Mar
07
2021

How Analytics Fit In Football

For the 20th century, football got advertised as a simple cave man’s game. Every Sunday saw groups of men slug it out in a physical war. The game got played by hard-nosed individuals as they abided by a strict code of toughness.

The turn of the 21st century started to change that narrative. Like Bill James, Billy Beane and Sabermetrics took hold of baseball. The same movement began to shift its way into the NFL.

As the NFL’s TV coverage boomed in the 2000s, more talking heads came on TV to analyze games with data and statistics, a new era dawned in football. Fans started hearing about DVOA, pressure-rates, and QBR. All of those things are now widely accepted within the football world. The proliferation of these metrics gave prominence to analytics.

Now all teams and fans consider numbers when making decisions in-game or when offering analysis on a unit. Is it a good thing? It’s time to examine.

Analytics Will Stay In Football

As technology grows, more teams will embrace using it to analyze players and opponents. We’ve witnessed it in the draft process as groups like the Rams shunned a player’s combine numbers. LA favored GPS tracking as a more robust method to judge players. Cooper Kupp ran a slow 40 times; the Rams didn’t care as the GPS demonstrated he’s quicker than the combined time.

Analytics will improve player evaluation. Like it did in baseball, it takes out bias and allows teams to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses. Analytics make player evaluation better. From that perspective, analytics will stay.

Now, it gets a tad controversial. Similar to baseball, analytics is starting to make an impact during the game. We saw Blake Snell leave the World Series game because the analysts felt it was the right move. That decision got criticized and cost Tampa the game. That type of decision is creeping into the NFL as more data guys tell teams to go for it on fourth down.

What a lot of the data never conveys is the game situation. You are going for it on fourth down at the 55-yard line while up by seven points. It is very different from going for a fourth and long backed up in your own endzone.

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Game feel and situation are still much more important than the raw data. Every game is different; there is no formulaic strategy. Game awareness is a critical component of head coaching. Otherwise, there’d be laptops on the sideline and robots playing the game. Analytics shouldn’t directly impact the game. Analytics exists to aid, not dictate.

The Negatives

The major negative with analytics is the culture that it promotes. The easy access to things like PFF is harmful to the game. It allows people to read too much onto numbers without watching the game.

Numbers are helpful; however, your eyes are the best tools to own. PFF is on its own island regarding analytics; their grading system is unknown, and they vehemently reject any questions. They act as analytics God.

The other negative is so much of the raw numbers are meaningless. The data disregards sample size, coaching decisions, and game situations. That’s why it will never provide a complete picture. The natural numbers create a false narrative that can never replace the actual game.

Another negative is that analytics gets viewed as the omnipotent medium in the NFL. It is not; it is a tool that sits in a toolbox. Humans play the game, and with such a small sample size in the NFL, there are weak points in the data collated.

The Bottom Line

Analytics is a helpful tool to place in a toolbox. However, that is all that it is. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it should get used. It can help guide the teams and fans; it isn’t gospel. That’s where the infestation of data must stop. So much of it can get framed to fit someone’s story.

There are positives; there are negatives, as well. Ultimately, it should never get seen as the crutch to prop teams up, like in baseball. Otherwise, it could harm the sport in a big way.