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Interview with Aaron Schatz

Last week, I sat down with Brian Burke and discussed the work he’s done with NFL teams. Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders, an indispensable resource for fans of advanced football statistics, has been consulting with NFL teams for years. Schatz is also the lead writer, editor, and statistician on the book series Football Outsiders Almanac and writes for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Below is my interview with Aaron.

Q: Aaron, can you go into specifics on the type of work you do for NFL teams? Do you envision ultimately working for a team?

As far as consulting with teams, I’ve done two different sorts of things. First, I’ve done some in-game decision analysis, some fourth down stuff as well as some analysis on when to accept or decline penalties. Second, I’ve done reports for teams in February that gave analysis of the season with our stats, looking at what issues were likely to statistically regress and what issues really needed to be addressed, along with suggestions for possible free agent signings. Actually, it’s more accurate to say “we’ve done” rather than “I’ve done.” Some consulting I’ve done alone, and sometimes two or three guys on the FO staff work together.

Consulting for teams is great, but as advanced analysis people gradually move into front offices I don’t think I will be one of them. I don’t know about the various other folks who have followed in FO’s footsteps, but my heart has always been with the media, going back to my days running my high school paper, through my time as a radio disc jockey, doing the Lycos 50, and now Football Outsiders. I set out to revolutionize the way people analyzed the NFL, not the way they managed teams. If I end up improving the way people manage teams a little bit too, that’s just extra coolness.

Q: You publish your DVOA rankings every week, one of the most popular football articles on the web. Have you ever gotten flak from a team for them (i.e., how come we’re hiring you, we have a winning record, and you have us 24th!)?

No flak, no. A couple times I’ve had teams that I’ve worked with or that I’m otherwise in contact with ask me why their rating is particularly low in one area. However, unlike a lot of fans, people who work for teams understand that our stats are objective based on a general formula and don’t get tweaked to favor one team over another depending on how we feel each week. I think when people ask me why their team is low in one area, they often ask so that they can improve that area. And when a team hits rock bottom, I mean, they know it. The Jacksonville people don’t need to ask me why the Jaguars are ranked 30th in DVOA, or whatever it is this week. They don’t care as much about their DVOA right now as they do about their DVOA (and record) next year or two years from now. Jim Schwartz has told me he would rather have his defense ranked highly in DVOA than in yards per game. Of course, he’d rather have more wins than either. (In case it’s not clear otherwise, I should point out there are more teams where I’ve got contacts among various coaches and front office people than there are teams that I have actually worked for and received a check from.) [click to continue…]

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