Ravens Add Math Whiz To Front Office


Sandy Weil first saw the crossover of math and sports when he was in high school.

He and some buddies decided to put together their own version of a fantasy basketball league – and this was in the late 1980s, before fantasy sports were the craze – picking players and using their stats to tally up scores against each other's teams.

They went through that NBA season and the competition wasn't even close. Weil dominated.

"I beat the pants off my friends," Weil said. "They didn't know how to put together spreadsheets, and I was doing all this research."

That piqued Weil's interest in blending sports and math, and his fascination with both has only grown since then. Weil went on to earn a degree in mathematics from Yale and a master's degree in computational finance from Carnegie Mellon.

And now he's the newest member of the Ravens' staff, where he'll work with the personnel department and coaching staff as the Director of Football Analytics. His in-depth statistical research will range from examining certain in-game situations to mining data related to the NFL Draft.

"We already do a lot of things right," Weil said. "The question is: are there places where we could do things a little better or a little more informed?"

Weil will use analysis to challenge and examine some of the prevailing schools of thought within the NFL. The studies could look at everything from the value of going for a first down on fourth-and-short, to determining the traits that are key indicators of success for an NFL prospect.

"We're always looking for confirmation on things we think we know and insights that could provide an edge for us in personnel and coaching," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "This is where Sandy will help us."

Weil already has a list of projects to get started on, but he and the Ravens are still ironing out exactly how to use his analysis and where they want him to focus his research.

"Like developing your team, it's a work in progress," Newsome said. "As Sandy learns more about what we do and we learn more about what he can do with all this information, his role and impact will increase. I'm excited to see where this leads and how it develops."

The analyst role that Weil fills is relatively new to the football world, as only a handful of NFL teams have similar positions.

Baseball teams are best known for employing analysts in the front office, as the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics was turned into a bestselling book and Hollywood production "Moneyball." The success of the book and the movie – and the achievements of teams using the philosophy – has significantly influenced baseball and now other sports are catching on.

Basketball jumped on board after baseball (Weil previously did work for the San Antonio Spurs), and now football is following suit.

Initially, the sports analytics approach was met with cynicism, but it has proven to be a successful and effective way to supplement the traditional styles of scouting and coaching.

"There's no longer complete skepticism around the approach," Weil said. "Oakland A's took that hit. Billy Beane and the people he worked with kind of took that hit and made it OK to hire guys who know how to work with numbers. That stigma is gone."

A key component of the Moneyball story is that Beane and his team were able to find inefficiencies in the marketplace in terms of the way players were paid. For example, they determined that on-base percentage was a more valuable statistic than solely looking at batting average, and that those players with a high on-base percentage were undervalued.

Weil hopes to find similar situations in the football world.

"They found a market inefficiency and that exploited it," Weil said. "That's what 'Moneyball' was about and there are going to be places that you can look at in football and find new stuff. And the question is if you can exploit inefficiencies on that front to create value. I hope so."

Part of the challenge for Weil is that he is trying to make a science out of a process that has so many intangibles. Scouting and coaching have so many variables, which can make collecting data difficult.

For example, the terminology used when assessing a player can vary based on the scout. Two scouts could both say that they have a "gut feeling" about a certain prospect, but the definition of that "gut feeling" may be two completely different things.

"You sort of have to break that gut feeling down into describable dimensions," Weil said. "If you can measure that for a bunch of guys, then you can see if it is any indication of success."

In doing his research, a key piece of the equation for Weil is to make the analysis useful to people like Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh, who will be the ones tasked with drafting players and making calls on the sideline.

"It's not just doing the analysis and spitting out some number," Weil said. "It's knowing the limitations of the analysis and presenting them in a way that people making decisions can make use of that information. They can incorporate into the way that they're doing things, and that's really where my job is to fit in."

This is Weil's first job working in the NFL, so he plans to spend a good deal of his time this year learning how the coaching staff and personnel departments operate. He's also focused on building trust with the coaches and scouts, emphasizing that the analytics approach isn't designed to dismiss the traditional style of scouting, but rather provide evidence to support or modify certain practices.

"Scouts and coaches know what they're doing," Weil said. "These guys go out there and watch these guys perform. They've been watching football for years and they can pick out what they're looking for.

"I think a lot of decisions are made through established rules of thumb, and if we can use evidence that 'yes, that's the right way of doing something,' then there's no reason to change it. Maybe you end up tweaking something, or maybe you decide to keep doing the same things, but now you have even more confidence that there is evidence around that."

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