MINNEAPOLIS -- Any football department run by a general manager as meticulous as the Minnesota Vikings' Rick Spielman -- who rates draft prospects down to the thousandth of a point -- is going to have a fairly high view of information gathering.
Before Spielman hired Mike Zimmer in January 2014, he studied 13 different backgrounds for potential head coaches. The GM routinely charts in-game decisions, and went through a litany of scenarios with Zimmer before his first games as a head coach last fall. Spielman, Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner crisscrossed the country last spring, interviewing passers who could be the Vikings' next QB of the future. If the Vikings' front office is ever going to be accused of falling short in any one area, preparedness will not be it.
There's a difference between accumulating data and using it to shape a significant number of decisions, however. And in a league that probably still ranks among the least data-dependent of the four major U.S. sports, the Vikings ranked among the 12 teams listed as analytics "skeptics" in ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings, which attempted to measure how heavily all 122 North American major pro teams use analytics. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert wrote, the Vikings don't have a full-time employee devoted to analytics, and it's unclear how much the team relies on data findings in its decisions. Coach Mike Zimmer leaned on the traditional side of fourth-down decisions, going for it just three times before the fourth quarter in 2014.
The Vikings made their skepticism about Pro Football Focus clear last season, particularly when the name of left tackle Matt Kalil came up, but that stemmed more from a belief that outside sources don't have all the information to thoroughly evaluate the team than it did from an inherent aversion to new schools of thought. When I covered the team for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I talked with Spielman about his approach to analytics, and the methods the Vikings use to evaluate draft picks. Essentially, the team takes all of its combine data, in-house ratings and psychological evaluations of players and feeds them into a giant database, looking for precedents. If the Vikings can find a player with similar attributes who has since been successful in the NFL, they might be more willing to consider a prospect whose measurables would otherwise invite skepticism. But for Spielman and Zimmer, the tape still takes precedent.
When I've talked with Spielman about the Vikings' analytics use, he hasn't seemed particularly interested in standing out, so he's likely happy the team is lumped with more than one-third of the league in one of the middle quartiles of our survey. The Vikings certainly use analytics as a tool, but to say they have a deep reliance on them would probably be stretching it.