Analytics and sports performance science have shaped MLB, NFL & now NCAAF. Just look at Najee Harris
Even when he played in the NFL, Dave Anderson, at 5-foot-11-ish and 190 pounds, didn’t look like he played in the NFL. He was a freaky athlete who could dunk a basketball since he was in the eighth grade. But in the NFL, being a freak is all relative — especially when you’re in the same receiver room with Andre Johnson, a 230-pound wideout who could run in the 4.3s and broad jump 11 feet; Trindon Holliday, who was only 5-5 but went to the Olympic trials as a sprinter; and Jacoby Jones, who, at 6-3, had once run the 100 in 10.28 and could 360-degree dunk a basketball with ease.
Anderson played six seasons in the NFL, most of them with the Houston Texans. He has always been a curious guy and relishes thinking outside the box. He did some stand-up comedy in Houston and once was featured on the Conan O’Brien show after doing Conan’s “string” dance to celebrate scoring a touchdown. Even during his playing career, Anderson always had a “wonder why” aspect when it came to what separated good players from the very good ones, and the very good ones from the great. And in addition to that, he wondered how much was he getting out of his own athleticism? How could he perform better? How could he be utilized better?
A decade removed from his NFL career, Anderson is still intrigued by these same issues, particularly at a time when the football world is trying to get a better handle on them as well. Now the 37-year-old former slot receiver is one of the people leading that push as the field of performance science gets more traction in sports, especially over the next few months as the NFL tries to fill a void left without its combine.
“What a really good coach does is try to put you as a person and an athlete in the best positions to have success,” Anderson said. “That’s what Bill Belichick is great at.”
Anderson said the coach he played the best for was Kyle Shanahan, who got his first job as a position coach in 2006, Anderson’s rookie year. Shanahan was promoted to offensive coordinator in Houston and did the job for two seasons in 2008-09 — Anderson’s best years as a pro, when he had a catch percentage of 72 percent, among the highest in the NFL for a wide receiver.
“He understood what I was good at and what I was capable of,” he said. “The best players and coaches discover that together. In the NFL, you’re really working on the margins. Everybody there is either the all-time best wide receiver from their school or were an All-American or made all-conference a couple of times.”
The book on Anderson’s skill set was that he was quicker than he was fast, and he was patient. Under Shanahan, the Texans deployed Anderson on a lot of double moves — quick passes and option routes.
“The easiest way to say it was that I played football like a basketball player and used a lot of crossovers, where I’d dip left and go right or dip right and go left,” Anderson said. “Basketball players are really good using first-step quickness, understanding angles well and they’re really good with space. Those are things Julian Edelman does really well. Steve Smith was world-class at it. Chad Johnson was too.”
In many ways, those calculations reflect the way Anderson played in the NFL, operating on angles as an inside receiver — which way should his route break, depending on his read on the defender or the defense he has assessed in an instant? What is the best move to make? It becomes rapid-fire processing done informally inside your own hardwiring.
The more he studied it (Anderson got his MBA from USC before working for Second Spectrum, the pioneering analytics start-up that the NBA has leaned on for cutting-edge stats and analysis), the more he realized the conundrum of analytics in the football world.
“Data and math are held to a higher standard,” Anderson said. “When people think of math, they think of back in the day about how there was a right and wrong answer. But with this, it’s not ‘one plus one.’ It’s really, ‘What do you want to add up?’”
Inside the sports performance science world, there has been some debate about how far ahead baseball is from other sports regarding analytics and applied sports science. It is something Anderson has wrestled with since entering this fast-growing and evolving space. The tricky aspect of football, he says, is that football comes down to trying to measure the space you create or don’t allow depending on the specifics of the position, from receivers to defensive backs, ball carriers or tacklers, offensive linemen or defensive linemen. Receivers can make millions based on their ability to create space or catch a ball with almost no space.
“There really is no space variable in baseball,” he says, “other than the defensive shift.”
In 2020, Anderson, along with his business partner from the Gains Group, Steve Gera (a former NFL coach, scout and executive), founded BreakAway Data, a joint venture with the Elysian Park Ventures. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who just won the World Series and are as engaged as any franchise in American sports when it comes to the cross-section of analytics and sports development, felt it was too enticing an opportunity to pass up. A big reason for that wasn’t just Anderson and Gera’s background in analytics, but also because they speak the language of football coaches and can see things and the nuance of that sport through that prism.
“We wanted to a find a way to come up with a better system to objectify our system and language of sports science, of strength and conditioning, of anything in that realm,” said Brandon McDaniel, the Dodgers’ director of player performance.
