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On the Falcons' use of analytics, and why it isn't part of the problem

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The Falcons have a lot of issues to sort out. The application of modern statistics is not one of them.

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The Atlanta Falcons like analytics. This much we know thanks to a recent ESPN feature, in which every NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL team was categorized and profiled based on its penchant (or lack thereof) for advanced stats.

Atlanta fell into the "Believers" section thanks to the numbers-savvy Thomas Dimitroff, which, predictably, hasn't sat well with some fans. Take a gander at the comments on this Facebook post for a small sample of criticism.

Why do people feel the use of analytics is bad news? Well, the Falcons have posted two consecutive losing seasons. Dimitroff gave Sam Baker that awful contract and hasn't fixed the pass rush. Moreover, his drafting hasn't been up to par.

So, essentially, people think "Dimitroff isn't doing his job well," then see "Dimitroff uses analytics" and think they're connecting the dots. They think Atlanta's poor record since 2013 discredits this mysterious practice.

But it doesn't work that way.

Many of these cynics, in my experience, don't understand how executives balance the tools at their disposal. There's an assumption amongst traditionalists that analytically-driven minds swear by the numbers and nothing but the numbers. This is untrue. You won't find a sports analyst worth his or her salt who believes all useful information can be gleaned from spreadsheets.

Those people simply don't exist. They are straw men.

There are people, however, who realize statistical analysis, when used in conjunction with old-fashioned scouting, has plenty of value. Dimitroff, for example:

Analytics is definitely the wave of the future, and I think a lot of teams are very interested in it. It's a supplement for making decisions in my mind. It's never going to be ‘the' answer." I think if you take intelligent enough people who know how to use analytics, and they don't overplay the importance of analytics, I think it can be very beneficial. It can be beneficial in bio-mechanical assessment when you are talking about evaluating players and acquiring players and how they move. It also can be used for a statistical analysis. It also could be used for a heart-rate monitoring analysis.

The Falcons, like all NFL teams, constantly pore over film. They have a big group of scouts and coaches who have centuries worth of experience in evaluating talent. It just so happens that they -- along with many proven winners -- let new, complex data influence their decision-making.

By now, everyone should.

A GM often utilizes a team of advisors when tasked with a big decision. The numbers are more or less an extra voice -- one prone to fewer errors than anyone else in the room.

If you're about to invest millions of dollars in an athlete, why not employ new intelligence? You don't have to say "Player X has a better PFF rating than Player Y, so we're going with Player X," but how could you not put some value in what Pro Football Focus has to offer?

How could you look at research on aging curves, defensive trends and coaching strategies and not trust this stuff is worth parsing?

In such a ridiculously competitive league, how could you not seek every possible edge?

I study analytics all the time, and I've found doing so not only makes me a better writer, but a much more critical thinker, as well. The process usually goes as such: I watch the game, draft a set of opinions based on the tape, then see if my thoughts match up with the data. If they do, great! In those cases, I feel more confident about vocalizing my ideas and can build stronger arguments.

If the eyeball test and the stats don't match up, I ask, Why? Usually it's because I missed something or put too much weight on particular moments. There are 22 players on the field at once; no one can watch football and correctly assess every moving part. I'm no exception, you're no exception, Dimitroff is no exception.

If I never took the time to question my own judgements, I'd be walking around with a lot of toxic misinformation floating in my head. This goes for most aspects of life -- not just football.

If you still don't believe in the benefits of analytics, consider the top 10 and bottom 10 teams on the aforementioned ESPN story. The top 10 features two baseball heavyweights (the Yankees and the Red Sox), the best organization in basketball (the Spurs) and a hockey club that's won two Stanley Cups since 2009 (the Blackhawks).

Conversely, the bottom 10 is a collection of horribly mismanaged franchises. The Lakers, the Phillies, the Jets, the Titans, the Washington Football Team -- none are models for success. None.

True, the Falcons aren't exactly a model for success either, but their problems don't stem from the application of modern stats. Rather, their issues exist in spite of it.

You don't have to believe me. Just ask the front offices who win championships.