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What Belichick And The Patriots Teach Us About Data In Sports

The coach may be dismissive, but analytics underpins much of the team’s success

28Nov

When Bill Belichick sits in front of a room full of journalists, misuses the terminology relating to data analytics, and rejects the notion altogether, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was being sincere. The New England Patriots coach is a master of the press conference, swerving difficult questions and using his monotonic cadence to appear both commanding and disinterested all at once. The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin described Belichick as ‘the best actor in the NFL.’ He certainly plays the role of ageing sceptic well.

In November, Belichick rejected analytics websites altogether. ‘You could take those advanced websites and metric them wherever you want,’ he said. ‘I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say… All the metric pages and all of that, I mean I have no idea. You’d need to ask that to a smarter coach than me.’ With all of Belichick’s success tactically, though, the downplaying of his own intelligence is unconvincing. As is his rejection of analytics, given that the Patriots have ‘long relied on data’, according to NBC.

There’s a reason Belichick shuts down press conferences with such authority when he’s in danger of giving away a little too much. A deep secrecy and protectionism runs through the entire organization - the Boston Globe called Foxborough a ‘fortress of paranoia, self-importance, and secrecy’ - something perhaps best exemplified by Belichick’s enigmatic right-hand man, Ernie Adams. The Patriots’ ‘Football Research Director’ has a background in economics and is heavily involved in the team but, essentially, all anyone knows about his role is that its rooted in data analytics.

Adams is a secretive man, so secretive in fact even those that have worked with him for long periods of time don’t seem to know what he does, if indeed they remember him at all. ‘He was? I don’t remember that. I don’t remember him being on my staff,’ Bill Parcells said when told that he’d worked with Adams. ‘If he was on my coaching staff, I don’t remember what he was doing. I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I have a pretty good memory, and I didn’t have any interaction with him.’ During his time in Cleveland, Browns’ Art Modell said: ‘I’ll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does. I know he does something, and I know he works for me, and I know I pay him, but I’d love to know what it is.’

But Belichick has a direct line to Adams behind him at all times on the Patriots bench - as one eagle-eyed photographer picked the word ‘Ernie’ written on red tape on one of the receivers - and reportedly he has a strong influence on tactics. Adams prefers to remain as anonymous as possible, but Belichick has revealed some details of his involvement when prompted. ‘Ernie’s really a great sounding board for me personally and other members of our staff. Particularly coaching staff,’ he said. ‘Strategy, rules, decisions. Ernie’s very, very smart. He has great historical perspective. Sometimes that comes into play.’ And that perspective is likely to be one built on analytical insight. Adams runs the Patriots’ ‘value chart’, which has helped Belichick in the draft, and has apparently been involved in the Patriots Hall of Fame. Belichick has made some questionable calls in his time as Patriots coach, many of which are backed up by numbers but baffle the casual fan - far from being an ardent data sceptic, the 64-year-old is managing to embrace it without revealing any details to the competition.

Really, it seems that Belichick’s cynicism is directed at those who look to understand football remotely - the websites themselves rather than their content - without knowing what the play called was or why the quarterback made the decision he did, for example. Belichick’s attitude raises important questions about the necessity of context in statistical analysis, and perhaps this is what the coach meant when he said ‘metric them wherever you want.’ Without tactical context, metrics have limited meaning and are, by definition, reductive. Belichick is far more data-literate than he gives off, and he understands the pitfalls of assessing data in abstraction. 

Sources

Image: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

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