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Intelligent Machines

Analytics in Football

Will using complex statistical analysis give the New England Patriots an edge at game time?

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.”

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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