Yesterday’s feature focused on the role of analytics in the modern NFL (and how it has always been a part of the game). Today, a look at how each of the 32 teams approaches it…
The Cardinals were once lagging behind in analytics, but there’s been an uptick since Steve Keim was promoted to GM in 2013. It was then that the team hired Mike Disner away from the league office to manage their cap and negotiations as director of football administration. The Williams-educated Disner (who was a college baseball player) moved naturally into a lead role in analytics. Keim and coach Bruce Arians project a very traditional football image, of course, but the organization has gained ground.
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Under GM Thomas Dimitroff’s guidance, the Falcons have been a leader in analytics. Senior director for football systems Karl Pierburg heads a three-man team, and has a liaison to the coaching staff as well. Atlanta breaks its work into four areas: Pre-acquisition, post-acquisition, opposition analysis and athletic performance. Opposition analysis is where the most innovation is happening—it’s an area that touches not just game-planning, but also assessing the Falcons’ own players and potential free-agent targets—and where most of the bridge between Dimitroff and Dan Quinn has been built.
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The Ravens are among the league’s leading innovators in analytics, having taken the concept in-house and built their own systems. Football systems developer David McDonald ran the point on that, and Corey Krawiec is the personnel staff’s analyst. Eugene Shen and Daniel Stern head up the club’s analytics department—and the scouting side has used all the information coming to help build boundaries in player evaluation and find hidden trends. Shen and Stern also serve as liaisons to the coaching side as well, where John Harbaugh has been forward-thinking in implementing the data.
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The Bills hired Xerox exec Michael Lyons to be its director of analytics four years ago, but his role has been pretty limited since his arrival. That is about to change. Lyons and analyst Peter Linton have simply provided the information up until now, but with new GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott in place, their influence is expected to grow and additional hires are planned for before the season begins.
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Carolina is older school in their setup—director of team administration Rob Rogers, who manages the cap, oversees analytics, and the club pulls from services like PFF. But the Panthers have been forward-thinking in integrating the information with coaching and scouting, despite being an organization that has two guys with old-school résumés running the show: head coach Ron Rivera (who has bought into fourth-down theory) and GM Dave Gettleman (who dispatches two employees to the Sloan Conference every year). The team has worked to develop its own system in-house with a staff that includes two full-time analysts, three full-time developers and three others with analytics prominent among their duties.
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The Bears were very much a leader in analytics under Phil Emery, but that’s been scaled back since Ryan Pace arrived as GM in 2015, largely because some decisions made based on the data (like assigning positions most likely to hit in certain draft rounds) didn’t work out. Ex-director of analytics Matt Sheldon, who’d worked for former Bears coach Marc Trestman in the CFL, recently left to take a job with the Dolphins, and the organization is working on finding his replacement. Director of football administration Joey Laine, football administration coordinator Nick Sabella and a coaching assistant are also involved, and (as it stands now) the team uses the data largely as a tool to crosscheck, and in contract negotiations.
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The Bengals rely on two outside vendors, including the locally-based Pro Football Focus, and an outside IT professional, Jeff Smith, to help them integrate analytics data. For personnel chief Duke Tobin and coach Marvin Lewis, the advanced numbers are used to create efficiency in the time-sensitive areas of game-planning and pro scouting. On the college scouting side, Tobin’s crew creates its own analytical studies. And, globally, every coach and scout in the building is responsible for the data that lands within the construct of their job.
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While the assumption is that the Browns let the numbers drive decisions, the message coming from the building has consistently been that the team is merely investing in analytics at a high level to try and ascertain their value. With Sashi Brown as football czar, director of player personnel Ken Kovash (an analyst poached from Dallas a few years back) carrying the same title as scouting chief Andrew Berry, and the largest analytics staff in NFL, there’s no question that a commitment has been made. Now, they’re trying to figure out where analytics lines up with scouting and coaching. There have been examples of the team deviating from the models and numbers tell them to do, as recently as in this year’s draft (the analytics side liked Mitch Trubisky over Myles Garrett).
