The Ravens are destined to rely more on analytics to evaluate personnel and make decisions, according to General Manager Eric DeCosta. Not that the Ravens will become strictly wed to scientific data, but as DeCosta takes the reigns as the Ravens' chief personnel decision-maker, he views analytics as a valuable tool that needs to be used effectively.
NFL teams are relying more on analytics, and DeCosta wants the Ravens to be trendsetters in exploring the new information frontier.
"It's kind of like the wild West," DeCosta said. "I think every team's trying to figure out best how to use that stuff. We spend a lot of time thinking about that, talking to people.
"To be honest, you have to be really smart to understand all the data points. Every single play there's like a million data points, where these guys are going, how they're getting there with speed and explosion. I'm not really qualified to talk about it. I get the reports and look at the data and I have people who can interpret it for me, for us. Ten years from now, it will be unbelievable how this information is being used on game days to evaluate talent, plan play-calls, and to build your team. It's exciting."
DeCosta has noticed how rapidly the emphasis on analytics has risen in other sports. He began organizing the Ravens' analytics department in 2012, and believes the Ravens are slightly ahead of the NFL curve.
"We've been able to develop our own software in-house, which has been a great thing for us," DeCosta said. "We've got a great developer. That was a huge step for us, and we've got some analysts who help us quite a bit.
"I think, in terms of other sports, we're definitely behind. Baseball, the NBA, premier league soccer, those guys do some really cutting-edge stuff. We talk to those teams. We try to network and spend time with those guys every offseason where we can get ideas. There's some really, really smart people in other sports. The nature of our sport, some of the stats and data points make it more difficult. In a sport like baseball, which is almost entirely stats-driven, it's easier to do. But I think with game-day management, with evaluation, with some of the player-tracking stuff that we're doing now, we're seeing more and more ways to exploit analytics to help us make decisions."
Analytics can influence many aspects of decision-making during the offseason, during the regular season, and during games. The data being collected by teams has become more detailed, going far beyond how fast a player runs the 40-yard dash.
How much does a player's workout speed differ from his game speed? How fast do the best tacklers run when they are closing in on ball carriers? In what situations is it best to go for it on fourth down? How long should teams practice, and how rigorous should those practices be?
For coaches, scouts, and executives, those questions being pondered daily are just the tip of the iceberg. Using analytics isn't the answer for everything, and football remains a team sport that relies heavily on 11 players working together, regardless of what statistical data may tell you. But the trend of more NFL teams incorporating analytics into important decisions isn't going to change, and DeCosta embraces that direction.
"Analytics is a way that I see of organizing information," DeCosta said. "We have all these different pieces of information – bullet points and different things. How do we organize that information effectively? And, how do we use that information to help us make decisions? So, is it a growing field? Yeah, I think it is. Is it something that we'll just rely on strictly, ever? No, I don't think that's the case. Is it something that will help us make decisions? I think it can be. We would be foolish as an organization to not look at that and consider that as a way of helping us be better."