NFL's Top Mathlete Talks Living Like Gronk, Extra Points and Giving 110 Percent

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 25, 2015

USA Today

John Urschel is the NFL's busiest player-mathematician, and not only because he is the NFL's only player-mathematician.      

When not preparing for his second season on the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line, Urschel (who has a Master's degree in mathematics) can be found writing mathematical papers for scholarly journals, serving on the editorial board for the Journal of Sports Analytics, blogging for The Player's Tribune and making the occasional appearance at Manhattan's Museum of Math ("MoMath" to the geek chic) as pitchman for Persado, a company that uses analytic methods to maximize the persuasion power of words and phrases used in marketing campaigns.

He also visits schools to talk STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to future scholars, presents research findings to the NSA and goes anywhere a mathematician who also happens to play professional football may be needed.

Bleacher Report recently caught up with Urschel after Ravens OTAs and a MoMath event, to talk about how to statistically analyze offensive linemen, punting and extra-point trends in the NFL and just how easy it is to live off endorsement money when you are Rob Gronkowski.

 

Bleacher Report: When a coach asks you to give a 110 percent effort, do you ever have the urge to correct him?

Urschel: No. I try to imagine that I give all I have, 100 percent, then I make a copy of myself, and I require that copy to give 10 percent. There's still 90 percent left for him to do, so there are many things that can be done.

 

B/R: So you create a normal John Urschel and an extra "slacker" John Urschel.

Urschel: Right! Except, somehow this "slacker" John Urschel would be doing math research and reading things. I'm not sure Slacker John Urschel exists in any alternate universe.

 

B/R: Do you follow any of the analysis-based football websites?

Urschel: Yes. It's not necessarily a huge area that I am involved in. But I do keep myself abreast of new things that are going on, and I am aware of key components of football analytics, like the extra point change.

 

B/R: Most analysts think that moving extra-point kick attempts back to the 15-yard line won't change strategy at all, because the kick is still nearly automatic.

Urschel: I'm on the exact same page. If people weren't going for two before, this change is not going to make them go for two. The change is not that significant. If the NFL wanted to make this a more dynamic play, they needed to move the two-point conversion to the 1-yard line. Then, you've got something interesting going on.

 

B/R: Are "media statisticians"—the folks doing analysis who are working for media outlets, not teams—on the right track? Are we studying and measuring the correct things?

Courtesy of Persado Marketing

Urschel: Brian Burke [formerly of Advanced Football Analytics; now with ESPN] is a good friend of mine. I love the things he does. Ed Feng of PowerRank is also a good friend. Nate Silver and the FiveThirtyEight guys: I have a great respect for the work they do. I keep up with a variety of different outlets. They aren't in the Dark Ages compared to the actual people who work for the teams, and compared to some of the team-employed sports analysts, these people are very much ahead of the game.

 

B/R: So there are team-employed analytics experts who are still in the Stone Age?

Urschel: The Stone Age is a little extreme. They are perhaps living in medieval times, let's say. Not the analytics guys for the Ravens, who are at the top of their field. I thoroughly enjoy talking to them, and we do spitball sometimes.

 

B/R: Is there a nugget of football statistical wisdom that makes you cringe?

Urschel: You know what makes me cringe? When I hear people—not sports analytics people, but people who claim to be empowered by sports analytics—that claim you should go for it on fourth down all the time. Listen: Going for it on fourth down all the time is just as bad as never going for it on fourth down and punting.

Analytics say, "Yes, you should go for it here; no you shouldn't go for it there." For the most part, coaches should go for it more. But anyone who says they should go for it on fourth down all the time, because of the analytics, is lying to you or living in his own world.

 

B/R: What about when you hear that some team is, say, 10-0 when they run more than 30 times in a game. Do you ever want to give the speaker a lesson in cause and effect?

Urschel: These are good stats for ESPN or NFL Live. Oh, this team is undefeated when they run the ball 20 times and T.J. Houshmandzadeh catches five or more passes. I say, "OK."

 

B/R: Is there a good statistic for evaluating an offensive lineman?

Urschel: This is tough. It's tough to look at offensive linemen individually. But you can look at them as an offensive line. This makes it easier.

