The NFL has been slower to adapt to analytics than the NBA or MLB.
There are certainly elements of football that cannot break down to statistics, but some NFL coaches and general managers are not willing to break their old-school methods, or put their job on the line, to support analytics. Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli and San Francisco 49ers president Paraag Marathe discussed the role of numbers in the NFL at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in the panel “Football Analytics: A Game of Inches.”
The hour-long discussion, which also featured Pulaski Academy head coach and athletic director Kevin Kelly and Advanced NFL Stats founder Brian Burke, touched on why the NFL has been slow to move to more analytical thinking.
Process versus result.
One of the key topics that kept surfacing was process versus result. Sometimes the process can be sound, but if the result is not produced immediately, NFL head coaches and general managers might shy away, even if it could help in the long term. Research says that NFL teams would benefit from going for it on fourth and 1 rather than punting. But if that process does not pan out with the right result on the first attempt, a head coach might not be willing to put his job on the line to keep trying it.
NFL coaches are tempted to keep doing what is comfortable to them rather than branching out and attempting new things to win. The fact that some head coaches are fired after just one losing season doesn’t help the cycle.
NFL combine breaks down to analytics.
Marathe discussed the role of analytics in the combine. He said that teams are more likely to look at combine measurements, like speed, arm length and size, in the later rounds. Typically teams are looking for more complete players in the early rounds, but when the draft reaches the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round, a player’s measurements could be a deal breaker over another prospect.
Marathe also said that it bothers NFL teams when players decline to participate in the combine, since it puts every prospect on an even playing field. NFL teams like to see how every player stacks up on the same surface and in the same situation.
Character red flags
Pioli discussed how he’s always erred on the side of avoiding players with character issues. Pioli said that personal problems can create a distraction in the locker room, and it’s the head coach, general manger and owner’s responsibility to eliminate distractions.
Pioli said it really breaks down to what point in the player’s life those character issues came about, however, and whether a prospect is willing and able to change his ways. Pioli also said NFL teams need to have a plan in place for players with character issues. There’s a salary cap on contracts, but there’s “no limit on resources to help personal problems.”