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Why numbers?




This is a great question and one that deserves to be explored. The analytics revolution has swept through professional baseball and basketball and has had a tremendous impact on not only how we view the sport from the outside looking in, but also how the sports are actually played. When we look at those two factors specifically we can begin to see where it might take us in football as well.

Baseball might have been the first sport to really embrace analytics. Baseball is a sport of numbers after all. However, what is more important is that most of the action is a one on one action. It's hitter versus pitcher. So, charting success or failure is a lot easier. Analytics started as a way of figuring out which players were really good and which players weren't. This impacted general managers and agents more than managers. Managers might use it to determine who played and who didn't, but it really didn't impact strategy at first.

Then, we started to see it. Teams bunted less often. Teams attempted fewer stolen bases. Teams started to use exaggerated shifts more often. From a fan perspective this created a bit of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, teams that used analytics were more successful. Yet, the game is much less fun to watch. There is less athleticism and less action. Old guard fans want more bunts. They want more stolen bases. They want fewer home runs and fewer strikeouts. They decry the absence of being able to hit with two strikes. All of these things happened because those inside the sport realized they could become more efficient and effective by shedding themselves of these strategies that offered less bang for the buck.

Basketball teams obviously had a similar revolution. Teams seemingly either dunk the ball or shoot three pointers. Teams rarely shoot the mid range jumper and the teams that do are not nearly as successful. Coaches and executives came around on the numbers. They realized the three point shot creates points more efficiently. So, even if the game looks less entertaining, they are more likely to win when they employ those strategies.

This brings us to football,. There is still a disconnect between what seemingly works in terms of strategy and production and what looks like it would work in terms of strategy and production. The vertical passing game is a perfect example. It has been a staple for guys like Al Davis for decades and some players are obviously better than others. There might not be a more exciting play to watch than a 50 yard bomb with a wide receiver and corner back dueling it out one on one. While the play might be exciting to watch, it also is a lot less successful.

Quarterbacks have seen their numbers increase over the years and that's particularly true in completion percentage. A 70 percent quarterback is more effective than a 55 percent quarterback. This brings us to candidates like Joe Lombardi. Lombardi grew up in the short passing attack of New Orleans. Drew Brees didn't have the strongest of arms, so he didn't throw the ball down the field. He also set records for accuracy throughout his career. It is easy to simply assume one was a direct result of the other. It could also be that Sean Payton stumbled on a more efficient way to run offenses than others. As usually is the case, a combination of those factors is usually the right answer.

There is a "leader of men" quality to coaching that can't be ignored. Yet, there are three things that bring consistent success and none of those are leadership type qualities. Teams that are more talented win more often. Coaches that are elite schemers on offense or defense win more games than those that aren't. Coaches that can make quicker adjustments are more likely to be successful than others. Sure, there are games where one team may "want it more" than the other, but teams don't win consistently that way. These are professionals and winning on emotion doesn't happen very often. Winning with superior talent, strategy, and execution does.

So, when coordinators walk through the door we should look at how their teams did. We should study that and compare it to how those teams did before that guy got there. We should compare that with how the Texans have done in those categories. We should cast the net wide on not only candidates but on information. The more we know the better the decision will be. Numbers don't win championships, but the can tell us who knows what they are doing and whether their strategies bring fruit. Obviously, watching their offenses or defenses are important too, but we can be fooled by how things look. No one enjoys launch angles and spin rates in baseball either, but you do enjoy watching your team play in October. Similarly, we enjoy watching our football teams play in January and February. Often times, the numbers can be more valuable than how things might look with the naked eye.