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Letter From The Editor/Publisher - Number Cruncherby: John Gallup
Editor and Publisher
© April 2012
In Moneyball, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, relied heavily on a novel system of statistical analysis to build a team of productive players that other clubs had overlooked. It worked, and the 2002 A’s won the American League West and set a record of 20 straight wins.
Statistics have always been integral to baseball. As any enthusiast will tell you, a big part of the game’s appeal lies in numbers. Not just for fans who follow individual player’s stats but also for GMs trying to assemble winning teams and managers trying to generate runs by studying statistical tendencies in game situations. The new system that Beane used, called sabermetrics, went against conventional wisdom and ushered in a new era of player evaluation.
Can advanced statistical analysis also be used by football coaches to win more games? If you asked Kevin Kelley of Arkansas’ Pulaski Academy, who is the subject of this month’s cover feature, you’d get a resounding yes.
You’ve probably heard of Kelley or seen him profiled on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel or in Sports Illustrated. Calling him unorthodox is an understatement. Kelley’s team never returns a punt, they almost never punt themselves, they kick off onsides virtually all the time and they usually go for a two-point conversion after a score. With this unconventional approach, Kelley led Pulaski to a 14-0 record last season and their third Arkansas 4A championship.
Some conservative-minded coaches might dismiss Kelley’s strategy as absurd and contrary to the established “rules” of football. But his results can’t be disputed – a 49-7 record since he adopted his radical methods.
Kelley is no mad scientist. His decision to always go for it on 4th down, regardless of the score or field position, is based on analytics – using research, statistics and computers to develop situational coaching strategy. He can quote academic studies that have shown the statistical advantage of never punting and he’s conducted his own research into probabilities and risk analysis of onsides kicks. He recently addressed these topics at a sports analytics conference hosted by MIT.
One would think that innovation that is backed up by solid mathematical facts would be embraced across the board by football coaches. But unlike baseball, where many teams are using the principles of sabermetrics, conservatism is the rule of thumb in football. Especially in the NFL, where most coaches are risk-averse. But for high schools looking to go in a bold new direction, Kevin Kelley’s cutting-edge coaching strategy deserves a look. Judging by the interest in him that we’ve already received from AFM subscribers, look for more onside kicks and fewer punts in high school football next year and beyond.
We don’t expect Kelley’s methods to be adopted in college and the NFL anytime soon, at least not on the scale of Pulaski Academy. But we certainly anticipate that more teams at every level will be using more statistics, number crunching and computer analysis as part of their game planning and situational coaching decisions. After all, anything that gives a team an advantage over their opponent, even if it’s first thought to be outside the box, will eventually find its way into the game.
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