Statistics are a growing trend when it comes to analyzing NFL players.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One of the more influential people in the National Football League in the past decade isn't a general manager, a coach or a player. He doesn't work in the league offices or for one of its broadcasting partners.
Neil Hornsby is a self-proclaimed football addict from Luton, England, who never played the game or received any formal training in it. Yet from behind his computer screen, Hornsby transformed his passion for football into a popular website and consulting business that has seven NFL teams among his clients.
Hornsby, 49, tracks statistics and trends that many NFL teams find too tedious to research on their own. He and his team of 25 employees watch every play of every NFL game during the season. They keep track of player participation, alignments and other minute details most NFL teams do not keep on their own.
From that and other detailed analysis, Hornsby and his staff have popularized advanced statistics in football much in the same way sabermetric analysts did in baseball, bringing a different perspective to fans hungry for new information.
Tired of the traditional statistics the NFL provided, Hornsby analyzed games and came up with new ones for his website profootballfocus.com that fans consume like they're hot dogs and beer on game days.
Hornsby yearned for deeper meaning in statistics. So instead of merely knowing a running back's yards-per-carry average, he studied game film and tracked yards after contact, a statistic that measures a running back's ability to produce no matter how effective the blocking is in front of him. He also developed a pulse rate and an elusive rating for running backs.
All players on the field, including offensive and defensive linemen, are measured with advanced statistics and graded by Hornsby and his staff.
"I was amazed the NFL didn't keep track of this stuff," Hornsby said.
Hornsby started grading games and building a website in 2004. By 2009, the New York Giants were his first NFL client. In the past four years, six additional teams began consulting with Hornsby and that number is expected to grow to 10-12 before the start of the season.
The Steelers are not one of those teams. General manager Kevin Colbert said his front office does not use advanced statistics, and head coach Mike Tomlin said the coaching staff uses them only sporadically.
Almost 25 percent of the league does find Hornsby's work useful. After meeting with the Giants and other clients (he keeps the other teams a secret at their request), Hornsby realized what he does is unique.
"Once you get into an NFL organization and sit down with pro personnel guys and they tell you about their resources and how they keep up with what's going on, you realize the opportunity to do what we do is negligible," Hornsby said.
Hornsby and his employees routinely work 60-70 hours a week watching NFL games during the season. His clients are glad to pay him for the information because it would cost them much more to produce it on their own.
Hornsby is quick to note he does not believe advanced statistics in football will revolutionize the game the way it did in baseball. He merely believes the information he supplies to teams is a supplement to their own scouting and coaching.
"Quite frankly, I don't believe in Moneyball for football," he said. "All we do is look at tape, but we do a really thorough job. Scouts get bored doing what we do. We simply grade players' performances. Why an offensive lineman gave up a sack isn't relevant to us. It's performance-based scouting. We're just trying to point the scouts in the right direction."
Grading the Steelers
Steelers running back Isaac Redman is coming off his worst season, based on traditional statistics. Redman averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2012, the lowest of his four-year career. But Redman remains, as he has been from the beginning of his career, a favorite among those who swear by advanced stats.
Redman's elusive rating -- a measure of how runners fare beyond blocking -- ranked second in the NFL last season behind only C.J. Spiller of Buffalo.
Writes Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus: "Redman ended the year with just 128 touches, and while the Steelers' coaches seemed to favor Jonathan Dwyer, it was Redman that was doing more damage on his own with the ball in his hands. Dwyer touched the ball 174 times and forced 21 missed tackles on those touches, but Redman forced 38 from almost 50 fewer touches. In fact, Redman's rate of making people miss was the best mark in the entire league. He forced a miss every 3.4 touches, which betters the mark of even C.J. Spiller at the head of the pack, and is far better than the figure of a miss every 8.3 touches that Dwyer could claim."
PG graphic: Steelers' Blue Chip Grades (Click image for larger version)
Redman also was second in the league last season in yards after contact, averaging three yards per carry after he was hit.
"It feels good for somebody to be able to get between the lines and figure out the numbers and see how valuable a guy really is," said Redman, who was not aware of Hornsby's work. "I always thought about little stats like that. If I would have known about that site a long time ago, I would have checked it out. You always wonder where you fit with other players around the league in certain categories, not just how many touchdowns or yards you have. It's the game inside the game that really helps teams really separate players to know who is better."
Redman remains a valued member of the Steelers roster, but they do not view him as a feature back. The Steelers drafted Le'Veon Bell in the second round for that role. They believe Redman is a strong short-yardage back and ideal backup for their offense.
Other Steelers do not grade out as well with Pro Football Focus, including one that might be a surprise.
Maurkice Pouncey, the only center in NFL history to be voted to the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons in the league, did not receive one of the top 20 grades for a center by Pro Football Focus since coming into the league in 2010. According to Pro Football Focus, the center with the best grades during that span is Nick Mangold of the Jets.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers as the 25th-best offensive line last season. They said Pouncey is the best player on the line, but they're hardly enthusiastic about him: "The best player on this line is Maurkice Pouncey, though that speaks volumes about this line and less about him. He does his job, but unlike a lot of linemen in this league he doesn't pop out on tape as someone who makes a massive difference."
Pro Football Focus has been consistent in its criticism of Pouncey. In the summer of 2012, they called him a "media darling" and rated him as the fourth-worst pass-protecting center in the league.
This is where some players have a problem with Pro Football Focus. Hornsby and some of his employees don't have playing backgrounds. Yet, they are looking at game film and grading player performances much in the same way coaches do.
"I don't care," said Pouncey, who was unaware of the website or that NFL teams use Hornsby as a consultant. "People will say what they say. As long as my team likes me, I don't care what anyone thinks, to be honest with you. That's a writer sitting back, probably never played football before in his life.
"I never heard of a team listening to what a writer had to say. You should ask other guys, people in the NFL. That dude don't know nothing. Tell him to come out here and I'll block him."
The good-natured Pouncey smiled as he uttered that last sentence, but it was evident he did not like a football outsider critiquing his game.
What do they know?
Hornsby, who started grading games after receiving encouragement from former Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman, understands the criticism from players. But he said the feedback he receives is mostly positive from players and teams when it comes to analysis and the grades players are assigned.
In fact, Hornsby said offensive lineman subscribe to his website more than any other position.
"If you look at our subscription data base, it's filled with NFL offensive linemen," Hornsby said. "They call us and tell us what's going on if we got something wrong. Or they'll call us and tell us they agree with something we've written or how we've graded them.
"Vikings center John Sullivan was the top-graded center in the league last year. He told us he thought it was a fair representation of the games he played. John had not graded out as well with us in previous years. When I was talking to him, I said, 'Sorry about those other grades.' But he said he agreed with those grades, too."
Hornsby goes to great lengths to make sure his statistics and grades are an accurate depiction of what is taking place on the field. He said there is a minimum six-month training period for new employees and games are checked and double-checked by different employees before grades or stats are posted on the website.
Hornsby said the website's accuracy is one of the biggest reasons his NFL client list continues to grow.
"One GM asked me, 'How did you know the assignment on a certain play?' " Hornsby said. "I told him it wasn't all that difficult to figure out. Generally, it's there on tape. Sometimes, I'll have to call someone up and ask what's going on. But generally, most of our guys watch 60 or 70 hours of tape a week. You get to know what's supposed to happen."