Advanced statistical analysis & technological advances making their mark on the NFL

Mike Ehrmann

Shahid Khan's new front office showing the willingness to think outside the box.

"The stats tell you the when and the where. The video tells you the how and the why." - Todd Nielson

Nielson, the Seahawks' in-house statistician, and Tony Khan, the Senior Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I think, would both have me preface this quick article by saying that in-depth, advanced statistical analytics will never replace or supersede the simple (yet complex) act of watching tape. Game film remains the most important evaluation tool for NFL teams' personnel departments, scouting teams, and coaching staffs when it comes to the appraisal of both Draft prospects and that franchise's current players. But, at the same time, advanced analytics are making headway as a legitimate factor in team-building, team-management, and game-strategy.

According to a rather obscure LA Times article from last year (the only mention I've ever seen of Nielson)....

"[He] gathers and crunches numbers, studies probabilities, looks for any sliver of data concerning the Seahawks or opposing teams that could give Seattle an edge. That includes drawing up statistical reports for Coach Pete Carroll and his assistants, documenting plays and coverages during games, and even analyzing officiating crews for their specific tendencies.

"You look at it, and eventually it's going to pop off the paper at you," said Nielson, who spends much of his day at his modest cubicle, sleuthing tendencies.

"My interaction with Coach Carroll is very limited," he said. "I go in his office when he's not there, and I drop a piece of paper on his desk with what he calls 'the orange stuff' on it, which is the highlighted stuff."

Throughout the week, Nielson fields requests from coaches - for instance, compile all the New York Jets' runs in goal-to-go situations - then creates a written report, complete with corresponding video."

On game days - and this is where it's also extremely interesting,

Nielson is on the field and wearing a headset, charting the formation, protection and play of every Seahawks snap. As soon as a drive ends, he talks to quality-control coaches in the booth to get the defensive front and coverage on all those plays. He then makes a beeline for the running backs and tight ends coaches, and they match up the data with the instant black-and-white stills that the Seahawks shoot from the sideline and end-zone angles. It's vital to know how defenses are lining up against different offensive packages.

"We're obviously running plays to gain yards, obviously," Nielson said. "But we're also running plays to see, OK, what are they showing us here? So next time when you've got that personnel up, or next time we go in that formation, we can do something different."

Carroll in particular seems open to this kind of thing and from what we've gathered, also uses statistics/analytics in the Seahawks' evaluation of Draft prospects, in the form of their proprietary (likely similar to Nike's SPARQ) scoring system for athletes. As with anything, the athletic rating only gets you so far - ultimately the tape matters the most - but I do think having 'special' athletic traits can ultimately land you a spot on this team, even if your tape is bad. That's where Carroll's belief in the power of his staff's coaching ability comes in.

Though it may not be well-documented, I just have the feeling that Carroll and John Schneider's front office does a lot of this type of stuff behind the scenes. On the other hand, the Jacksonville Jaguars' new front office does have a rather well-documented and relatively transparent analytics department, headed by Shahid Khan's son, Tony.

Per this interesting Sports Illustrated article from the end of last season,

"Khan-an energetic 30-year-old with a finance degree from Illinois, and the son of Jaguars owner Shahid Khan-left his job at an alternative-energy company to run Jacksonville's new analytics department. One of his first hires was a friend of [Football Outsiders' founder Aaron] Schatz, who had started an analytics club at Harvard and who left an M.B.A.-J.D. program at the university to work with the Jaguars, a struggling team on a quest for any edge. "There's so much information out there, it'd be foolish not to use these resources," says Khan.

He continued:

"The things you can learn-route running for receivers, closing speed for defensive backs and linebackers-are huge," says Khan.

"The biggest implementation, though, is for rehab and injury prevention: making sure you're putting the optimum stress load on a player." On this the Jaguars are consulting with one top-20 college program that used such technology and saw soft-tissue injuries among its players plummet from one year to the next.

Again, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Seahawks are doing this as well - I've heard Pete Carroll talk about how they've managed to avoid injuries this past year for the most part, and I would assume they have a specific method to their madness (whether it works is obviously the question, of course, but it's interesting nonetheless).

