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Super Bowl 100: Predictive analytics that can hack fantasy football
2:38 | NFL
Super Bowl 100: Predictive analytics that can hack fantasy football

By Chris B. Brown, WIRED

Some years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a telling piece on the rise of the explosive, wide open offenses that had come to dominate football. In the article, Ohio State’s head coach pointed out that his team was ripping off plays “every 12 or 13 seconds” while predicting “we’ll hit 100 plays a game soon.” Other coaches bemoaned the challenge these offenses placed on defenses. “Of course, most colleges use their best athletes on offense, as backs and receivers,” said Alabama’s head coach. “When the defense is forced to spread out, it must go to man-to-man coverage. But if the offensive boy—the pass receiver—is a better athlete than the defensive boy, he’ll beat him. So you have to go to double coverage, and that weakens you against the run.” And supercharging it all is the rise of true dual-threat quarterbacks who can run and throw. ”The hammer that has broken things down is the option,” said Arkansas’ head coach. “Now you’ve got teams with split receivers, with runners, and with quarterbacks who can run the option as well as throw. This simply generates more offense than any defense can handle.” The article was a fascinating look into the state of football tactics.

But here’s a detail I forgot to mention: The article, by Dan Jenkins, was published in 1968. And the coaches he quoted were not Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Bret Bielema, but instead Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant and Frank Broyles. Yet the article reads like it could have been written this season, given the continued trend at every level of football toward spread offenses, record setting passing numbers and the ascension of dual-threat quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who are neither static passers nor strictly runners who can’t throw or read defenses.

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To consider what football strategy might be like in 50 years, it’s useful to look at the last 50 years to identify precisely what’s changed. And what Jenkins’s article points to is the fact that the game’s modern foundation had been laid by 1966: Both the 4–3 defense (by Tom Landry first with the New York Giants and then the Dallas Cowboys) and the predecessor to the 3–4 defense, the Oklahoma 5–2, were in wide use; Baltimore Colts and New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank had refined the mechanics of the pocket to protect Johnny Unitas and then Joe Namath; Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman was busy refining the pass plays that still form the basis of today’s passing game; and, in college football, the option was on the rise with Bill Yeoman’s “Houston veer.” And, maybe most importantly, by 1966 use of the single wing formation (which featured unbalanced offensive lines and direct snaps to various offensive players, primarily the halfback) had significantly waned in popularity in favor of the T-formation, which in effect meant that the focus of the game had gone to football’s most significant figure: the modern quarterback.

So, at least on the surface, football was not so different in 1966 than it is now; indeed, a football game from 1966 looks more or less like a modern game, in contrast with the old timey reels primordial rugby roots. It’s also changed significantly, though much of that change is just bubbling below the surface of a game far more complex than anything dreamed of in the mid-1960s.

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Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of coaches at a variety of levels what they thought football strategy would be like in 50 years. Given that, as a profession, coaches tend to be focused on immediate goals—the next practice, the next game, the next play—the response I received from one small college head coach was typical: “First, hell, I can’t predict how strategy will change next year, let alone in 50 years. Second, it doesn’t matter, because in 50 years I will be dead.” And the coaches who did proffer predictions tended to give ones that might hold true in the next four or five years—like an increased use of power formations and power runs, in the alternative, even further moves by offenses toward the wide open spread attacks—but that would either be long in the past by the time we reached 50 years or that, with such a long time horizon, would be mere blips along the way.

Yet all agreed football strategy and tactics will change over the next fifty years, but the iterative give-and-take of offense versus defense means that predicting specific future strategies is almost impossible. Instead, the key is to look at what trends have and will continue to affect all technical trades, from medicine to engineering, as football coaching will continue to evolve in response to those same trends.

Geometry and Physics

Football is governed as much by arithmetic and geometry as it is by physics: There are only a finite number of ways to arrange twenty-two players on a plane, particularly after factoring in rules that further limit the number of possible tactics. So there is a limited universe of conceivable pass coverages, route combinations and run blocking schemes; someone somewhere has, more or less, already thought of everything. Indeed, below is an example of a pass play from one of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers playbooks from the mid-1960s, a play that remains in the playbook of nearly every NFL team, essentially verbatim, right down to the coaching points.

