State of Football Analytics: DELETED SCENES

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

My Sloan Sports Analytics Conference review feature, a week in the making, went up today at SB Nation. There were some bits and pieces I wanted to share that didn't quite fit into the piece, so ... let's make a Deleted Scenes post!


More Interview Tidbits

On injuries

One of the primary themes at Sloan this year was the importance of injuries and injury prevention. But in college football, there is no sort of injury data repository. But injuries have such an overriding impact on team quality, projections, scouting, and everything else.

Jeff Bennett: Injury data should improve. It can't get any worse. College football is [128 FBS] teams. Even concentrating on the five or six major conferences, you've got so many teams. And people are close to the vest on injuries. Concussions are being reported more, but in terms of injury lists ... I don't even know how this all becomes public.

Mike Leach: If you're talking about recent advancements, here's a big one for you. This happened about as I was getting in: the ability to repair knees. The medical ability to repair a knee. You blew your knee, and that was it. You might come back, but you would be a shell of what you once were. Now guys get stronger and faster than before. And Tommy John injuries used to be a career death sentence!

You don't have to tell this Missouri fan about knee injuries and advancements. Just compare Tony Van Zant to Henry Josey.

Leach: Before I started coaching, there was no notion of hydrating athletes. "No drinks till after practice." We hydrate 'em like crazy now.

On the spread

Leach: Spread offenses have taken over both in college and the NFL (there's some denial of that, but it's a fact).

On stats

Gary Danielson: To me, stats tell the story of what has happened, not what will happen. I find it interesting, but I just don't use it a lot. I played for the Lions, and I thought we had a chance to win every game. I didn't want to find out that we didn't.

It's hard to put in highbrow stats into a game. It's not like the NFL game -- it's a lot different. So many players, such different talent levels. The stats I use are most closely associated with the credible stats that Cris Collinsworth gets in the NFL.

Let me ask you this: If a team, according to stats, gets inside the 20-yard line four times, and they don't score any touchdowns, is that a good thing?

We actually chatted about this for a few minutes. His point was that creating scoring opportunities is a very positive thing (and potentially a sign that you'll be creating more), but blowing opportunities is tough. Teams quite often lose because of blown chances (see: Iron Bowl 2013), but teams that generate opportunities are likely to keep generating opportunities. The bottom line: stat folks are often seen as searching for concrete, black-and-white conclusions. Yes, you should absolutely go for it on fourth down here. Yes, this is good, and this is bad. Et cetera. That's the common perception. But really, it's the exact opposite. Most stat lovers revel in the gray area, the total lack of concrete answers.

To that degree, I loved this Richard Feynman quote that my friend Tom Gower posted on his blog yesterday:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell possible.

Stats clear some things up and make a lot of things really messy. I love the mess.

On a certain someone's broadcasting style

Danielson: I could call it down the middle more, but I don't. I like taking a stand. My producers like it, too.


Fish out of water

My analytics intern, Chris A. Brown, also attended the Sloan Conference with me. I thought it would be interesting to get his take as a first-timer now that I'm the cynical old Sloan veteran (who's attended all of three times). Here they are:

Being from a small town in Alabama, with a population of roughly 2,600, I had several different questions racing through my mind as I flew out of Atlanta (my first flight, by the way) on Thursday afternoon. I wasn’t sure how I would react being 1,150 miles from home. I also wasn’t sure if I would give in to being starstruck with the likes of Andrew Luck, Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson, Matthew Berry, and others in attendance. However, I tried put my small-town personality aside early in order to wrap my mind around panels, sports personalities, and countless new outlooks on different sports at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

After sitting through the welcome remarks, I made my way through the rather large crowd to the Athlete Analytics panel, which featured Luck and fellow Colts QB Matthew Hasselbeck. Despite the two NFL quarterbacks, it was John Brenkus who stole the show, in my opinion.

The host of ESPN’s Sport Science, Brenkus made several strong suggestions regarding the recently finished NFL Combine. He started with a simple question: Why aren't players wearing pads during their workouts? They will be wearing them on the field. Why should NFL front offices evaluate each player when the numbers will change after they are fully suited up to play? He went on to mention the irrelevance of each player's 40-yard dash. How many players’ sole purpose is to run 40 yards as fast as they can, and then stop? His prime example was NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and his 4.6 40 time.

This led to a discussion of adding drills that tested an incoming player’s game management and instincts. Luck suggested that quarterbacks should go through a two-minute situational drill, similar to the Elite 11’s "Pressure Cooker." This could show front office executives more about a quarterback than generic numbers. If the Houston Texans decided to go after a quarterback with their first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, wouldn’t they want to know how quarterback reacted to going 80 yards in two minutes with three timeouts, rather than how fast he can run a 40-yard dash or how long his broad jump was? Adding to that, why not include the other 21 players on the field and have a short, simulated game? I know players may be concerned with the risk of injuries, but how better could coaches, scouts, and executives be able to fully evaluate a player?

In the NBA, incoming players go through a summer league with fellow first-year players, before the draft, so scouts can get a look at their skill sets during games. This could potentially be a good idea for the NFL, maybe either a 7-on-7 league for skill players, or 3-4 game leagues with a full 22-player team (not including special teams).

The college football playoff selection panel was the next to lure me in. It featured ESPN's Brad Edwards, Chris Fallica, Jeff Bennett, and Dean Oliver. With the new, upcoming four-team playoff in college football, this panel gave the audience insight regarding what the 10-member selection committee might see. During this panel, Analytics Senior Specialist Alok Pattani conducted a blind résumé voting poll of college football teams during the last 10 years. The interactive activity put the audience in different situations that the selection committee may possibly face.

To me, this panel left me with more questions than answers, many of which may be answered after the first few years of the playoff system: Will the SEC have the upper hand among the voters? How will the selection committee feel about winning the conference championship compared to not winning it? And if there’s a three-way tie in a given conference for one available spot (i.e. Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma in 2008), how is it settled?

No one knows if any trends will start, or if the committee will favor one conference over another. The committee will be given analytics and stats during their meeting(s), but a major problem with that is who will enforce or break down these numbers for everyone to understand.

Once I adjusted to the freezing, windy Boston weather (and it took a while), I found myself loving every bit of the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I’ve never felt more welcomed by a group of highly paid sports nerds, and it was one of the first places I could have intelligent sports conversations with anyone who wanted to listen and participate. The conference opened my eyes to new outlooks in different sports, as well as new reasons behind what makes certain sports personalities think the way they do.

In Alabama, the local athletes think they have made it when they’re able to be interviewed by the local newspaper. So the first time I saw ESPN personalities like John Clayton and Matthew Berry, I was a little shocked. But these well-known people walked around and mingled, and I began to realize that they're like me in a lot of ways, just with a few more Twitter followers.

The only request I have for next year: Can we move it to a warmer city?

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