Obstinacy and Analytics in the NFL

The NFL is a league of 32 separate entities that are all working towards a common goal (profit) while competing against each other. There is massive conduit that connects all 32 teams that allows staggering amounts of information to flow throughout the league. Ideas and concepts can change hands in the league with very little impedance, especially with how often coaches, scouts, and personnel change teams and take that information with them.

Yet, with such a terrific pipeline through which information can flow, football organizations are a stubborn bunch.

Change doesn’t come easily in the NFL, and when it does, no one likes to admit that something is being changed. They have their way of doing things and until a better way is proven five times over, teams just simply refuse to adapt.

Darwinism states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Without this ability, organisms will eventually die out and become extinct. The speed at which an organism adapts can greater enhance its ability to dominate over other organisms in its surrounding environment. NFL coaches and organizations are essentially anti-Darwin because they’re so remarkably resistant to change.

The problem doesn’t lie in the people themselves. It’s the machine of the NFL that has created this environment and front offices and coaching staffs have fallen victim to the demands.

Hiring for football positions in the NFL is an anti-meritocracy. Ninety-five percent of hires are made via the “buddy system.” It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know. Coaches and staff members are raised in this environment. They use the buddy system to make it to becoming a head coach or a general manager by making promises to hire friends or former colleagues who helped them to get to where they are now. Thus, the vicious cycle continues.

This is an example of a much larger issue of organizations’ inability to adapt, grow, and evolve in the NFL. The problem is exacerbated by the influence of the now- generation. Because of the advancement of technology, humans are so used to everything in our lives being on-demand (information, television, food, etc.). Team owners have developed the same thinking and expect change to come much faster than it actually happens.

Win Now or Get Out

There was a clear message that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam sent when he fired his entire staff after only a year on the job. Win now or get out. It’s a strong example of the ideology that a lot of owners are taking throughout the league.

It’s tough for owners to watch Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid turnaround the 49ers and Chiefs so quickly and so spectacularly, only to watch their own team waddle through mediocrity year after year. Owners are typically men or women who have had life answer every beck and call at their whim. It isn’t a stretch to think that they would expect their team to do the same.

The Chiefs after Romeo Crennel and the 49ers after Mike Singletary are two examples of teams that were ripe for a revolution. In both instances, the rosters were talented and experienced but had been poorly coached and schemed, which caused the team to falter rather than flourish. By all accounts both teams had strong locker rooms even through the tough times. The owners hired intelligent coaches who adapted their schemes to the players already on the roster instead of stubbornly demanding that the players adapt to them.

These turnarounds both happened within a few years of each other but it’s important to understand that they are the exception to the rule. It takes time, diligence, and continuity within the organization to turn a bad team into a good one. The Jaguars right now are a good example of this. They were a bad team but are headed in the right direction because they’ve gotten the right people in the right positions and have committed to making the team better without rushing the results. But in “Generation Now” of the NFL, most owners are too impatient to trust their own hires and allow good people to do their jobs.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the greatest modern day CEOs, said, “You’ve got to be a really good talent scout. No matter how smart you are, you need a team of great people… and be able to help build an organization that can eventually build itself because you need great people around you.”

Jobs hired people the best people available for a specific position and then allowed them to manage that position without interfering too much. He made decisions when necessary but he didn’t micromanage the people below him. He trusted his own skills of talent scouting and he built Apple into one of the world’s most recognized consumer brands. The level of continuity within Apple has allowed the company to continue to progress even after Jobs’ passing.

League owners have fallen victim to the “win now” attitude and are making rash decisions because they’re not progressing fast enough. If the team hasn’t made a turnaround in two to three seasons, owners clean house and start all over. It’s the same as planting a tree, letting it grow for a year, and then hacking it down and planting another one. If it isn’t given ample time to grow it can never blossom.

Unfortunately, the stubbornness that runs rampant throughout the league extends all the way up the ladder to the owners, as well. Their inability to adapt and change their ways creates extensive problems for the rest of the organization.

What does this have to do with analytics?

Obstinacy is a disease that reaches into every facet of an organization. From fourth down decisions, clock management, to analytics. It is a disease that has plagued the league for at least 45 years.

