Bill Belichick Says He's Not Into Analytics, But Patriots Seem to Employ Analytical Tactics


Bill Belichick has given plenty of great, dismissive quotes. He provided a zinger about Chip Kelly’s critics recently, and who can forget his quotes on social media platforms.

And he has now chimed in on analytics, in light of, I assume, the Browns hiring Paul DePodesta (and I think there’s a whole other wormhole we can go down about whether DePodesta represents the extremes of baseball analytics).

Pardon me if I’m skeptical about Belichick on this topic, just as I am skeptical that he really doesn’t have a full breakdown of social media platforms stored away in his brain. Part of the problem is that we can refer to just about anything as “analytics.” Belichick may be dismissing the worst of things he has seen, that he believes have no merit.

I saw a panel on ESPN refer to the “analytics” on Kirk Cousins having better numbers than Aaron Rodgers. The graphic showed completion percentage, yards per attempt, and TD to INT stats. I mean, come on. I’ve seen people refer to Pro Football Focus as analytics. Pro Football Focus watches game film and assigns grades, trying to emulate what pro scouts do. While I disagree with some of their methods, it’s not advanced numbers or analytics.

So part of it is coming up with a standard that people can agree on when having adult conversations, and I can understand why a coach would express derisiveness toward the term. But the Patriots employ a lot of the strategies that I think would be part of a program that embraces analytics–if we define such as taking an objective view at information to make good decisions.

First of all, Ernie Adams. The “football research director” is mysterious, but probably does a lot of intelligence work on team tendencies that might be considered analytical.

Belichick has been more aggressive on fourth downs, in some notable situations. He was the first coach to embrace some of the findings of David Romer’s fourth down research, as far back as 2003. He went for it on 4th and 2, against the Colts in 2009, and the Patriots lost and he got criticism. It was a defensible decision that shook the establishment. That establishment will crow about your right to follow your gut if it meets social mores, but gosh forbid you go against it.

A year later, I wrote about how he made a similar decision on 4th and 1 late with a lead, and no one talked about it because the Patriots won the game. You think Belichick cares about criticism, if he believes in it?

And there’s probably nowhere that the fingerprints of an analytical organization appear any better than in the NFL draft. Analysis shows that teams that trade away future draft picks pay a usurious price. And no one is better at taking advantage of that than Belichick.

It wasn’t always that way–the Patriots did some trade-ups and did not trade for future picks early in Belichick’s tenure, but for more than a decade, it has happened so often that I think it’s fair to say that it is an organizational philosophy, one backed by an analytical breakdown of the realities of player evaluation and error. Everybody makes individual drafting mistakes, but the best strategies are to have earlier picks and have more picks. Both increase the chances of a hit.

While the Patriots trade so often that it is hard to trace the end results, here are some of the better outcomes that have come from the willingness to trade back for future picks.

2003/2004: traded back with Baltimore who wanted Kyle Boller. In the end, after other trades, the Patriots got picks 21, 36, and 117, in exchange for picks 19 and 75. They delayed gratification and got Vince Wilfork a year later, and also got an early 2nd that became Eugene Wilson (and the latter pick became Dan Klecko).

2009/2010/2011: trading back multiple teams resulted in a 3rd round pick (Jared Cook), eventually becoming two 2nd rounders (Brandon Spikes and Ras-I Dowling) plus an extra 5th that was used to draft Zoltan Mesko.

2009/2010: Derek Cox, a 2009 3rd, became Rob Gronkowski (2nd round next year) and Julian Edelman (7th round). I think that one worked out slightly.

2011/2012: Mark Ingram became a better 1st round pick the next year (Chandler Jones) plus the pick that was used on Shane Vereen.

That’s just a glimpse. They’ve also traded veterans for picks (see Deion Branch and Richard Seymour) and traded picks for veterans when value was low (Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Corey Dillon). I’m not sure that the Patriots draft better than other good teams; they build value and stack the deck in their favor with opportunities at good picking spots. I would consider those draft strategies in line with an analytical approach and philosophy.

Information is not determinative; it can be used to educate and inform coaches. The best times are probably in between games, and in the offseason, not in the heat of a game and the moments before. Just like any business, I would think people would want more information and not less. (You just have to weed out bad information). Just as a company might want to know what its consumers prefer and also are interested in, it would make sense for a NFL team to be armed with information.

Examples I can think would be things like strategy seminar sessions in the offseason, where 20 unique and interesting end-of-game situations are discussed, and then analysis can take the coach’s input and questions about those scenarios and deliver things to consider. When do you no longer settle for field goals when trailing? What’s the best use of timeouts before and after the two-minute warning? These are real-life scenarios that come up.

It can be used as a tool with scouting, and as a form of self-evaluation. I bet you plenty of teams are running an analysis of various objective measures of athlete performance in workouts to know which indicators are most important to translating to what they need. It can work hand-in-hand with evaluating even subjective measures within a scouting report. When we express a concern about X, does it end up mattering? What about when we express a concern about Y within our scouting write-up? That would be a way the scouting can be combined with an analytical approach at a level above scouting, to self-scout and properly weight personality notations or issues.

The Browns, I doubt, are at the forefront of anything, and I’m not just playing the odds there. Any good business would incorporate evaluating information that is available to it. I spend time behind the scenes looking at traffic patterns, and what tends to hit when, and what types of indicators are suggestive. Does that mean we follow a straight formula? No, we also know what to cover when we see it. But it helps educate us and create better decision-making. I would think the same is true of several NFL franchises.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]