NFL Computer Profiling

Robert G. GilbertContributor IOctober 29, 2010

Computer profiling courses throughout today's world, as governments, corporations, Wall Street, doctors, hospitals, and even sports leagues all follow the process.

You have probably experienced computer profiling firsthand.

If you have been to a doctor or the hospital lately, you have almost assuredly encountered your “alter identity,” if you will, of the computer profile.

You tell the nurse or doctor your symptoms, and then those symptoms are reviewed and examined against your medical profile in the computer. Then, the doctor cross-examines the results from said profile examination with other like profiles in the computer.

The computer suggests Accepted Methods of Treatment, and if no solution is apparent, the doctor/hospital has a convenient out—they refer your computer profile to a specialist. If your actual malady is rare and atypical for a computer profile, it may take several specialists before an accurate diagnosis can be made. Additionally, the computer may misdiagnose your profile. Sometimes it seems as if the doctors, specialists, and hospitals prefer to treat the profile, not the patient.

Consider now the NFL. Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley recently said, in defense of his decision to attempt an onside kick at the outset of a recent game against the Colts: “Going back to 2000, teams that have opened with an onside kick have had a plus-60 percent win percentage whether they got it or not and we knew that we would have to steal a possession in this game a couple of different ways.”

The Chiefs wound up losing that game, which will bring down that percentage for the next team who tries to follow that logic.

Does that strategy show a coach developing a game plan that could defeat his opponent, or does it show a coach who is trying to find a statistical loophole to allow a greater mathematical chance at victory? An “Accepted Method of Treatment,” as it were?

Put a different way: In 2001, the nearly 10-point underdog New England Patriots played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.

Coach Bill Belichick designed a game plan that the Steelers could not beat, not even when the Steelers knocked Tom Brady out of the game. One of the traits of that plan was confusing defensive alignments that overwhelmed Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. Belichick’s plan for winning the game was not contingent on the mathematical probability of a victory from an onside kick, but from studying his opponent and exploiting, as well as creating, weakness.

Compare the two game plans, and their results. Indianapolis defeated Kansas City 19-9 and scored the only touchdown of the game, and New England defeated Pittsburgh 24-17.

Watch any NFL game, and you will hear the announcers talk in the language of statistics all day long.

The Dallas Cowboys played the Minnesota Vikings last week, and the announcers routinely talked of Dallas running back Marion Barber’s ability to run for a first down on 3rd-and-1, citing how many times in a row Barber had successfully converted those short-yardage situations. Then, when Dallas later in the game tried to pass on one of those downs, instead of running it to Barber, the ball fell incomplete. The announcers criticized the Cowboys for not running Barber again, alluding to his conversion percentage to support their criticisms.

Listen to the announcers this coming Sunday, and you will hear them bring up every single statistic they can think of as they “analyze” the game. Rarely will you hear an announcer talk about not expecting a statistical trend to continue—despite the fact that almost every statistic is of an independent event and has relatively little to do with the play at hand. Just because in 60-plus percent of games, teams won when they started with an onside kick does not mean that if Todd Haley does it, his Chiefs will have an over 60 percent chance of winning the game. How many other factors and variables went into the games that defined the initial percentage?

When coaches look at statistics to determine ways to better their chances at winning, I suggest they look at the percentage of teams that win the Super Bowl every year: 3.1 percent.

If you want to analyze numbers, that three percent figure should tell you that every year, you only have a three percent chance at winning the Super Bowl. If we follow Todd Haley’s logic, then it would make sense to NOT try to win the Super Bowl.

Yet, every year, teams try to win the Super Bowl. Why? Because that’s the point of the NFL season, and statistics never tell the whole story. Statistics, in fact, do not tell any story—a story is interpreted upon the numbers and presented to us.

Perhaps the only relevant number, the only pertinent statistic that should be followed by NFL coaches is this: Since the dawn of football, 100 percent of games are won when one team scores more points than the other.

While the announcers and Todd Haley apply computer profiling towards the overall game of football, it is interesting to look at the relation of Computer Profiling to the individual player in the NFL.

The overall aim of the coaching philosophy of computer profiling is to make sure that the individual player does not matter.

