The NFL claims several qualities, but "progressive" is typically not one of them.
The ethos surrounding the game is often one of tradition. Players who had a father, uncle or grandfather in the NFL (see: the Matthews family) often times follow in the footsteps of their relatives, as do some of the game's higher-profile coaches (Shanahan, Schottenheimer and Ryan to name a few). Once there, players are expected to keep their heads down, follow orders and buy into "the process" so carefully crafted by the coach and his staff.
It's an exclusive fraternity, and those that have been a part of it tend to stay wary of the "outsider perspective" from those that never played or coached the game at that level.
So it shouldn't surprise you too much to learn that of the four major professional sports profiled in a recent ESPN piece on analytics, the NFL was the league most hesitant to embrace the new wave of statistical analysis that has gained traction since the advent of "Moneyball" in Oakland.
Don't believe me? One brief glance through this "Monday Morning Quarterback" roundtable discussion from the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (featuring Thomas Dimitroff!) will all but prove my point. Right off the bat, you can see the skepticism coming from Herm Edwards and Jack Del Rio as they question Advanced Football Analytics' Brian Burke on his methods of dissecting an in-game scenario.
Now, on a surface level, the tendency toward traditional evaluation and decision-making makes sense given that the game of football -- 22 players free to scramble about a 100-yard field with millions of possible end results -- is harder to model with statistics because of its many, many variables. It's not baseball, where the possible outcomes of each at-bat are relatively limited in scope.
That said, it would be silly to deny that statistical analysis has real merits. The reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots, after all, were one of the first organizations to rely on those methods when they hired former Wall Street analyst Ernie Adams as "football research director."
When Dimitroff was hired by the Falcons years later, he brought several of his former Patriots co-workers on board, and with them came the New England philosophy that analytics could be a viable tool for scouts and personnel directors. It's because of this that ESPN lists Atlanta among the "believers" in this type of analysis.
From the piece (which is definitely worth a full read):
Dimitroff employs analytics for draft evaluation, trade and talent assessments (including the controversial deal that brought them Julio Jones), game strategy and more. The Falcons have been implementing new technologies to monitor and improve player health for years, including measurements of exertion in practice and development of a sleep management program.
Dimitroff himself has addressed his stance on so-called advanced statistics with the media numerous times, whether it involves deciding to trade up in the draft, evaluating potential coaching hires or simply scouting college prospects. From the 2013 NFL Combine, via Cincy Jungle:
"It's a supplement, and it goes back to making sure you have all the tools necessary, and hopefully, you have a little bit of an edge over somebody else because you have a different approach. I believe that everyone in the National Football League is aware and cognizant of the proper use of analytics; some are just more in-depth as far as how we then use them."
But even Dimitroff, one of the supposed leading proponents of analytics, is content with calling it a "supplement" to traditional methods. It's not his cure-all.
Now to the interest part, where we ask: to what extent did Mike Smith truly embrace Dimitroff's ideas about analytics?
Generally speaking, the use of analytics to aid in-game decision-making favors a more aggressive style when it comes to play-calling, when to punt and when to go for it on fourth down. This season, Smith was largely (and frustratingly) conservative on these fronts. And in a way, this fits with his persona: Smitty was a player's coach who was known as a communicator and a motivator. A ruthless, Belichickian football tactician he was not.
But this was not always the case. While 2014 was notably marred by some highly questionable clock management displayed in losses to the Lions and Browns, the decision I'd like to focus on is his gamble against the Giants. To refresh, the Falcons were trailing 27-20 with less than five minutes left in regulation, facing 4th-and-1 on their own 29 yard line. Smith elected to go for it, Ryan was sacked and the Falcons lost by 10.
The result inherently makes us think this was the wrong decision. But right or not, this was an aggressive decision that the analytics likely favored. And it was actually vintage Smitty.
As this excellent post from Andrew Healey over at Football Perspective details, Smith was one of the most aggressive head coaches of the last two decades from 2008-2011 based on Football Outsiders' "Aggressiveness Index." However, following a couple of notable failures in 2011 -- two failed fourth down conversions in the playoff loss to the Giants especially comes to mind -- Smith retreated back into his more conventional ways. Healey's chart clearly shows that.
Did he lose faith? Was he tired of bearing the blame for the aggressiveness? Was he simply feeling the pressure of no postseason success? There's no way to be sure. Whatever the case, the trend shows that Smith became more conservative as his stay in Atlanta wore on.
We do know that these ideas were Dimitroff's to start, and Smitty was encouraged to buy in, which he did for a time. But where things stood at the end of Smith's tenure were definitely far rockier. The same could be said of Dimitroff now; his future is uncertain, and the fact that he won't have final say over the 53-man roster can't be encouraging.
What will be interesting is to see whether Dan Quinn chooses to embrace this philosophy in the coming months. My gut says "no" -- he seems to me a coach wired much like Smith -- but perhaps he will surprise me and give analytics a fair shake.
If the last two seasons are any reflection of how conservative decision-making can hinder a football team, my hope is that Quinn at least lends Dimitroff a willing ear. It can't hurt.