On the field, the Patriots do not shy away from using analytical data to make play-calling decisions–whether it is deciding to punt on fourth down, or deciding if they should go for one point or two after a touchdown, says Davenport. After the team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, read a paper by well-known economist David Romer about how teams are generally too conservative on fourth down, he began using historical data to develop a table to determine when the team should punt and when it should go for the first down. In the past couple of years, Belichick has been one of the most aggressive coaches when it comes to going for it on fourth down, says Schatz.
Analytics in sports have been most commonly used in professional baseball. One early advocate was Bill James, a statistician who is now a senior advisor to the Boston Red Sox. “Bill James has been prolific in coming up with new metrics for team and player performance, gathering those statistics and publishing them,” says Davenport.
But baseball lends itself to an analytical mind-set. “The sport is individually oriented and, thus, it is easier to measure the individual’s contribution,” says Davenport. “Plus, there is just a lot of data available, and when data emerges, people start taking advantage of it.”
In football, the use of analytics is harder because there are only a few statistics that are popularly tracked, like yardage and downs. But football, like baseball, is now working to bridge the gap between what the “scouting eye” sees and what the numbers are saying, says Joyner. “Football is still in the early stages,” he notes.
The analytics trend “is not going to take off in football until someone wins with metrics like the Red Sox did in baseball,” says Joyner. “The Patriots are going to help, but what it will really take is a team to go from a losing record to winning the championship.” Until that happens and everyone catches up, analytics are going to give teams that are already using the methods, like the Patriots, a competitive edge, he says.
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