Neil Hornsby: I Got My Football Addiction from Dr. Z
This week at The MMQB is dedicated to the life and career of Paul Zimmerman, who earned the nickname Dr. Z for his groundbreaking analytical approach to the coverage of pro football. For more from Dr. Z Week, click here.
By Neil Hornsby
You may have heard about the football-analytics website I founded a decade or so ago—Pro Football Focus, which examines, in great detail, how every player performs on every single play of the NFL season. We’ve grown to the point that Cris Collinsworth bought a majority stake of PFF, and we employ 240 full- and part-time analysts and people to run the business. We also serve a lot of fans and get paid for our expertise by 23 NFL teams and 15 NCAA football teams.
But this is what you do not know about our company: Pro Football Focus would not exist without Paul Zimmerman.
Dr. Z is the man who inspired a 20-something manager-in-training at a London department store to do something he really wanted to do with his life—not something that others felt he was supposed to do.
I got my football addiction from Paul. Here’s how it happened: A couple of years before going to work at that department store, I was going to university in Liverpool and stumbled on highlights of NFL games being show on Channel 4 in England on Sunday nights. These were a week old, the highlights from last week’s games. This was around 1983. Dan Marino was a rookie, and I really got into watching how he threw and how dominant he was early in his career. It was a beguiling mix of grace and aggression and I was drawn to it. I started reading everything about football I could get my hands on. In a magazine called First Down, I saw a review or an advertisement for A Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football, written by Paul Zimmerman. I didn’t know who the bloke was, but I mail-ordered the book.
That book sold me on football. I’ve read it more times than I’ve read any other book in my life. Without being obtuse or highbrow, that book acted as a catalyst for my love of football, and moved my knowledge to a different level. There are so many layers of complexity to the game, and the book went through every position, spoon-feeding you knowledge. It made me understand the game so much better and love it so much more. To this day, my love for the offensive line exceeds every other position on the field, and that’s because Paul loved the offensive line so much. He did such a great job describing these vital guys who worked in such anonymity.
And what a great writer he was! He was a guy who had such intimate knowledge of the game, and could explain it to an idiot from another country like me. He had a way of drawing you in. It was one of those books you never wanted to put down. A thriller, a page-turner, everything I wanted. It was like Paul was in the room with me, telling me everything he knew. He was (and still is) a football genius.
At the time, I didn’t have a car. So I would read his book on the bus on the way to work and on the way home. At that time, I’d be working 70 hours a week, so I wouldn’t have a lot of time, but I’d read it on my breaks. I’d get home and read it till midnight.
Later, when the internet came along, I could follow him more at SI.com. He graded about 10 games a week. Unbelievable! For one man to get every game taped, then go back and methodically watch and notate so many of them—it defies belief. The sheer effort to handle that workload was inspirational. His All-Pro team, to me, became the most anticipated article of the season. That’s because you knew Paul did the work. You knew it was better than anyone else’s because he watched so much more football than anyone else; how could anyone compete with someone who watched about 75 percent of a player’s snaps and analyzed every play in detail?
Around 2003, I was inspired to do what Paul did and try to take it a little further. I’d try to grade every single player on every single play. No one was doing that. By 2006, I already knew there was no way anyone could do it on his own. That’s when Pro Football Focus started growing. And over the past 10 years, we’ve become a legitimate business.
The thing I liked so much about Paul’s analysis was how he would rail against the inequities and the things done wrong in football, and he wouldn’t care about conventional wisdom. It didn’t matter if he was one against a million; if he felt his analysis was valid he’d put some no-name of his All-Pro team. If his pages of notes showed the age-old star incumbent was the correct choice, he’d write it as such. He was very, very serious about getting it right. He cared. It mattered. I genuinely believe that was why he did so much work—because the end result of being correct was far more important than the countless hours of sleep he sacrificed.
At PFF, we went against conventional wisdom a few years ago at guard, putting Evan Mathis on the All-Pro team. People screamed, “How can you do that? He’s just a guy!” We did it because we watched 96,000 hours of tape, and he was the best guard in football that year, and we trusted what we saw.
Paul had the work ethic and put in the time. He challenged what everyone thought. Not just to be a contrarian, but because it was important to be accurate. And he was a truly awesome writer. His impact on the business has been profound. But his impact on me, and on our little business, is even greater. I chased my dream because of him. Now I’m living it.
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