Numbers Game: The Rise of Analytics in the NFL and the Resistance to Embrace It

NFL teams are more aggressive than ever on fourth down, yet spectators of the game seem to be yearning for the more conservative approach of the past

Omar Zahran


If you asked most people what their least favorite subject in school was, the answer would likely be the same across the board: math. It can be complex, confusing, and frustrating. On the flip side, many people enjoy sports. It is the thrill of competition and the ability that athletes exhibit, especially at the professional level, that people are enamored by. But there has been a trend in the last few years that has married the two entities together, and it is called analytics. Sports analytics is defined as a collection of relevant, historical, statistics that can provide a competitive advantage to a team or individual. One of the last sports to fully embrace analytics has been football. And what we have seen is a distaste for the numbers and a revelation of the true nature of football fans in the way they want the game to be played.

The Results of Analytics in Other Sports

Sports are defined by constant evolution. What worked a decade or two ago is not what will always work. When I was growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, the way baseball, basketball, and football were played were much different than they are today. Back then baseball was about getting on base and stealing bases, and scoring runs in any way possible. In basketball, you tried to get the ball inside to a post player to have them set up the offense. In football, you used the running game to set up the passing game. This was the structure and it was to be accepted. But today baseball is all about the home run, basketball is a game predicated on spacing with the three-point shot, and most football teams set up the run with the pass.

A lot of the changes that we have experienced in these games since I was a kid can be traced back to the analytics movement in the three sports. Baseball has seen an uptick in…