Lombardi1

But football is also governed by physics, and arguably no part of the game has changed more than the size and speed of the players themselves. And as they players get faster and stronger, the game’s geometry effective changes. In 2016, a safety playing in a Cover 2 zone can cover a little bit more of the field than he could in 1966, which changes the passing angles for offenses, even if, on paper, Cover 2 in 1966 looks no different than Cover 2 zone today. This applies to every position and thus every scheme; it’s as if football was now played on a field a fraction of the size of the field in 1966.

This is why it’s likely that, within the next 50 years, the size of the field will be enlarged by increasing the width from 53 1/3 to 60 yards, for the same reasons the NBA created and keeps pushing the three point line back: to create more space. And while purists might resist, the size of the field is arbitrary and no other change could more subtly open up the game (with potential safety benefits) than expanding the width of the field. It’s also less abrasive to the game than the change most of the coaches I spoke to expected—or, rather, feared: the removal of two or three offensive linemen so that the sport was more like the seven-on-seven passing leagues that now dominate the off-season for high schoolers.

Eight-man football is increasingly popular at the high school and Pop Warner levels, and it’s plausible than in 50 years its popularity will rival its more traditional predecessor. But there’s too much institutional inertia for the NFL go for fewer than eleven players, which is why increasing the field’s width seems like the most plausible solution.

But these are the kinds of decisions that will be made not so much on the field as they are in conference rooms during NFL committee and owners meetings. The more intriguing question is how coaches will adapt to the future.

Managing Complexity

While teams might still run many of the same plays invented by Sid Gillman, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and the other masters of yesteryear, it’s difficult to comprehend the exponential increase in the complexity in how those plays are deployed. Countless hours of film study and charting of tendencies results in game plans with multifarious formations, personnel groupings, audibles and packaged plays (plays that combine two play concepts into one play) that take those old, timeless, immutable ideas and remix them week after week, tailored for the opponent on that day. A major driver of this has been the rise of a well-paid, highly skilled workforce. In 2016, professional football is a highly paid, year-round affair, and players can dedicate the time and resources to mastering a complex array of assignments and techniques. That wasn’t the case fifty or sixty years ago, when even future Hall of Famers like Sam Huff and Art Donovan still worked day jobs. But the other driver of change is the same one affecting nearly every business: the march of progress in the form of better technology and modes of communication.

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“The communication and the flow of information is incredible, nothing that I would have ever envisioned in 1975 when I was working for the Colts,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last season. Indeed, I have an embarrassingly large collection of football cut-ups on VHS tapes, as that was the currency coaches used to trade All-22 game footage even just ten years ago. Now, every play from each NFL and college game is sorted, categorized and uploaded to the cloud almost immediately after the game, so that coaches and players can begin watching only third down passes or only first down blitzes as soon as they are on the bus or plane ride home. And with modern technology, even high school programs can create teaching tools and game plans that Lombardi and Landry could’ve never dreamed of. Belichick’s father, longtime Navy assistant Steve Belichick, literally wrote the definitive book on football scouting, but he largely plied his trade by actually going to upcoming opponent’s games and scouting them, pencil and paper in hand, in real time. The world his son coaches in is very different.

“You think about people like that and Paul [Brown] and Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman and every picture I think of them as next to a projector with the film running,” Belichick said last season. “I have still a lot of films in my personal possession. I don’t even know if I could, I have nothing to watch them on. That’s been a huge, obviously a huge change. Film technology and the whole teaching and being able to do cutups and I do something and I can share it with somebody else. If somebody else does the work, they can share it with me.”

Coaching is about teaching, and the more effectively you can teach, the more complexity players can handle. The study of old playbooks—historically the crucial method of transmitting football strategy from coach to player—provides a fascinating window into how football teaching methods have changed over time. In ye olden days, most plays were drawn up on the field or on chalkboards, but coaches eventually began reducing them to organized presentations: the playbook. But many of these were still hand drawn and carbon copied, resulting in grainy, often hard to decipher plays but a vast improvement over the lack of information before. (Here is a link to Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame playbook from 1921.) By the mid-1960s playbooks were almost always created on typewriters with the plays themselves drawn by hand on a pre-set diagram of the field. And by the 1980s and 1990s, the West Coast Offense revolution was in some respects a revolution of word processing, as “quality control” coaches spent countless hours in Microsoft Word (and Microsoft Paint) stenciling out and formalizing iconic NFL plays that, up until then, had largely only existed in the steady hand of experienced coaches. In the 2000s the quality—and size—of the playbooks continued to grow until, whoosh: the traditional playbook largely vanished.