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The Cowboys have quietly been leaders in analytics, to the point where personnel chief Will McClay—who has a traditional scouting and coaching background—served as the team’s director of football research as a precursor to his current job as senior director of college/pro scouting. COO Stephen Jones is all-in, too. Dallas was one of the first NFL teams to implement the Catapult player tracking system that Chip Kelly used at Oregon, and the team hired data scientist Tom Robinson to take McClay’s old spot with plans to add staff underneath him. Coach Jason Garrett, too, has been a driver in making Dallas one of the organizations more open to the changing landscape.
• A BATTLE BREWS OVER BIG DATA: The players union has signed on with a company to track workout strain, recovery, and quality of sleep. If teams want to see the data, they’re going to have to pay up . . . but they won’t be the only customers.
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Director of football analytics Mitch Tanney was hired away from the Bears after Chicago fired GM Phil Emery in 2015, and Tanney has become a trusted voice in the building, so much so that he’s on the headset on Sundays to help the staff with game management. Denver also has Scott Flaska working with Tanney, and GM John Elway has long had an interest in analytics and how they can help the team in all facets of the operation. New head coach Vance Joseph comes over from a pretty analytics-friendly organization in Miami, though he did work for the more traditionally inclined Bengals before that.
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GM Bob Quinn’s setup is not unlike the one he worked under in New England for 16 years. On the personnel side, manager of football information Jon Dykema, a negotiator and cap manager for the team, takes the lead; on the coaching side, it’s offensive assistant Evan Rothstein. Globally, the team has all of its scouts and its coaches take responsibility for the data provided in their area. The belief in this way of doing it is that integration of the numbers will be done with a football lens.
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GREEN BAY PACKERS
GM Ted Thompson is decidedly old school, but the Packers most certainly aren’t. Mike Eayrs, who retired two years ago, was one of the NFL’s first and most respected analyst, despite his advancing age. Green Bay now leans on director of football technology Mike Halbach to take the lead on the data, with technology analyst Ryan Feder playing a role. Coach Mike McCarthy has long been aggressive about using analytics to get to the best answers, and Thompson’s top lieutenants—Russ Ball, Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst—incorporate a newer-age philosophy into the scouting/personnel process.
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A lot of the lines between analytics and sports science are blurred, so the Texans have it set up to where analytics are considered a part of sports science. Houston hired Erik Korem away from the University of Kentucky (where he was the football program’s “high performance coach”) to lead that department. And in 2013, Houston promoted Russell Joyner to director of football administration, a position from which he helps in the scouting process. As for the coaching side, Bill O’Brien has long-time confidant Jim Bernhardt playing a research role for him that’s not dissimilar to what Ernie Adams does for Bill Belichick in New England.
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The Colts needed modernizing in analytics, and the expectation is that it will happen with new GM Chris Ballard in charge. One of his VPs of player personnel (Rex Hogan) worked under Phil Emery in Chicago, and the other (Ed Dodds) came from Seattle’s innovative program. And Ballard worked under John Dorsey in Kansas City, as Dorsey and Andy Reid worked to make the Chiefs a cutting-edge operation. The team hired a director of analytics—John Park—who had a load of experience in finance last April.
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Because of the presence of Tony Khan, owner Shad Khan’s son and the team’s SVP of football technology and analytics, it’s been presumed that Jacksonville is out in front on analytics. The truth is that the analytics and personnel staffs have been largely sovereign to one another. New football czar Tom Coughlin is certainly traditional in how he runs a team, but his coach, Doug Marrone, is far more into analytics in preparing to do his job that most people realize. Mike Stoeber heads up analytics staff, with analysts Zach Beistline and Kellen Blumberg reporting to him. Khan-owned TruMedia gives the team a resource on the outside.
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Coach Andy Reid’s traditional background, having worked under Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf on his way up, might fool you. He’s progressive, which is reflected in the way the franchise has grown over the last few years. Coming from Philadelphia, perhaps the league’s most analytically inclined franchise over the last two decades, Reid brought Mike Frazier, now the team’s statistical analysis coordinator, from Philly with him. With GM John Dorsey departed, the next scouting boss will inherit three analysts. As one staffer put it, “We’re still 85 percent Atlanta Braves (touch it, smell it, feel it) and 15 percent Oakland Athletics.”