Steelers Wade Into Waters Of Football Analytics

According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, the Pittsburgh Steelers have joined a growing number of NFL teams that have begun to adapt to the growing field of analytics as they explore new ways to build their team. The traditionally conservative organization had previously been among those most skeptical of its usefulness.

Earlier this year, ESPN compiled a ranking of each major sports franchise based on the level to which they have embraced advanced analytics in their scouting, coaching, and conditioning programs.

Within a five-hierarchy system, the Steelers fell toward the bottom of the fourth hierarchy, the Skeptics. Only four team were classified as Nonbelievers. Both the Ravens and Browns ranked high in the Believers category, while the Bengals remained high on the Skeptic scale.

The compiler of that list, Kevin Seifert, noted that the Steelers have in recent years adopted Catapult technology, which players wear on them to monitor their physical output, which he regarded as “a major step for an organization steeped in tradition”.

It is interesting that it seemingly took a shared interest in order for the organization to take that next step and hire a full-time analytics and football research coordinator. The holder of that new title, Karim Kassam, was, in fact, working for Legendary Pictures, the production house owned by part-owner Thomas Tull.

Legendary Pictures, of course, produced a Batman movie in which several current and former Steelers players were featured as extras during a scene involving a football game.

During Kassam’s work at Legendary Pictures preparing advanced analytics data, Fowler writes, he began moonlighting with the Steelers, and that ultimately evolved into a full-time position over the summer.

The move may initially seem surprising, but we have seen, particularly over recent years, that the organization as a whole has grown to be more flexible over time in embracing the opportunities presented by new resources. I would regard their skepticism as a healthy one, not opposed to adaptation, but simply requiring proof of concept before making the leap.

According to Fowler’s article, Kassam is working in conjunction with general manager Kevin Colbert and the scouting department, and “will provide information for coaches during the season”, presumably as part of the weekly scouting reports on each opponent.

Kassam acknowledges that the analytics field within the sporting world, perhaps in football in particular, is in a “growing stage” that still has some developmental adjustments to go through, perhaps, before it is taken seriously by a wider audience, as he notes about half of the league employs an analytics coordinator.

“We don’t always have the football knowledge to contribute right away”, he confesses. “It’s a process on both sides, getting the math going and getting my football knowledge that I’m able to communicate”.

Kassam also praises the organization, saying that “everyone wants good ideas no matter where they are coming from”. The higher ups may dismiss a data set here and there while weighing another heavily in their decision-making.

It’s hard to predict how the incorporation of an analytics coordinator might manifest itself, particularly in its inaugural run. Perhaps one potential visual cue that could show up early on is a greater emphasis on matching personnel based on what the opponent is showing, as encouraged by analytics research.

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