Earlier today, I came across this tweet from Warren Sharp;
All of this is frustrating as a fan of efficiency. More frustrating is hearing the Chargers don't even have an analytics dept. No one to study this & advise them of their horribly inefficient decisions. These tweets will fumble in the wind like a tumbleweed. Wake up, Chargers.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) July 19, 2018
The thread this tweet is part of is excellent, but this was the tweet that really caught my eye. According to Sharp, the Chargers don’t actually have an analytics department.
Surely not. They’ve got to have a few people crunching the stats, even if it’s an undersized, underutilised group working out of a basement... right?
Well, no. Apparently not. I did some research, and it seems like the Los Angeles Chargers genuinely don’t have a single person looking at analytical data for the team.
Here’s their website, listing all the ‘front office’ staff that work for the team. There’s no job on there even remotely related to analytics, but they do have these jobs listed:
- Special Assistant (I know this is LaDainian Tomlinson, but what a terrible job title).
- Special Counsel (Oh hi, Mark Fabiani).
- Special Advisor (Dean sure likes making people feel special, huh?)
- National Crosschecker (Cool name!)
- Team Chaplain (Most teams have a Team Chaplain. But most teams also have an analytics department).
- Controller (No, seriously, that’s the job.)
- Assistant Controller (Well, duh. It’s a bit much to expect someone to be an entire controller without any help).
- Guest Services Representative x5 (How nice of the Chargers to hire a personal representative for each fan visiting StubHub).
I could go on, but my point is this: There’s well over 100 jobs listed there. If the Chargers really did have somebody working on the analytics, they’d have included them on the website.
The Baltimore Ravens website, for example, lists not only a ‘Manager, Player Evaluation and Analytics) member of staff, but a ‘Football Systems Developer’ too. The Eagles, who just won the Superbowl, have multiple people working in analytics. The Cleveland Browns - the Browns! - even list Software Developers as part of their Player Personnel staffing group.
What on earth are the Chargers doing?
In this day and age, it is unbelievable that the Chargers choose not to employ a single member of staff to run the analytics. On the contrary, perhaps it is believable, believable that the worst run franchise in the NFL - perhaps in all of sports - could be so unfathomably stupid that they don’t see the need to hire anyone to help them make use of the incredible technology that is at the tip of their fingertips. Even for the Chargers, however, this is absolutely absurd.
When thinking about the most successful team of late, your mind is likely drawn to the New England Patriots, appearing in eight Superbowls - winning five - since the turn of the decade. Those have all come under Bill Belichick’s guidance, widely regarded as possibly the greatest Head Coach in the history of the NFL. Yet Belichick is inextricably linked to Ernie Adams. If you don’t know the name, that’s because Adams notoriously shies away from the limelight. While Belichick was Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell offered $10,000 for anybody who could tell him what it was that he actually paid Ernie Adams to do. Nobody came forward to collect the money.
While he may not be a household name, a huge part of the success Belichick and the Patriots have had could be linked back to Ernie Adams. According to the Boston Globe, Adams “has Belichick’s ear.” That’s putting it lightly. The Globe goes on to say that “Down on the field, the dedicated Ernie Hotline is available for Patriots assistant coaches. Or in case there’s a scramble with Belichick’s headset. The Ernie Hotline is the backup. In case of emergency. Belichick’s lifeline.”
“Adams is the one who tells Belichick whether the Patriots should toss the red challenge flag after a questionable call. At halftime, Adams hustles downstairs with several other coaches and tells Belichick what needs to be done in the second half. The Patriots annually lead the league in effective second-half adjustments.”
So, what is it than Adams actually does? Well, the Globe notes that Adams “studies film, devours statistics, reports on trends, and develops strategies on 2-point conversions, fourth-down attempts, and timeout preservations.”
In a word; analytics.
With the state of analytics in 2018, you can track everything you’d ever dreamed of doing - and more. Want to know how fast on average your Z receiver gets to his spot on an out route when it’s 11 personnel on the field, between 75 and 95 degrees when the opposing CB is wearing a number between #30-39 and is playing press? I don’t know why you would, but you can! Unless you’re the Chargers, in which case, not only do you not have anyone to crunch the numbers for you, but you probably don’t actually employ anyone who knows how to turn a laptop on.
The NFL is a billion dollar business, with teams trying to do absolutely everything to get even the tiniest edge on the opposition. An equal salary cap means that simply throwing cash at the on field product won’t suffice. If you want to win, you need to spend - and act - smarter. The Chargers are doing the opposite of that.
When the Eagles won the Superbowl this year, they won it with a coach who fully embraces the benefits that analytics can bring to the table. The Eagles are so committed to the analytics side of things that, according to ESPN, “two members of the department -- including coaching assistant/linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti, a Dartmouth grad with a degree in economics -- communicate with Pederson in-game.”
The Eagles analytics staff have Pederson’s ear in crucial situations, including what to do on fourth down. That fourth down pass to Nick Foles in the Superbowl? You better believe that was backed up by the analytics telling Pederson to run that play.
Make no mistake about it - the Chargers refusal to utilize analytics is nothing less than willful ignorance and arrogance by an organization defined by those very characteristics, and it’s a decision that permeates down from the very top. No team is better at cutting off their nose to spite their face than the Chargers, who get so many things wrong you have to wonder whether they’re an actual Professional Football Team, or simply a comedy group masquerading as one.
It would be a terrible decision to have an analytics department that you mostly ignore (hi, Jon Gruden!). But to not even have that department in the first place? It’s stupid. It’s brainless. It’s madness!
It’s unfair to tar everyone in the organization with the same brush, however. Research led me to this link, where, hilariously, the Chargers director of Digital Media discusses how important data and analytics are to their job. At least somebody is paying attention.
I’m sure that the Chargers coaching staff have a glance at the basic tendencies - how much they run on first down, their success rate throwing on third down. You know, the same things teams were doing 30 years ago. It’s nowhere near enough.
The Chargers have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL this season, but talent isn’t the only factor in winning a ring. There’s staying healthy and luck, for a start - both of which the Chargers seem to be in short supply of year after year, and both of which are things that analytics could easily help to mitigate, if only the team were listening.
They’re in a position where they’ve got a legitimate chance to win their first Superbowl before Philip Rivers retires, and should be doing everything possible to try and make that happen. Instead, they refuse to spend a minuscule outlay on something that could make a major difference. It’s not good enough. The fans deserve better.
And, before somebody makes a joke about ‘what fans?’ (much like I did at the start of this article, because I’m a fan of low hanging fruit), this represents a huge opportunity to grow the fanbase off the field. There’s a lot of good sports teams in Los Angeles right now, and if the Chargers can’t win this year, they’re going to get left behind in the dust (or should that be traffic?). It is completely in Dean Spanos’ best interest to put together a winning product on the field, at least in the tentative stages of the move to Los Angeles. His father, Alex, probably would have understood that, but Dean clearly didn’t inherit Alex’s business acumen.
What Dean did inherit was a hell of a lot of money, and because of the move to Los Angeles, Dean Spanos is almost guaranteed to make money in spite of the inane, moronic decisions that he makes on a daily basis. If Dean wants to leave a legacy of anything other than a trainwreck, however, he needs to cultivate a plan - driven by data rather than gut feel - to build the fanbase back up.
If only he had an analyst on hand to help him out.