August 15, 2014

The Browns’ dive into analytics will be a subtle revolution

Scheiner and Morey

Alec Scheiner (left) of the Browns chats with Daryl Morey

This weekend I was at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics (#SSAC13) conference where new Browns president Alec Scheiner was busy observing and participating in discussion panels. Scheiner wasn’t alone either. As many as three other Browns staffers were rumored to be on hand this weekend for the festivities that Bill Simmons dubbed “dorkapalooza.” So the “analytics revolution” has arrived in Berea. But, what exactly does that mean?

One of the biggest themes of the weekend in Boston was not about whether analytics is good or not, but how to make it most useful in sports organizations. The panels were rife with stories by some brilliant people about mistakes committed by the “stats geeks” where they were unable to effectively communicate their message to the more traditional stakeholders in their various sports organizations. We heard stories of ultra complex PowerPoint presentations and other missteps that set back the relationships between departments that sometimes have trouble working together, despite working toward the same goals.

For stats guys who tend to speak their own language it is important. It’s not that stats guys are right and the traditional scouts and coaches are wrong, or vice versa. It’s more like traditional scouts and coaches have been successful doing things their own way in the past, and could get even better if some data helped reduce even one or two mistakes per year. These traditional guys come to find themselves in the NFL because they’ve achieved success. The advanced stats and analytics should be used to supplement, not replace, and that’s where adoption sometimes becomes an issue of communication and territories.

As of right now, the NFL is furthest behind in professional sports where the NBA and MLB have been working in analytics for a long time. The Browns are somewhat behind the game too. One of the other highlighted panelists this weekend was Paraag Marathe of the San Francisco 49ers. Marathe is the COO of the Super Bowl runners-up and has been with the team since 2001 when he was hired by Bill Walsh to re-think the draft pick value chart using mathematical algorithms, with regard to trades. Anecdotally, it is interesting that the team that was one win away from being champs also happens to have 15 draft picks in 2013.

Think about that for a second. When Butch Davis was coaching Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb and Courtney Brown, the 49ers were establishing cutting edge stats and analytics to supplement a legendary football mind in Bill Walsh. The Browns meanwhile have turned over a number of times, seemingly from tip to tail, in that same time period. When Eric Mangini was trading draft picks in 2009 seemingly without much of a front office around him, the 49ers had a philosophy on the topic that had been in development for eight years. Granted Mangini didn’t trade with the 49ers, but still, in terms of doing everything you can to get ahead, it appears the Browns weren’t doing anywhere near as much as others.

So the Browns now have Alec Scheiner and a crew of people including former Mozilla and Dallas Cowboy employee Ken Kovash who carries the official title of “Director, Football Research and Player Personnel Assistant.” What does that mean for practical purposes? Does that mean that this year’s draft will be run by the analytics department? Will they even have a seat at the table in the “war room”? The real answer is that I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing things will progress more subtly and slowly than all that.

During the conference this weekend, despite being a champion of advanced analytics, Alec Scheiner made sure to tell everyone that he isn’t a math expert, as he self-identified as “just a lawyer.” He is the President of the Browns, but he was insistent that adoption of analytics needs to be subtle and most likely on a project-by-project basis. So more likely than anything, there could be some stats done on a specific position group to give some guidance on the pool and maybe eliminate some candidates. Again, I’m just guessing, but I am truly led to believe it is a lot of supplemental info to try to limit mistakes and boost decision-making confidence.

The people doing the math need to concentrate on joining the team culture. Scheiner told the audience that Ken Kovash has been wearing Browns gear to work every day so he fits in with the coaches and scouts that are his co-workers. He will hope to support and convince them of different conclusions that data indicates over time, but hopefully not as an “outsider” inside the Browns football organization.

