Blessed Are The Geeks ...
There was a time, not so long ago, when teams were smarter than everyone else. A time when Football Men had all the answers—theirs was a game with as vast a knowledge gap between the insiders and the outsiders as any other sport. But this was before the Moneyball revolution changed baseball and began to seep into other sports; before the rise of fans who began to rethink the conventional wisdom; before those fans began tracking every play with such high levels of precision that teams began asking them for data. This was before Burke sat down in front of his laptop four years ago, in a hotel room in Karachi, Pakistan, and attacked the fourth-down conundrum to create what would become a New Age blueprint for winning games.
On the surface Burke couldn’t have been a more unlikely creator of one of the biggest innovations in football statistics. A Navy pilot turned weapons and tactics expert for a military contractor, he’d only recently heard of the godfather of sports analytics, Bill James. But he was an obsessive football fan who knew the power of numbers; in combat in Iraq between the Gulf Wars he’d put his life in the hands of analytical techniques and probabilistic calculations and come out alive. Holed up in a hotel during a three-week work trip to Pakistan in September 2008 (“We could never leave the hotel [out of danger],” he says; “I had a lot of free time”), Burke hit on the idea of building a statistical model that would yield the odds of a team’s winning a game in every on-field situation—every down-and-distance from every position on the field, for every point margin. Win Probability would tell a team what it should do based on the numbers, a data set that has since grown to more than 3,000 actual games.
Nothing gets passions going more (outside of Tim Tebow) than the stats-geeks-vs-the-world debate. Raheem Morris famously quipped, "Stats are for losers," and then proceeded to get fired. Others like Bill Belichick have fully embraced them. You may even remember during Josh McDaniels's brief tenure, he gave a very statistically-based answer as to why he always deferred the opening kickoff--studies had shown that there was a slight edge to be gained in number of possessions. Of course, like Morris, he too was fired.
So who's right? No matter where you come down on the debate, you'll probably find this SI piece interesting. It reads part history, part statistics, and part biography of the guys who decided to make football statistics part of their very core.
Personally, and I know I'm not alone here at IAOFM, when given the chance to combine the tape with advanced metrics like Burke's, we try and take it (and believe me, I love running regressions as much as the next stat geek). This was really brought home to us last year after watching how often Haloti Ngata dominated his opponents with god-like swim moves in order to hammer a runner in the backfield. Since there's no-beaten-by-swim-move stat, the individual performance would be logged to the running back (and his average yards per carry).
One thing's for certain, though: the debate over advanced NFL statistics will continue to rage in an NFL city near you.