One of the biggest philosophical debates surrounding the NFL at the moment is how big of a role analytics should play during game planning and in-game decision making. In its most basic essence it is this: If his own intuition says this but the numbers suggest something else, what should a coach decide to do?
There is no definitive “one way or another” in this debate given how nuanced each individual situation is during a football game and what factors can impact the outcome of every single play. That being said, some — especially on social media — are vocally fighting in favor of using more analytics in the game while others are strictly against it.
Then, there is New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who said the following during his appearance at the NFL’s Quarterback Coaching Summit earlier this week (via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution):
“I’d prefer good players, good fundamentals and good execution.”
What seems like a rather innocent remark on the surface, actually was a standard Belichick answer to a question he has been asked multiple times before. He has repeatedly said that he would not be looking at the information provided by outlets such as Pro Football Focus, and in 2019 claimed that this sort of analytics “is not really my thing.”
He also spoke about the topic in 2017 when asked whether advanced analytics have impacted his team’s focus on the quick passing game.
“You could take those advanced websites and metric them — whatever you want. I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say,” Belichick said at the time. “As far as a quarterback goes, read the coverage, throw the ball to the open receiver and take the best matchup. That’s what it is in a nutshell. ...
“It’s timing, decision making, execution by the entire offensive team. That’s what the passing game is. The receivers have got to get open and catch the ball. The quarterback’s got to read the coverage, make the right decision and make an accurate throw. All the metric pages and all of that, I mean I have no idea. You’d need to ask that to a smarter coach than me.”
His statement at the Quarterback Coaching Summit this week was therefore in line with previous ones. Nonetheless, some context needs to be added to get a better grasp of Belichick’s thoughts on analytics.
Mike Sando of The Athletic also participated in the call, for example, and later added the following to the original quote:
Belichick said many decisions are "60-40" (he means closer than that) & the margins are frequently too small for models to override other factors out of hand. I read his dismissive tone as weariness with media fascination he sees as disproportionate to impact. https://t.co/NcWT74aKiv— Mike Sando (@SandoNFL) June 22, 2021
The question therefore becomes what Belichick really thinks of analytics, and the evidence suggests that he does indeed use it — at least in his own format and not the one promoted by PFF or other websites of that kind.
New England, after all, has always tried to win by preparation. Recently retired research director Ernie Adams said so himself during an appearance in the NFL Films documentary Do Your Job back in 2015.
“You’re going to win or lose games in practice,” he said. “I mean, there is no such thing as being a game-day player. You see situations come up on the practice field; you’ve worked on it; you know what it takes. When it comes up in a game, because you’re trained, you’re seasoned, you’ve seen it, you react to make the play.”
Adams’ remarks actually give a good insight into how the Patriots view the role of analytics. Mathematical models and statistical calculation may have a role in the process, but the most important thing is to get a feel for what opposing teams are going to do in certain situations and work on those appropriately.
“We have ways we do things. That’s just the way it is,” Adams also said during that documentary. “To be honest, we get players from other teams and they say, ‘Coach this is totally different than anything else we’ve ever been around.’ Well, I’ve been with Bill since 1979 at the Giants; this is the only way I know. ... We have ways we do it, and that’s really the only way we know.”
When it comes to analytics, Belichick is not going to fundamentally change his ways like other organizations appeared to have done (his former team, the Cleveland Browns, are a prime example for that). Instead, he and his team — even with Adams no longer a part of it — will rely on analysis as one piece of the preparatory puzzle.
When push comes to shove during a game, however, New England’s head coach will continue to make calls based on his own understanding of the situation instead of listening to what, in drastic terms, some numbers on a spreadsheet tell him to do.
Whether or not that mode of operation has a long-term future in today’s NFL remains to be seen, but if there is one person that deserves the benefit of the doubt it is Bill Belichick. He and his organization have incorporated their own brand of advanced analysis into their operation over the past two decades, and it has allowed them to outsmart the rest of the league on a consistent basis.