Inside Slant: Give me your NFL innovations

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
10:00
AM ET
So did you happen to see Nate Silver's essay in the March issue of ESPN The Magazine? Silver, the renowned data analyst whose FiveThirtyEight blog will relaunch soon, offered his view on why the NFL hasn't incorporated sports analytics as much as other sports. His thoughts, I think, provide us a platform for some fun future discussions.

Why do NFL teams, for example, ignore years of data that suggest they should be more aggressive on fourth downs? According to Silver, the NFL's structure and financial success has fashioned an environment that stifles strategic and operational innovation.

"My view," Silver writes, "is that NFL coaches aren't irrational or necessarily ignorant of the statistics as much as they are poorly incentivized to get these decisions right."

Indeed, the average team has been owned by the same entity for 34 years, Silver notes. (We do things a certain way here, son.) And the league's revenue-sharing policy means everyone makes money, and everyone's investment grows, regardless of winning percentage.

Writes Silver: "This is a culture that fosters extreme risk aversion. Going for it on fourth down is risky twice over: in the micro sense of staking more on the result of one play, and in the macro sense of defying custom and tradition."

I'm not sure if the NFL can get around those obstacles, which seem real and relevant to me. But the hesitancy of team hierarchies to support unique thinking doesn't have to end the discussion. I thought I would throw the question out to the virtual floor, via this post and on Twitter:



I don't want this discussion to be about rule changes as much as approaching familiar problems in a new way. Let's see if we can fill the gaps of original thinking that many NFL teams are leaving to the college ranks.

Going for it more often on fourth down is one major example, of course. But we can also cull from other areas of game management as well as roster arrangement, draft strategy and the like.

In an era when limited practice time (a result of the 2011 CBA) has intersected with the increased importance of the quarterback position, would it make sense to keep two, three or four passers on the practice squad? Is it really so crazy, as the Washington Redskins were considered in 2012, to draft two quarterbacks in one year? Would it make sense for NFL coaches to use timeouts as "momentum shifters," as basketball coaches often do, rather than save them for a two-minute drill or for icing field goal kickers?

What about offseason events? Is it productive to test an offensive lineman's 40-yard dash or a receiver's bench press at the scouting combine? Is bench press really the best indicator of strength?

These are just a few examples. Hopefully this can lead to a broad, offseason-long discussion with readers and experts I hope to draw in. You can post your ideas as comments under this post, or if you're not registered to comment through Facebook, you can send an email to my mailbag. I'll also seek input from Twitter (@SeifertESPN) and my Facebook page (Kevin Seifert Espn).

I'll start posting your thoughts, along with further discussion, later this week on the Inside Slant portion of ESPN's NFL Nation blog. You can always access the full string through this tagged link. Thanks for your participation. Let's have some fun with this.

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