They do it by the numbers

Nov. 29, 1971
Nov. 29, 1971

Table of Contents
Nov. 29, 1971

Last Hurrah
At The Pass
In The Bank
College Football
Pro Football
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

They do it by the numbers

To NFL statisticians it doesn't matter who won or lost or even how well they played the game but how you record a fumbled interception

Last year Larry Brown of the Washington Redskins won the NFL rushing title with 1,125 yards, not quite 100 more than the total amassed by the runner-up, Ron Johnson of the New York Giants. Although it wasn't evident from the stands, Brown got a little boost in the seven games he played in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1971 issue Original Layout

Take a look at the Giant-Redskin game, which took place in Washington during the 11th week of the season. Brown entered that contest leading the league with 857 yards and during the first quarter added 64 more. Gradually the press box became aware of the magic 1,000-yard mark, as it might sense a no-hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game. Brown rushed from the 17 to just across the 24. Now, for statistical purposes, the NFL doesn't recognize half yards and determining when a portion of a yard became a whole yard was conjectural until this year. "Eight yards," ruled the official scorer. In Giant territory, Brown ran from just over the 20 to midway between the 16 and 15. "Five yards," was the call. Only a four-yard loss—or was it five?—late in the game kept him from reaching 1,000.

The principle at work here—rationalization—operates throughout sport, from the scoring of errors in baseball to assists in basketball. It operates, for that matter, anywhere in life where the judgment of partial observers, herein known as fans, is required. In RFK Stadium Larry Brown is a hero. When there was doubt, he got the benefit of it. Whereas others, particularly visitors like Ron Johnson, needed a good half yard to get credit for a full one, Brown got by with a foot. It is a small matter, but spread over seven games it may have amounted to 50 yards.

This year the NFL has a new scoring rule that sets more definite, if arbitrary, standards for determining when an inch becomes a yard and that furthers the league's drive to eliminate "the judgment of the official scorer" from scoring. (With a couple of exceptions, the new rule reads as follows: "If any point of the football rests on or above any yard stripe, future action is to be computed from that yard line. However, if all the football has been advanced beyond any yard stripe, future action is computed from the first yard line, in advance of the football." Got it?) Not that the league scorns that judgment. It is just that credibility demands uniformity and uniformity usually goes awry when the human element is introduced. The human element in this case consists of small crews of statisticians scattered about the 25 NFL cities. They function clerically, reducing each play to yardage totals, recording those totals in the proper categories and forwarding the information to the Elias Sports Bureau in New York, which compiles statistics for the league. There is, in addition, a sub-unit, the play-by-play crew, which prepares and distributes throughout the press box an eight-to-10-page game summary describing each play and giving first half and final statistics.

The rewards of the work are limited, the pay nominal. Says one statistician, "If I were doing it for the money, I wouldn't be doing it." Statisticians are often ribbed about having the best seat in the house and getting paid at the same time, but the job has its demands. It is not a simple matter to explain statistically what happened when a Pete Beathard pass was intercepted downfield, returned to the line of scrimmage and fumbled loose for three yards before being recovered by the original offensive team. "That's when I want to turn in my pencil," says Detroit's Jack Teahen. "You have to be very disciplined, very dedicated," says Ray Johnston of Denver. "You can't whoop it up like you can in the stands."

Statisticians must constantly be aware of where a punt or kickoff is fielded, where an interception is made, where a fumble occurs. "You get so all you do is watch players' feet," the Jets' Pat McDonough grumbles.

Usually a team's public-relations director hires the chief statistician, who then picks his assistants. The resulting crews differ as greatly as the high school principals, bankers and magazine editors who lead them. Many, of course, love to deal with numbers; there is a fair share of math teachers, accountants, engineers, even a few employees of the Internal Revenue Service and one physicist, but other occupations range from postman to storekeeper at a state penitentiary to an SMU German professor. Accordingly, the reasons for showing up on Sunday vary. "Force of habit maybe," sighs L.A.'s Chuck Weinstock, who has charted UCLA and USC since the mid-'20s arid the Rams since they went West in 1946. "It fulfills all of my desires," says Houston's W. O. Johnson. "I don't go to picture shows or things of that nature." Pat McDonough pleads obsession. "When I watch a game on TV," he Says, "I keep a play-by-play."

Some of the crews are family-oriented, as in Philadelphia where Harry Schwartz, his brother, his brother-in-law and his nephew handle the figures. Or in L.A. where Chuck Weinstock's No. 1 assistant since 1940 has been his wife Jean.

The crews range in size from two to 10. In Chicago Ed Sainsbury does all the statistical work and still files a story for UPI. No two crews divide the work load similarly. Thirteen of them use the work sheets supplied by the NFL, which means that just as many others have devised their own "much simpler" or "obviously superior" methods. Only the official NFL score sheet, which has blocks for over 1,200 possible entries and must be filled out at the conclusion of each game, brings any sense of symmetry into these far-flung operations.

The plethora of pro football statistics is a recent phenomenon. "Statistics have only become important in the Rozelle era," says Seymour Siwoff, who heads up Elias. "Before that statisticians were largely shunned." Explains Jim Kensil, who was director of public relations for the NFL when Siwoff's company was hired in 1961, "We weren't interested in statistics themselves but in them as a framework to promote the players. In those days there were only subjective, not objective, ways to rate the stars. People weren't rating individual performances by numbers. I mean, in baseball you knew that if a guy hit 40 home runs he had a good season, but in football a 1,000-yard rushing season had little relevance. The information had always been there. It had just never been molded into anything meaningful."

