The use of analytics to drive in-game decisions for coaches has been one of the fastest growing areas in the game of football from high school to the NFL. For some coaches, leaning on analytics certainly helps at the post game press conference when reporters ask about why a controversial decision was made during a key moment in a game that didn’t work out in their favor.
In those situations, being able to point to “analytics” instead of “I went with my gut” seems like a better answer, at least on the surface.
A few years ago now, Rams head coach Sean McVay carved out an interesting role on his staff centered around game management for Jedd Fisch, who is now the head coach at Arizona. Fisch’s role was to help a young McVay think through critical in-game situations utilizing analytics and leaning on his veteran experience as a play caller.
The use of in-game analytics has exploded in the past 5-10 years, with college and NFL teams dedicating entire departments to the collection of in-game data to help drive key decisions.
Earlier in his head coaching career with the Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera was one of those head coaches who relied on analytics as one of the primary drivers of his in-game decisions. After going 3-13 in games decided by 6 points or less, former owner Jerry Richardson suggested finding a coaching mentor, and suggested he give John Madden a call. Constantly looking for ways to improve, Rivera picked up the phone and called and the two agreed to meet.
Rivera re-visted the story on the Rich Eisen Show recently.
Before coming to see him in-person, Madden asked Rivera to take a look back at the 13 games he lost and think about what he would have done differently. Rivera went to work on that, hammering out what he remembers as a really well-done 18-page report full of details he was looking forward to sharing with the Hall of Famer. They set up a day to meet, and Rivera flew out to California and just as he was handing over his report, Madden says, “Oh cool. But that’s not for me. That’s for you. What did you learn?”
Rivera responded by sharing, “Well, the biggest thing that I learned is that I went by the book.”
“Went by the book? What book?” Madden responded.
“Well the one that says you should kick it in this situation, and things like that,” Rivera noted. Madden responded by simply asking how that turned out, knowing Rivera was 3-13 in close games.
“Ron. Forget this ‘book.’ Go by your gut instinct. You’ve played enough football, and you’ve coached enough football to go by your gut and how the game feels. Do those things.”
Rivera thought a lot about that, but it wasn’t until he lost a one-point game in Buffalo during that 2013 season where he kicked a field goal instead of going for the touchdown that really irked him enough to take Madden’s advice to heart. Rivera goes on to share that the next game against the Giants – where they went for it on fourth down twice in their first offensive drive and it paid off – and again went for fourth down during a key situation a few weeks later at Minnesota when he trusted his gut over the analytics.
It was after that Minnesota game that a sports writer noted that Rivera was “gambling like a riverboat gambler” and the nickname, and “trust your gut” approach suggested by Madden, stuck.
Hear Rivera, now the head coach of the Washington Football Team, tell the story of his interaction with Madden in the clip from the Rich Eisen show below, including how he was so eaten up after one of those close losses that he was almost t-boned at an intersection because he was playing the game over and over in his head.