The future of analytics is in the merging of statistics and video. "Look at baseball, with its defensive shifts—outfielders looking at cards on the field much like a quarterback would," says Khan. "It's possible that someday defensive backs will be playing with similar cards based on where receivers are lined up and what those receivers' route-running strengths are. The possibilities are endless."
On this particular day, however, Khan's team is focused on a more immediate issue: optimal overtime strategy under the NFL's new rules, which dictate that if one team kicks a field goal on the first possession of extra time, the opponent gets a rebuttal drive.
This is an area, Khan says, "where being strong analytically can give you an advantage." This season there have been 19 overtime games through Sunday. The Jaguars have played in three and lost each one. Overtime poses a number of questions: Should a team play methodically, as in the course of the game, or run the faster two-minute offense? Should a coach settle for a field goal on fourth-and-short on the first drive? "There are some people, for instance, who think you're better off deferring"—that is, giving the opponent the first possession—to start overtime, says Khan. "But I haven't seen a rock-solid argument yet."
The challenges of overtime shed light on the overall difficulties of statistical analysis in the sport. "The difference between football and baseball is that pretty much every possible situation in baseball has probably happened by now, maybe thousands of times over the years," says Khan. But in football, "there are down-and-distance situations with certain score differentials that haven't happened yet, so we're still trying to piece the data together."
There is a bigger challenge: persuading the coach—and in many cases the G.M.—to buy into the numbers. "I imagine pretty much every analytics guy in football has offered a suggestion based on data, and the coach has probably gone a different way because of momentum or because he just doesn't trust the spreadsheet," says Khan. "The best thing that we can do is to simplify the information and put it on a laminated card. But there's not a lot of time to make these decisions, so the decision maker is usually going with his gut instinct. And that instinct is not necessarily what the spreadsheet says." (On his relationship with Mularkey, Khan says, "Mike thought some of the things we were showing him were a little out there, but as we've gotten further into the season, he's trusting us more and more.")
As the Jaguars' season has progressed, they have begun to resemble a team willing to challenge conventional wisdom, with surprise onside kicks and aggressive fourth-down attempts—some more successful than others. On a play that would have made even Burke cringe, Mularkey chose to go for it on fourth-and-10 on the opposing team's 47 late in overtime against the Texans last month (this after converting earlier on fourth-and-10). Backup Chad Henne threw an incompletion, and the Texans scored two plays later to win.
The Jaguars know it's going to take more than aggressive fourth-down play-calling to turn around a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2007, but they also recognize that being ahead of the curve on analytics can accelerate such a turnaround. "There's one team right now that is applying all of this better than everyone else, and that is San Francisco," says Khan. He points to one 49ers play in Week 10, against the Rams: San Francisco faced fourth-and-one at St. Louis's 21-yard line, down 10 in the fourth quarter. The Niners went for it, converted and scored a touchdown two plays later. The game ended in a 24--24 tie. "Most people disagreed with that," says Khan. "But I've seen the chart they use. And certainly guys like Brian Burke agreed with what they did."
Now's the time to strike," says Burke, "to reap the rewards of being an early adopter; to be the Oakland A's until the Yankees start using your stuff and the competitive edge is gone."
Burke and his brethren are still waiting for football's Billy Beane—a G.M. or coach who will embrace the ideas that football's outsiders have been pushing as baseball's sabermetricians did in the 1990s. Someone to spark the revolution. Perhaps someone like Oregon's Chip Kelly, a hot candidate to land a top NFL head coaching job this winter, and an innovator whose aggressive play-calling has been regarded as outside-the-box but is based on mathematics, not momentum.
"The problem is that the sport has changed since the days when a common score was 6--3 and punting was a death blow—if you put a guy deep in his own territory he might not see the other side of the field again," says Burke. "That's not true anymore. That conventional wisdom, passed down from generation to generation, just doesn't work anymore. But everyone is playing this suboptimal way, so there's just no incentive to change."