Football, analytics & more from Sloan

If the goal of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was to leave feeling a little bit smarter than when you arrived, Friday’s opening day was an undeniable success.

This event, presented by ESPN, is extremely impressive.

The panel which interested me most was on football analytics, and it included former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, current 49ers chief operating officer Paraag Marathe, current Rams executive vice president of operations and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, and Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz.

Here were some things learned from this perspective:

1. Analytics used mostly for salary cap for Patriots. Some teams have full-time staffers devoted solely to analytics. That’s how Marathe got his start with the 49ers in 2001. Demoff said the Rams are considering a hire for that role. Specific to the Patriots, and then the Chiefs, Pioli said: “All my stops had some involvement in analytics, mostly in the salary cap. What we’ve done from there, we wanted that person to do more than the salary cap, to delve deeper.” All panelists agreed that every team is using analytics in some form, which in many ways is what quality control coaches do (e.g., charting formations and results.)

2. Importance of hand size for quarterbacks in New England. Pioli was explaining how he’s not a big fan of the combine, and used an example of a safety that ran a 4.3 time in the 40-yard dash but it didn’t translate to the field because it didn’t reflect how the player sees things, processes information, and moves his feet, etc. He used that example to highlight the difference between speed and playing speed, citing Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o as a good current example of this (he plays faster than his timed speed). Pioli said there are specific measurements at the combine that do have value, and he told a story of one of them. “The measurements of quarterbacks, and hand size; I was part of making a very bad decision on a player, Kliff Kingsbury [in the sixth round of the 2003 draft]. He was a highly productive quarterback and had the smallest hand size at the combine that year. We asked him to come to New England in inclement weather and try to throw the football and control the football; where you have someone like Tom Brady, who has an enormous hand. You look at the pictures of Tommy holding a football, part of his accuracy is based on his hand size. So things like that, in terms of measurements, they have value.”

3. Introducing the ‘flying 20’ and the challenge in measuring reactive quickness for receivers. Building off Pioli’s point on the combine, and the measurement like a 40-yard dash, Marathe introduced those in the audience to the “flying 20.” “We always talk about Jerry Rice, for example. Jerry Rice had a very average 40 time, but what we found, something that really helps correlate to performance is what we call the ‘flying 20’ -- the time between the 20 and the 40, intuitively that’s separation speed. ... Jerry Rice has one of the fastest ‘flying 20s’ of all time. Everyone still looks at the 40-yard dash as the measurement of a wide receiver’s speed when there is some hidden value there in different places.” That sparked a thought from Pioli about how challenging it is to project receivers from college to the NFL because of press coverage. “I love the ‘flying 20’ too, which is something we looked at. And also the first 10 [yards]. But there are other elements that come into it that can blow both of those things up, unfortunately, which is certain receivers who have never faced press coverage. It doesn’t matter how fast they run, their playing speed, they can’t get off the line of scrimmage. So there is this other element that comes in. The other thing is that a big part of separation has to do with just close-space quickness and/or strength. ... The Wes Welkers, the Troy Browns, the Wayne Chrebets, the smaller, undersized guys who have some short-area quickness where they’re covered like a blanket but, ‘boom!’ - all of a sudden they can create separation. Trying to piece all that together, that’s the fun part.”

Pioli had one of the best lines of the panel when the topic came to quarterbacks. What is the best approach, through analytics, when evaluating/drafting a quarterback?

“I'd say draft one in the sixth round and hope for the best," Pioli cracked.

We’ll have a bit more from this panel on Saturday as well.