In September, the NBA and STATS LLC announced a partnership to install cameras in every arena to track player movement in order to generate data which has the potential to change the way the game is viewed. Instead of the basic metrics such as points, steal and rebounds, teams (and fans) now have the ability to calculate how fast players run and the distance a player travels throughout the course of a game.
John Pollard, the General Manager of Sports Solutions for STATS LLC, said that the use of similar technology in football is "imminent," most likely in the next two to three years. With the use of player-tracking technology, teams can measure the true speed of a wide receiver or the burst a pass rusher shows off the edge.
It's the next level of information which will be available to front office staffs to help them work more efficiently and aid in the scouting process.
"It adds another level of analysis, another way to be the best that they can be," said Andrew Brandt, ESPN's NFL business analyst who worked in the front offices of the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles. "I think for people in a position like I had - salary cap management, team operations, and the business side - at least from my perspective, they should welcome it. My personal feeling on all of these things is that it's all part of the equation."
Before joining STATS LLC, Pollard worked for Microsoft and in 2007 he saw the role analytics could have in the NFL. Pollard spent time with the New Orleans Saints while doing a project with running back Reggie Bush for Xbox. After talking with their front office execs, Pollard realized that teams could generate spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of information, but there wasn't anything in place to help put those numbers to good use.
That initial meeting led to the development of STATS ICE, which stands for interactive collaboration and evaluation. This database was built to act as a single-source system that aligns a team's entire knowledge base from analytical data to player records to scouting video. Nearly three-quarters of all NFL teams utilize the STATS ICE service and in early 2012 it was offered to college programs. According to Pollard, nearly half of the top 20 teams in the country are already on board.
"We're not a silver bullet," Pollard said.
On any given play, there are 115 data points that can be recorded. The connection with the All-22 coaches tape is important because teams can search how many quarterback hurries linebacker Trent Cole forced, for example, and immediately pull each of them up on tape.
STATS LLC's ability to provide custom analysis for individual teams allows the software developers to keep up with the latest NFL trends and provide teams with what they want. Even though all of this information is available, Pollard went through a period of pitching the service to teams only to receive puzzled looks from across the table.
"Football has just been a little slower to use numbers and information because it's a challenge in trying to figure out how to implement it," Pollard said.
Brandt explained that other sports like baseball and basketball are easier to analyze. Baseball is mostly a one-on-one sport played at a slow pace. Basketball is played under controlled conditions with a limited amount of participants. In football, there are 22 players who have the ability to alter the outcome of each play. Oh, and there's also the factor of the elements especially in the latter part of the season.
"I think there are two sides to analytics - scouting and the gameday side," Brandt said. "For the gameday side, it's probabilities and odds and going for it on certain down and distances on fourth downs, how to handle kickoffs, how to play defense against trends of the other team's down and distances. It's all of those coaching decisions where, in a perfect analytical world, you want to take it all off of the coach on gameday. There is no gut feeling on gameday. It's all about playing the odds and playing the probabilities.
"On the scouting side, and I see this increasing in the NFL, it's looking at a lot of size and speed issues, where some teams don't look at cornerbacks under 5-foot-10. I know teams that won't draft a running back under 185 pounds, teams that won't take a linebacker with certain speed deficiencies and some teams have to have more speed on the defensive line, those kind of things. So I think the scouting part of it is really interesting, and I think that's become more prevalent recently. The challenge is to weigh which data is relevant."
As much as Pollard promotes the analytical side, he knows that the human element will always remain the most critical. Pollard's point is that he wants to make those who are the smartest at what they do even smarter and keep them on the cutting edge.
"You can make the experts more efficient in what they do," he said. "The provision of more information doesn't necessarily make it effective. We're in the business of trying to provide teams solutions."