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Monday, March 10, 2014
Inside Slant: Our innovation series

By Kevin Seifert

(First in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

A few days after seeking your suggestions to innovate within the NFL, I made the trek to Boston for the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The first panel discussed the state of non-traditional thinking across the American sports landscape and included some notable participants.

Bill James, the godfather of baseball sabermetrics and now an advisor to the Boston Red Sox, was on the stage. So was Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and longtime NBA coach George Karl, now an ESPN analyst. Football? The game was represented by a high school coach, Kevin Kelley, whose no-punt philosophy was the best-available representative of on-field innovation.

Kelley proved an outstanding advocate for incorporating data into coaching strategy, but the lack of an embedded NFL pioneer -- as James and Morey represented for their sports -- was another reminder of the fundamental risk-averse culture in football. (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, another panelist, explained the topic well in a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine.)

The Sloan conference provided plenty of anecdotal evidence. Referee Mike Carey, speaking on a panel about technology now available to assist calls in all sports, revealed he tracks downs with a rubber band: He wraps it around one finger on first down, around two on second down and so on.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli described the way many NFL teams and players monitor hydration: By matching the color of their urine to a chart (produced by Gatorade) posted in locker room bathrooms.

The experience at Sloan, and the depth of your response to my original request, convinced me to make an offseason series of this topic. So in this post, I wanted to pass along a representative sample of your thoughts and suggestions. We'll then circle back to a number of these in detail over the next few months and see where it takes us. Below are some of the best thoughts I received or heard, and some of the shorter ones are embedded in the Twitter module at the bottom.

Kevin Kelley
Coach/Athletic director at Pulaski (Ark.) Academy
Suggestion: Go for it on fourth down
"When you talk about going for it on fourth down, and not punting, coaches have to trust the process. They also have to understand that it won't work every time. You're raising the percentage chance that you win. It's no different than choosing a play call. Even good calls sometimes fail. But it can't be something special that you do. You have practice it and prepare for it the same way you do for any other scenario in a game."

Dave Wyatt
Mansfield, Ohio
Suggestion: Make punters more dynamic
"Going along with the going-for-it-on-fourth-down-makes-sense philosophy, why haven't teams learned to utilize more athletic punters to fill that position on a roster? We see plenty of players that can jump out of the gym and blaze past everyone in the 40-yard dash but can't catch a cold, let alone a football (I'm looking at you Darrius Heyward-Bey). Imagine the difficulties someone like Josh Cribbs or DHB could cause defenses if they were an effective punter with that sort of athleticism! I think Tim Tebow should find Reggie Roby's number immediately!"

Seth Wickersham
Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine/ESPN.com
Suggestion: Re-imagine the traditional front-office structure
"You can disagree with his choice of hires and the manner with which he executed the job, but I think that Joe Banner was onto something when he -- a proud football outsider -- held the position of team CEO and had the head coach and general manager report to him. He was different than other so-called football czars -- Bill Parcells, Mike Holmgren -- in that he was not a former coach or scout. He was a cap guy, an analytics guy, a business guy.

"I believe the normal reporting structure -- coach to GM, GM to owner -- can work, but is also outdated. The average team is worth $1.17 billion, according for Forbes. Just because a coach coaches well or because a scout scouts well doesn't mean that they are fit to manage a huge enterprise. Too often NFL teams, as a front office exec put it to me once, are run like '$1 billion lemonade stands' with 'glorified gym teachers' making million-dollar decisions.

"Football has to get smarter, and I think most would agree that Banner is a really smart guy. He had been intimately involved in football since 1994 and had paid his dues and always thought outside the box. He was hired to build a team the way he thought it should be built. Even the recent report that the coordinators reported to Banner rather than to the head coach -- which I had heard variations on myself -- seems shocking but I think has some merit. Everyone has to be on the same page, and if Banner was hired to be the brains of the football operation, his job was to be involved. In the end, the tragedy of Joe Banner is not in the power structure he created but in the choices he made once he had the job."

Nick
Davis, Calif.
Suggestion: Think of timeouts in a different way
"When I played in high school, coaches would call a timeout if the opposing offense showed a look that we hadn't seen in film. Perhaps this would not work so well in the NFL, but could it be worth it to write up even some fairly basic plays out of very exotic formations, and try to use them to burn opposing (teams') timeouts early in the game so they are not available during the 2-minute warning?"

Brian Hoffman
Professor/Chair of Industrial-Organizational psychology program/University of Georgia
Suggestion: Use college performance rather than physical agility tests to evaluate draftees
"We found that: (1) collegiate performance is a better and more valid indicator of future NFL performance than the general physical ability tests administered in the scouting combine (e.g., 40-yard, shuttle, cone, vertical jump); (2) this result was found for all positions sampled; (3) except for the 40-yard dash, the physical ability tests were mostly unrelated to future NFL performance; and (4) collegiate performance still predicted how well a player will perform in their 4th year in the NFL. … [T]he paper provides NFL team decision-makers a general rule of thumb to follow during the draft and perhaps determining whether to sign a player in free agency: Emphasize the most recent past performance possible in decision-making." (Courtesy an executive summary provided by Hoffman. Full study here.)

Justin
Seattle
Suggestion: Why do we have an AFC and NFC?
"For innovation why not look at the structure of the NFL? There is no reason the NFL should still have an AFC and NFC. Eliminating the idea of conferences (just one with 8 divisions) will make home-field advantage more important. It will do a better job of making sure the best teams make it to the playoffs. It will reduce the amount of meaningless games during the last two weeks of the season."

And more: