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Cris Collinsworth, Pro Football Focus writers explain how analytics are changing the NFL

NBC Sports Staff

Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s a collaborative effort by Pro Football Focus, the popular football analytics website. To start, here’s PFF Majority Owner and NBC’s Sunday Night Football color analyst Cris Collinsworth.

How data is impacting the landscape of football

When I broadcast my first NFL game during the 1989 season, I had absolutely no idea what to study or how to study. NBC provided me with a handful of newspaper articles, we watched some film at the team facility on Friday before the game, and we interviewed some players and coaches. I took notes, but I didn’t even have a board with the players’ names and numbers on it.

I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. This was going to be the shortest broadcasting career ever. Luckily, I had David Michaels as my producer (yes, Al Michaels’ brother). David had worked for years with Terry Bradshaw, and Terry had created these boards for calling games. The positions were aligned on this board where they would line up on the field. Offense facing defense, back-ups behind starters. All I had to do was fill in the blanks. Once again, my friend Terry was ahead of his time, and David showed me how to use it.

When I think back to those days, it’s pretty comical. Today, I could never read, watch or study all the data that I have available to me. In 2014, I bought controlling interest in Pro Football Focus. At the time we had 60 employees evaluating every player on every play of the NFL season. Now we have nearly 500 employees, providing data to 90 NFL and NCAA teams, multiple television networks and individuals who use it for private purposes. I won’t get into all the details, but if you are a data scientist, mathematician or IT specialist, and you love football, we are hiring.

PFF has already changed the way I think about building a team and play-calling. I can remember a time when everybody thought Andy Reid was crazy for passing 60% of the time. He doesn’t look so crazy now. I remember when running backs were thought to be the most valuable position; now they are considered the easiest to replace based on our WAR (wins above replacement) metric. I think it is fair to say that now very few NFL contracts are negotiated without PFF data being at the heart of the debate. The agent pitches all the positive data about the player, and the team is loaded with all the not so positive data. Some of those negotiating stories are pretty entertaining.

But as much as the data has changed broadcasting, it has changed the game of football even more. “Gut instincts” are no longer good enough. Decisions must be made based on the data. Every year at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, PFF meets with nearly every team. I always laugh when somebody starts telling me about “old school” coaches in the league. I won’t mention names, but some of the “old school” coaches have recently blown me away with their knowledge of the data.

I sat in on a meeting with a team that had seven data scientists, mathematicians and IT specialists from Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. all in the room, and they were loaded with questions that would make your head spin. Luckily, I had the people in the room with the answers. Of course, there are teams that are not quite that sophisticated, and it is getting more and more difficult for them to compete. The data arms race is very real, and it is widening the gap between those who engage, and those who don’t.

The fans are now engaged in the data arms race, as well. Fantasy football had always created a market for data, but since May 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that effectively barred state-authorized sports gambling, a new aspect in the arms race has opened to fans. Whether anyone likes it or not, there is no stopping state-sponsored gambling on football and other sports. We have seen a real spike in our consumer sales of our Edge and Elite products. Some fans just want to know more about their team, others want to be the smartest person at the water cooler, some want to dominate their fantasy league, and others still are writing their own gambling algorithms. Regardless, there is no going back now. Data has changed the game.

 

For more PFF writers’ analysis, read more from this week’s Football Morning in America here