Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 3, 2008

Football's Intelligence Community

Aaron Schatz started a movement, and now he's working with other sports' stats gurus.

Jake Rake

"On third-and-1, running the ball will convert for a new set of downs 36% more often than a pass will."

This information, presented in the "Pregame Show" of the 2008 Pro Football Prospectus 2008, exemplifies the advantage gained through objective analysis of what happens on the field during football games. Simply ascertaining that one is more likely to succeed in a given situation than another is invaluable information to a team that wishes to succeed (which in theory, at least, is all teams; Detroit Lions, I'm looking your way).

"There was no community of football analysts before I started Football Outsiders."—Aaron Schatz

Aaron Schatz created Football Outsiders, a website dedicated to the objective analysis of professional football, with a few friends from college in August 2003. In the years since, Football Outsiders has expanded to an annual book, a partnership with Fox Sports, and a staff of 16, including writers, editors, tech and stats guys, and a cartoonist.

Schatz, the editor of Pro Football Prospectus, talked to Gelf about crossover with baseball, Purple Jesus's love life, and what he really thinks about Brett Favre. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Schatz and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, August 7th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: You'll have to forgive me; I'm more of a baseball guy, so I apologize in advance for looking for a baseball comparison in just about everything you tell me about football.

Aaron Schatz: I actually do that, too. When it comes to the kind of stuff that we do, to most people, that's their frame of reference.

GM: There is a lot of crossover between your work and that of Bill James, sabermetrics, and Baseball Prospectus.

AS: Right, that's how I got started, too. I was a baseball fan and a football fan, but a baseball fan first, and got into that stuff, so the fact that some of the stuff we do is similar to them or borrowed from them is on purpose.

GM: There does seem to be some degree of crossover, though. I see that Will Carroll, of Baseball Prospectus, has an essay in the '08 Football Prospectus, for example.

AS: Yeah, that was part of my idea. I felt like, if we were gonna do this, I wanted to get the benefits of the relationships, you know, so they would promote the book a little more, and I opened the doors to anybody from Baseball Prospectus who wanted to cross over. Will was the one person who really did, and it's worked out great for him, because now he writes football columns for Sports Illustrated during the season and it adds to what he does in baseball. I was always really big on the idea of cooperation and I'm friends with a lot of the basketball guys, too. I think we're all basically in this together even if, you know, what Dean Oliver, Roland Beech, and Kevin Pelton study is a different sport than what I study. We can all get ideas from each other.

GM: I guess it's multidisciplinary, because everyone is really attempting to look at their sports objectively and in the abstract.

AS: Yeah, and you can get ideas from each other not only from what you can do with stats, but how you can appeal to an audience.

GM: What would you say are the most undervalued statistics on football right now?

AS: You mean of standard numbers?

GM: Anything, really. If you were given a team and a budget and the owners said, "Now do with this what you will," what would you look for in players that maybe the other guys aren't, so as to maximize the efficiency of money spent on players? For example, how walks were undervalued in baseball 20 years ago.

AS: Well, it doesn't quite work like that. Football team owners are far more advanced, when it comes to understanding their sport, than baseball owners were 20 years ago. And that's not to say that they're perfect, or that they all know everything—I mean, there's a continuum—but football teams have always been more comfortable with objective analysis than baseball teams. They don't necessarily do the same type of regression stuff that I do, but they've always been more comfortable with computers, they've always been more comfortable with stats—you know, there aren't that many stats in football, so they create their own, and that's what the rest of us have access to.
That's what film study is; that's what the quality-control guy does. The quality-control guy tracks what your next opponent has done in its last five games, in a way that the rest of us can't because we don't have access to those films. And he can tell the coach, "In third and long, they run a three-wide package this percentage of the time, they run a four-wide this percentage of the time, and they run out of it this percentage of the time." And that is objective statistical analysis.

GM: Why do you think it worked out that way?

AS: Teams have always been more comfortable with this because the rules change more often in football, so teams' strategies have to change more often. Teams are always looking to get a leg up. Nobody's using a book that's the same as it was in 1923. You know, "The Book"?
Because of the salary cap, there was more importance placed on economic efficiency. Also, because many football teams were family-owned, we have a little bit of a theory that it made it more comfortable for teams to be run by non-ex-players.

"Football team owners are far more advanced, when it comes to understanding their sport, than baseball owners were 20 years ago."
GM: Because one play can change one game, which has a larger impact on the entire season than in other sports?

AS: Yeah, because one big play changes a whole game, and you only get 16 of them. And one injury can destroy your team, if it's your quarterback; look at Carolina last year.
If you look at teams over a four-or-five year string, you would get a really good idea of who the best front offices are, but one year doesn't tell you things. To give you a good example, one of the best front offices in the game, without question, is Philadelphia's, but the Eagles missed the playoffs last year. They're consistent, year in and year out. I mean, if you look at this decade, there have been four teams that have basically been consistent every year and winning every year: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New England, and Philadelphia. Seattle, also, after you get past the first few years of the decade.

GM: Each of those teams has also had a consistent quarterback for a number of years.

AS: Right, but not necessarily. Obviously, Philadelphia had to deal with injuries to their quarterback. Pittsburgh has had multiple quarterbacks during that string. But yeah, it is the most important position on the field. It's not as important as the media would like to make you believe, given the amount of time they spend covering each position, and it's particularly not as important as the media would like to make you believe, given the amount of time they spend covering the girlfriends of players at each position.

GM: But everybody loves that stuff.

AS: Oh, admit it, you have no clue who Terence Newman dates!

GM: Yeah, I'm just kidding. I don't give a shit.

AS: [laughs] You don't even know who Adrian Peterson dates, and they call him "Purple Jesus!"

GM: I guess what I'm picking up from you is that the difference between the establishment and the reality is less different in football than it is in baseball, or even basketball. In baseball, for example, you have the private sector analyzing what happens on the field and seeing the game very differently from the way the teams do. Thoughts?

AS: In baseball, those have sort of merged over the years as front offices have come to accept this stuff. In football, that hasn't happened because of the fact that teams were comfortable with analysis. They have their own sort of proprietary things—a lot of their analysis is based on turning scouting into numbers—so you don't have that community of people where they go back and forth. Let's be honest, there was no community of football analysts before I started Football Outsiders.

GM: Any predictions for this season?

AS: Well, some guys will throw some stuff…

GM: Games will be played, someone will get hurt…

AS: There's every indicator that Philadelphia will go back to being one of the top teams in the league; there are lots of indicators that Cleveland will take a step backwards; Minnesota should be very good, although they have quarterback problems.

GM: Do you care at all about this whole Brett Favre thing? [Author’s note: My Microsoft Word spell check recognizes "Favre" but not "Jurevicius." Racist.]

AS: I care, because I'm a football fan. I care because it's my job and it has an impact on fantasy and playoff projections.

GM: It doesn't just seem boring at this point?

AS: He's a narcissistic dick.

Related in Gelf

Schatz also spoke to Gelf last December.

Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at JakeRake.com.







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Article by Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at JakeRake.com.

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