The analytics argument has split NFL fans between those who believe the game too complicated to be reduced to numbers and those who insist that even the most complicated of systems can be reduced to a system of equations. Whatever side of the argument one falls on, one thing the analytics revolution in football has brought about is the propagation of tools that allow for fans to better dig into the league’s play by play data.
To that end, we’ve seen Field Gulls own puntalytics expert, Sean Clement, leverage his work in the kicking game into a analytics position with the Baltimore Ravens, and he’s not the only fan who has turned work in their free time into a position with an NFL club. In any case, one of the more interesting recent pieces of work that has been publicly produced comes from Ethan Douglas, who recently finished a Masters of Science in Engineering in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania.
What Douglas did, under the account @ChiefsAnalytics on Twitter, was to publish a map showing the frequency with which quarterbacks targeted different areas of the field. This allows for an easy visualization of the specific areas an NFL quarterback throws the ball relative to the other quarterbacks in the NFL. Specifically, in his heat map, red indicates that the quarterback targets that area of the field more than the average NFL quarterback, while blue indicates that the quarterback targets that area of the field less than the average NFL quarterback. The intensity of the color is used to indicate how far above or below league average the quarterback attacks that area.
Taking this tool and applying it to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson yields a heat map that shows his love of throwing deep.
The fact that there is almost no blue, and a minimal amount of white once past 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage shows just how much more often Wilson throws deep. In contrast, the intensity of the blue area in the middle of the field from two to six yards beyond the line of scrimmage shows how rarely Wilson throws the ball to this area.
As Douglas notes on the Twitter account, the heat map has nothing to do with how successful or unsuccessful a quarterback is when targeting a specific area, as the data only show how often a quarterback targets that area. Mapping the effectiveness based on throw location is a different topic for a different day.