Take Andy Reid, coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example. Andy Reid’s system does not depend on Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, or even Kevin Kolb. Reid’s system is designed to be able to plug in players who fit his profiles with relatively small drop-off between them.

More and more coaches now shuffle their personnel groupings, looking for some combination that creates success in as close to instant form as possible, rather than putting the main focus on developing whatever deficiency a player has. If so-and-so player is struggling with his pass-blocking, he is benched for the next body on the roster, rather than given ways that he might be able to overcome his problems and develop beyond them.

Computer profiling takes away mentoring and development, creating instead an assembly line of replacement parts. Coaches analyze the statistics of football and follow those conclusions.

Coaches across the league, if a player or team is struggling, are taking the easy way out—after all, there is always another player on the bench, or swimming in the free agent pool.

If a player isn’t Steve Young or Joe Montana after a couple weeks, it’s time for a change. If a running back isn’t Jim Brown or Larry Csonka after a few games, it’s time for a change. If a kicker isn’t Morten Anderson or Jason Elam within a game or two, it’s time for a change.

With all the turnover, I ask the question: Are these players not develop-able? Not mentor-able? Not coach-able?

Or is it that NFL franchise owners no longer want to wait for a team to develop into a winner? Do coaches just not have the time to develop their players before the owners get fed up with the lack of instantaneous victory?

And what sort of an indictment on modern society is this?

Modern society is an instant place. We want our food fast and our Internet at warp speed. We don’t want to sit in traffic and we don’t want to wait, and these mentalities course through every level of our existence. We want our prayers answered now, not next week, next month, next year, or 30 years from now.

And apparently, we want our players to be Hall of Famers overnight.

The Tuohy family loved and mentored Michael Oher, and he developed under their wing, becoming better and better at football, and life as a whole. Across the league, isolated examples of mentoring and development of players by coaches can be found, but the mentality exhibited by Carolina Head Coach John Fox in the below quote seems to permeate NFL football:

“[Matt Moore] did win four out of five games last year; he does have more experience [than Jimmy Clausen]. I think it was time to take a look back at him…We're 0-5 and we were 0-2 when we made the last switch. Right now, we're just looking for improvement and we're going with experience.”

John Fox says the team is looking for improvement. It seems to me that the head coach of a team should not be looking for improvement, he should be providing it.

For years, Carolina has been unable to develop another receiving threat aside from Steve Smith, trying with numerous draft picks to do so, and ultimately failing. Keary Colbert. Dwayne Jarrett. Drew Carter. Ryne Robinson.

All four of those receivers were drafted by Carolina, and none are currently on the Panther roster.

Were all four of those receivers completely unable to be developed, or does it say something about the ability of the Panthers coaching staff to develop young talent? Or is it a mixture of both? For without the motivation to better oneself, no amount of mentoring or development will amount to much.

Now that the necessity of another receiver has thrust itself upon the team in a jarring, glaring manner, Carolina has three rookies at wide receiver, plus two veterans (with limited experience) picked up off the street in the last few weeks, desperately trying to find a peg that fits the hole, taking the next replacement part off of the assembly line of computer profiling.

NFL teams have symptoms. Maybe they are symptoms of winning, or symptoms of losing, or on a more micro level, symptoms regarding passing, running, catching, tackling, kicking, et cetera.

To fix these problems, NFL teams consult statistics (computer databases) and look at what other teams (like profiles) have done to correct these issues (maladies), then follow the Accepted Methods of Treatment suggested by the results from the databases or like teams. If that doesn’t work, then the owner fires the coach (doctor) and hires a new coach (specialist). It is a simplified approach to a complex game—a game, perhaps, that has gotten too complex for coaches to coach and players to play.

The result of John Fox’s database/like team consulting seems to have come up with one Accepted Method of Treatment: Continue the assembly line. Fox is switching quarterbacks, looking for improvement, not providing it. Fox is benching Mackenzy Bernadeau on the offensive line, and shuffling Geoff Schwartz along the offensive line, looking for improvement. Maybe the switches and changes will generate success, or maybe not. But shouldn’t success be generated through development of a player, an offense, a defense, special teams, and the team itself?


Robert G. Gilbert,



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