The Fit of Analytics in the Game and Business of Football
Data are plentiful in the game of football. Newly introduced radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology produces real-time player tracking data. Football is becoming a big data problem.
A team’s record is extremely objective and exact. But what about all the rest of the numbers and information produced in football? Critically necessary information is found on film, in combine numbers and in face-to-face interactions. Can a methodology be created where data-driven insights are leveraged by decision-makers? Data are extremely exact and objective. The key for the decision-makers is to leverage the data and information to create actionable insights. Static numbers in a rectangular format are the antithesis of the kinematics of the game. Numbers for success on the field are thought to be found in the weight room on the squat rack not from analytics or probabilities.
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Decisions on personnel, play calls, practice allocations and evaluations are based on sound principles but also heavily influenced by feel. For descriptive and predictive analytics to have a voice in the football space, the data must be visualized and felt – dynamic and interactive. The data, the insights and the people analyzing it must be trusted and knowledgeable in the eyes of the football talent.
The people in the football industry – the coaches and executives – are extremely intelligent and talented. Generally, they are not numbers people. They are feel people. They are often driven as much by instincts as sound principles.
Football is a relationship business with relationship-oriented people. The connection to this group of extremely intelligent and uniquely talented people can most definitely occur but it must happen in the visual realm. It must be more qualitative than quantitative. Football organizations have many details requiring intense management. Data and information is worth the management expense.
A certain play can gain 80, 5, 5, 5 and 5 yards in a game. The average gain for that play is 20 yards. The variance of the numbers is extremely high and the average value has minimal usefulness. The situation in which those 5-yard gains occurred is incredibly important. If this play is the third down and long call in a game (seven or more yards for a first down) then the play has failed 4 out of 5 times. This play was successful only 20 percent of the time.
As seen in Table1, data for the same play is listed in the situation in which it is run. Examine the down and distance combinations and the success of the yardage gained in each situation. The success is either yes or no but the degree of capitalization reflects the intensity of the success.
This concept can be tailored to reflect the personal philosophy of a team or specific play caller. In this context, the actual yardage on the play starts to have a decreased amount of importance and the amount of success increases in importance.
Analytics Departments in the NFL
Note: Research for this list has revealed many clubs that no longer have people in the analytics space. Examples include the Packers, Seahawks and Ravens. Others have just formally begun the process – most recently the Colts.
- New England Patriots: Ernie Adams (Football Research Director) – Adams conducts football research, including statistical evaluations, and has done so for the Patriots since 2000. Adams spent more than 10 years as an NFL coach and pro personnel director. He also worked on Wall Street for several years before returning to the NFL when Belichick became the head coach of the Browns in 1991.
- Denver Broncos: Mitch Tanney (Director of Analytics) – Tanney is a former quarterback at Monmouth College, named the 2005 Midwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a senior. He also finished as a runner-up for Division III Player of the Year. From 2006-09, Tanney worked as an assistant coach at Monmouth while continuing his playing career in various professional football leagues. He graduated from Monmouth Summa Cum Laude in 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Spanish. He received his MBA from the University of Iowa in 2011. Before hiring Tanney, general manager John Elway said: ”I’m a numbers guy. I know the power they have, but we’re still trying to develop a role for it. I have a lot of resumes from people who want to help us put that together, but I would say we understand it can be a tool and we’re trying to develop what it will be and what it will do for us.”
- Kansas City Chiefs: Mike Frazier (Statistical Analysis Coordinator) – Mike Frazier is in his fourth year with the Chiefs. He arrived in Kansas City in 2013 with incoming head coach Andy Reid after spending 10 seasons with Reid in Philadelphia. He assists with player statistics, situational analysis, as well as team and league-wide trends. Frazier initially joined the Eagles following his graduation from The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio in 2003. While completing his undergraduate degree, Frazier held internships with Smith Barney and Wachovia Securities. He also interned with the Eagles back in 2002 where he worked with Reid.
