Analytics jobs in the National Football League began to pop up in recent years as fast as Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson runs the 40-yard dash. The Baltimore Ravens hired a director of football analytics in 2012, while the Chicago Bears did the same earlier this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars have an entire group devoted to technology and analytics, a topic recently covered by ESPN The Magazine’s Dave Fleming.
Analytics in the NFL is not an entirely new phenomenon. As Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told USA Today’s Jarrett Bell, “It’s a lot more widely used than most people would advertise. It’s been around for a long time.”
And yet something has clearly changed of late. The NFL’s new analytics obsession might be an attempt to keep up with the numbers-based revolutions in other leagues and sports. But NFL owners wouldn’t be spending so much time and money on number crunching if they didn’t think it was helpful. So what else could explain the recent rise in the number of analytics jobs in the NFL?
“[It’s] the ease of use and accessibility of different technologies, tablets and smartphones and the general population of consumers getting much more comfortable using different kinds of devices,” says John Pollard, STATS LLC’s general manager of the Sports Solutions group.
Brian Burke, who runs AndvancedNFLstats.com, says the analytical approach by teams isn’t the same for every franchise. “Some teams [have] dual-hat existing personnel (sometimes an IT or database guy, sometimes the Quality Control coach, sometimes a financial analyst) to try to make use of some of the advances in analytics,” he wrote in an email. “They’re not building their own models or breaking new ground, but applying what we’ve already discovered. I can tell you that it’s one thing to have a guy on staff who does analytics, and it’s another to actually have the lessons that the numbers teach permeate the decision makers up the chain of command.”
Inevitably, there are some difficulties that come along with introducing these concepts to a league that may not be familiar with advanced stats. “The main problem [teams] have is struggling to understand how to make use of all their data,” Burke says. “It takes a unique type of individual who has a sophisticated understanding of statistics, modeling, and operations research and has enough football subject matter expertise to ask the right questions.”
That was the challenge captured by Fleming, as he described the Jaguars’ efforts to apply the metrics churned out by the team’s analytics department. While the front office might listen to statheads when it comes to salary cap or draft decisions, it could take longer for on-field adjustments to be made. As Fleming wrote, “If the geeks are to inherit the turf, they first must figure out how to bridge the considerable gap that remains between their computer screens and the football field.”