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)