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Blessed Are the Geeks ...
Albert Chen
December 10, 2012
... FOR THEY SHALL INHERIT THE GAME—AS SOON AS STATHEADS, LIKE BASEBALL'S SABERMETRICIANS BEFORE THEM, CONVINCE THE FOOTBALL MEN THAT ANALYTICS, RATHER THAN GUT INSTINCT, OFFERS THE BEST FORMULA FOR WINNING
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December 10, 2012

Blessed Are The Geeks ...

... FOR THEY SHALL INHERIT THE GAME—AS SOON AS STATHEADS, LIKE BASEBALL'S SABERMETRICIANS BEFORE THEM, CONVINCE THE FOOTBALL MEN THAT ANALYTICS, RATHER THAN GUT INSTINCT, OFFERS THE BEST FORMULA FOR WINNING

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As he speaks, Burke is sitting in front of his computer in the basement of his home in Reston, Va., where he conducts his analysis. Four years ago he was a single father with nights to himself. He began playing around with football statistics after he and a friend debated whether or not defense wins championships, and a few months later he began posting his work online. He attracted attention after he was one of the few, in November 2009, to defend Patriots coach Bill Belichick's almost universally panned decision to go for it on a fourth-and-two from his own 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining in a game in which New England led Indianapolis 34--28. (The Pats failed to convert, and Peyton Manning drove the Colts in for the winning score.) Around that time Burke was contacted by a representative of an NFL team who told him that his club had been using Burke's models (which are available to the public) to determine when to use timeouts and when to accept and decline penalties. The team was interested in creating models of its own. Today Burke works full time managing for a military contractor, contributes a weekly column to The New York Times and The Washington Post, and consults for a handful of teams. He has no interest in working for any club full time.

Burke opens a chart he's working on, an analysis of overtime strategy, and is puzzled by what his own data shows. "Opening drive in overtime, fourth-and-eight on the other team's 30-yard ine—you punt?" he says questioningly, pointing to the data. "I talked this over with a team, and they got the same thing. Strange, huh?"

When he began meeting with NFL coaches a few years ago, Burke realized "that coaches have thought of things that never have dawned on me," he says. "I'm always humbled after talking to them.

"I'll be honest," he says. "I'll be watching a game, and I'll wish that a team won't do what I had recommended because I'm so frightened they won't convert. It scares me to death when I see teams take my advice. I can understand, on the sidelines, with all that pressure, any one of us would like to go into the safe harbor of the tried and true. I understand that.

"But eventually," he adds, "I believe change will come. The game evolves."

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