Antediluvian Football in the Age of Analytics

Jul 15, 2014 at 9:00 PM


George Ignatin had a computer, or at least access to one at the university where he worked. Allen Barra had a yen to write. Both followed football, pro and college, closely. Together, a la Bill James, whose 1970s sabermetrics revolution would soon forever change the way we view and play baseball, Ignatin/Barra began to analyze gridiron stats. They fed into their computer, dubbed Mad Max, numbers, and monitored the output assiduously. Soon, they discovered that the methods in Max's madness revealed insights contrary to the then-received wisdoms about how the hallowed game of football should be played.

Remember, Ignatin/Barra/Max followed hard upon the cleats of pound-and-grind football. During the previous decade, the Dolphins and Steelers dominated pro ball, while, in the college game, Woody Hayes and his ilk pile-drove opponents into the turf. Meanwhile, in 1979, the San Francisco 49ers hired as their head coach one Bill Walsh. You may have heard of him. Walsh did things a little differently, particularly with regard to the passing game. I will not rehash the details of the Walshian Way, since most Niner fans already know them. Suffice to say that the findings of Mad Max paralleled the rise of the 49ers' franchise during the eighties.

Early in that decade, many regarded the Niners' success as a fluke, more as a temporary aberration than as the game-changing catalyst in whose wake we still surf. Likewise, Ignatin/Barra gained small purchase early on, finally securing a publishing outlet in the most unlikely of places: The Village Voice. In those days, the Voice closeted its sports section inside the very back page, a few scraggly columns most mainstream sports fans would never even deign to notice. There, Ignatin/Barra began printing, for all the world to see, Mad Max's results, and, yes, their analysis of same. Since all the world, and maybe even Bo Schembechler, seldom read them, good money could be made in those early years, because, you see, Max had an advantage hard to buck: accuracy.

Money could be won in that nascent computational era by following Max's prognostications, because they were often at odds with the official odds, thereby increasing the bettors' odds. Of course no one, then or now, ever bets on football. Rather odd. Nearly everyone else in those days underrated the Niners and their passing ways. Ignatin and Barra did not. By mid-decade, as with the 49ers after the '84 season, more fans began to notice the duo, and, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, gradually began to afford football analytics their due. Ignatin/Barra's work appeared in national publications. (Goodbye Greenwich Village, hello Middle America.) The pair even developed a master stat, which stated, to somewhat oversimplify, that wins correlated most closely with a team's ability to pass the ball efficiently while preventing the opponent from doing the same.

Yes, yes, the running game still mattered to Ignatin and Barra, but they privileged, in contradistinction to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy then in vogue, the importance of the passing game. Bill Walsh, meanwhile, liked to pass the ball to get ahead, and run the ball to stay there. On defense, he liked to stop the run to get ahead and then rush the opposing passer to stay there. Mostly, though, he utilized what worked, as illustrated by the prevalence of runs during the famous drive leading to "The Catch." Also, data mavens have subsequently mined the statistical intricacies of the running game. Nor were Ignatin and Barra the only pioneers. Still, one can see the lasting connection between Walshian football and analytics. Both practiced intelligent football. Analytics came of age during the proliferation and elaboration of the passing game. This synergy persists.

Because of this symbiosis between advanced stats and the 49er legacy, might some contemporary Niner fans, myself included, practice a subtle form of familiarity bias? Every off-season, we bombard the internet with articles, comments, and podcasts about how the 49ers need to "open up their offense." Certainly, quarterbacks will always attract more attention than any other position, but we often hang on every Kapernickian hangnail with the unspoken but insinuated criticism that he "aint no Joe Montana." As for offensive coordinator Greg Roman, why, we blurt that he might know the running game, but lacks the imagination to institute a truly creative passing attack. Last season, we railed against the receivers. This year, we parse out how many catches each wideout might accumulate and debate which player may save the offense. Perhaps the 49ers should pass on every down. No, perhaps they should pass twice on every down. No, that's illegal. Besides, would that give Richard Sherman the opportunity to make not one, but two interceptions per play?