In 1968, Sports Illustrated published an article on the use of computers and analytics in the scouting process of college prospects. Amazingly, a lot of the ideas, concepts, and calculations are still being used today, 45 years later!

Pretty much everything about the NFL has changed since 1968 – schemes, players, and rules. Technology has advanced exponentially allowing us to do more with greater amounts of information in fractions of a second. Yet the NFL has barely taken a half step forward in how they’ve developed the use of analytics since that article was published 45 years ago.

Only over the last few years have teams begun to install analytics departments into their front offices. Some teams now use analytics to parse out what can inhibit their quarterback’s play, while others are using player-tracking systems to help glean information on how practice habits can help or hinder game performance.

These are huge steps that teams have just recently begun to adapt. The analytics push is finally taking hold but it’s 10 years after the original publishing of “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis – a story of how the Oakland Athletics used advanced statistics to find under-valued assets to help them compete with teams who were spending five-times as much on their player payroll.

Baseball Analytics vs. NFL

Baseball is a unique game. There is no clock. The game is only advanced when an out is recorded. Baseball is also unique in that it is nine players reacting to one. In the NFL, it’s eleven players reacting to eleven players.

Baseball is a very stationary sport. All of the players basically start at the same place on every play. The NFL, by comparison, is a very fluid sport where 11 guys can move in any direction after the snap and pre-snap formation movements have made even that phase difficult to quantify. Anyone who has charted the 49ers over the last few years can attest to this.

Even with these dynamics, it took over one hundred years for a major league team to finally discover, accept, and adapt to the stats and analytics that helped determine the quality of a player and his impact on winning games. The first published article on the topic was from Bill James in his abstract in 1977. It took twenty-five years for the idea to take hold and come to fruition in Major League Baseball.

One of the largest differences between the NFL and MLB throughout history is that baseball has always been very numbers driven. Box scores can tell ninety percent of the story of a baseball game because of the depth and accuracy of the stats. Earned run average is a solid metric to determine a pitcher’s worth. Batting average over the years wasn’t perfect but it was a good indicator of a player’s capabilities at the plate. On-base percentage was a widely kept statistic but didn’t garner the attention that batting average did.

The depth of baseball statistics provided a lot of information that could be manipulated to find more accurate ways to evaluate players. There was value in the use of the stats, but perhaps the most important aspect of those statistics is that they existed.

The NFL doesn’t have the same type of statistics currently available to manipulate – at least publicly anyway. Yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and completions are standard references when analyzing or discussing a quarterback’s play. But the flaw in these statistics is that they don’t translate unilaterally across the NFL because of scheme, surrounding talent, and game situations. They’re indicators of other aspects of the game, but not necessarily a quarterback’s true abilities as a passer.

These types of statistics can be considered compilation stats. Simply having the opportunity for a player to compile these stats is as important as the ability to compile them. Matthew Stafford may throw for 4000 yards every season, but it doesn’t mean he’s a better quarterback than Russell Wilson who throws for 3,300. It just means Stafford simply had more opportunities because of scheme, having the best wide receiver in the NFL to which to throw, and a team that often found themselves trailing in high-scoring games and therefore had a necessity to throw forty times per game.

Sacks are a compilation statistic that is useful but it’s a metric that doesn’t quite take the impact of a pass rusher far enough. A pass rusher doesn’t have to bring down a quarterback with the ball in his hand to have an impact on the play. In fact, he doesn’t even have to touch the quarterback to make a difference in the play. A rusher who gets pressure on a quarterback can force him to make a quick decision and throw the ball into coverage, resulting in an incomplete pass or an interception. That’s a massive impact on a play and on the game. But until Pro Football Focus brought “pressures” to the mainstream statistical vernacular, these stats weren’t tracked. It’s still not an official stat even though tracking pressures is more indicative of a good pass rusher than sacks.

Simply put, there are a lot of important NFL stats that don’t exist yet. And because of the stubbornness of the NFL, they likely won’t find their way into box scores, and therefore mainstream football vernacular, until years down the road. Advanced NFL Stats has done a remarkable job of exploring this uncharted territory.