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Sure, many coaches have playbooks sitting in drawers and they often put them together just for their own staffs, but the days of handing out a 600 page three-ring binder on the first day of training camp has effectively ended. As Belichick pointed out, simplified and ready access to film makes it easier to access those visuals, and most players find it easier to learn a play by watching footage rather than looking at static Xs and Os on the page. And now, with the rise of smartphones and tablets, the “playbook” is a dynamic presentation that combines footage with interactive responses from players that can be instantly graded, like choosing their assignment on a given call or drawing the proper route. And of course, there's increased security, as these tablets can be remotely wiped if a player loses it.

As technology has gotten better so has the teaching, which has had a direct effect on the quality and complexity of the strategy we see on the field. We’ve come full circle from quarterbacks who called plays at the line, to defenses and playcalling becoming too complex for QBs to handle play after play, to now where all those hours by the coaches result in a game plan that is then taught to and turned over to the QB, whose job it is to use all that teaching to read the defense and audible or adjust on the fly, informed by innumerable hours of preparation.

Data and Scouting

That’s where we are now. But the next step for on-field strategy will also involve the intersection of technology, data and good ol’ fashioned coaching and scouting. There is important work being done now for game decisions, like whether to punt or go for it on fourth down, and NFL teams are just scratching the surface in integrating player evaluation with economic modeling to allocate salary cap value among players and positions. The rise of tracking technology promises something potentially truly game changing: a revolution of the entire game-planning process.

To date, so-called analytics or data based approaches—other than basic charting of tendencies—has had very little real world impact on strategy: coaches teach blocking, tackling and catching, draw up plays to beat coverages and largely ignore external analysis. And, given that most of the strategic analytics currently produced is noise—a victim to garbage-in/garbage-out and naive models that don’t appreciate the game’s nuances—this is a rational response. But over the next 50 years, tracking technology is likely to bridge this gap between coaches and data-crunchers which will lead to several innovations in how teams prepare their game plans and even call plays.

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The first improvement is likely quite close, as most NFL teams are already tracking players’ movements, acceleration and even their centers-of-gravity in practice, and the NFL has begun doing it in games as well. With this data—particularly once tracking of the ball is added to the mix—teams will be able to upload their plays and defensive calls into the computer and the players’ movements can be automatically graded for accuracy of assignment, reaction time and other factors by algorithm. Was a receiver’s route too short? Was a linebacker slow to react to a run? This is a a potentially huge improvement over an assistant coach watching film and giving each player a plus or a minus for each play. I know of several teams currently working on these sorts of tools.

But that’s only the first step. The next one is to use tracking technology to create a true-to-life computer model of every player, from real game speed to agility to reaction time, and then to load that information into an accurate football game engine. Then the coaches can upload their plays and their opponents’—all informed by traditional film study and scouting—such that coaches doodling plays on the whiteboard on Tuesday nights will be replaced by coaches and computer savvy programmers loading plays and simulating them with true-to-life players. Will Julio Jones get open versus Richard Sherman on a “jerk route”? Will J.J. Watt beat Joe Thomas on an end/tackle stunt? Coaches will instantly be able to observe the results.

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The final step is to upload all of that information and, instead of simulating just one or two plays, simulating thousands and thousands of games—this is Madden football on steroids. The resulting data would tell coaches what plays worked against what defensive alignments and personnel groupings, identify the weak spots and poor matchups and find what plays fit together that week. It’s playbook and game plan optimization based not on intuition, but instead on real world player data.

All those pretty plays designed by Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick, and executed to perfection by Bart Starr, Joe Montana and Tom Brady will, in the future, be digitized and optimized into an ideal game plan, tailored in every respect to the circumstances. If the past 50 years are any guide, the true strategic revolution in the NFL will occur on Monday through Saturday; the only question is whether come Sundays we’ll care more about the real game, or the simulations.

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