Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked at his press conference on Friday about “advanced metric websites,” and Belichick, as he so often does, scoffed.
“You could take those advanced websites and metric them wherever you want,” Belichick said. “I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say. . . . . All the metric pages and all of that, I mean I have no idea. You’d need to ask that to a smarter coach than me.”
What Belichick did not say, however, is that the Patriots don’t use analytics. Belichick doesn’t talk about it publicly because he never gives any strategies away publicly, but he has long relied on analytics. One of his most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before he worked for Belichick, first in Cleveland and then in New England. Many of the methods that sports statistical analysts use are rooted in the same methods used to analyze economic data. Adams understands both, and that makes him valuable to Belichick.
Looking at Belichick’s strategies, it’s clear that he thinks along the same lines as the analytics people. In the NFL draft, Belichick prefers trading down to trading up, and he particularly likes to trade a pick this year for a higher pick next year. That suggests that he’s studied the economic phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting.
On the sideline, the most controversial call of Belichick’s career appeared to be influenced by analytics: When Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line in a 2009 game against the Colts, it was the analytics people who said he had made the mathematically correct decision, while most football fans and media members thought Belichick had lost his mind.
That approach to analytics goes to the very top of the organization. The Patriots’ official website wrote this year that “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft.”
So if the Patriots use analytics, why is Belichick so insistent that he doesn’t give a damn about analytics websites? The first answer is obvious: Belichick never gives anything away. He doesn’t want other teams to know the types of data the Patriots track.
But the other answer may be more important: Belichick was specifically asked about websites that track how quickly a quarterback releases the football, and Belichick has always been particularly skeptical about anyone who tries to analyze the game on the field without knowing the play that was called. Belichick added in his answer that “As far as a quarterback goes, read the coverage, throw the ball to the open receiver and take the best matchup. . . . The quarterback’s got to read the coverage, make the right decision and make an accurate throw.” Belichick’s view is that if you don’t know what play the Patriots called, you can’t accurately assess whether Tom Brady correctly read through his progressions and threw to the receiver with the best matchup.
So Belichick does use analytics. He just has little use for websites that operate with less information than he has.