The geeks shall inherit the turf
David Fleming [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
August 20, 2013
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IT WAS CLOSE to midnight when new Jaguars coach Gus Bradley leaned forward in his chair and brought his palm down to his desktop like a gavel. "Let's get to the truth," he said.

The 2013 NFL draft was six weeks away, and the Jacksonville front office, with the No. 2 pick, had some tough decisions to make, starting with the future of third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Since the Jags selected him 10th overall in 2011, Gabbert had gone 5-19 as a starter with a passer rating of 70.2, second lowest in the league. Bradley needed to know whether Gabbert, at age 23, was already a lost cause, or whether his lackluster numbers were at least partly a reflection of his less-than-stellar supporting cast. The future of the franchise hung in the balance, starting with the approach to this year's draft: Take a new quarterback, find help on the defensive front or select an offensive lineman to protect Gabbert?

Bradley had watched plenty of tape. He knew the QB's basic stats by heart. He needed more. So before leaving his office that night, he made a decision that would have been cause for leaguewide ridicule just a few years ago: He asked the team's head of analytics, a man barely out of his 20s who had never played football, to uncover the truth about the team's quarterback.

At 5:15 a.m., Tony Khan, the team's senior vice president of technology and analytics (and the son of Jags owner Shahid Khan), walked into Bradley's office and placed three handwritten sheets of paper on the coach's desk. Later that morning -- once Bradley had deciphered the penmanship and presentation, which had the look of a seventh-grade book report -- he began to understand the significance of the data Khan had compiled. This wasn't a grizzled old scout asking him to trust his gut. This wasn't a spreadsheet of stats any fantasy football player could acquire. This was something different, something more. This was the future.

The page titled "Blaine QB Rating Stats" revealed that when adjusted for drops, throwaways and spikes, Gabbert's passer rating in 2012 was a respectable 82.8. The next page, "Blaine Time in the Pocket," detailed the Jags' woeful pass protection: The line gave Gabbert an average of just 2.56 seconds to throw the ball. When he had more than 2.6 seconds to throw, his QB rating jumped to 84.5. The final page, "Blaine Under Pressure," showed that when facing a six-man rush, Gabbert ranked first among QBs in completion percentage.

Bradley was convinced that Gabbert deserved another shot. Six weeks later the Jags used the second pick in the draft to upgrade his protection, selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel.

THE ROOKIE HEAD COACH had asked for the truth about his young quarterback; what he received was nothing less than a referendum on the current state of analytics in the NFL. Next-level metrics have long been an integral part of major league baseball and, more recently, the NBA. Yet the NFL has been slow to catch on because of a general resistance to technology combined with the subjective nature of the sport.

At the heart of baseball is a one-on-one battle -- pitcher vs. batter -- that allows for easy collection of clean, accurate, predictive data. In football, though, there are 22 moving parts on each play, along with an infinite number of variables, including score, field position and down and distance. STATS LLC, one of the leading analytics companies serving the NFL, tracks 90 separate bits of data in a single play. "There's a ton of information in football," Tony Khan says. "But that's the problem."

Even when it is possible to narrow the parameters of the game using, say, QB rating, the data doesn't show the full story or offer a window into future performance. A wide receiver is only as good as his quarterback. A running back needs an offensive line. A speed pass rusher needs a nose tackle. As former Ravens coach Brian Billick likes to say, "How do you quantify Ray Lewis?"

You can't. But over the past decade, a handful of the NFL's more progressive teams, including the 49ers and Falcons, have been quietly searching for other ways to apply advanced data collection. In 2001 Bill Walsh hired away Paraag Marathe from his job as a financial analyst at Bain & Co. to modernize draft boards for the Niners and study the team's salary cap. In 2011, based partially on advanced metrics, the Falcons gave up five picks -- two in the first round, one in the second and two in the fourth -- to draft explosive wideout Julio Jones. The move was widely panned, but GM Thomas Dimitroff had quietly crunched the numbers and found that less than 15 percent of fourth-round picks become starters and that Jones' ability to stretch the field and draw double coverage would be exponentially beneficial to the rest of the Falcons offense, especially veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. In 2010 the Falcons ranked last in the NFL in passes of 25-plus yards with 14. Last year they more than doubled that total with 33.

More than two-thirds of the league's teams are now crunching numbers full time, including the decidedly old-school Bears, who established their own analytics department this summer. One of the notable holdouts? The Steelers. According to an industry source, they've shown "no interest or curiosity in that direction."

Until recently, neither had the Jaguars. In November 2011, Pakistani-born Shahid Khan, an auto-parts manufacturer whom everyone calls Shad, purchased the team for $760 million. The next summer he hired his son, previously the general manager of a biodiesel plant in Indiana, to build the Jaguars' analytics group from the ground up. Tony Kahn had been interested in advanced metrics since he was in high school and studied finance at the University of Illinois. His first hire was Daniel Adler, who was less than two years out of Harvard, where he majored in economics and served as president of the school's sports analysis collective. Yet even with Khan's pull as the owner's son and Adler's Ivy League credentials, their work initially went largely ignored. But after the 2012 Jags finished 2-14, the worst record in franchise history, Shad Khan fired coach Mike Mularkey and GM Gene Smith, who had been with the team since its inception in 1994. In their places, he hired Bradley, then the defensive coordinator for Pete Carroll's new-age Seahawks, and Dave Caldwell, who, not coincidentally, was the Falcons' director of player personnel under Dimitroff.

Caldwell, 38, and Khan, 30, set out to revive one of the league's most moribund franchises with the kind of nerd-jock collaboration that usually works only in a John Hughes film. All the number crunching in the world won't be enough to get the talent-starved Jags above .500 this season. But how they fare in Year 1 of the turnaround could go...
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