- Cleveland Browns: Paul DePodesta (Chief Strategy Officer) – In addition to DePodesta hired away from the Mets, Sashi Brown was internally promoted to Vice President of Football Operations in January. Brown comes from a law background but has worked in the NFL for over a decade. Brown said: “A challenge for NFL teams has been finding people that can bridge the gaps between business and football operations. Finding synergies and ways to work with people on both sides are unique and can provide tremendous value.” He will have the final say on all roster according to owner Jimmy Haslam.  Also introduced to the equation is new head coach Hue Jackson who became the team’s fourth head coach in the five years Haslam has owned the team. Jackson said during the combine that analytics is: ”not going to drive our organization.” The applictaion of analytics at the scale and force by which the Browns have attempted to apply it will be interesting to track.
- Chicago Bears: Matt Sheldon (Director of Analytics) – Sheldon’s coaching resume includes over 10 years in positions on defensive staffs with the Rams, Bills and Vikings and a year in Canada with the Alouettes. Before joining the Bears in 2015, he was director of sports solutions development with Zebra Sports. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and the University University of Wisconsin M.B.A. Program.
- Oakland Raiders: George Li (Football Operations Statistical Analyst) – Before his hiring in 2012, he spent five years as lead researcher at the NFL Network and also worked one year as a researcher at ESPN. Li has an undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of California, Riverside.
- Dallas Cowboys: Thomas Robinson (Director or Football Research) – Graduate of Northwestern University with a Master of Science in Predictive Analytics
- 49ers: Paraag Marathe (Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President of Football Operations) – Paraag Marathe joined the 49ers in 2001 when coach Bill Walsh and exec Terry Donahue hired him. Prior to joining the 49ers, Marathe spent several years at the management consulting firm Bain \& Company, as a Senior Associate Consultant. He is a graduate from the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley and he earned an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Marathe became team president from 2013-2015.
- Miami Dolphins: Dennis Lock (Director of Analytics at Miami Dolphins) – Iowa State University graduate with a PhD in statistics.
- Pittsburgh Steelers: Karim Kassam (Analytics & Football Research Coordinator) – Kassam works in the scouting department under general manager Kevin Colbert. Kassam was recently hired away from an assistant professor of social and decision sciences position at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a Harvard grad.
- Philadelphia Eagles: Alec Halaby (Special Assistant to the General Manager) – Alec Halaby is the special assistant to the general manager hired in 2012 who now holds the position of Vice President of Football Operations and Strategy. Halaby is a 2009 Harvard Economics graduate.
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Tony Kahn (Senior Vice President, Football Technology & Analytics) – Tony Khan’s department takes an analytic approach to fan experience and injury prevention. Sources attribute the drafting of Luke Joeckel at #2 in 2013 as work with analytics. In May of 2016, it was announced that the Jacksonville Jaguars would not pick up the fifth-year option on Joeckel’s contract. He was recently moved from left tackle to left guard but knee surgery in October has landed him on injured reserve.
- Buffalo Bills: Michael Lyons – Buffalo Bills formally created an analytics department in 2013 hiring Michael Lyons to head the department. Said President Russ Brandon:”It’s another layer of information. Really it is just another spoke in the wheel of providing as much quality in depth information we can to make. The whole concept will be bringing the analytics element to everything that we do.”
- Indianapolis Colts: John Park (Football Research / Analytics) – Park came to the Colts in April 2016 after spending the previous four months as an intern in the NFL Player Engagement department. Prior to that he was a recruiting director at Rutgers. He graduated from Columbia with a Master of Science (MS) in Actuarial Science. Park has worked as an actuary, consulting with Alvarez & Marshal’s and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
- Tampa Bay Bucs: Tyler Oberly (Manager of Football Analytics) – Tyler Oberly comes to the Bucs from Houston, where he wrote for a site called TheSidelineView.com. Oberly was once a speaker at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference. His topic dealt with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for the NFL. He is a University of Toledo graduate in electrical engineering with a minor in business administration
- Atlanta Falcons: Todd Nielson (Football Research and Development)