In the run game, look at how many yards the running back goes before he gets hit. Not until he goes down, but until he gets hit. [Note: This is often referred to as "yards at contact" or Y@C.] But this doesn't always show the offensive linemen's talents. Some running backs are very good and don't get touched for a while; some running backs are very bad and run into the backs of their offensive linemen.

In the passing game, I think the best stat is something that I have seen very recently in a paper I refereed for the Journal of Sports Analytics: Pocket Collapse Rate. This is an interesting statistic for measuring an offensive line. It's the rate at which the pocket collapses, in seconds.

 

B/R: You wrote in The Players Tribune that you live off $25,000 per year. How do you do it?

Urschel: My car is a Nissan Versa hatchback. It's very good on gas. I rent in Baltimore, but only in-season. During the Offseason Training Activities, it's a little known fact, but NFL teams actually have to house you if you do not have housing. So they house me in a hotel, which is very kind of them.

My main expenses consist of Starbucks coffee. On off days, you will see me in Starbucks drinking my tall dark roast in a corner, doing math. I do splurge, though. I do spend a lot on mathematical books as a gift to myself.

 

B/R: Buying math books is not the same as, say, buying Bentleys.

Urschel: Well, if you buy enough math books, you never know. I aspire to have a Bentley's worth of math books. But this will take some time.

 

B/R: Do you budget strictly to live so frugally, or does it just happen naturally?

Urschel: This just naturally happens because I naturally don't spend money. I'm not attempting not to. Although, this not spending money recently went out the window. I bought my mother a townhome. I think of this as an investment more than an expense. Housing is really half-investment, half-indulgence.

 

B/R: It sounds like Rob Gronkowski, who lives entirely off his endorsement money, has nothing on you.

Urschel: OK, this Rob Gronkowski endorsements thing: Since you brought it up, I am going to state my opinion. This is not some amazing thing. I don't know who thinks this is amazing. God knows how much Rob Gronkowski makes on endorsements. Let's be honest here: He might make the same amount in endorsements as he does from his salary. Even if it's only a fourth of that, this is a large amount of money.

[Note: ESPN's Darren Rovell estimates that Gronkowski has earned $3.5 million in career endorsement money, while his current contract has paid him $16.3 million.]

It's tough to spend millions of dollars. You need to work at it. This would be like Tom Brady saying, "I don't spend any of my pro football salary. I just live off my endorsements." So Tom Brady is living off, I don't know, $15 million a year.

I mean, kudos to Gronkowski. I'm very happy that he's saving his money, because a lot of football players just blow all their money. I'm just saying that Rob Gronkowski is not living in some small, one-bedroom apartment or only spending $50,000 a year. He is living a nice life off those endorsements.

 

B/R: He's not getting housed during OTAs.

Urschel: No, I imagine not.

 

B/R: Well, since it sounds like you could use some endorsement dollars, tell me about Persado.

Urschel: Persado is this amazing company. I'm thoroughly impressed by these people. To be associated with them is just amazing—to see these pioneers at work in the marketing field, doing things with math in innovative ways. I'm in love!

 

B/R: "Pioneers?" "Innovative?" It sounds like you are using some of their mathematically tested marketing terms on me.

Urschel: No. If only! If I did have Persado people with me right now, then I would be much more persuasive. I'm not sure what I would be persuading you to do, but I would be much more persuasive.

 

B/R: When I think of marketing, I think of the Mad Men. I guess math-based persuasive language software might encounter resistance from the old guard.

Urschel: Not "might." This is how history goes, man. People do new things, and the world looks at them like: "What are you doing? This is crazy! We're going to use math to do marketing? No. People do marketing." Then, all of a sudden, you see the results. Because you know how people once thought: Computers are so large that no one would ever actually use one on their own.

 

B/R: The same goes for mathematical analysis in football.

Urschel: Absolutely. Slowly but surely, these things get accepted. But it takes time.

 

B/R: Name the football player and the mathematician who have been the biggest influences on you.

Urschel: The football player is [Ravens All Pro guard] Marshal Yanda. I love that guy to death. He is a warrior. One day, I hope to be half the man and half the football player that he is.

The mathematician is Vadim Kaloshin. He's the Brin Chair [department head] at Maryland. He's a brilliant mathematician. He did his undergrad at Moscow State. He got his PhD at Princeton. He introduced me to mathematical research. I'm blessed to have him in my life.

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.