The analytics mafia is about to go to the mattresses.
Long-time NFL assistant coach Dean Pees had some thoughts on Thursday about young football coaches. His comments veered into observations regarding the impact of computers and analytics on modern-day football.
“I think the younger generation of coaches feel a little entitled,” Pees said. “I think they’re spoiled. . . . Go work in a high school, go work in a Division III school where you’ve got to mow the grass, you’ve got to line the field. You’ve got to do all those things, then you’ll appreciate what you have when you have it. Instead of being 25 years old and wondering why I’m not a coordinator already in the NFL. I went to the NFL at 55 years old. . . . I felt like I paid my dues. And I feel like it made me a better coach, made me a better teacher. I was a school teacher. Learned how to teach. . . . I look at guys now, they can’t stand up in front of the room and talk to people.”
That’s when Pees began talking to people about computers and, inevitably, analytics.
“The computer told you that,” Pees said of decisions made during games. “When did the computer know what the weather was? Whether it was raining, whether the wind was blowing. Whether you were playing good on defense. OK, they say, ‘Well, it’s a two-point game. Should you go for it on fourth down?’ Well, I don’t know. Is the score 42-40 or 6-3? It makes a difference. . . . If they’re playing great defense, don’t. If they’re playing lousy defense, yes. The computer doesn’t tell you that.”
The analytics crowd typically reacts to such arguments by insisting that all potential factors are taken into account (even if they aren’t), and then by suggesting that anyone who would dare to dispute anything related to analytics in any way is stupid or old or whatever other disparaging comment can be made in an effort to shout down dissent.
The stupidity comes from having hard and fast rules as to any approach to football. Analytics definitely have a place in the game. But formulas should never fully supplant other factors that smart coaches are able to discern in the heat of the moment, thanks to decades (in some cases) of experience. The chart may say that it’s time to call a timeout, for example. But in the final moments of Super Bowl XLIX, when Patriots coach Bill Belichick sensed from across the field that the Seahawks seemed to be a little discombobulated (based on his decades of experience), he decided to let it ride — and to hope that they’d stumble into a play call and formation that perhaps would be just a little too predictable.
They did. And it was. And Belichick has an extra Super Bowl ring not because Belichick did what an objective, data-driven analysis of the situation would have required, but what a subjective, instinctive, wisdom-based assessment of the situation coaxed him to do.
It all has a place. The best coaches know that. And the best coaches will never ultimately let analytics be the determining factor in any coaching decisions. Sometimes, there’s a reason to know the numbers, and to consciously choose to not follow them. Every time, a smart coach will ask whether this is one of those occasions.