BOSTON — For coaches like Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, the advent of advanced analytics means striking a balance between new technologies and old-school intuition.
“What these guys can do is utterly amazing, and I have a big brother complex. I don’t even trust my phone,” Leach said jocularly in a packed room at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston on Saturday. “I did a lot of good things academically but slide rule and math, some of this MIT stuff — I wasn’t quite qualified for that. I don’t know how many people in your class are from Cody, Wyoming. Probably not very many.”
The panel was called, “Moving the Chains: Advancing Football Analytics” at the annual conference hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event was attended by over 3,000 industry professionals, professional sports representatives and students. It aims to address technological advancements and their pragmatic applications, as well as endemic challenges in an ever-evolving landscape.
One of the topics discussed was the league’s shift towards more pass-heavy offenses, a trend that has been fueled in part by the analytics community.
“The last several Super Bowls have been Air Raid principles and nobody likes to throw it much more than New England lately. They didn’t start out that way either,” Leach said. The Bulldogs’ coach has been a long-time proponent for the Air Raid offense, a system which relies heavily on the quarterback position.
“The way I’ve always looked at it, as a coach, you’re always looking for an efficient way to run an offense, an efficient way to score, and an efficient way to move the ball. If you have a quarterback that can throw strikes, you can make six positions better – the quarterback position and the other five skill positions better,” Leach said. “The NFL Hall of Fame is full of guys who are great at elevating their offensive unit, that were great at making the players around them better.”
Leach spoke of the qualities he looks for in signal-callers and emphasized the importance of identifying quarterback talent early.
“They’ll do these evaluations and say, ‘Well, all he’s gotta do is work on his accuracy.’ That’s not something you just work on. If the high school coach couldn’t make him accurate then he goes to college. College coach couldn’t make him accurate, somehow the NFL is going to magically make him accurate? Like hell they are,” he said. “You can develop a lot of things, and you can improve accuracy, but you can’t go from non-accurate to accurate, particularly consistently.”
Leach previously served as head coach at Texas Tech University from 2000 to 2009. He is the school’s winningest coach and developed talent such as 1999 No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch (as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator), B.J. Symons who holds the Red Raiders’ record for passing yards in a season and Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.
He and the team had a public fallout in 2009 after Leach was suspended indefinitely following accusations of mistreatment by running back Adam James.
He later coached at Washington State University from 2012 to 2019 where he developed former Jets backup Luke Falk and Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew. Leach was hired by Mississippi State earlier this year.
Football has lagged behind other professional sports in terms of advanced analytics. The challenge for those evaluating talent is using those metrics to project success, something referred to as the “holy grail” on the panel.
“No position’s more scrutinized than the quarterback position and yet, it’s frequently evaluated poorly,” Leach said. “I’m not going to throw out any names because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but there’s quarterback after quarterback after quarterback that looks like some adonis-looking guy who just isn’t a good football player. … It’s more than just how big, how tall, what he weights, how fast — it’s the ability to elevate the players around you and a lot of that is awful intangible. The best way to evaluate that is, do they elevate the people around them? Then you say, how do you evaluate that? I don’t have a perfectly good answer for that.”
Leach’s remarks on analytics and overall demeanor were a significant departure from the tenor of the rest of the conference. He joked about his difficulty pronouncing the word “cognitive,” and spoke about planting corn, Idaho supermarkets and chewing tobacco.
“I love analytics and all that, but I don’t have an analytic for evaluating what creates a situation, or how this guy can elevate a team different than this guy,” Leach said. “The ability to elevate the other 11 around you is the single most important skill a quarterback has. Can you elevate the other 11 players? Can you do it at a key time? Can you do it consistently? Can you do it without pointing fingers? I hate finger-pointing. I’ll break them of that. We’ve got a sand pit for that.”
Another hot topic in the analytics community is the decision to go for it on fourth down. Unlike many of his colleagues, Leach has maintained a bullish stance over the years, rooted more in gut-feeling than statistics.
“You guys are all gonna walk out of the room when you hear this. … I feel like half a failure if a kick a field goal. I feel like a total failure if I punt,” he said. “I believe in going for it on fourth down. Sometimes the karma, the momentum of your team is such that your chances are higher. The whole group chemistry, everyone thinking the same thing at the same time. You can almost feel a little bit it on the sideline. I know it sounds instinctual, I know it doesn’t do the number thing. As a coach, you do have the sense if your guys are playing well. The results may not be what you like but you have a sense if you’re playing well and everybody’s firing on all cylinders. That’s a good time to go for it on fourth down.
“I get a kick out these guys who say there’s no such thing as momentum. Baloney, these are people, they’re not spark plugs.”