It began with a question, one that countless thinkers had asked before, but that none had answered—at least not in a way that satisfied him. Brian Burke never intended to shatter decades of conventional football wisdom or to ignite an old-school versus new-school war. He was just a fan who wanted the answer to a simple question: When should a coach go for it on fourth down?
There was a time, not so long ago, when teams were smarter than everyone else. A time when Football Men had all the answers—theirs was a game with as vast a knowledge gap between the insiders and the outsiders as any other sport. But this was before the Moneyball revolution changed baseball and began to seep into other sports; before the rise of fans who began to rethink the conventional wisdom; before those fans began tracking every play with such high levels of precision that teams began asking them for data. This was before Burke sat down in front of his laptop four years ago, in a hotel room in Karachi, Pakistan, and attacked the fourth-down conundrum to create what would become a New Age blueprint for winning games.
On the surface Burke couldn't have been a more unlikely creator of one of the biggest innovations in football statistics. A Navy pilot turned weapons and tactics expert for a military contractor, he'd only recently heard of the godfather of sports analytics, Bill James. But he was an obsessive football fan who knew the power of numbers; in combat in Iraq between the Gulf Wars he'd put his life in the hands of analytical techniques and probabilistic calculations and come out alive. Holed up in a hotel during a three-week work trip to Pakistan in September 2008 ("We could never leave the hotel [out of danger]," he says; "I had a lot of free time"), Burke hit on the idea of building a statistical model that would yield the odds of a team's winning a game in every on-field situation—every down-and-distance from every position on the field, for every point margin. Win Probability would tell a team what it should do based on the numbers, a data set that has since grown to more than 3,000 actual games.
Of course, there remain more skeptics than believers. "I think it's fascinating," says one NFL front-office staffer about Burke's formula, "but it's not tested and proven out over as many situations as you'd like."
Still, to many statheads, Burke's work was evidence of what they had been arguing for years—that the league was stuck in what Burke, 42, calls a "suboptimum equilibrium, with no teams playing the optimum way." Teams didn't pass the ball enough and ran the ball too much, and they were far too passive on fourth downs, settling too often for field goals and punts. "The current coaching crop learned from the trial-and-error conventional wisdom of the 1970s, which was the nadir of passing," says Burke. "The sport has changed dramatically."
In recent years NFL teams started to get smarter. M.B.A. graduates from elite universities began infiltrating football front offices as they had baseball's in the mid-2000s, but the brain power was devoted to salary-cap management and personnel decisions. There was one area in which teams remained stuck in flat-earth thinking: game strategy. Burke believed this would change—that in an information age in which advanced stats had the power to predict a presidential election to the decimal point, new math would be impossible for the Football Men to ignore. He believed the revolution would reach the field, that the game was "reaching a tipping point where one coach would buy into the analytics approach. And if that coach were successful, there would be an avalanche."
Go back, before Brian Burke and his Win Probability model, before bright young front-office minds began managing salary caps like hedge-fund portfolios, before Bill Belichick's Patriots—the closest thing to an NFL Moneyball team—recognized that franchises were overvaluing free agency and undervaluing draft picks.... Analytics have been a part of football since the formative years of the NFL. Back in the early 1960s, the Cowboys' Tex Schramm employed an Indian-born programmer named Salam Qureishi—a cricket fan who knew nothing about football—to develop a computerized analysis of the qualities that make a player draft-worthy. Even then Schramm, who ran the most sophisticated scouting system in the NFL, spoke about using computers in analysis and game planning. He liked to tell the story of how he ran the high school numbers of running back Dan Reeves through his computer as an exercise. Reeves went undrafted in 1965 out of South Carolina before Schramm's Cowboys signed him as a free agent. He went on to play in two Super Bowls for Dallas. The model had Reeves as the 29th-best player in that draft.
"NFL teams have always been ahead of other sports in terms of analytics," says Aaron Schatz, founder of the website Football Outsiders. "But then the movement stopped somewhere along the way." Where football began to lag behind other sports was in its use of advanced statistics. Schatz wanted to change that.
He was a 10-year-old math prodigy growing up in Massachusetts when he experienced enlightenment reading Bill James's Baseball Abstracts. Later, as he worked as a trends analyst for the website Lycos, he became a football fan and wondered why Jamesian principles had never been translated to this sport. Schatz's epiphany came when Boston Globe writer Ron Borges wrote in 2002 that the Patriots would not make the playoffs because they lacked the ability to establish the run. "He argued this even as he picked Oakland to win the Super Bowl, and that didn't make any sense—Oakland ran the ball less than any other team," says Schatz. "I thought, well, when Bill James wanted to know if a certain catcher gave up more stolen bases than others, he opened up the dang Sporting News and started counting. So I was going to do the same thing—go through the play-by-play to see whether teams that run more really win more."
In July 2003 Schatz launched Football Outsiders, which was groundbreaking in its use of empirical evidence and advanced statistics in debunking myths such as the importance of establishing the run. Schatz wrote for "people who followed the highest level of the chess game but were severely underserved in the market place," he says. "I knew the audience was there.