver who does good work in the red zone, he can search for free agents (even players not under contract are included in the database), their production inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and then sort them by height. If it’s a third-down pass rusher a team seeks, it can measure sack and pressure productivity on a per-play basis — on any down or in any quarter of games, for that matter.

The numbers apply to NFL players, both under contract and unsigned going back several years, as well as a college database that STATS has been building the past few seasons, starting with the major conferences and branching out with each passing year. Pretty soon, STATS will have an entire college career’s worth of tape and advanced numbers on almost every player going up for the draft.

It’s a fascinating and devilishly fun operation I got to watch at work in the STATS’ offices in Northbrook, Ill., earlier this month. Manager of football products Mitch Tanney, a former Division III quarterback, clicked quickly through the home field of the ICE system, selecting whatever criteria popped into his head.

“Let’s see how often the Patriots used ’12 personnel’ (one running back, two tight ends) last year,” Tanney said without breaking concentration, and within an instant we have our answer: a whopping 65.5 percent of the time, far greater than any other NFL club last season, no doubt because of talented TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. From there, we are given more numbers: the percentages of time the Patriots ran the ball and threw it from that personnel grouping, along with how successful they were doing each.

STATS deems a play successful when the offense gains 40 percent of the needed yardage to gain a first down (or score) on first down, at least 50 percent of the necessary yardage to go on second down, or a third- or fourth-down conversion, no matter the length, whether it’s six inches to go or Freddie Mitchell vs. the Packers on 4th-and-26.

The statistics obviously don’t tell the whole story. Perspective is always a good balancing act. You might be surprised, for instance, to find out that on a per-play basis, Evan Royster was the most “successful” running back in the NFL last season (but then again, he could start for the Redskins this fall). Or that Josh McCown was a more efficient quarterback than Philip Rivers, Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford or Tony Romo. The numbers alone can’t live in a bubble.

But they can paint a very interesting picture of which players truly impacted the game the most, rather than by leaning on sometimes biased scouting reports or player or team reputations that influence, despite the numbers telling a different story. And with a larger sample size — say, an entire season, or two seasons’ worth of data — one can develop some telling trends about players and teams and which ones truly are great in what situations.

Clearly, not every team has bought in yet. But we’re seeing a wave of new thinking in the NFL where it’s becoming more vogue to go against the norm when the numbers call for it. And it has a chance to change the way the game is played, too, when it comes to strategic decisions such as going for it on fourth downs, onsides kicking before the fourth quarter and going for two-point conversions in less-than-traditional circumstances. The sometimes-contrarian Patriots would have to be viewed as one of the NFL’s leaders in this regard.

Bill Belichick might have been inspired by a Cal professor’s academic paper when he decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28-yard line, up six points late against the Colts back on Nov. 15, 2009. Forget for a minute that the attempt came up short by a foot or so — we are seeing more teams going for it on fourth down in untraditional circumstances in recent seasons.

The Patriots have been going against the grain for years, likely a combination of playing to their own personnel strengths but also likely cognizant of the numbers that show that there are some old ways of thinking that need to be retired for the time being. Other teams appear to have the same sort of numbers-based bent.

The Ravens just hired a man named Sandy Weil to be their director of football analytics, which is just as numbers-crunchy a position as it sounds like. Weil, who has a mathematics degree from Yale and a master’s degree in computational finance from Carnegie Mellon but not a lick of NFL employment experience, will spend this year familiarizing himself with the team’s coaching and scouting systems and at some point will be counted on — at least in part — to make key decisions on every level of the franchise, from fourth-down decisions to statistical trends in the draft and so on.

The 49ers are a progressive franchise that's interested in delving into the "Moneyball"-ization of the NFL, too. League sources say that COO Paraag Marathe has been one of the leaders in the franchise in terms of putting statistical values to players and having that help shape how the team’s salary cap should be structured. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Niners feature a deep, talented, well-balanced roster that makes them a Super Bowl favorite entering this season.

