The Football Question: Is Analytics gambling with football logic?
Updated: May 8
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley claims analytics in taking points off the board in multiple games, but what we witnessed was not math. Was it ego and a point to prove?
My job in this piece is a unique one. To keep the National Football League reader’s attention more than three paragraphs. So, I need you to hang with me on this especially when I use words and terms like Books Ngram Viewer, data studio the process of discovering, interpreting, and communicating significant patterns in data. The very sports-worthy term of Analytics.
As a longtime coach and now private NFL game scout, teaching quantitative and qualitative historical research methods and theory was at one point, a poignant part of my educational instruction career. So, this past season, the analytics part of the NFL game conked me on the head more this year, than others.
One pretty girl named Cynthia Frelund brought analytics interest to the fan, and one first-year head coach Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers can show how it can literally destroy a football season. And yes, he did cost the Chargers their post-season.
Analytics is now one influential nerdism that is going to help determine how your team wins or loses. Or at times, how erratic your favorite head coach can be.
It has now been a part of the professional sport since the 1970s mainly because of gambler Billy Walter. He started analytics as his main ideal source to determine the probability of victory through mathematical records of player performance, output versus success, and failure against certain variables. Yeah, I warned you about nerdy. Analytics notability was exposed to professional sports development within the team organization using the probability of success on the field acquiring players. That would be Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics.
The theory, now known as Moneyball, had a unique aspect on it. For years, I thought it was about putting strength, significance on the physical tool of the athlete himself. But Beane built his A’s on simple baseball statistics; Can he get on base, how often, and so on.
Forward to the game of football. Now analytics and science are a significant part of offensive schemes in the league. There are people to praise or people to blame for it. Maybe both.
Frelund brought the use of analytics to the fan when she was hired by the NFL Network in 2016. In 2019, her career really picked up when she gave 30,000 reasons why the Los Angeles Rams will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. She was half right. The Eagles beat the Patriots in the Nick Foles throwback game.
From that 2019 prediction, the systematic side of analytics was never really in the face of the public until September 26th, 2021, when the NFL world got to see a slice of it. Staley has forgone a field goal attempt deep in Kansas City Chief territory to tie the game with less than a minute left to play in regulation. Staley’s reasoning is plausible. Kicker Justin Vizcaino did the very-Charger thing in missing an extra point earlier in the game and Staley’s reasoning is strong, put in the hands of what will ultimately be the best quarterback in AFC West for the 2021 season. Along with four Chief turnovers, that fourth-down move proved successful, but that was just the start of the head coach sharing his future fourth-down moves being analytical ones.
From that point, Staley made it loud and clear that he was all about the use of analytics in his game-day coaching philosophy.
It’s all about win probability percentage. Variables to give the best course of action to win the football game based on all of the present options. It includes past performances on defense and offense versus what the player personnel looks like on the field. The down and distance, home or away, weather, what the game’s expected outcome would be if they convert vs. punting or attempting a field goal. And a very non-math look is the weather.
Books Ngram Viewer shows us the fan trend of popular analytics in the NFL. In 2005, there was virtually zero interest in NFL analytics but in 2006, it shot thru the roof. The interest in analytics for football was interesting.
In the first Chiefs game for Staley, the data suggested the best course of action was putting the ball back into the hands of Justin Herbert than the foot of Vizcaino. Or tying the game and giving it back Patrick Mahomes to do what he does best, win games on the last drive. These are all things that constitute analytics, and, in this case, Staley was correct with the call.
Seth Walder, is a quantitative analyst writer who brings some reputable insight to a less than a reputable network of ESPN. “Statistics is the hardest to understand about sports analytics,” says Walder. “For example, I might not look at Eli Manning’s QBR (Quarterback Rating) but look at his inability to rush the ball or his turnovers.”
“A lot more people are learning more about sports because of analytics.”
Like most all upper-level sports, any type of edge to win is invested in. Ways to affect strategy for a different outcome of a game, to even finding a way to use mathematics for personnel in the NFL. For many, analytics may seem a confounding idea that clashes with their traditional view of what football is, but this really
The widely used metric in the NFL is Expected Points (EP) and Expected Points Added (EPA). It’s a measure to show how effective a player is by his overall play on the field or his effectiveness in certain situations. Football is a game of yards, but it is a flawed measure. For example, a 6-yard gain on 3rd down and 5 is much more valuable than a 6-yard gain on 3rd and 8. That seems obvious. But is that 6-yard gain easier to come in the red zone as opposed to midfield?
But according to Walder, when it comes to analytics in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens are No. 1.
"You saw how aggressive the Ravens were on fourth down last year. It's because [head coach John] Harbaugh trusts the numbers; he trusts the analytics there. What Harbaugh has done is truly amazing. He has changed the culture of the team to believe in this stuff," one staffer told Walder. Most of us saw Lamar Jackson encouraging his coach to go for it on fourth-and-2 against the Seahawks last season and Harbaugh listening.
There is no question that 2021 was the year of public analytics and Brandon Staley was the poster child for everyone to see what it is in our face and how it backfires.
There is no question that 2021 was the year of public analytics and Brandon Staley was the poster child for everyone to see what it is and how it backfires on a team's season.
It doesn’t matter what your feelings are on the matter is, the Chargers lost four games strictly on the decision of Staley. Taking points off the board cost the Los Angeles Chargers four wins and obviously a playoff spot. All in the name of what the numbers say.
Staley said he stands by his decision on the 4th down at his own 18-yard line. There is NO analytic that says to go for a fourth down with the season on the line and you give most assuredly three points minimum to the opponent.
However, which analytical scenario did cost the Chargers the postseason? Was it not going for four opportunities for three points that would have swept the Kanas City Chief’s season series and the AFC West crown.
It is the final game of the regular season, and arguably the most important game of the entire season in NFL history. Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley made a decision that defies football logic, defies brain cells or, is it brilliant?
Calling a timeout when the Las Vegas Raiders were clearly going to sit on the ball and both teams are playoff-bound. Apparently, that wasn’t analytics. Or was it when that same Raiders coach says, ‘did he just call a timeout?” Or better yet, that Raiders coach possibly mouthing something that looks something like the words, “(blank) him. Kick it.”
As much as Staley and the Chargers went for it on fourth down, it's not always about that final down. Most of the NFL world saw numerous occasions that drew ire from the experienced fan. But 4th and three from your own 18-yard line and go for it, there was no analytics for that. That was a gamble that gave the opponent points.
Since the 2017 NFL season, there is a 25% increase in going for it on fourth down. This trend is likely to continue but did 2021 and Staley affect what others will be doing for 2022?
The bottom line, decisions were made in games that created losses. Analytics or not, get points, and don’t give your opponent the opportunity to get those points on bad decisions.