The Patriots and Giants’ leading rushers are ranked 27th and 29th in the league in yards gained.
The Patriots are notorious for being close-mouthed. Jack Mula, a former agent who from 1999 to 2008 was general counsel-player personnel for the team, said number crunching is just one part of the Patriots‘ philosophy. How much, he didn’t want to get into.
“Yes, it’s a tool, but it’s one tool,” Mula said. “On the carpenter’s belt. It’s the one that he should regularly be checking his work against.”
Mula said there’s far more to decision-making than numbers in the Patriots‘ way of thinking. While he figures nearly every club uses analytics to some degree, it’s the way they use it “that probably separates New England” from most other teams. And if a club isn’t crunching the numbers, “to me that explains why they’ll forever be in the basement,” Mula said.
Boston is a mecca for sports number junkies. The Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots are big into using numbers and every year MIT hosts a conference on it.
And while the Pats win respect for following the numbers guys’ advice in trading players for the future, a failed fourth-and-2 attempt at a first down in their own territory a couple of years ago still gets talked about.
Yet that strategy has been studied so frequently that Schatz calls the topic too boring and accepted to talk about.
Moskowitz looked at a decade of about 7,000 fourth-down situations in the NFL. He calculated how often fourth-down attempts are successfully converted. He calculated the results of improved field positions from punts. He looked at the outcome of the decisions. He charted out every position on the field and different yardage situations in most of them _ even fourth-and-5 yards to go _ and it made more statistical sense to go for a first down, he said. And the other stats guys agree wholeheartedly.
Even more than the Patriots, a high school football team in Little Rock, Ark., has embraced football analytics with a passion. Coach Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy has gone for it on fourth down more than 500 times since he took over in 2003; getting first downs 49 percent of the time. In the past five years he’s only punted five times; but he’s also won the state championship twice in those five years and three times in his nine-year tenure.
He figures punting gains a 30-yard advantage in field position, but a 1-in-2 chance of keeping possession of the ball is far more worth it. He also only does onside kicks, but he has a dozen intricately choreographed versions, and gets the ball back about one-quarter of the time. In one game against a powerhouse rival last year, his team scored four touchdowns and led 29-0 after consecutive recovered onside kicks before the other team got the chance to run an offensive play.
When you ask why Kelley doesn’t play by “the book,” he responds: “Which book are you talking about? The one everyone uses or the one that’s right?”
Kelley said many people don’t adopt football analytics “because self-preservation kicks in. It’s `I’m worried about my job and I don’t want to fight the battle.’”
And Kelley wouldn’t mind if other football coaches don’t follow his lead: “I have an advantage right now over everybody else.”