When people think of analytics, they envision a closed-off know-it-all who thinks on different planes and professes to know everything.  But that would never work. Scheiner and his department seem to know that pretty explicitly. Instead of being some kind of silo of confusing math that spits out self-proclaimed “genius” and expect others to just listen, it will be important to create a cohesive front office through relationship-building. In the world of analytics nothing is guaranteed because the math is being applied to humans which can’t be completely encompassed with variables.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that even the best math won’t guarantee draft success. Nothing can guarantee draft success. I don’t know of any draft class that was 100% successful and I don’t think anyone in football comes close to making that an unrealistic aspiration.

There’s a lot more to this story, and I will try to share just what an analytics department can try to achieve in the NFL based on what I heard last week. Just a teaser, but it’s not just the salary cap. For now, just know that the “revolution” will be less like a radical change and more like the beginning of a slow rotation that could take a few years to go all the way around even once. The good news is that the Browns have set it in motion. They weren’t the first, but they also aren’t the last.

—–

(Photo Craig Lyndall – WaitingForNextYear)

  • MrCleaveland

    National Grammar Day critique:

    1. You mean the panel DISCUSSIONS were rife, not the panels.

    2. “time period”? Why not just “time”?

    3. “war room?” is incorrect. It should be “war room”? since the question mark is not part of the phrase being quoted.

    4. “he self-identified himself” has me reaching for self-medication.

    5. “data” is plural; the singular form is “datum.”

    6. Overall, the use of commas is pretty shaky.

    I warned you all that it wouldn’t be pretty today.

    On the plus side, Craig get big ups for the proper spelling of “led” and for consistently correct use of hyphens in multiword nouns and adjectives.

    Overall grade: B-

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    1. I think you’re being ticky tack.

    2. “time period” is better in my opinion.

    3. You’re right.

    4. Good note. Fixed.

    5. Both usages are standard according to Grammar Girl, who I like.

    6. Probably.

    I request a regrade to B+.

  • MrCleaveland

    Okay, I’m just a soft-hearted pushover. You get a B.

    BTW, ticky tack(y) is what it’s all about.

  • http://brian23.com Brian

    I love disruptive comma usage.

  • MrCleaveland

    Yeah, but the man’s a veritable comma anarchist.

  • http://brian23.com Brian

    don’t ever read my first book – i warn of my misuse of commas in the text while also citing it as a virtue of style

  • mgbode

    I don’t think that the NFL is necessarily behind MLB and NBA in terms of analytics. It is more that the NFL cannot adopt them as readily.

    1. Sample size is a huge issue where players are only on the field for 30-40 plays per game (at most), and the league utilizes a 16 game schedule.

    2. Game situations often dictate the manipulation of statistics. For instance, prevent defenses late in games. Also, defenses are schemed to permit 5 yard gains on 3rd and long.

    3. Draft analytics are the most interesting to me, but seem to have the fewest mentions in these discussions. The draft has more measurables and direct grading done on prospects. From these inputs, teams should be able to analyze the data and figure out which components are the most important. They also may be able to formulate a draft board*.

    *if they do formulate a draft board, then it would be interesting for them to go through the past 10 drafts and see if their analytics perform better than their standard scouting. and, also which positions and rounds tend to do best under the analytics.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    2 many stats bad. 2 many stats make Shamrock’s eyes cross. 2 many stats make Shamrock’s head hurt. Fire good. Wine better. Women best!

  • mgbode

    you need to put those last 3 things together and then you have something.

    (wine tasting at a bonfire with a lady friend. why, what were you thinking?)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Don’t get Steve excited!!!!!!

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    According to the American style, the commas and periods (or full stops) always go inside the quotation marks.

    … the British rule is – place the comma and period inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material, otherwise place them outside.

    that’s how i was always taught too.
    so… there’s that.

  • MrCleaveland

    Sorry, Jimbo, but they do not ALWAYS go inside the quotation marks. The following two sentences are punctuated correctly:

    1. I asked the madman, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

    2. But how was I to know that Kenneth would say, “The English don’t know what they’re talking about”?

  • MrCleaveland

    Never mind. I thought you were referring to the question mark too.

    You are completely correct.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Agreed with this.

    The last point would be hardest to analyze, as a great candidate in a poor setting would struggle etc.