CINCINNATI -- In the seconds before each play, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor hears many voices.
The voices of his most important assistants in his headset. The low-pitched roar of the crowd. His internal monologue debating and making decisions before the play clock expires.
Among those in his ear -- and mind -- is the voice of a 2017 college graduate and ex-Division III lacrosse player who has become an integral part of the coaching staff.
On paper, Sam Francis is officially the football data analyst as part of the franchise’s IT department. But in real-life terms, Francis is the Bengals’ lone analytics employee who influences and helps shape some of the biggest decisions each Sunday.
“We deal with X’s and O’s, managing a team,” Taylor said. “Some of the analytics stuff is too much for me to know and understand. So you want someone who has that expertise that can explain it to you the right way to where you can then use that information and go accordingly.”
Sunday’s massive clash between the upstart Bengals (5-3) and the Cleveland Browns (4-4) features an interesting battle in analytics philosophies. According to a league survey published by ESPN’s Seth Walder, the Browns are viewed as the most analytically advanced and numbers-inclined team in the NFL. Cincinnati, with a department of one and harboring a reputation of traditionally being behind the times, is regarded on the other end of that spectrum.
But for Taylor, the third-year head coach, the system is working very well. Francis gives Taylor data that helps put different decisions into context.
“I don’t want to say his value has grown, but it has because I’ve got a high degree of trust with the information he’s giving me, how he gives it to me. So his role has kind of grown each year, really,” Taylor said.
WHEN CINCINNATI HIRED Taylor from the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, he identified the need for the Bengals to have at least one analytics staffer. In Los Angeles, the Rams had three.
Jake Kiser, the team’s head of information technology, identified Francis, a native of Newburyport, Mass., who double-majored in mathematics and economics while playing football and lacrosse at Bates College. According to his LinkedIn page, Francis was previously an intern for the Buffalo Bills and a data scientist for the Kraft Analytics Group.
Peter Lasagna, Bates’ men’s lacrosse coach, wasn’t shocked to see Francis hired by the Bengals as an analytics expert at just 23 years old. In high school, Francis was primarily an attacking lacrosse player who scored often. At Bates, he was asked to reinvent himself as someone who could win face-offs, one of the most important aspects of the sport.
He went from losing 10 of 12 face-offs as a freshman to having the conference’s second-highest total as a senior.
“He just attacked his problem like he attacks everything in his life [and] became a metric analyst on faceoff techniques,” Lasagna said.
OF FRANCIS' RESPONSIBILITIES, the biggest involve key game situations. Francis is in the coaching staff’s team management meeting on Saturday mornings, where they discuss the level of aggressiveness against an opponent, the weather on game day and what different moments in the game will call for. Taylor convenes with Francis during warmups and right before the national anthem, scribbling notes on his playcall sheet for future reference.
Then during the game, Francis will relay information through the headset, a signal of how much his role has grown and the trust he has earned. Initially, Francis relayed the information to assistant Dan Pitcher, who then told Taylor.
Lasagna said Francis is comfortable outworking others. In Cincinnati, he’s in the building when the coaches arrive and is still at Paul Brown Stadium when they leave for the evening. Pitcher said headset privileges should be bestowed upon someone whose trustworthiness and work ethic are easy to spot.
"It's just not like some 'Wizard of Oz' up there that nobody really knows who's giving this advice and who's saying what. He's done a good job of meshing himself in with the whole operation." Dan Pitcher
Bengals quarterbacks coach
With Francis, it’s impossible to miss.
“It’s just not like some ‘Wizard of Oz’ up there that nobody really knows who’s giving this advice and who’s saying what,” Pitcher, who is now the quarterbacks coach, said. “He’s done a good job of meshing himself in with the whole operation.”
Now, Francis will say a phrase like “three or less” into his headset, letting Taylor know the numbers indicate that on fourth down, the analytics suggest the team should go for it if the offense needs three yards or fewer for a first down.
In 2018, the season before Taylor’s arrival and Francis’ hire, the Bengals had five fourth-down attempts when leading, according to ESPN Stats and Information. This year, Cincinnati has eight in as many games and is tied with the Indianapolis Colts and the Browns for the lead in that category. The Bengals have converted six of those chances.
It doesn’t always work out. In Week 1, the Bengals led the Minnesota Vikings, 21-7, when Taylor opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the team’s own 30-yard line. In that moment, Taylor wanted to put the game away. Instead, running back Joe Mixon was tackled for no gain. The Vikings scored on the ensuing drive on a touchdown pass on fourth-and-4.
Taylor said Francis’ numbers gave him confirmation to trust his gut, despite any backlash that followed.
“There’s going to be times it doesn’t go our way,” Taylor said. “And you’re going to have to deal with the blowback. That’s part of coaching. I’m comfortable with that. It’s because I know that the times you do [successfully] go for it, they just get swept under the rug.”
FRANCIS' VALUE DOESN'T just extend to analytics and game management. He’ll catch passes from the quarterback at practice or help out special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons as needed. He’s viewed as an extension of the coaching staff and one of the franchise’s most valuable assets.
Francis also represents the Bengals’ evolution as an organization and how the NFL continues to blend analytics with how the game has traditionally been viewed and played.
Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of football data and analytics, cited, among other things, the increasing aggressiveness to go for it on fourth downs as examples of that. Lopez said roughly two-thirds of the league have an analytics person communicating on the coaches’ headset on gameday.
But the level of influence is still up to the coaches.
“Whether or not you can influence and have an impact is probably more important than the size of your staff,” Lopez said.
Francis, who was not made available for comment per team policy, will continue to play an integral role for the Bengals as they chase their first playoff berth since 2015.
If Taylor has any questions during preparation for this week’s game against the Browns, he can walk fewer than 30 yards and step into Francis’ office. Taylor said Francis probably wouldn’t mind having some additional staffers to help him manage his workload.
But Francis has delivered what the Bengals wanted.
“We needed one and we got one,” Taylor said. “He gives us everything that we need.”