The NFL (and Vikings) might be in the midst of an analytics revolution

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where the revolution is televised. Let’s get to it:

*I read with interest a recent piece from The Ringer’s Kevin Clark about analytics in the NFL. His thesis is that the league is in the early stages of an analytics revolution — much like the ones we’ve previously seen take hold in baseball and basketball.

To a degree, the NFL has been dabbling in advanced metrics for a while. But the nature of the league — both in terms of an old-school mentality stifling change and a concession that the moving parts of the sport make isolating data more challenging — has made the NFL a later adopter.

So much of baseball is isolated around a singular event focused on two (or three, if we count the catcher) key players: the delivery of a pitch. It allows for a lot of apples to apples comparisons between pitchers and hitters, as well as deeper dives into more complex factors like the spin rate on pitches.

Basketball, too, came more quickly to analytics than football because even in a 5-on-5 game there are significant comparisons and data points.

Football — and particularly the NFL — has more variables. There are 11 players on the field for each side, many of whom won’t factor directly into a given play but who can influence it subtly. I mean, there are even five guys on offense who are never intended to touch the ball but who can collectively or individually save or derail a given play.

But those who dismiss analytics in the NFL do so at their own peril. It’s hard to know which teams are doing more than others, but the Vikings are certainly interested in the conversation.

While head coach Mike Zimmer has been known to take thinly veiled shots at Pro Football Focus and other stats-based sites, the Ringer points out that the Vikings’ new facility in Eagan has a “massive analytics hub,” which GM Rick Spielman showed off to reporters during a tour around the time of the 2018 NFL draft.

Much of what teams are studying now comes via player tracking data, which is available league-wide to teams for the first time this year. Writes Clark:

Some of this data is public — skill-position players’ speed, for instance, is published on an NFL website — but the vast majority is available only to teams, who are creating other proprietary stats from the raw numbers. NFL franchises are absorbing millions of data points for the first time, and many football lifers are getting their first deep experience with analytics.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the piece is that it reinforces two key ideas: 1) data is only as good as what you do with it (or don’t do with it) and 2) The data that is available to everyone is interesting, but the data we don’t know about might make an even bigger difference in wins and losses.

On the first point, teams can see what the data tells them — say, that going for it on fourth down is a good idea in a lot of cases — but different teams do different things with it. Some might ignore it. Some might dip their toes into it. Some — a growing number — will be apt to make it heavily factor into their decision-making.

The second point is the really interesting one, though. Because for all the comparisons we can spit out now thanks to sites like Pro Football Football Focus — say, Kirk Cousins has been pressured on 38.4 percent of his dropbacks, fourth-most of any qualified NFL passer — the real advantages are there for teams that go beyond what’s available to everyone to create their own proprietary data.

Clark gets at that in his piece with a great example: there’s an NFL team that designs plays to go away from the side of the field that an opposing team’s bench is on, so that rotating defensive linemen expend more energy going back and forth onto the field. He writes:

A team stumbles upon some shred of data and builds a play, a playbook, a personnel decision, or an entire scheme around it. It changes how a team drafts, calls plays, and evaluates opponents. All of these trends point to one thing: Football’s analytics moment has arrived.

*Speaking of NFL data, here’s an interesting stat: Cousins has targeted Adam Thielen 47 times while under pressure this season. That’s the most any QB has targeted a specific receiver while under pressure this year.

*There were several highlights from signing day for the Gophers football program on Wednesday, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of Minnesota’s new recruits — Mike Brown-Stephens — is apparently the nephew of famous musician John Legend.

Let me take this opportunity to personally invite Legend and his hilarious author/model wife Chrissy Teigen to a game at TCF Bank Stadium.

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