Football and Analytics
As the NFL season begins its annual draft cycle, I’ll start a series on analytics and football. Predicting player success before the draft is big discussion and big business.
The game of football is flooded with emotion. Fans, players, coaches, executives and owners each have high stakes in a sport where extreme athleticism, speed and power create action seen nowhere else in professional sports. Football has a growing, world-wide audience, where large crowds gather to see elite skill, technique, focus and raw grit. For the many entities emotionally and financially invested in the game outcomes there exists a need for useful and accurate tools to help with the reflection, interpretation and tracking of on-field football performance.
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Football will always be about what happens between the white lines. It is a game for playmakers and a business founded on personal relationships. Players and coaches must stay in the moment for every snap. They must live with the mindset that the next play is going to decide the game. Job descriptions on each play are extremely precise and well-coordinated but the game is not won by the team with players thinking before and during plays. Precisely trained reactions, elite athleticism and sharply-honed instincts result in play with confidence, flow and feel. Football is won with emotion and controlled aggression not cognition.
The game of football can be boiled down to this description: Move a man from point A to point B against his extreme will to be moved there.
American football began in the 1870s as a game similar to current-day rugby. It was a continuous flow game much like basketball. Walter Camp is credited with introducing rules in the 1880s that allow one team to maintain possession after the tackle of the ball carrier. Rules allowed the tackled player to kick the ball to a member of his team – thus creating a line of scrimmage. The introduction of downs and yardage followed quickly and in 1910, fourth down was added.
The universal truth in all of sport is that the scoreboard tells all. This is not more true than in a 16 game NFL season. A team’s win-loss record is its calling card. Preparation must be properly designed and implemented and proper execution must be achieved. Big investments make for big payouts on game day.
At the player level, the mindset is focused on the play and individual battles occurring on each snap.
For individual battles, there is a winner and loser on every play. Individual victories are vital building blocks for play, drive and team success. Each player is responsible for a small piece of the action. However, the outcome of the play is largely out of their personal control due to the heavy dependence on their teammates.
In a game, the emotions, pressure and distractions are immense. The ability to manage both success and failure is constantly tested. Victory is often reached through the successful avoidance of disaster. People experienced in the game know that often 10-14 plays will determine the game outcome. Winning on those plays is critical to success in the contest. The only caveat is that those 10-14 plays are very often not known before the ball is snapped. These plays have countless forms and they create the opportunities for team success.
The business of football is big and getting bigger. Revenue for the NFL exceeded $13 billion in 2015, up 50 percent from 2010.1 Additionally, the NFL continues to market its product internationally. In 2016, four regular season games were played in two foreign countries.
This juggernaut is simultaneously both an exact and inexact science where success is ultimately measured by wins. An improved understanding and unifying interpretation of the game will benefit an entire organization and its many components. Football analytics will help football decision-makers become more confident, efficient and thoughtful. The proper exploration of data will open new possibilities for areas of thought and discussion.
The football world is about trust – personal and inter-personal trust. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said of putting together the game plan each week: “It’s like a bunch of buddies putting this thing together who trust each other.”2 For analytics to fit, football decision makers must trust and understand the actionable and insightful conclusions derived from the data.
Can analytics be developed in a such a way to help identify and or predict these plays and perhaps more importantly these players? We will continue to explore that issue next week.
1 – Belzer, Jason. (2016). Thanks To Roger Goodell, NFL Revenues Projected To Surpass $13 Billion In 2016. Taken from: http://www.forbes.com.
2 – Kuharsky, Paul. (2016). Blog – Titans. Taken from: www.espn.com.