Analytics got a bad name in the NFL this season when the Browns went 0-16 and fired Sashi Brown, the G.M. who promised to use an analytics-based approach to building the franchise. But two other NFL teams rely on analytics with much greater success.
Those two teams are the Eagles and Patriots, who both use analytics as a tool in free agency, on draft day, during games and in just about every part of their organization.
The Eagles have been open about their reliance on analytics. As we’ve noted previously, no coach in the NFL is more aggressive about going for it on fourth down than Doug Pederson, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said during the season that that aggressiveness is tied to the team’s analytics research, which found that the benefits of a fourth-down conversion usually outweigh the costs of failing on fourth down.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Eagles G.M. Howie Roseman as praising Philadelphia’s analytics department, saying, “They give us a clear direction of what they’re looking for and what they want.”
But while the Wall Street Journal article makes clear that the Eagles rely heavily on analytics, it steps wrong by trying to contrast the Eagles with the Patriots, writing that the reputation of analytics in football has suffered because “the best coach in football — the one across the field from Pederson, Bill Belichick — has expressed his disdain for a numbers-heavy approach.”
The reality is that Belichick “has expressed his disdain” for analytics not because Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, but because Belichick doesn’t believe in letting the rest of the world in on the Patriots’ strategic thinking.
As PFT has noted multiple times, Belichick actually does rely on analytics. One of his most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before spending more than two decades working for Belichick, both in Cleveland and 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.
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, something football people don’t necessarily know a lot about but that a hedge fund guy like Adams understands.
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 late in a 2009 loss to 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.
Belichick also hired a little-known coach named Matt Patricia in 2004, in part because he liked Patricia’s background as an aeronautical engineering major. Belichick has groomed Patricia to the point where he’s now the Patriots’ defensive coordinator and the Lions’ next head coach, and Belichick likes the fact that Patricia has a mind that can understand high-level statistical analysis.
Yes, Belichick has been known to toss around the line, “stats are for losers.” But that’s a reflection more of the disdain Belichick has for members of the media who use stats to evaluate which players are playing well and which players are playing poorly. Belichick isn’t interested in such stats because his own staff’s film evaluations are far more accurate.
Belichick absolutely is interested in advanced stats, and that interest goes to the very top of the Patriots’ organization. The Patriots’ website once ran a story that said, “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owners Robert Kraft.” And Kraft isn’t just talking when he says he believes in analytics: Kraft puts his money behind it with Kraft Analytics Group, a company he owns.
Is Kraft, Belichick, Adams or anyone else on the Patriots making the rounds on Radio Row during Super Bowl week, telling all the world about the analytics insights the team relies on? Of course not. That’s not the Patriot Way. But like the Eagles, the Patriots rely on analytics.
So while it’s easy to scoff at analytics as the approach that got the Browns to 0-16, an honest assessment of analytics would acknowledge that some teams use them successfully. Including both teams in the Super Bowl.