Why doesn't football have a Bill James?

The stadium scene.
Dec. 19 2003 10:50 AM

Number Crunching

Why doesn't football have a Bill James?

In 1977, a boiler-room attendant named Bill James revolutionized baseball analysis with a self-published pamphlet called the Baseball Abstract, sweeping conventional wisdom aside with his radical reinterpretation of the statistical record. James' insights, since embraced by the front offices of the Oakland A's, the Boston Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays, should have inspired the serious students of America's other national game, football, to overturn their status quo. But a quarter-century later, nobody has. Why?

For one thing, a football game is several orders of magnitude more complex than a baseball game. For another, nobody has yet determined what the most useful data to collect might be. And finally there's the problem of data points: The 16-game NFL season leaves less stuff to count than Major League Baseball's 162 games.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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None of this stopped Virgil Carter from giving it his best shot. Carter, who wrote one of the earliest technical papers on pro football, was no mere boiler-room attendant. As a statistics major at Brigham Young University, he starred as quarterback from 1964-66 and was drafted by the Chicago Bears.

Soon after launching his NFL career, Carter enrolled as a part-time student in Northwestern University's MBA program in the offseason. Business school wasn't just something to fall back on—it was a computerized venue in which to work out some of his football theories. Carter acquired the play-by-play logs for the first half of the 1969 NFL season and started the long slog of entering data: 53 variables per play, 8,373 plays. After five or six months, Carter had produced 8,373 punch cards.

By today's computing standards, Carter's data set was minuscule and his hardware archaic. To run the numbers, he reserved time on Northwestern's IBM 360 mainframe. Processing a half-season query would take 15 or 20 minutes—something today's desktop computers could do in nanoseconds. In one research project, Carter started with the subset of 2,852 first-down plays. For each play, he determined which team scored next and how many points they scored. By averaging the results, he was able to learn the "expected value" of having the ball at different spots on the field.

Carter deduced that the value is negative when the ball is inside a team's own 20-yard line—that is, that the team playing defense will likely score before the one playing offense. Carter and his professor Robert E. Machol co-authored a paper based on his findings, "Operations Research on Football," for a statistical journal. Carter's insight proved prescient: In the 1998 edition of the book The Hidden Game of Football, the statistically savvy authors ran a similar study and came to the same conclusion. The expected value is essentially linear, starting at -2 points at your own goal line, moving to +2 at midfield, and rising to +6 at the opponents' end zone.

Carter continued his football studies after graduating from Northwestern in 1970 and leaving the Bears for the Cincinnati Bengals, where he led the team to the division title in his first season. That offseason Carter taught math and statistics at Xavier University and gave dinner seminars for the software division of the A.O. Smith Corporation.

A.O. Smith used the seminars to encourage business executives to buy its software, and Carter used A.O. Smith's computer gear. Carter extended his play-by-play database and used the results in a weekly column, "The Computerized Quarterback," that ran in about 35 newspapers. One result showed that passing teams were more likely to score from their opponent's 15- or 10-yard line than from their 5-yard line. Neither Carter nor his quarterbacks coach—Bill Walsh—had the gumption to suggest to Bengals owner Paul Brown that the team's receivers should run out of bounds at the 10 rather than fighting for extra yardage. (Though Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman does credit the duo with inventing the cerebral West Coast offense.)

The column died a couple of years later when A.O. Smith decided it didn't want to update the database anymore. Given the high cost and slow processing power of computers in that era, it's no surprise that data-intensive football analysis stalled in the '70s. It is surprising that, 30 years later, quantitative analysis of football remains mostly on the fringes, niche-marketed to fantasy gamers and gamblers. Carter himself tried that angle, marketing a "Computerized Quarterback" point-spread-analysis service in 1981. He stopped after a year when only 40 or 50 people ponied up the $175 subscription fee.

Aaron Schatz, who operates the stats-heavy Web site Football Outsiders, says there's a simple reason why football research hasn't caught up. "Frankly, Bill James. Baseball analysis exists as it does today because Bill James is one of the people who, in American intellectual history, is a force of nature."