The Rise of Analytics in Football

Big data is playing a big role on and off the gridiron.

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"The history of analytics started something coaches are doing every day - scouting."

Coaches, when you think football analytics, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it MIT grads sitting in front of six or seven computer monitors, making data sets out of your players, and spewing PhD.-level vocabulary?

The truth is, you’re half right. Yes, there are plenty of statistics fiends who turned their passion for the game and Excel wizardry into high-powered gigs with some of the top teams in professional sports. But analytics at its roots isn’t all about crunching numbers. The history of analytics started with something coaches are doing every day - scouting.

"The best analytics involves the scouting. The goal is to look for inefficiencies to find ways to improve your team."

Football Outsiders creator Aaron Schatz says, “The best analytics involves the scouting. The goal is to look for inefficiencies to find ways to improve your team, and get a better handle on how good players are and what strategy you should use without the bias of memory.”

Where did the concept of analytics in football first start? With the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys former Director of Scouting, Gil Brandt, started a revolution. Not only did he draft players who may not have had a football background (wide receiver Bob Hayes, among the notables), but he hired an Indian immigrant named A. Salam Querishi, a computer statistician and programer who knew nothing about football.

Before hiring Querishi, Cowboys scouts would go on a hunch to determine who they would pick. Querishi helped create a numbers-based system, assigned values to measurable traits that players possessed, and allowed the Cowboys to find value picks like Hall-of-Famer Roger Staubach in the 10th round, or undrafted gems like Drew Pearson and Cliff Harris.

Brandt also set up hospitality suites at the NCAA College Basketball tournament and found several college basketball players that became productive members of the Cowboys during their glory years. The key thing to remember about the Cowboys scouting innovation was that while analytics was used, picking good players still involved good old-fashioned scouting.

"The two most important statistics in determining the outcome of a game are yards per pass attempt and number of rushes."

Other teams soon caught on after. When Dick Vermeil coached the Eagles from 1976-1982, he employed Bud Goode, who some people call the “Godfather of Analytics”. Goode’s method involved taking the same tests and measurements used in public opinion polling and television ratings and working to apply them to sports. He believed that the two most important statistics in determining the outcome of a game are yards per pass attempt and number of rushes per game.

It turned out he was right 75 percent of the time. Vermeil became one of the first coaches to wholeheartedly embrace this philosophy. It worked too; his teams made the playoffs every year from 1978-1981, and advanced to the Super Bowl in 1980 - part of a banner year for Philly sports.

Analytics was still under the radar for most professional coaches, however, until the San Francisco 49ers made an unconventional hire in 2001. Paraag Marathe, then a Senior Associate Consultant for Bain & Company, happened to be a Bay Area native who was a die-hard 49ers fan. Maraag first started with the 49ers on a three-month assignment, as the 49ers had hired Bain & Company to develop an algorithm to help the team find out how much each position on the field was worth, how much to pay them under the salary cap, and when to draft them. Marathe’s efforts led to the drafting of several starters who became Pro Bowlers, and helped the 49ers form a foundation that took them from an 8-year playoff drought to the Super Bowl. Marathe was also instrumental in bringing to life the off-field vision for the 49ers, helping to bring fan analytics into Levi’s Stadium.

While Marathe was a numbers whiz, he still understood the mutual benefit between good scouting and analytics. Marathe found deficits on the 49ers (old veterans, players out of position, etc.) and developed a draft and free agency strategy that sought to cure those inefficiencies with great scouting, and a dose of analytics.

"Analytics has taken even more of a role in the NFL as recently as 2016."

New 49ers head coach Chip Kelly also found ways to use analytics to better his team off-the-field. Kelly implemented an up-tempo offense with the Philadelphia Eagles that caught many players by surprise who weren’t accustomed to this kind of pace. To prepare his players,  he had them wear Catapult monitors during practice to measure their agility and acceleration. The monitors allowed Kelly and his staff to track when a player’s performance started to decline. Kelly then outfitted his players with Polar heart rate monitors to create post-workout reports and give coaches an idea of when a player was able to handle more training. They also created reports of a player’s hydration and their urine output. All in all, the Eagles spent over $1 million on technology upon Kelly’s arrival.

Analytics has taken even more of a role in the NFL as recently as 2016. While Wall Street veteran Ernie Adams has functioned as Bill Belichick’s right hand man, the Cleveland Browns, after years of misery, are trying a new approach. They hired Paul DePodesta, former Vice President of Scouting for the New York Mets, and one of the architects behind the Moneyball teams of the Oakland Athletics. What could a baseball guy bring in terms of analytics to a football team with two winning seasons to their name since 1995? We’ll find out.

One thing’s for sure: while DePodesta was a Harvard grad and a stats whiz, the number one component of his analysis was always good scouting. He was able to build a 100-win team by finding efficiencies in players that other MLB teams did not, then combined that with his knowledge of numbers.

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