Why the Steelers hired a Carnegie Mellon professor for advanced analytics

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have entered the analytics fray after previous skepticism.

Meet Karim Kassam, a former Carnegie Mellon professor of East-African and Indian descent, who is now the Steelers’ new analytics and football research coordinator. Kassam was doing advanced analytics for Legendary Pictures, run by Steelers minority owner Thomas Tull, and started moonlighting with the Steelers. The storied NFL franchise hired him full time over the summer.

An ESPN.com project from February gauging the analytical fervor of professional sports teams classified the Steelers as skeptics of advanced stats. That is changing.

“It’s the way all sports are going,” Kassam, a four-year assistant professor of social and decision sciences at CMU and a Harvard grad, told ESPN.com. “It’s the way the league is going. They decided it was time.”

Kassam works in the scouting department under general manager Kevin Colbert and will provide information for coaches during the season. One of his first projects is evaluating college players, “trying to dig up what numbers are going to help us predict who is going to be successful,” Kassam said.

Roughly half the league has at least one analytics coordinator on its staff, Kassam estimated, which is progress. But the game is still in a “growing stage” with analytics, he said. Twenty-two players moving on a field at once creates challenges in isolating one-on-one matchups.

That’s why Kassam is spending considerable time learning the game and the nuances of the scouting department.

“People like me coming in, we don’t always have the football knowledge to contribute right away, so it’s a process on both sides, getting the math going and getting my football knowledge that I’m able to communicate,” Kassam said. “The organization works so well that everyone wants good ideas no matter where they are coming from. Another viewpoint that’s slightly different, people will accept it. They might dismiss it at times, other times they might weigh it heavily, but it’s more information, and all those guys love to consume information.”

Kassam can’t detail his analytical strategies for the team, but in general he’s “feeling it all out,” searching for information and presentation that’s most helpful for the staff.

“Solving all those problems the first time, there’s no handbook for it,” he said.