Increasing the use of analytics in the NFL
INDIANAPOLIS — While the NFL universe spent most of the past week evaluating draft prospects at the annual scouting combine, one recurring topic was a recent rules change that could significantly advance how teams evaluate opponents.
Earlier this month, the league’s competition committee agreed to start sharing player-tracking data between all 32 teams. Using tracking chips in shoulder pads, the data can quickly show the path and speed of every player’s movement on the field.
Several coaches and general managers spoke about the change, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn had a quick answer when asked what information he’s most interested in learning from the new data.
“I’m anxious to see the speed of players,” Quinn said. “I’m anxious to see if there are some conflicts that come up over and over again. I’m anxious to find out what a player’s speed is in the first quarter and the fourth quarter. Those are the small things that may not show up on the stat sheet that I’m looking at.”
As Quinn spoke about analyzing a player’s speed over the course of four quarters, it was hard not to think back to the Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl. Atlanta’s collapse and New England’s comeback seemed, at least partially, to represent the triumph of superior conditioning. Players talked about “The Hill.” All the running. Subsequent late-game Patriots comebacks have been viewed through this lens, too.
What if the Falcons had known? What if other teams could have seen, in numerical form, that an opponent consistently didn’t fade, or at least faded less, toward the end of games? Maybe they would have run more in training, too.
There are other potential implications. What playing surfaces are fastest? Is a particularly explosive defender being wasted because of where he’s lined up? Can your cornerback keep up with an opponent’s No. 1 wideout? Now teams can be sure, which Chargers general manager Tom Telesco called “a new frontier.”
Data from 2016 and 2017 will reportedly be made available in April. Next season, teams will get it on a weekly basis. The question for most teams is what they’ll do with it. In a few cases, though, it’s if they even want it.
“Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” said new Raiders coach Jon Gruden. “Really, as a broadcaster, I went around and tried to observe every team. Asked a lot of questions. Took a look at the facilities, how they’re doing business. There’s a stack of analytical data . . . that people don’t even know how to read it. It’s one thing to have the data, it’s another thing to know how to read the [expletive] thing.
“So I’m not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way. And we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”
It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but Gruden’s words either struck a chord or hit a nerve with other coaches, executives, and team staff members. The embrace of information via technology divides the football world between those eager to gain a competitive advantage and those put off by an information overload they believe is taking the competition off the field.
The latter group is one reason the NFL, with endless resources and the ability to attract great minds from other industries, has never used technology to the fullest extent it could. The league has tracked player movements with chips implanted in shoulder pads since 2014, but only select bits of that information shared on television broadcasts or via the NFL’s “Next Gen” stats page on its website have made it to the public.
All that information that has sat, unused, for four years is about to be unleashed. That it hadn’t already is because of the group that heard Gruden’s words on Wednesday and wanted to applaud.
It’s also because NFL teams are secretive. One of Matt Patricia’s first moves as coach of the Lions was to hire David Corrao as director of football research.
What does that mean?
“He’s going to do a lot of research,” Patricia said cryptically.
Patricia, the onetime aerospace engineer, is as data-minded as anyone in football. But even he isn’t fully governed by the numbers.
“Sometimes you’re going to be looking at another guy or one of your players and the analytics may say one thing but you’re looking at your guy knowing, this guy can do this, this guy is going to handle this situation and I trust him to do it,” Patricia said. “And you put him in the situation to go do it and he does it.”
That’s logical enough, but what happens when a coach goes with his gut over and over again and it doesn’t work out? What happens when some decision-makers trust the numbers more than others? While different teams clearly have different philosophies governing the use of analytics, larger problems arise when there are different philosophies within the same team.
Every one of the 32 teams, in some form or another, has an analytics department. Where they differ is in how much power those departments are given, and in whether they share a vision with the coaches and scouts. When the Browns fired Sashi Brown, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and replaced him with longtime scout John Dorsey as general manager, it seemed that the old-school types had triumphed in an internal struggle against the data-centric Brown.
Overall, though, the trend is teams embracing data, not shunning it. Teams have been going younger with their coaching hires, such as Matt Nagy in Chicago or Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Those coaches have had an array of technologies at their disposal for their entire careers, so they’re used to integrating it and trying to take advantage of it.
Change is inevitable. Just two years ago, the same proposal to share player-tracking data that just passed couldn’t get past the Competition Committee. It may not be without a fight, but like it or not, the league isn’t going back to 1998.