Both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders have people who chart every play of every NFL grade and have done so for a few years now. Because of these projects, they have both begun to track statistics that were never previously recorded, like quarterback pressures. Football Outsiders also has taken the information to the next step and created formulas to help decipher team efficiency in different areas. Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA, has become a go-to metric for determining the true level of play of a team.

Human Error

As you can see, a lot of the advancements in NFL analytics have come from outside of the league. In other words, the NFL has let everyone else lay a lot of the groundwork and then began to infuse it into the front office. The actual leaps that analytics has taken in the NFL has very little to do with what NFL teams are doing on the inside.

This can likely be attributed to human error in the environment of the NFL. In other words, stubbornness strikes again.

With a larger investment into analytics before the rest of the league caught on, a team could have clearly set themselves apart from the pack and given themselves a major competitive advantage. Instead, the “old way” was accepted as the best way and here teams are, 45 years after that Sports Illustrated article, still using a lot of the same analytical tactics.

To give credit, there are some teams that are now pushing forward into unexplored areas. There is more information available to teams now than there ever has been. However, as important as access to that information is, it’s all irrelevant if the analyzing and application of that information isn’t accurate.

It’s like a carpenter with power tools. First, he must have access to those tools. Second, he has to know how to use them. If used correctly, he can create a beautiful piece of furniture. If used incorrectly, he could saw off his own hand.

Teams will have to sift through large quantities of data, determine what is important and what isn’t, and then take that information and then apply it to the correct areas of the organization and game. Whether it’s learning how to better manage the clock at the end of the game, investigating how to help their quarterback perform better, determining the most effective scheme, negotiating contracts, or evaluating college prospects, teams must use the information correctly to catapult themselves ahead of the competition. If used incorrectly, they could cripple the organization for years to come. The Raiders could have used analytics to better manage their contracts over the last ten years. It’s taken Reggie McKenzie three years to dig Oakland out of salary cap hell.

No matter how much information there is available, it will always be up to humans to translate that data and apply it within the organization. Analytics can help to mitigate biases in most situations but it is always something that is present in nearly every decision and evaluation. It is the responsibility of scouts, coaches, and front office executives to try to make logical, objective decisions based on the information at hand.

Changing The Game

It’s in this vain, that Nate Silver references the “search for intelligent life,” when discussing the adoption of analytics into the NFL. While Silver seems content with blaming the decision makers themselves, I’m more apt to push the onus onto the culture of the NFL.

Coaches have very short tenures and often don’t get a second chance if something goes awry on the first one. It’s the win-now culture that has owners so quick on the firing trigger and coaches are less likely to deviate from the norm because it leaves them open to criticism. Most are content to continue doing things the way they’ve always done so that they can say, “Any coach would have done the same things I did.”

It’s guys like Bill Belichick who have incredible job security that are more apt to take risks and stray from the norm. Remember 4th and two against the Colts? The ability to experiment is something that gives the Patriots a competitive advantage because when they hit on something new, the rest of the league spends money, time, and resources to catch up while the Patriots are reaping the benefits.

The league still doesn’t seem to be able to consistently stop or mimic the two tight- end offense that the Patriots have used recently. While the other teams in the AFC East were trying to find safeties or cornerbacks that could hang with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots were building an offensive line and backfield that allowed them to run with power or zone based on how teams decided to match up. Teams spent draft resources to cover those two specific players, which only created a larger gap when the Patriots built an offensive line and strong backfield while teams were focused elsewhere.

Belichick, Chip Kelly, and a few others are willing to draw outside the lines and have created problems that other coaches have never even dreamed about. Analytics is something that has fallen outside the lines for organizations for years. Now that franchises are expanding their horizons, the evolution of analytics could see a major jump in the next few years.

Don’t expect any breakthrough statistics or metrics to come to light anytime soon as teams will protect that sensitive information. The NFL and its teams are much more careful about their internal information than to allow an author to pen a book about their secret formula. We may not see specific metrics developed by teams in the public forum until those metrics have spread throughout much of the league.

Whether public or private, analytics will change the game for the better, even if the obstinacy of the NFL tries to keep it out.

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