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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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Pete Gogolak, not Brian Burke.

You know the name Pete Gogolak, don’t you? The former Buffalo Bill placekicker is a famous figure in football history for two reasons. First, he played a key role in the merger between the AFL and NFL in the 1960s.1 He’s also remembered for what he did on the field: Gogolak is widely credited with being the first soccer-style kicker in pro football history.

But Gogolak’s impact wasn’t limited to identifying the optimal technique for kicking a football: he also helped usher in an era of specialists. In the early days of the NFL, there was no room for a specialist as rosters were tiny and players played on offense, defense and special teams. Unlimited free substitution wasn’t permanently instituted until 1950, and as recently as 1963, teams were limited to just 37-man rosters.

Once teams were allowed to roster more players, and a certain unique brand of kicking was proven to be superior, a more specialized NFL emerged. In 1949, nobody would have signed a soccer-style kicker, or any person who could only kick a football. We joke now that kickers aren’t real football players, because back in 1949, a kicker would also need to play tight end or free safety. The idea that 5’11, 182-pound, 42-year-old Jason Hanson could be a contributing member of an NFL team is as noncontroversial in 2012 as it would have been laughable in 1952. It’s not going to take 60 years before an advanced statistical analyst — perhaps the front office version of a kicker — becomes a contributing member of an NFL organization.

This weekend, I sat down with Brian Burke, the founder of Advanced NFL Stats, a fantastic website on football, statistics and game theory. Burke’s win probability calculator has been one of the most exciting innovations in our industry. In Part II of this series, I’ll be interviewing Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz. Neither person is a threat to Ron Rivera’s job security anymore than Jason Hanson is a threat to steal Calvin Johnson’s job. Specialization is the way of the world, and hiring someone trained in the art of decision-making isn’t any different than choosing to hire a lawyer or doctor. We can’t expert anyone to be an expert in everything.
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  1. Gogolak was the first AFL player stolen by an NFL team. In 1965, Bob Timberlake succeeded on just one of his fifteen field goal attempts for the Giants. That prompted a desperate Wellington Mara to sign Gogolak after the season, which violated the gentlemen’s agreement between the two leagues not to sign each other’s players (which would drive up salaries). In response, Al Davis went nuclear, and the AFL signed Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen and Mike Ditka to contracts. Shortly thereafter, the two leagues hammered out the details on a merger. Baltimore’s Carroll Rosenbloom reportedly told Mara afterwards, “If I’d known you wanted a kicker, I’d have given you a kicker.” []
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