The Steelers Have Apparently ‘Shown No Interest or Curiosity’ in Analytics

David Fleming has a pretty interesting article over at ESPN.com this week that goes into great detail about the Jacksonville Jaguars and the way their new coaching staff and front office is going to utilize analytics in their efforts to resurrect the most lifeless franchise in the league.

I have to admit, subjects like this scratch me right where I itch. I love this stuff.

Baseball’s analytics movement has exploded over the past decade and other sports (mostly the NBA) are starting to catch up. If you’ve read any of my NHL work over the past four or five years it’s been a big part of my coverage there and I know for a fact there are several teams that have their own analytics departments (including the team that plays across town from the Steelers).

Whether you like the idea of crunching numbers or would prefer to leave your analysis of the game to what you see and feel, there is no denying that more and more teams in every sport are willing to utilize whatever technology they can to gain an edge. It’s not about replacing anything, but simply adding more information to the decision-making process.

There was a line in Fleming’s article that stood out to me:

More than two-thirds of the league’s teams are now crunching numbers full time, including the decidedly old-school Bears, who established their own analytics department this summer. One of the notable holdouts? The Steelers. According to an industry source, they’ve shown “no interest or curiosity in that direction.”

How do we feel about this? Do you even care?

(I will also point out that line goes against some things I’ve previously heard about the Steelers front office and coaching staff under Mike Tomlin).

On one hand, the Steelers have been one of the most successful teams in sports over the past two decades and it’s hard to argue with that success. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t have much interest at this point given the decidedly old school nature of the franchise.

But not even a little bit of curiosity? That seems … odd, and even a little hard to believe. Especially as other teams in the league (including their top rival — and defending Super Bowl Champion — the Baltimore Ravens) dig into the subject.

Forget the NFL, if Fleming’s source is accurate the Steelers seem to be behind the other professional sports teams in their very own city. Shortly after their 2009 Stanley Cup win I interviewed Penguins general manager Ray Shero and asked him what, if any, analytics the team used. He said they brought a few people in to show them some things but weren’t quite sure what the information was telling them or how it could benefit the team. Four years later they have their own analytics department and are one of the few teams that have openly talked about how it’s played into some or their recent roster moves, including the 2010 trade for goal-scoring winger James Neal and last offseason’s roster move that brought them goaltending Tomas Vokoun.

The Pirates, on their way to their first winning season in 20 years and a possible playoff berth, have an entire team of analytics people in their front office and use some wild defensive shifts that have made a huge impact on their fielding and pitching staff.

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  • Cols714

    I’m sure the Steelers do their own analytics type of stuff. To not do it at all wouldn’t be very smart of the team. That being said, football analytics seem to be way behind the other sports if for no other reason than it’s very hard to isolate specific players using stats. Football more than any other sport is a team sport where every player affects the other players.

    The one area that I do wish Tomlin and the Steelers would use numbers is when to go for it in short yardage situations, when to go for 2 point conversions, and how to manage the clock.

    If the Steelers are truly not doing any number crunching at all then they are going to fall behind other teams.

    • countertorque

      Totally agree with the short yardage and clock management. A timeout is never worth more than a down, yet they spike the ball and take timeouts into the locker room all the time.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I would like to see the Steelers do whatever is legal and ethical that will help them win. If innovating on statistical analysis, I’d like them to be the best at it. I’m just not sure how much it matters in football.

    As a reader of Bill James since 1983, I’m a big believer in stats as a way to understand baseball (although my eyes glaze over for most advanced sabermetrics). And surely some stats help understand football better. But I think football has a number of limitations in stats compared to baseball, many of which are obvious. One is sample size: 16 games is less than 1/10 of 162 games. To use terms popularized by Nate Silver, it is mich harder to separate signal from noise. Another is that in baseball, the lineup repeatedly creates very similar situations, and football has much more variety. As Cols mentions, it is hard to isolate individual players on either offense or defense; the game is much more dynamic, with 11 defensive players having a role on every defensive play. Offensive and defensive strategies are also much more complicated and vary by play. There are various other factors, but the point is that football is much harder to understand by stats alone.

    That said, sometimes stats certainly can illuminate interesting aspects of performance in football. Tonight, ESPN showed stats with the headline “Was it the RBs or the OL?” The Steelers running backs in 2013 were second in the NFL in yards after contact and last in yards before contact.

  • Bill Pintsak

    I agree with Cols they may already have their own ‘formula’ they employ. Plus it’s been Steeler tradition (hence the reluctance to appear on Hard Knocks that I agree with) to keep things ‘in house’.

  • drobviousso

    We don’t need that article to tell us that the Steelers show no interest in analytics. You only have to look to the way they handle the run game. Running FWP ’till the wheels fall off. Butting heads with Arians for not running enough. Their obsession with finding a workhorse back instead of embracing a committee. Running up the middle at the highest rate in the league for the lowest pay-off per run.

    These are basic, basic things that “the Steelers way” says to do and very basic analysis says not to. The fact that the Steelers can paper over this flaw with superior talent acquisition and development totally puts my mind at ease.

    I mean, you don’t have to play smart when you draft guys like Ben, Heath, Santonio (jag off, but productive), Troy etc in the first round and produce guys like Harrison, Antonio Brown, and Mike Wallace from the late rounds/UFA.

    Now, if the Steelers should do anything silly like waste a bucket of first and second round picks on guys like Ziggy Hood, Jason Worldis, and a rogue’s gallery of highly drafted but under performing O linemen, now that would be a problem. But we know that would never happen. Right. Right?

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I guess I should have waited to comment until I read Fleming’s piece. A decade after Moneyball was published, I had assumed that all professional sports teams have at least what the Jags have in place, but I guess not. Given how little it costs (vs. even one player), it is ridiculous if they don’t. Of course stats shouldn’t over-rule all else, but largely ignoring them seems foolish. I guess I’d be interested in the truth of what really happens inside the Steelers’ organization.