In some ways the NFL has not achieved its purpose. The promotional aspects of statistics have too often blinded the fans to their objective value. Those facets of a player's ability that cannot be quantified, such as a running back's willingness to block, tend to be forgotten in rating performance, and too often statistical leaders get automatic recognition as the best at their position. For example, a recent survey has shown that the 300-yard passing day usually occurs in a losing effort. Furthermore, football's most impressive statistics—perhaps Jim Brown's mile-plus of rushing in 1963 and Joe Namath's 4,007-yard passing season—hardly roll off the tongue like 61*,714 and .400.

"Sophistication of all this is still going on," says Kensil. "It has only been since 1965 that we have kept statistics on the pass rush. The number of times a team gets to an opposing quarterback has now become significant in rating both offensive and defensive lines." Don Weiss, the NFL's director of public relations, has recently supervised a massive rewriting of the scoring rules. "Statistics should reflect the play of the game," he says. "They are more than just numbers." One innovation will probably be the take-away give-away table inspired by George Allen's theory that a team will win if it can take the ball away from its opponent via fumbles and interceptions five times during a game. Weiss has shown that the teams with the biggest plus factors (i.e., more takeaways than giveaways) finish at the top of the standings, and that fact indicates that the table may soon find its way into the annual Official NFL Record Manual, which is already 352 pages long.

Understandably, the stature of the statistician has greatly increased over the past decade. Nothing attests to that fact better than the very size of Jack Tea-hen's Detroit crew, which is 10 strong and represents over 125 years of scoring experience. Teahen, the assistant managing editor of Automotive News, has steadily built the crew since 1948, when he ran the play-by-play unit while a student at the University of Detroit.

Except for greater refinement in its duties, his crew resembles and operates much like the others. Its membership includes the associate dean of the Detroit College of Law, two other lawyers, one of whom is a former president of the Detroit Board of Education, and three advertising executives.

All but Dave Burgin, who roams about distributing play-by-play sheets, are stationed near the end of the press box, which hangs over the southwest corner of Tiger Stadium, a position demanding field glasses. Frank Gawronski stands next to a telephone hookup over which he feeds statistical information to the Lion P.R. man, Lyall Smith. In front of Gawronski his brother Art fills out the first page of the play-by-play summary, while Patrick McDonald puts basically the same information—i.e., scoring plays, starting lineups, substitutions, officials—on the back page of the score sheet. Next in line are John Morad, Jim Huddleston, Teahen and Al Mixer who work with the main body of statistics. Morad is the expert on fumbles, which cause the greatest confusion and demand the most expertise, but also handles interceptions, scoring and field-goal lengths. Mixer logs first downs, penalties and action on kicking plays while Teahen and Huddleston take care of passing and rushing. Every member of the crew runs a cross-check or two on other members and each compiles miscellaneous statistics—in McDonald's case, for instance, third-down conversions.

There is also the two-man play-byplay crew. Bill Swink keeps a longhand record with which he can update Dick Monley, who has been typing these reports for the Lions for 23 years. In most cities play-by-plays are functional and colorless, lacking life-giving verbs: "Hubbard at right tackle for four." Monley majored in journalism with the intention of being a newspaper sports-writer. Then he learned what that profession paid and made sportswriting his avocation, becoming a sort of play-byplay man's Grantland Rice: "Taylor tried right end but Eller dropped him rudely." He refuses to shill for the home team. Pity Greg Landry when he has a bad passing night: "Landry had Walton on a post pattern open, but threw poorly into the ground." Monley admits that "they speak to me at times about editorializing, but I've got to tell the truth. If a pass was a bad pass, I've just got to say it."

Following the game the crew totals the figures and fills out the official score sheet. Then the final statistics are read to Elias over the phone so that the bureau needn't wait for the mail to prepare its weekly release.

An hour or so after the final gun the crew files out of the deserted stadium, and perhaps there is something symbolic in their isolation. Statisticians may be a dying breed. In Atlanta, Boyd Odom's crew works side by side with a Honeywell computer. The Falcons' P.R. man, Jan Van Duser, explains that Atlanta is simply "doing the project for the NFL in order to get the 'bugs' out and determine if this method really has any future in press boxes." The Honeywell people say "there aren't any bugs" and point out that the computer can provide a complete final stat sheet within three minutes whereas Boyd Odom's crew takes about 15. And, Honeywell adds, "There is absolutely no chance for error." For instance, a rushing or forward passing play that results in a touchdown is always a first down even if it occurs on first and goal from the one. A human can easily forget to note that but when you record a touchdown on the computer its program is set up so that it automatically credits the scoring team with a first down.

Now it is true that the human element may always determine what information is fed to the computer. And, of course, in the foreseeable future the chance of a power failure necessitates a human crew even if Honeywell is there. "In many ways this is a frill," admits Van Duser. But then, football statistics were once frills, too. "Statistics are an integral part of the game," Buffalo's John Barnes says. "They can tell you everything there is to know about how your team is doing." Perhaps there will come a day when the NFL will do away with point totals and keep crowds breathlessly waiting for three minutes while Honeywell determines a victor.