This, perhaps, is an attempt to discredit or debunk the old belief that in this league, injuries are random and the amount and severity of injuries that a team suffers in any given year is bound to regress to the mean.

Oh, your team was healthy this year? Expect a whole slew of injuries this year then.

In other words, these teams are looking to new technology to stay healthy, decrease muscle strains and injuries that come from anything but major impact. Hell, training your muscles correctly - stretching, for instance - can even help to diminish your chance of injury from major blows because it allows your body to bend/give more with impact.

The Niners believe in this.

Privately, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has made it clear that stretching isn't for sissies, for good reason. Stretching, research shows, can dramatically reduce the risk of injury, and nothing about the 49ers is more remarkable than their bill of health. Since Harbaugh took over the team two years ago, Niners players have missed 159 games due to injury. (A missed game is one player missing one game.) According to Stats LLC, the three other teams left in the playoffs have had dramatically higher injury rates. Over the past two years, the Falcons have missed 29% more games and the Baltimore Ravens 94% more than the 49ers. The New England Patriots' number is 440, an injury rate 176% higher than the 49ers.

Several 49ers say the explanation is a stretching regimen. "We do these old school stretches-heavy, heavy squats with chains, a lot of flexibility, a lot of warming up when a lot of people in the NFL skip warming up," said safety Donte Whitner. "That's why we have a good, healthy football team right now." (This was a story written during the Playoffs).

That the 49ers stretch religiously may seem less surprising than that other teams don't. But, actually, stretching often gets short shrift compared with weight lifting, agility drills and sprints. Mike Bracko, a sports physiologist based in Calgary, said stretching is considered a much lower priority in the NFL than "diets or weight training or jump-training."

The Jags too have already shown a dedication to this line of thinking. David Caldwell, along with new head coach Gus Bradley, decided to go with an Offensive Tackle with their first pick - number two overall - in the draft this year.

As Albert Breer pointed out,

The selection of No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel mined both old-school and new-school research. Caldwell cited the former Texas A&M standout's makeup, his background, his competitiveness, and the fact that he routinely faced top pass rushers -- not only in both Big 12 and SEC play, but also in practice against Von Miller and Damontre Moore at A&M.

Tony Khan, meanwhile, had data revealing that Blaine Gabbert was actually in the top third of NFL quarterbacks when given at least 2.6 seconds to throw.

"Some of the studies Tony did helped us come to the conclusion that taking an offensive tackle (with the second pick) was a good route to go," Caldwell said. "He had the passer rating broken down from where the quarterback had 2.6 seconds to throw to 2.5, the amount of pressure, the sacks we gave up, third-most in the league last year. We used a lot of the stuff Tony put together. ... It's part of the process, not the whole process. Maybe we miss something, but we're trying not to."

So - obviously, Joekel was a consensus 'elite' player, but part of the reason to go with a tackle there was the theoretical impact his play would have on the entire offense. Give Gabbert more time, and perhaps you see a huge change in effectiveness. Not only that, the Jags determined going with OT at that draft spot was statistically much safer than waiting to pick up that guy later.

According to Khan's data, 71 percent of tackles drafted in the top 10 from 1995 to 2008 have made at least one Pro Bowl, while only 16 percent of tackles drafted between 11 and 32 over that period did the same. Also, top-10 tackles drafted from 1990 to 2008 averaged a staggering 70.5 starts in their first five years, a number that dipped to 58.5 starts for those drafted from 11 to 32.

Interesting stuff. Also, pretty cool to see the Khan family fully embracing this type of culture in their attempts to turn the Jaguars' franchise around. When you look at what Paul Allen does in his spare time, is there any doubt in your mind that some of Seattle's forays into new technology and statistical tracking comes with the full support of ownership?

-------------------

Either way, Tony Khan was on SportsRadioKJR on Friday and had some interesting things to say, so it's worth a listen.

6-28 Tony Khan
Tony Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars joins the program to discuss how the new ownership group is using numbers to turn the franchise around.

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