The Pittsburgh Steelers have hired Jay Whitmire to be the team’s analytics intern, according to their team site, which recently showed the position. According to Whitmire’s LinkedIn page, he began working for the team in December.
Whitmire played along the offensive line for Virginia from 2011 to 2015. He was a two-year starter for the Cavaliers, seeing time at right tackle and both guard spots. Undrafted, he was invited to Chicago Bears rookie minicamp though wasn’t signed to a contract. An economics major as an undergrad, he’s spent plenty of time working with data and statistics since then, serving as a digital analytics consultant and completing courses for Datacamp.com, working with varied statistical models. He received his masters in Business Analytics from Virginia, graduating in 2018.
Pittsburgh has had a mysterious relationship with analytics for awhile now. Their top analytics employee is Karim Kassam, hired in July 2015, carrying the title of “Analytics & Football Research Coordinator.” His impact and influence is more unknown. Mike Tomlin is famously (maybe infamously) known for trusting his gut and largely, rejecting analytics and trusting his eyes. Kevin Colbert and Tomlin have entered recent drafts with the “hearts and smarts’ mantra that on the surface, would run counter to an analytical mindset.
It’s probably fair to say this new age data plays a role, especially in the draft process. But it’s unclear how much of that directly influences the decision-makers. Maybe it’s a change the front office needs to make.
A 2015 ESPN article, released before the Kassam hire, labeled the Steelers as “skeptics” in the world of analytics. They wrote:
“The Steelers are among the NFL teams that use Catapult to track their players’ exertion and conditioning during practice. This in itself represents a major step for an organization steeped in tradition…On a quiet and experimental level, the Steelers have also begun to develop statistical information that could be useful for player acquisition and game management. But it is not believed that the team’s football leaders, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin, have embraced the concept.”
Two years later, Sports Illustrated described them in more glowing though overall similar terms.
“The Steelers have always been seen as a franchise that trusts its tried-and-true process, and how GM Kevin Colbert’s approach with the football side is no exception. That said, the Carnegie Mellon professor they hired two years ago—Karim Kassam—is among the most respected names in the field, and had previously worked for Steelers minority owner, Thomas Tull, at Legendary Pictures.”
Hiring Whitmire, even at just an intern level, is a sign of them getting more serious and aggressive delving into the world of analytics. Given the direction of where sports are headed, a positive sign for the franchise.