But the NFL – the ultimate come-late-to-the-party entity – is starting to warm to the benefits that advanced stats and analytics can offer them.
There are a handful of teams that now employ full time analytics experts including Buffalo, Chicago and Baltimore. Even though a portion of their job is linked to marketing, they are involved in game day trends and the draft as well.
As for the Steelers, they dabble in it a little bit but accrue most of its information the old fashioned way – by watching film.
Todd Haley has always been interested in the analytics parts of the game and has tried to work some into his thinking as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, especially when it comes to figuring out one of the game’s most vexing problems – when to kick a field goal versus going for it on fourth down.
I had a chance to sit down with Haley during the recently completed spring practices and asked him about his view on advanced stats and analytics when it comes to football.
Q: “Do you use or believe in any kind of football analytics?”
A: “I have always been in to that in some areas. I took a lot of heat in Kansas City for going for it on fourth down. That’s one of the biggest areas for me. As a play caller when I was in Arizona with (Ken Whisenhunt), he would tell me on third down to have a fourth down call ready and I would think ‘Boy, if I would’ve known that two calls ago it would’ve changed everything.’ We have messed with it here a little bit with four-down mode. It doesn’t happen in obvious places. It might be on your own 30 when you say we have four downs to get the first so to me it changes drastically because you can hand it off three times in a row knowing that you will have that extra down. Obviously, if you can average 3.3 yards … when we led the league in rushing (in Kansas City) I was taking a lot of heat for the times we went for it and didn’t get it in critical situations say in Indy where everybody was trying to steal a possession. Our number of handoffs went up dramatically. (Bill) Parcells always taught if you hand off the ball 25 or more times and for years and year and years, it’s like you are going to win eight out of 10 games. In the first half, I am always like how many runs, where are we at. A lot of that is skewed because you are winning the game and you hand it off in the fourth quarter. If you can get to that number early in the game, you are probably playing pretty good football. Turnovers can change everything. That four-down mode allowed me to call three runs in a row, four runs in a row and stay in four down mode and now you might’ve handed it off seven or eight times in a row and those add up.”
Q: “So you know there is a better chance of you converting a fourth down than making a 50-plus yard field goal?”
A: “You start to factor in some of those things. Like I said, I took some heat but didn’t realize how much we were in it and how much it helped us win 10 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback and led the league in rushing. You factor in the percentage of going for it rather than kicking a long field goal.”
Q: “So it really does change a lot to you if you know you are four-down mode before the drive starts?”
A: “I had a rule and I told Charlie that when I tell him we are in four-down mode, I want three handoffs in a row no matter what unless on first down we got 7 yards and second down we would get 2 and knowing that you had a fourth down to hand it off to get the first, that shot against a more predictable defense came into play. It’s third-and-1 and we are trying to get the ball down the field for a huge play knowing that we are probably going to get man-to-man. It drastically changed the thinking. That came to me when Kenny would say third down and have a fourth down call ready. I’d have a fourth-down call ready but if I knew that, I could’ve handed it off here and here and here.”
Q: “Mike (Tomlin) is good with letting you know it is four-down mode?”
A: “I went through the whole thing with him and we have done it some. You really have to have your whole team on board. I’d tell the defensive coordinator that we are in four-down mode so they would know. We might’ve been on our own 35 and we are taking a risk so our defense better be ready to come out and shut them down.”