Since its birth in the Moneyball era, when teams across all sports followed baseball in turning to numbers to uncover hidden strategic tendencies and underused talent, football’s analytics revolution has entered its baroque period.
In the beginning, it was innocent enough: behavioral economists evaluated fourth-down decisions and the best values in the draft – small stuff, easy to model. Then Football Outsiders heralded a new world order with metrics like Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), which revealed the real value of teams’ offenses and defenses across entire seasons. Now, Pro Football Focus, a data firm which promises to analyze individual players’ roles and responsibilities as meticulously as possible, has contracts with 19 NFL franchises – and quite a few agents trying to make cases to maximize player contracts.
Despite all the contributions they make to evaluating talent, analytics have yet to influence football’s animating spirit: game-planning and strategy, where the strength of any individual performance remains tangled fast in the delicate interplay of 21 other guys in helmets and pads, and the numbers developed so far haven’t proven useful for players in the thick of the action.
“Can you use stats in football? Yeah, you can use stats. When I played for Gregg Williams in Washington, we studied numbers more than other teams I played on, in terms of what the other team was going to run based on the percentages,” says Matt Bowen, who played seven seasons in the NFL and now writes for the Chicago Tribune. “But when you get out on the field and it’s third-and-7 in the fourth quarter and your ankle hurts and you’re protecting a six-point lead, are you going to remember those tendencies? Probably not. You just execute your role and play football.”
Popular on Rolling Stone
Hence the best analysis in the game today focuses on strategy, and less on stats. According to The Art of Smart Football, a new book by author and Grantland writer Chris B. Brown, today’s most successful teams aren’t necessarily the ones crunching the most numbers. They’re the ones refining the age-old practice of devising strategies and diagramming plays, developing increasingly intricate blueprints for the modern game.
“Football is really complicated,” Brown says. “It’s a game you can watch your whole life and not know what’s going on.”
A former high school quarterback and current lawyer, Brown has attracted a wide following by explaining the tiny things numbers don’t catch, like the way a center reads a defensive front or how a hard-charging defensive lineman occupies blockers. While invoking modern stars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Brown’s new book explores the arcane histories of today’s most potent football tactics.
“I’m really focused on telling stories, the history of ideas,” he says. “Football coaches themselves don’t forget. When the read-option came around, these guys were going back and studying their notes from defending the wishbone when they were high school or college coaches.”
Brown’s deep knowledge of strategy has its own kind of predictive power. In 2003, when the league was still smitten with smash-mouth football, he foresaw the rise of today’s explosive, pass-happy spread offenses. Ten years later, Peyton Manning set the single-season passing record operating from a variation of the scheme. But transcendent individual performances like Manning’s can be difficult to predict using a method that emphasizes players’ complex interdependency. Both Brown and coaches as esteemed as Nick Saban and Jon Gruden picked Cleveland flameout party-boy Johnny Manziel as the best quarterback in last year’s draft.
“That really blew up on me, right?” Brown says. “There’s no substitute for watching film, but it’s still very subjective. In many ways, you see what you’re looking for.”