At the heart of it, that’s what "Moneyball" was: a statistical approach to take advantage of market trends and add “value” players who add more bang for the buck. The Packers have employed some of these tendencies in recent years, and the Jaguars are said to be headlong into this movement, as well. National Football Post president Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive, recently estimated that 6-8 NFL teams have hired full-time statisticians to analyze data as supplemental tools for the franchise.

But teams are reticent to talk about how they might be using this data, if at all. The last thing they want is to give away their competitive advantage the way Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane did (perhaps wanting to become seen as a visionary) when the book first came out in 2003. NFL executives and coaches have short shelf lives with teams, and the more important their job is, the more likely they'll get fired sooner if they don't succeed. They will refrain from telling the rest of the world about any edge they have — perceived or otherwise.

When I asked Tanney if he could reveal which NFL teams had signed up for the ICE system, he issued the following statement: "For various reasons some clients have asked that we keep their usage of ICE and our unique statistical services confidential."

Sadly, for the geeky new generation of fans who love the football minutia, it might remain that way. STATS admits that the software would be way out of the price range for even the most well-to-do fans, and the full package might even be cost-prohibitive for many media organizations.

Maybe one day, every fan will be equipped with this technology on their laptops, but for now it has to be doled out, one intriguing nugget at a time, such as the STATS research that determined that (draft geeks, please pay attention):

Russell Wilson — not Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III — was the best third-down passer in college last season with a 75-percent completion rate and a ridiculous 16-1 TD-interception ratio.
Luck had a similarly insane 77.8 completion percentage in fourth quarters. Griffin was at 66.7, Wilson at 64.1. Ryan Tannehill hit on 59.2 percent of his passes in the fourth.
LSU was, by far, the most blitz-happy team in the SEC last season, sending an extra defender a whopping 44.8 percent of the time. South Carolina, at 12.2, brought up the conference rear.

NFL teams are awash in cash in most cases, and they can afford this stuff. In a few years, every team might be using the system in some form or another.

Quality-control coaches who are scouting the next three opponents can synch up situational tape broken down by any of STATS’ 84 data points (or a combination of different data points) in a far more comprehensive and thorough manner than most teams’ operation systems use currently.

Scouting directors seeking specific help through the draft can key up almost any prospect and anchor it with their game tape and in-depth statistical data that goes miles beyond just catches, yards and touchdowns.

Want to watch tape of Patriots seventh-round CB Alfonzo Dennard covering Saints fourth-round WR Nick Toon when Nebraska played Wisconsin? Boom — all of Toon’s targets and catches are time-coded and noted for when Dennard was covering him and when it was another Huskers DB. Cumulative statistics show that Dennard held Toon in check and that it was others who were responsible for four of his five catches, 94 of his 98 yards and his one TD catch in that game last fall.

Each target is noted with the time in the game when it occurred, the down and distance on the play, the yard line, the play result (complete/incomplete), how many yards it netted, which side of the field the play occurred and the score at the time.

It’s fascinating stuff, a great look behind the curtain, so to speak. Although it’s incredibly detailed, I was surprised how easy it was to use and follow during my brief demonstration.

ICE is a heavily secure, password-encrypted, web-based operation that can be used from home, office or on the road. It’s drag-and-drop technology that even the biggest Luddite — and there are plenty of them, especially in the scouting community in the NFL — can muster.

The more teams open up to advanced scouting programs and incredibly complex statistics, the more chance there is the NFL game will evolve dramatically. Combine that with innovative and fearless high school coaches who never punt or who have offenses that could feature any of 11 eligible players, and the eventual trickle-up to the pros likely means the future of the game brims with fascinating potential for sea change.

As if it wasn’t obvious, the days of three yards and a cloud of dust and Student Body Right have headed the way of the Dodo Bird. The numbers, in this case, don't appear to lie.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.

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