Analytics in Washington

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Published on: December 2, 2014

Tony Kornheiser made some interesting statements on the radio the other day regarding what the organization in Washington D.C. should do about their terrible football team. You can read a more in depth piece about those comments here, but the main thrust of the situation was that Washington should start looking at analytics to improve their player selection process.

On the surface, I agree with this position. I am a firm believer in using useful mathematics to improve decision making processes. I started this blog in an attempt to inform people that we can develop individual player analytics in football and predict something about team performance from them.

However, in my humble opinion, Washington will not be the place that the football analytic revolution begins. Mostly I think that because of the actions of the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder. Before I say what I’m about to say, I want you to know that I have no intimate knowledge of Daniel Snyder. I’ve never even met the man. But I can observe his behavior and his public facing behavior leads me to believe something very important about Daniel Snyder and how he may see the world.

It is my impression that Daniel Snyder loves certainty. His behavior seems to follow a profile of X will do Y, Y will do Z, we want Z so therefore let’s go get X. He made a tremendous amount of money entirely on this principle. He had a small company that wanted to do something slightly different, he would go out and acquire another company that did that specific thing, and incorporate it into the original company’s machinery. He’s made his entire living on being able to understand the needs of his organization and then trusting that the assets he spends a tremendous amount of money to acquire will become worth more than what he originally paid for them.

Don’t get me wrong, Snyder’s certainty has served him well in the contexts he was in when he made his billions. Certainty can be a good thing for business leaders, mostly because it allows them to remain leaders. Humans are really bad at differentiating confidence from competence. Projecting certainty creates an environment where people will follow you. So, in some contexts, having lots of certainty makes a lot of sense. The only problem is, football is not one of those contexts.

It’s like my colleague who had difficulty driving on ice. She was originally from California and went to college in Arizona, so she never had to learn about what driving on icy roads is like. In addition, the person who taught her how to drive was a stock car driver. She was taught that to make the most efficient turns, you steer into the bottom of the turn, accelerate quickly through the bottom of the turn, and then steer out on the high side of the corner. And that works well for getting through turns quickly and efficiently. In addition, living in California and Arizona means you never have to confront the fundamental assumption that driving in such a way rests on – traction. If there’s no traction – like say when you’re driving on ice – one must drive in a completely different, opposite way. Accelerating through the bottom of a turn is a really good way to spin your wheels and wipe out. Instead, you have to always ensure that changes in direction never coincide with changes in speed. You can do one, but not the other. In my mind this is what Snyder is doing. He is taking a method that has always worked in the past, applying it to a different context, not recognizing that the underlying reality is different, and wiping out on the ice that is the process of building an NFL team.

You can see this in the future draft capital he gave away to move up to the #2 pick in the 2012 draft to get RG3. Generally speaking, it is a really bad idea to give away future draft picks to move up.  But such a strategy does make sense in a particular light, the light of certainty. If you absolutely feel like you know that this one particular player is going to work out, then it makes every bit of sense to act as Snyder did in 2012. Unfortunately, in football, having such certainty is disconnected from reality. The dirty little secret about player evaluation in football is that nobody knows who’s going to be good or bad. There are too many things to take into account. The amount of error in prediction is so astounding that no human brain can comprehend it. The best mathematical model I can create was accounting for about 15% of what makes a good NFL quarterback at last check. The reality of the NFL says that the way to create a winning team is to stockpile draft picks, evaluate everyone as if they were all drafted in the same round, and repeatedly draft multiple players at the same position (i.e. at least try out a new quarterback every single year).

The mindset you need to build a football team analytically is a mindset of uncertainty. You must accept the general premise that no one knows anything about anyone, the best models will get you 15% of the way to where you need to be, and you need to put yourself in a position to make luck work for you. I do not believe an individual like Snyder – a self-made billionaire used to projecting certainty from a leadership position – would value these qualities. There’s already the story of the economist that Washington hired to do analytic research for them in 2006 who quit after seven weeks of being marginalized in the organization.

The analytic revolution in football is coming quietly. The teams that end up doing analytics very well are not going to make a bit splash about it. The Seahawks and Packers come to mind as teams that, I believe, are on the forefront of the football analytics movement but are not saying a public word about it. Washington is simply not the place where people will be quiet about a new idea. And, ultimately, talking a new analytics department or bringing in some fresh-faced savior with their fancy mathematical model while demanding mechanistic links between actions and outcome will result in utter failure of the analytics process. If Washington brought someone like me into the organization, I feel like Snyder would demand I hit the gas at the bottom of the turn.   And while I might not be certain about much in football I am certain about this. Either I’d have to jump from the car or we’d both wipe out together.

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