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They do it by the numbers
Joe Marshall
November 29, 1971
To NFL statisticians it doesn't matter who won or lost or even how well they played the game but how you record a fumbled interception
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November 29, 1971

They Do It By The Numbers

To NFL statisticians it doesn't matter who won or lost or even how well they played the game but how you record a fumbled interception

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In some ways the NFL has not achieved its purpose. The promotional aspects of statistics have too often blinded the fans to their objective value. Those facets of a player's ability that cannot be quantified, such as a running back's willingness to block, tend to be forgotten in rating performance, and too often statistical leaders get automatic recognition as the best at their position. For example, a recent survey has shown that the 300-yard passing day usually occurs in a losing effort. Furthermore, football's most impressive statistics—perhaps Jim Brown's mile-plus of rushing in 1963 and Joe Namath's 4,007-yard passing season—hardly roll off the tongue like 61*,714 and .400.

"Sophistication of all this is still going on," says Kensil. "It has only been since 1965 that we have kept statistics on the pass rush. The number of times a team gets to an opposing quarterback has now become significant in rating both offensive and defensive lines." Don Weiss, the NFL's director of public relations, has recently supervised a massive rewriting of the scoring rules. "Statistics should reflect the play of the game," he says. "They are more than just numbers." One innovation will probably be the take-away give-away table inspired by George Allen's theory that a team will win if it can take the ball away from its opponent via fumbles and interceptions five times during a game. Weiss has shown that the teams with the biggest plus factors (i.e., more takeaways than giveaways) finish at the top of the standings, and that fact indicates that the table may soon find its way into the annual Official NFL Record Manual, which is already 352 pages long.

Understandably, the stature of the statistician has greatly increased over the past decade. Nothing attests to that fact better than the very size of Jack Tea-hen's Detroit crew, which is 10 strong and represents over 125 years of scoring experience. Teahen, the assistant managing editor of Automotive News, has steadily built the crew since 1948, when he ran the play-by-play unit while a student at the University of Detroit.

Except for greater refinement in its duties, his crew resembles and operates much like the others. Its membership includes the associate dean of the Detroit College of Law, two other lawyers, one of whom is a former president of the Detroit Board of Education, and three advertising executives.

All but Dave Burgin, who roams about distributing play-by-play sheets, are stationed near the end of the press box, which hangs over the southwest corner of Tiger Stadium, a position demanding field glasses. Frank Gawronski stands next to a telephone hookup over which he feeds statistical information to the Lion P.R. man, Lyall Smith. In front of Gawronski his brother Art fills out the first page of the play-by-play summary, while Patrick McDonald puts basically the same information—i.e., scoring plays, starting lineups, substitutions, officials—on the back page of the score sheet. Next in line are John Morad, Jim Huddleston, Teahen and Al Mixer who work with the main body of statistics. Morad is the expert on fumbles, which cause the greatest confusion and demand the most expertise, but also handles interceptions, scoring and field-goal lengths. Mixer logs first downs, penalties and action on kicking plays while Teahen and Huddleston take care of passing and rushing. Every member of the crew runs a cross-check or two on other members and each compiles miscellaneous statistics—in McDonald's case, for instance, third-down conversions.

There is also the two-man play-byplay crew. Bill Swink keeps a longhand record with which he can update Dick Monley, who has been typing these reports for the Lions for 23 years. In most cities play-by-plays are functional and colorless, lacking life-giving verbs: "Hubbard at right tackle for four." Monley majored in journalism with the intention of being a newspaper sports-writer. Then he learned what that profession paid and made sportswriting his avocation, becoming a sort of play-byplay man's Grantland Rice: " Taylor tried right end but Eller dropped him rudely." He refuses to shill for the home team. Pity Greg Landry when he has a bad passing night: " Landry had Walton on a post pattern open, but threw poorly into the ground." Monley admits that "they speak to me at times about editorializing, but I've got to tell the truth. If a pass was a bad pass, I've just got to say it."

Following the game the crew totals the figures and fills out the official score sheet. Then the final statistics are read to Elias over the phone so that the bureau needn't wait for the mail to prepare its weekly release.

An hour or so after the final gun the crew files out of the deserted stadium, and perhaps there is something symbolic in their isolation. Statisticians may be a dying breed. In Atlanta, Boyd Odom's crew works side by side with a Honeywell computer. The Falcons' P.R. man, Jan Van Duser, explains that Atlanta is simply "doing the project for the NFL in order to get the 'bugs' out and determine if this method really has any future in press boxes." The Honeywell people say "there aren't any bugs" and point out that the computer can provide a complete final stat sheet within three minutes whereas Boyd Odom's crew takes about 15. And, Honeywell adds, "There is absolutely no chance for error." For instance, a rushing or forward passing play that results in a touchdown is always a first down even if it occurs on first and goal from the one. A human can easily forget to note that but when you record a touchdown on the computer its program is set up so that it automatically credits the scoring team with a first down.

Now it is true that the human element may always determine what information is fed to the computer. And, of course, in the foreseeable future the chance of a power failure necessitates a human crew even if Honeywell is there. "In many ways this is a frill," admits Van Duser. But then, football statistics were once frills, too. "Statistics are an integral part of the game," Buffalo's John Barnes says. "They can tell you everything there is to know about how your team is doing." Perhaps there will come a day when the NFL will do away with point totals and keep crowds breathlessly waiting for three minutes while Honeywell determines a victor.

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