"In 10 years someone who grew up reading Football Outsiders will be running a team," predicts Schatz, 38, who says he turned down a full-time NFL job to continue writing.
Now nearly every team in the NFL has an analytics group, though most are as forthcoming as the CIA regarding the work these employees perform. "There are more teams active in this than most people think," says an analyst for one NFL team. "Some of these guys are Ph.D.'s who clearly know the science—but you need to know football too," he adds. "The vast majority of academic football analysis is, truthfully, out to lunch. One team's analytics guy is studying biorhythms to find out whether players should wake up at five in the morning instead of eight in order to be more alert for a Monday-night game. Some of it is pretty out there."
Among those teams riding the stats wave are the Ravens, who announced in August that they'd hired a former NBA statistical consultant with degrees from Yale and Carnegie Mellon to lead their new analytics department. They're just now catching up to opponents like the Patriots, and the 49ers, who in 2001 lured Stanford M.B.A. Paraag Marathe from his consulting job at Bain & Co. to lead their analytics department.
While acceptance of analytics has grown in the NFL in the 10 years since the start of Football Outsiders—sites like Pro Football Focus and Burke's Advanced NFL Statistics followed in its wake—Schatz believes that when it comes to teams themselves, everything and nothing has changed. "Analytics have had a great impact on personnel decisions," he says. "But watching the way teams play on the field is how you know whether coaches are listening. And despite the work that guys like Brian Burke have done, coaches have become less aggressive on fourth down in recent years, which is mind-blowing."
"For a change to happen," says Schatz, "it's going to take an owner publicly saying, 'This is what I want the coach to do. He is not in danger of losing his job. I understand the process is more important than the outcome.'"
In other words, it will take a team that can afford to take a chance. Perhaps a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I'd be lying if I told you this was totally unexpected," says Tony Khan, on a mid-November afternoon, referring to his reeling Jaguars. The team has lost six straight. Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert is having a disastrous season; star running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been hobbled by injuries all year; coach Mike Mularkey and G.M. Gene Smith are under fire. "It's not like we projected to be a 12-win team," says Khan. "Part of what I'm doing is taking an objective look at things through numbers."
This summer Khan—an energetic 30-year-old with a finance degree from Illinois, and the son of Jaguars owner Shahid Khan—left his job at an alternative-energy company to run Jacksonville's new analytics department. One of his first hires was a friend of Schatz's who had started an analytics club at Harvard and who left an M.B.A.-J.D. program at the university to work with the Jaguars, a struggling team on a quest for any edge. "There's so much information out there, it'd be foolish not to use these resources," says Khan, referring to the growing number of websites that do their own play-by-play charting—sites such as Pro Football Focus, the brainchild of Englishman Neil Hornsby, who now has 26 employees analyzing video of every game and supplying data to seven teams.
Throughout professional sports, forward-thinking teams are engaged in an arms race for new technology that can lend them any advantage. The most progressive organizations have quietly begun incorporating video technology into their analysis: Fieldf/x, which tracks players' movements on the baseball field, has been a secret weapon for the world champion San Francisco Giants; and 10 NBA teams use SportVU, which can identify opposing teams' plays based on movements. NFL teams are starting to use similar technology: This year the Falcons, Giants and Jaguars began using GPS tracking technology on their players during practices. (The league prohibits it during games.)
"The things you can learn—route running for receivers, closing speed for defensive backs and linebackers—are huge," says Khan. "The biggest implementation, though, is for rehab and injury prevention: making sure you're putting the optimum stress load on a player." On this the Jaguars are consulting with one top 20 college program that used such technology and saw soft-tissue injuries among its players plummet from one year to the next.