Niyo: Analytics taking root with Lions, NFL — like it or not

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Before anyone can honestly decide the value of analytics in pro football, we first need to decide just what the term means. Or how to pronounce it.

Because while new-school approaches are now commonplace across the league, so is the old-school messaging that’s used to obscure just about everything in it.

That was on display again last week at the NFL scouting combine, where all 32 teams spent several days gathering reams of statistical information on 2018 draft prospects — heights, weights, arm lengths, hand sizes, agility scores, strength measurements — and then went to great lengths, in some cases, to explain how little it might matter.

Take Jon Gruden, Mr. Spider 2 Y Banana, with the ink still drying on a new 10-year, $100 million contract that brought him out of the broadcast booth, where he spent most of the last decade working for ESPN, and back to the sidelines with the Oakland Raiders.

He was busy entertaining a large media crowd at the combine last Wednesday, riffing on a variety of subjects, when he was asked about all the in-game player-tracking data the league plans to release to teams this spring.

The league, in partnership with Zebra Technologies, has been tracking player movement through sensors in shoulder pads the last few years. But up until now, teams have received only the data for their own players while the NFL doled out other morsels during game broadcasts and online through its “Next Gen Stats.” (For example, Matthew Stafford led the league in “tight-window” completion rate over the last two seasons.) Starting next month, however, the league will begin sharing the GPS tracking data for all 32 teams league-wide, which leads to discussions about how it might impact, say, offseason contract negotiations or even game-planning in the fall.

Of course, in some corners, it also leads to some predictable eye-rolling.

Not digging data

“Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” laughed Gruden, who got his first NFL head coaching job that year in Oakland. “You know, as a broadcaster, I went around and observed every team, asked a lot of questions, took a look at the facilities, how they’re doing business. And there’s a stack of analytic data — or day-tuh, however you want to say that word — and people don’t even know how to read it. It’s one thing to have the data — or day-tuh — it’s another thing to know how to read the damn thing.

“So, I’m not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”

As coaches go, that’s not an uncommon sentiment, though it’s worth pointing out, as a reporter did last week, that if you Google “Jon Gruden playbook” you can access pages upon pages of his old playbook in PDF form online. (Gruden’s initial reply: “A PDF?”)

But what’s also true is that it’s harder for some to find the obvious fit for analytics in football than it is in baseball or basketball, where the player-tracking tools and data-based evaluation are an integral part of nearly every professional organization’s thinking these days. In football, injury rates and smaller sample sizes muddy the waters, and it’s harder to isolate individual performance as all 11 players on the field play a role on every snap.

Still, it’s a numbers game, like all the rest. And the more information, the better, whether it’s comparing draft values in trades and managing the salary cap, or simply weighing down-and-distance decisions on the field.

Many have mocked the Cleveland Browns’ recent “Moneyball” approach, pointing to their well-publicized embrace of analytics and then noting the 1-31 record over the last two years that helped get general manager Sashi Brown fired. But what the Browns are in the process of doing isn’t all that different than what the Philadelphia 76ers have done in the NBA, effectively tanking and stockpiling assets for a full-scale rebuild. And for the second year in a row, they’ve amassed the most draft capital in history, per ESPN.

So while new Browns GM John Dorsey talks of trying to find a happy medium there, he’ll happily reap the rewards as well. (The Browns also have a whopping $109 million cap space heading into free agency next week.) And everyone else will keep investing in new energy, if you will.

The Buffalo Bills, for instance, just hired a former IT consultant as their new director of analytics and application development, and as head coach Sean McDermott explained, “It’s about us growing, us evolving and becoming better.”

Analytics in Detroit

The Lions are no strangers to analytics, working with data consultants like Louisville-based EdjSports in the past and utilizing wearable technology for years. Jon Dykema, the team’s cap manager and contract negotiator, has been in charge of directing the team’s analytics initiatives on the personnel side, while Evan Rothstein, a former quality control coach whose new title is “head coach assistant for research & analysis,” did much of that work on the coaching side.

Now Patricia has added another member to his staff, hiring David Corrao as his director of football research. That’s a position famously filled in New England by longtime Bill Belichick confidant Ernie Adams, a secretive figure who plays a vital role in many areas — scouting, in-game strategy, statistical analysis and so on. And in typical Patriots fashion, when asked last week about Corrao’s duties in Detroit, Patricia smiled and replied, “Yeah, so, he’s gonna do a lot of research … and things like that.”

But in the broader picture, Patricia adds, “It’s a buzzword, right? Analytics. Everybody wants to talk about it. But I think analytics have been involved with football forever. We call ’em tendencies. That’s all it was before and now it became ‘analytics.’ So I think that’s important. Every single coach does it, and there’s people in the organization who look at different things that maybe take a lot of time to analyze, while coaches are working on something else.”

More and more, coaches are getting into the act directly, though. Doug Pederson, head coach of the Super Bowl champs in Philadelphia, made waves with some of his aggressive game theory last season, culminating in a pair of crucial fourth-down calls against New England in the Super Bowl.

It helps when you have the Eagles’ dominant defense, obviously. But it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got another data-driven coach in former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz calling that defense. And after that Super Bowl triumph, Pederson talked openly about the value of predictive analysis and in-game discussions of “win probability” in the Eagles’ ultimate success.

“Each organization is gonna have to kind of swim through the amount of data and find what works,” Pederson said. “Find what works for your football team, find what works for your guys, and use that to your advantage.”

And maybe that’s the lesson here for all involved. The information overload is coming, like it or not. Use it, or lose it.