Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus talks to Boardroom about how analytics have changed the NFL and the merits of the draft scouting combine.
Analytics are more important than ever before in the NFL, and Super Bowl LVII participants, the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, employ them in vastly different ways. At Radio Row in Phoenix, Boardroom spoke with Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson about how analytics have changed the league this season, how the business has changed, and whether it’s worth getting rid of the draft scouting combine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
SHLOMO SPRUNG: How have analytics changed the game over the last few years and even over the course of the 2022 NFL season?
SAM MONSON: It’s changing all the time. The most obvious way you can see it on a weekly basis is those 4th down decisions; when to go for it, when to kick, when to punt. Going back a few years, it was seen as heresy that somebody went for a 4th-and-2. ‘What are you doing? Punt that ball every time.’ And now it’s almost done the other way. Now if teams are not going for those situations, they’re taking heat, they have to explain that in press conferences. Every team has some kind of analytical model that tells them when to go for it. And whether or not they follow it, a mechanism giving them the information in real time during games exists. And that’s such a difference from just a few years ago.
SS: It seems like the bigger the game has gotten, the less risk averse coaches have become.
SM: I think that’s probably true. There are definitely some coaches that understand that the aggressive nature is how you win games. A lot of these aggressive decisions are the ways that you steal win percentage points in a given game or the other way that you can overcome the odds. I think a lot of coaches and teams understand when they’re underdogs, right? And if you’re a seven-point underdog, you need to do something in the game to flip that seven points in your direction. If that’s stealing a drive here because you went for it on 4th-and-2 instead of kicking it and hoping your defense holds, that’s the way you can do it. Coaches are definitely understanding that the aggressive mindset when it comes to play-calling and decisions is part of how you win those games.
SS: How have the Chiefs and Eagles utilized analytics in the most tangible ways?
SM: The Eagles have been at the forefront of progressive, smart, data-driven teams for a long time and they’ve had a very bulked up analytics department, a group of guys that understands these things for years now. They were one of the first teams where we were meeting with and talking to them at the scouting combine and you understood that they had smart guys in the room and doing a lot of clever things with data and information. They’ve generally been at the forefront of this entire movement, and you can kind of see it again with their decisions. They generally don’t make calls and play decisions in-game that are obviously not in line with what the data says.
SS: Nick Sirianni seems very down for the cause.
SM: Yeah, absolutely. You can see it very well with them. The Chiefs are a little bit more interesting because they’re not as by-the-book when it comes to those kinds of decisions, but they do a few other things, whether by coincidence or by design, that are analytic type moves. They’re really pass heavy, even in neutral situations, when the game script or the down and distance isn’t relevant. That’s another thing where analytics says you’re more efficient passing the ball, particularly when you have a Patrick Mahomes doing it, than you are trying to run the ball for the sake of “balance.”
SS: From a Pro Football Focus perspective, how has the business of analytics changed this season?
SM: It’s really just a case of continuing to scale upwards. Right now we’re not seeing any dramatic revolutions. The closest would be that now teams are getting the player tracking data that’s being added to all the other information. Football in general is now focusing less on 40 times and more on “what does that look like on the field?” Game speed instead of a 40 time. “What is a guy doing on his go routes? What miles per hour is this guy hitting?” Then you’re tying that to all the data instead of those raw 40 times from the combine and guys in shorts. That’s probably the cutting edge of it right now, marrying this player tracking data with conventional information we already had.
SS: There’s been talk here at Super Bowl week of getting rid of the scouting combine. From an analytic perspective, has the combine run its course?
SM: I think teams still value the kind of baseline data, and more data is always better than less. Teams will always probably fight to keep something like that. The other thing they love is the medicals, some [love] the interviews, and getting all that done in one place. There are a lot of reasons why the combine still makes a lot of sense. What does have some merit is [that] maybe it’s outlived its usefulness in terms of how much you want to lean on that stuff. Player tracking data is becoming more important. If a guy doesn’t run a 40, it doesn’t mean anything. Teams can already extrapolate his 40 based off of what we know from his college times.
SS: Maybe the combine can become less of a meat market and more of a job fair.
SM: Perhaps. I think that’s absolutely true.
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