In a number-driven society where stats are starting to sway decisions more than they ever have, analytics are becoming increasingly important. Of course, many people read the word ‘analytics’ in the headline to this article and turned away completely, but if you’ve decided to read on, good for you, you’re adapting to the new world.
Analytics is a nasty buzz word that has gotten a terrible wrap so far in the sporting world, mainly in the NBA. While older players are reluctant to accept the 3-point revolution that was swept the sport, numbers back up the fact that taking a slightly lower-percentage shot worth more points is going to benefit you in the long run. Analytics have made their way into football as well, with many coaching staffs looking to the numbers to help them decide when to go for it on fourth down, what percentage of pass vs. run plays to call, and even the type of players to draft, and when you should take them. If you look across the league, some of the best teams in the NFL are known for their stout analytic departments, with the Baltimore Ravens leading the way.
So can a reluctance to incorporate analytics directly correlate with a lack of success in the NFL? It’s possible, with the inconvenient truth being that the Washington Football Team was voted as the No. 1 team who is least analytically advanced, according to a poll for ESPN.
Washington, which received the most votes, has one staffer listed in a hybrid analytics/scouting assistant role. The team ranked second worst behind the Packers in fourth-down decision-making in 2019, though that may change with new coach Ron Rivera, who is famous for his aggressive fourth-down choices. Carolina, his former team, had the third-best ratio of win probability gained to win probability lost on fourth downs last season.
While it’s fair to question if Rivera’s staff will lead a new analytically charged turnaround in Washington, it’s also fair to question how closely numbers are tied to wins. The Ravens were voted as the most analytically-advanced team, which makes sense, but the runners-up were listed as follows:
Through two weeks this season, that’s a 1-5 record coming from those teams. Coincidentally, here are the teams who followed Washington as the least-analytically advanced:
Obviously, that’s more of a mixed bag, but considering that both the Titans and Steelers are among the top teams in the league, it’s fair to question the data.
With a new way of thinking spreading throughout the NFL, there are always going to be doubters, and a lot of the doubts are going to be founded. What will be interesting to watch, though, is whether or not the coaching staff in Washington chooses to buy into the new wave, and if it will end up helping them in the future. No matter what they decide to do, it’s clear first and foremost that they can’t continue to rank near the bottom of the league in any category for much longer.