One of the fun aspects of listening to the Broncos press conferences in real time is hearing Vic Fangio speak on a variety of topics that are benign enough to go unreported by most in the media.
Yesterday it gave me the opportunity to hear him respond to a question on analytics in real time.
The Broncos head coach was asked to answer how well he has gotten to know the Director of Football Analytics Mitch Tanney and how analytics help him as a coach. His response:
“It helps. It’s part of the equation. I like analytics. I look at everything he does. It does not control me though. Football is a different game. Analytics in baseball is super valuable because you’re only defending one person. You’re defending the batter. Here we have to defend five eligible [receivers], six if you count the quarterback. When you’re only defending one item, that’s a whole lot easier and analytics is more important, but when you’ve got five eligible to defend it puts a whole different spin on things. Analytics is important, but it is by no means the end-all, cure-all in football.”
To me, this seems perfectly reasonable. If you didn’t already know, I credit Football Outsiders as a huge influence in how I got so obsessed with the NFL way back in 2003. While its data and projections are brilliant, it also gets a lot of things wrong. So does Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions, Warren Sharp and every other analytics expert.
This isn’t meant to discredit their work by any means. Football is just notoriously difficult to breakdown to simple math.
One reason for this is because the NFL’s regular season goes all of 16 games. It’s a really small sample size compared to say the NBA (82 games) or MLB (162 !!!). Beyond that, you have roster size (53 compared to say, 15 in the NBA) and injuries (football has the most by a country mile).
So even without diving into things like fumble luck, the randomness of kicker production, etc., there are a lot of variables to consider with football.
Maybe my orange shades are on too tight, but that’s all Fangio seemed to be saying with the last half of his quote above. This didn’t stop me from expecting pandemonium last night:
Gonna be interesting to see if any nerds have thoughts on this one. Best case scenario is combining the human, strategic, and analytical elements. Sounds like Fangio gets that. https://t.co/hxTexCBESo— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) July 25, 2019
Needless to say, they did have some thoughts.
Kevin Cole from Pro Football Focus was the first to share his disappointment:
Fangio re analytics. Same old, same old pic.twitter.com/OczWeSJs30— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) July 26, 2019
When Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and I asked him how Fangio’s response was a problem, Cole read between the lines and made an assumption.
It's so focused on downplaying analytics. Imagine you substituted "film study" for analytics and maybe basketball for baseball (film study is easier in basketball). It would still all be true, but no coach would ever say that. They wouldn't focus 90% of the statement on negatives— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) July 26, 2019
Cole was hardly the only analytical expert to take issue with Fangio’s quote. He was just the first.
Warren Sharp followed shortly after, but he shared a cutup version of the quote to make his own point.
Don’t confuse thoughts on this for defending Fangio blindly, mind you. If he makes decisions that actively hurt the Broncos chances because he ignores what the numbers unequivocally suggest he do, I’ll be among the first to criticize him.
But I also think analysts who rely on mathematical equations and context to make their points should also remember said context when they take issues with a response to a reporter in July.
Perhaps I’m too close to the Broncos to realize how little the national media pays attention, but all reports since Fangio has been hired suggest he’s keeping up with the data.
Apparently this quote from today from Vic Fangio is being perceived as anti-analytics...?— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) July 26, 2019
I was there.
Vic is very pro analytics, he was simply trying to explain that he views it as a piece of the puzzle and not some magic moneyball formula. pic.twitter.com/XrU0J9mHhK
Maybe it’d pay to dig into that before you try to translate what a coach is saying to a reporter?
I've dealt with enough skeptics enough to know that the script now is give analytics vague lip service ("it's important" ) and the rest of the stuff he says translates to "I take analytics into account if confirms my beliefs"— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) July 26, 2019
At the end of the day, the very best teams in football bring analytics, film and the human element of the game together.
To me that’s what Fangio was saying in his response, and it’s something that came across as a refreshing after the previous coaching staff refused to use play action when every bit of evidence suggested Case Keenum was a much better passer with it.
We’ll see who’s right in time, but as I’ve said a number of other times...it’s July. Stop making assumptions based on shaky evidence.
How much do you think ‘analytics’ should be used in football?
This poll is closed
ONLY the numbers!!
I’ll stick with the "eye test," thank you very much.
Fangio’s got it right - one piece of the puzzle