Football analytics, once a fringe pursuit for hobbyists, has over the last 15 years or so, properly entered the NFL. Teams now employ multiple analysts, TV broadcasts talk about ‘run success rate’ and coaches drop mentions of DVOA into interviews.
This gradual process arguably has its origins in The Hidden Game of Football (1988). Unbelievably, at around the same time a British football fan was making his own entry into the analytics field. Neil Hornsby, a student in Liverpool, was fascinated by NFL stats and began wondering how it was possible to say that one guard was better than another. In 1990 he began developing his own performance database.
That database grew into what we know today as Pro Football Focus, an analytics company that now has contracts with all 32 NFL teams, more than 120 colleges, and every major broadcaster. Matthew Coller’s book is the story of how that was achieved. It was far from a short journey; it took 15 years for Hornsby to set up Pro Football Focus as a company and several years after that to get teams interested.
In the media realm that pays attention to such things, PFF’s performance grades attract the greatest attention. Fans – and sometimes players and coaches – frequently complain about a grade they feel is too low. Some of the same people will happily celebrate a high grade they agree with. In reality though, the grades are just one of hundreds of data points that PFF supplies to teams, everything from which players are on the field during each play to the career head-to-head stats between a pass rusher and offensive tackle.
Furthermore, as Coller makes clear, PFF’s grades have for years been reviewed by experts in the position group or play type being graded. Former players and coaches all work with PFF to make sure grades are accurate. PFF data is now influencing player contracts, Pro Bowl selections and even Hall of Fame bids, according to Coller.
The book traces some of the key turning points in the journey, including Hornsby selling control of the company to former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth and moving the company to Cincinnati, Ohio. The book ends with Hornsby leaving the company as part of a disagreement with Collinsworth over PFF’s direction. With the company also needing to please venture capital firm Silver Lake, which invested in the company in 2021, we are left with something of a cliffhanger.
Matthew Coller is a former sports radio host in the Twin Cities who now covers the Minnesota Vikings for Purple Insider.
“Now one grader will give initial scores for the game from the All-22 coaches’ film and then each area of that game will be cross-checked by a separate team of graders who focus on individual position groups. For example, former NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski cross-checks all the quarterback, receiving and coverage grades.”
“‘Coach [Tom Coughlin] would come up and say, “Hey, can we do this?” and I’d run it by them and they would send me a report … and it really helped us in2010,”’ [Jon] Berger [New York Giants director of football information] said. ‘Then we got even more in 2011. It was lots of different data they were providing for us, and we were able to utilise the data. I thought that was a competitive edge back then.’”
“The only tricky part of integrating PFF’s numbers was that coaches and scouts absolutely despised the fact that PFF was also grading their players.”
“NFL teams weren’t like baseball clubs who had the infrastructure and knowledge to take data and build their own applications in order to use it.”
“But in order to provide the most accurate data, PFF needed to fully grasp which types of blocks should get positive, negative and neutral grades. Paul [Alexander] was happy to help PFF get it right.”
“Teams with elite coverage grades (67th percentile or better) and poor pass-rush grades (33rd percentile or better) won about a game and a half more than teams with great pass rush and poor coverage.”
“Coller has written an excellent book about a football analytics company, though the emphasis is certainly on the ‘company’ part. There’s enough here about football analytics for the reader to understand what PFF does and why it matters but I would have liked more detail on some of the things they measure and how they have evolved. Even without that, this is a very readable account of a startup company trying to establish itself in a sceptical space. It moves at a brisk pace but still manages to deliver a thorough overview of the many ways that PFF’s influence is being felt in today’s NFL.”
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
BUY THE BOOK
Photo: Parker Anderson