Sense of Urgency

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2004-05-14 Print this article Print

The system is embraced in the NFL because theres a sense of urgency in professional football. The entire NFL season is just 16 games, compared with baseballs 162 games or basketballs 82. It lasts a little longer than a corporate quarter. Whats at stake? Millions. The average NFL salary is $1.23 million, according to the NFL Players Association.

Players also see the system as a career aid. According to video director Bob Eckberg, players are increasingly asking for DVDs of video sorted by situation, tendencies and season. "Players are still feeling out what they can get out of it," says Eckberg.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman, a 286-pound former fifth-round draft pick, looks for something as obscure as how an opposing blocker plants his feet on a pass play. Linemate Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the Packers leading sacker, gets cutups sorted by plays where he was successful tackling a quarterback in a passing situation. The goal: Find ways to get a sack, a significant event in a game. If Green Bay sacks a quarterback, theres a 92% chance the opposing team will not score on that particular drive.

For now, coaches initiate a lot of player self-improvement. When Green Bay had trouble converting high-pressure third-down-and-long situations in midseason, head coach Sherman and his staff sorted the seasons games to date and analyzed each play in that situation. The problem? Wide receivers were dropping the ball. After watching a quick compilation of plays, it was determined that the receivers were taking their eyes off the ball before making a catch. They were kept after team workouts to catch more balls and correct the issue, says Eayrs.

The result: Green Bay ended the season with three players—Robert Ferguson, Tony Fisher and Javon Walker—among its conferences top 20 receivers converting first downs in situations of third down and more than seven yards, according to Stats Inc. Fellow playoff teams Dallas and Seattle also had three receivers among the leaders in that category.

Pinnacles system does have limitations. For starters, the video system usually only has data on "skill players," considered to be quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks and wide receivers. Other players key to winning, such as offensive linemen, cant be sorted by jersey numbers because the leagues spotters are required to follow the action, not take attendance. The NFL, however, is working on identifying all the players on the field at once through live spotting and video.

Despite the increased focus on statistics and technology, Green Bay management is wary of becoming a slave to it. There are no metrics to measure character, heart and desire. Indeed, BruceWarwick, director of football administration, says Sherman drafted Kampman based on character and work ethic.

"Statistics are overrated, they arent the end-all be-all, but they do pique your interest," says Warwick. "The goal is to minimize risks [in investing in and developing players]."

But theres no denying that in any sport, making one player better can improve the results for the entire team. One characteristic winning teams share, says Eayrs, is the ability to make big plays. Stats Inc. defines a big play as one greater than 20 yards. Green Bay defines "explosive" plays as runs of 12 yards or more or passes for 16 yards or more.

Enter Henderson, who doesnt have gaudy statistics for carries and receptions, but is valued highly because he clears the way for Greens big runs and helps keep Favre safe. He uses Pinnacle to look for opposing linebackers tendencies, including lateral movement and positioning in run situations.

Says Henderson: "I dont believe football will ever become all statistics, but if I can use science to save me a step or two or learn a new trick, Im going to use it."

Next Page: Green Bay Packers Base Case.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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