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Advanced Analytics In The NFL, Or When Math Permeates Jock Culture

Math is hard. Football is hard. Math and football together is reaaaaaaaaaaaally hard.

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About two weeks ago, Charles Barkley, one of the most entertaining voices in sports media, offered some thoughts on analytics and the concept of analytics as a whole. Well, that's not totally honest. Really, he was using analytics as a way to hit back at Rockets GM Daryl Morey who dropped a Barkley shot on Twitter after Barkley knocked the Rockets' defense.

Morey's an avowed statistician, a product of the Moneyball wave as the co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (think ComicCon, but for sports math). You'll hear about the conference soon since it starts in just a few days. In any case, Morey's entire reputation isn't built on being the Rockets' GM. It's being one of the premier faces of the analytics wave. So in order to try to hit back at him, Barkley just grabbed the whole of "analytics" and pulled.

That worked its way through the media until one ripple came from Rams defensive end Chris Long.

Twitter's truncated verse, it's reliance on the ability to condense anything isn't a great medium for discussing something as complex as the influx of mathematical analysis of sports, in this case football, into the decision making process (DMP).

So with all of that background, this ranking from ESPN of every professional team in American sports from the four major leagues (sorry MLS) of how heavily they've integrated analytics into their DMP is both incredible work and incredibly difficult to unpack. But taking it simply from a perspective of looking at the Rams' usage of advanced metrics (and not the value of thereof in general), it's worth a read.

They ranked every team into one of five categories: All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics and Nonbelievers. The Rams were labeled as a Skeptic (again, you should at least open it up in a tab and roll around in it at some point):

Rams executive vice president/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff is an advocate of statistical analysis and has participated in the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

He has cited the 2012 trade that brought the Rams a bounty of draft picks from the Washington Redskins in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick as an exemplary case. The deal meant the Rams would have 12 first- or second-round picks on their roster under the favorable rookie scale. "Twelve of our best players will make less than $25 million combined in 2014," Demoff said.

Coach Jeff Fisher, while generally a traditionalist, is open-minded and is known to take a nontraditional approach to game management -- especially with fake punts deep in his own territory.

But general manager Les Snead, whose roots are in scouting, is more hostile to analytics. He has endorsed the anti-"Moneyball" book called "Scout's Honor" and has emphasized that teams must "feel" a player's talents more than measure them: "It's like if someone asks you to pick someone as a graduation speaker. Do you just go on his nice résumé or how well he can write and put words together on a sheet of paper? Well, those may be the metrics of the situation. But for me, before you pick that speaker, I want actually go hear him and feel him speak. You want to go to that room and get the feeling of how that room reacts when he talks. Does he move the crowd? If you're in the room, you can feel it, and then you can say, 'Yeah, now he's that guy!'"

If anything, the write-up reflects the blend of philosophies among the senior staff. To me, the larger question is to how much of Demoff's dilettantish interest in the movement influences (if at all) the Rams' immediate decision-making chain.

And to stretch that out, it's just an interesting vein for the NFL, perhaps the sports league most well-suited to ride out the last vestiges of jockish ignorance. The NFL had four of the bottom 10 teams in the rankings, compared to the NBA's three, MLB's two and the NHL's one. There's no denying the league suffers from an intransigence. The slow inclusion of the variety of college-derived schemes and tactics is solid evidence. So is the carousel of failed NFL coaches bobbing up and down across the league's map. The tide of incorporating analytical analysis into the DMP won't come about in a year, or an era. It's a slow wash.

It's a start.