Football coaches have never been known to be particularly intellectual, tending to favor their “gut feelings” over objective data. But that is slowly changing. Professional-football general managers and coaches are increasingly using analytics–the intensive use of data and statistics to make decisions–both in evaluating a player’s performance and in calling plays during the game. Some experts credit part of the success of the New England Patriots, who are competing for their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons on Sunday, to this trend in analytics.
“It is generally accepted that the Patriots are one of the most analytically advanced franchises in the NFL,” says Aaron Schatz, the creator of FootballOutsiders.com, a site that uses statistics to analyze the game.
Such heavy use of analytics has already transformed the management of professional baseball, and now it is making inroads into football. KC Joyner, author of Scientific Football 2007, a book that uses a performance-based metric system to analyze nearly every measureable statistic in the NFL, says that analytics began to emerge in football in the past five years as teams have gone from just analyzing game footage to putting a quantitative value on a player’s performance.
One of the more widely used metrics is the quarterback rating. It is a complex rating that’s computed based on complete passes, pass attempts, passing yards, touchdown passes, and interceptions. “This is a pretty critical metric since quarterbacks are one of the most important players,” says Tom Davenport, a professor of IT and management at Babson College and author of Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning.
Teams continue to analyze video to track, tabulate, and calculate how many times the opposing team, for example, blitzes when its defense is in a nickel formation, but they are also starting to use video to track the number of times that a cornerback misreads a slant route or runs into another defender when covering a pick play. “It’s not just about doing advanced scouting on teams’ formations, but targeting players so teams say, ‘We can run this play at this lineman,’ or ‘This cornerback can’t cover this particular route,’” says Joyner.
Beyond targeting players, football is beginning to use analytics to select the best players for the lowest price. “The Patriots are particularly good at optimizing their payroll,” says Davenport. “This is what a corporation would call human resource analytics, and in any sport, that is probably the single most important thing to do.”