To be fair, 49er fans aren't the only analytics advocates flummoxed by Harbaugh football. Each off-season the Football Outsiders' crew spends a fair portion of their annual almanac explaining why the previous version underestimated the 49ers' preceding year's win total. This year, Mike Tanier resorted to special pleading to explain why his Sports-on-Earth rankings of league-wide individual units (defensive lines, linebackers, etc.) failed to rank Niner units higher. Incidentally, Tanier's explanation, which involves the gestalt of team-ball, makes good sense, which means the analytics community may yet catch up to the fleet-witted, nimble-minded ways of Coach Jim.

However, veteran 49er fans fear two other staples of the analytics toolbox: the small sample size and reversion to the mean. Harbaugh has achieved grandiose success in only three seasons. The ghost of Bill Walsh warns that four consecutive NFC Championship appearances might reach too far. Well, to quote advanced scout Mr. Browning, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's heaven, and possible Super Bowl victories, for? As for reversion to the mean, hell yes, damn right, and duh. Thus do many Niner fans want, nay long for, nay yearn for, a twenty-first-century offense, passing included, to confound the implacable probabilities of numbers and stave off the heartless inevitabilities of decline. How better, along with teambuilding, to improve, in the ultra-competitive NFC West, than by supplementing, if not supplanting, the power running and stout defense with a passable passing attack?

Younger fans, say age eighteen on down, assure me that this excessive emphasis on the pass "is so late-20th century," and, likewise, "so is blind devotion to analytics." I point out that we will not achieve "peak analytics" in football until game-day announcers saturate the airwaves with it and that statistics always have, and always will have, a dialogue with the actual games on the field. The youngsters roll their eyes, and accuse me of fogeyism. Analytics, yesteryear's darlings, have lost their cutting-edge luster. And, by the way, these jaunty youths assert that they weary of hearing yet again about Bill Walsh and his Middle-Ages football. Passing, for them, has morphed from passionate to passé. This is their 49er team, their generation's legacy-making run. As proof that the power game represents the latest breakaway dash toward a renewed football future, these young Prospectors point to the success of the – brace yourselves, ancient ones -- Seattle Seahawks. Ouch.

Oh bitter, bitter irony that the rival Seahawks have become the chic choice as a model power-football team and that their last-winter demolition of Denver should validate said power game as the new viable path to Super Bowl victory for youngsters everywhere, including those offspring of diehard 49er fans. This nigh-tragic conundrum stretches loyalty to the limit. Must we disavow our own children and they us? Blow, ye winds. Crack your cheeks. Howl. Howl. Howl.

No, I say. Better to hide behind analytics, however staid, and hope that the Harbaugh regime can fashion some sort of passing game beyond the repeated antics of power throws. Heed your elders' wisdom, whippersnappers. Even Bo Schembechler's teams threw occasionally, when throwing boosted their chances of winning. So, too, might Harbaugh himself engage in such sacrilege if he has to.

And so the gauntlet from a fresh generation of fans settles onto the new-stadium-with-an-old-name turf. And so, also, does the new season's central drama set: Will Harbaugh's power philosophy prevail, or will even he be forced to retreat into bygone ways, and resort to more varied, stodgy, old-school (meaning Peyton Manning circa 2013) pass plays? Be forewarned, generations ABC, that, either way, should the Niners lose a few more games and fail to reach the playoffs, we geezers will undoubtedly break out our analytical sabers and hack into the 49ers with insufferable self-righteousness. We beg your gentle patience, your kind forbearance, and your graceful tolerance of the odor that may emanate from our digital ripeness. Above all, we cede our claim to the right of exclusive insight into the workings of our favorite team, and sincerely wish you future championship seasons.

Let training camp begin!
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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