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Numbers Game: The Rise of Analytics in the NFL and the Resistance to Embrace It

NFL teams are more aggressive than ever on fourth down, yet spectators of the game seem to be yearning for the more conservative approach of the past

If you asked most people what their least favorite subject in school was, the answer would likely be the same across the board: math. It can be complex, confusing, and frustrating. On the flip side, many people enjoy sports. It is the thrill of competition and the ability that athletes exhibit, especially at the professional level, that people are enamored by. But there has been a trend in the last few years that has married the two entities together, and it is called analytics. Sports analytics is defined as a collection of relevant, historical, statistics that can provide a competitive advantage to a team or individual. One of the last sports to fully embrace analytics has been football. And what we have seen is a distaste for the numbers and a revelation of the true nature of football fans in the way they want the game to be played.

The Results of Analytics in Other Sports

Sports are defined by constant evolution. What worked a decade or two ago is not what will always work. When I was growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, the way baseball, basketball, and football were played were much different than they are today. Back then baseball was about getting on base and stealing bases, and scoring runs in any way possible. In basketball, you tried to get the ball inside to a post player to have them set up the offense. In football, you used the running game to set up the passing game. This was the structure and it was to be accepted. But today baseball is all about the home run, basketball is a game predicated on spacing with the three-point shot, and most football teams set up the run with the pass.

A lot of the changes that we have experienced in these games since I was a kid can be traced back to the analytics movement in the three sports. Baseball has seen an uptick in strikeouts and home runs, with a decrease in stolen bases. This is because the numbers dictate that aiming for a home run is the more efficient path to scoring runs even if it means lower individual at-bat success. The result has been a steady uptick in home runs but a lack of emphasis on getting a base hit and advancing the runner. And this makes many purists of the game disgruntled and feel that the game is less dynamic with a home run or bust mentality. Those purists then will proudly say those analytics have ruined baseball.

In basketball, the analytics argument is much simpler. Let’s say a player takes ten shots from the mid-range (10-22 feet) and ten shots from three-point range. Based on the averages of most players, it is likely that the player will hit between 4 or 5 two-pointers and 3 or 4 three-pointers. This means that in this exercise the two-point shot will have accrued between 8-10 points and the three-point shot will have accrued 9-12. Therefore, the risk of missing the lower percentage three-pointer is worth it because a made shot is worth more. This analytics philosophy believes that there are only two good shots: a three-pointer and a layup/dunk. Anything else is unnecessary. This is yet again a moment where the classic basketball fan feels that analytics has ruined the game.

It is easy to empathize with fans that feel this way in these two sports. My generation grew up on rangy athletic shortstops that could turn singles into doubles and shooting guards that were deadly with foul line jumpers. Analytics in baseball and basketball have made these types of players an endangered species. It was newsworthy recently when the Cleveland Guardians beat the New York Yankees in a playoff game that featured 15 hits which were all singles because it is so rare in the modern game. When it comes to football, however, it seems that analytics is encouraging behavior from coaches that fans should like: aggressive playcalling.

The Let’s Go For It Mentality

Analytics in football has always been based on two statistics: Expected Points (EP) and Expected Points Added (EPA). These statistics help to determine the efficiency and effectiveness of a play by knowing how many points that play will result in. The focus on these statistics has led to more aggressive playcalling on fourth down, something that we have seen a lot recently. Consider the following situation. A team is in the red zone, within the 5-yard line and it is 4th & goal. A field goal attempt from this distance is virtually guaranteed (last season only two kickers in the entire league missed from this distance). Going for it in this situation has an approximately less than 50% success rate. But much like basketball and the three-point shot, 6 points are worth more than the 3. This means that EP and EPA favor going for it on fourth down. And that is what we have seen more of this year.

Yet this is where the mystery of football fans becomes evident. Most football fans like aggressive play, it is one of the reasons that we watch the game. We like it when a team throws the ball deep and when a cornerback gambles to get an interception. A lot of people hated the New England Patriots dynasty, not because they won but because of how they won. They were a dynasty predicated on tight-lipped professionalism that didn’t make mistakes and usually had a strong defense and high-functioning run and short passing games. They weren’t aggressive, they didn’t take chances, and they were boring. Some of our favorite defenses to talk about are the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2001 Baltimore Ravens. Why? Because they blitzed the quarterback and won with toughness. We don’t often talk about the Tampa 2-era Buccaneers as much because they lack that aggressive shine that other defenses had.

So when we see coaches being aggressive and going for it on 4th down, or going for the 2-point conversion to win the game instead of going to overtime logic would dictate that we applaud and reward this approach. But in reality, this is not what happens. Fans are often heard complaining that coaches should have “taken the points” and kicked a field goal. Or that they should have punted on 4 & 1 to “win the field position battle”. They have rejected this aggression and labeled it as foolish ambition from young coaches trying to make their mark on the league.

This could come down to the fact that we have been taught to watch and play football with a sort of tempered approach. That it is better to throw the ball away as a quarterback than to try and escape the pocket to salvage a play. When closing a game it is better to bleed out the clock as opposed to scoring more points to put the game out of reach. Yet when the aggression works there are often sentiments of “gotta love that aggression”, and when it doesn’t work the reaction becomes “this is why you can’t rely on numbers”. It is often the source of the decision that dictates how we feel about it.

The Nerd Jock Complex

Seemingly since the creation of sport, there has been a separation in perception between the athlete and the scholar. The stereotypical views of both categories are etched in our collective psyches: the athletically impressive athlete that lacks intelligence outside of the confines of his sport and the unathletic scholar that retains knowledge from books but does not have the instincts of the athlete. These two entities have always been at odds with one another, so it is natural to expect that the injection of one into the other world would cause some friction.

Football, just like hockey, is considered a tough guy sport. It involves orchestrated and regulated amounts of violence that move in very quick and short bursts. Decisions need to be made in seconds, meaning that it is perhaps one of the more instinctual sports that we play and watch. Condensing it down to strictly a numbers game in many ways feels like an unnatural pivot to many fans. Fans of the game are looking for aggression but on their terms. You will often hear a coach or former player mention making a “gut decision” to go for it on fourth down. We accept this because it bows at the altar of football machismo. But saying that the win probability increases in this situation based on historical data doesn’t align with the culture of football.

Of the three major United States sports, it appears that analytics have benefited football the most. The overall play of the game has pivoted more into what people say that they enjoy: more passing, more points, and more aggressive play calls to win the game. The resistance to this speaks more about the divide between sports and numbers than anything else. The anti-analytics crowd fears that the game that they love so much will be turned into a math problem, something that reminds them of a high school statistics exam that they would rather avoid reliving.

Like in most things, the proper solution is found somewhere in the middle. Going strictly numbers-based is not the answer as it takes away from the magic of the game. But completely ignoring analytical data also just feels rather rigid and undefined. Understanding the probabilities of winning in addition to letting Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes do what they do best should be allowed to co-exist. Perhaps we as fans need to stop being so rigid. Maybe we need to relax and accept the fact that watching a team go for it on 4th down & goal to win a game is fun, regardless of whether that decision was made by a subset of statistics or a coaches gut instinct.

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