“I’m a strength coach by trade — I’m not an analyst. And the world has already moved to a state of analytics, but it doesn’t necessarily speak ball to the player and coach relationship. We’re trying to take a very complex subject and really make it digestible and easy for what matters the most — which is players get more information, players get better, and coaches can coach in a more streamlined and efficient way because the information makes sense to them. Players will do stuff when it makes sense. Players will do stuff when they go, ‘Wow, that’s really going to help me today, tomorrow and in the future.’ When we make things too complicated, they tend to think, ‘I don’t understand how that’s going to help me,’ and then they maybe miss out on an opportunity to get better just because we did a poor job, as coaches, of explaining it.”
McDaniel said the real mission of BreakAway is to take all of this tech and data, which he describes as already widely accepted and super intriguing, and translate it so it’s more accessible to the player, who then can put it to use. High-end athletes are looking for that last remaining 1 percent of their athletic potential that they may not be able to reach, McDaniels said.
“We’re giving them a ton of information already. It’s on scoreboards. It’s on ESPN. It’s on MLB Network. It’s on NFL Network, it’s on social media. Run fast. Throw hard. Catch the baseball. Hit the ball hard. In football, it’s run fast, hit hard, react quick, make good decisions,” McDaniel said. “We’re trying to dive into the process of how that happens, and I don’t mean just the simple measurements that already take place, but the sum of all of the parts that paints a complete picture of the athlete and their on-field outcomes. Most importantly, diving into the context of what makes athletes complete tasks at an elite level.”
In football, those little tells could help a football coach tweak someone’s alignment or positioning or body mechanics to benefit those players to be at their best.
McDaniel said another benefit of being open to these kinds of conversations is it will help teams drill deeper into their own evaluation processes. Often times those conversations devolve into what someone can’t do, rather than what they are good at. Diving into the reasons why someone may be particularly good at something leans to a deeper analysis: “Now, we can have a conversation around sustainability, windows of opportunity, and athletic potential,” he said.
McDaniel, who joined the Dodgers organization in 2012 as the strength coach of their Triple-A team, said college football reminds him of minor-league baseball in regard to the development piece.
“It’s 18- to 23-year-olds and someone says, ‘Here’s a hundred of ’em, go figure it out, and oh, by the way, you have four to five years (the average minor-league career) to maximize the potential,’” McDaniel said. “There’s a lot to learn from that system that we can carry over to all prospects.”
College football programs are continuing to try to evolve in the world of sports performance. Last year, Nick Saban overhauled Alabama’s training program when he hired Indiana’s David Ballou as the Tide’s director of sports performance and Dr. Matt Rhea as the director of performance sciences.
“There was no question that from a sports science standpoint and from a conditioning standpoint they were light years (ahead) of what a lot of people have done in their programs for a long, long time, which we’ve done the same thing for a long, long time, too,” Saban told Crimson Tide Radio Network in 2020. Alabama didn’t make Ballou or Rhea available for this story.
Rhea was actually McDaniel’s college adviser when he got his master’s degree, a few years before he joining the Dodgers: “Matt was teaching us stuff that 11 years ago was in our curriculum that is now put in everyday practice with professional teams.”
Najee Harris was one of the beneficiaries of the more scientific approach. Harris, who went from 20 touchdowns in 2019 to 30 last season, didn’t make a significant weight change. He played at 228 pounds in 2019, only two more than the previous season, but he had more of a burst, which he noticed, thanks to the different training methods — despite offseason limitations because of the pandemic.
“We got Dr. Rhea and Coach Ballou and they brought different things they had, like the velocity things and measuring how explosive you are … the different types of workouts to complement the athlete that needs to work on that specific thing,” Harris told The Athletic. “For me, it was a lot of speed, explosiveness and agility. I worked with Dr. Rhea a lot and he helped me out a lot. He has a workout specifically for that athlete, and that’s what you need because not all athletes are the same. So you need a program that will help that athlete in what he needs to improve on, and that’s what they do a good job of finding out. They know all their players. That helped out all of us (last) offseason.”
Harris’ position coach at Alabama, Charles Huff, said he thinks the data Rhea and Ballou incorporate ups the buy-in from the players. When Harris is breaking a run in practice, he’s trying to get to max speed because he’s aware it’s being gauged.
“The byproduct of that is you’re getting better. You see it,” Huff said. “You knew you hit 21 miles per hour, but now you’re trying to get 21.1 or 21.2. And then when he gets to 21.5, he knows what 21.5 felt like. That’s what you’re getting with the more scientific approach, now they’re competing against a tangible number.
“Today’s kids are tangible kids. They want to see it: ‘What was my return on that? What was my number on that?’”
There is hope in the performance science space that now that Saban has bought in, other college football coaches will follow suit. “Most give it lip service, and it’s just a recruiting tactic — ‘Oh, yeah, we do that too,’” said one coach who has worked in the NFL and in college football.
The NFL is more invested in performance science and data than college football is at this point. In 2014, the NFL partnered with Zebra as its official player-tracking technology partner. The league embedded radio-frequency identification chips, about the size of a nickel, into shoulder pads and footballs that are used during games to provide tracking data. Some of that data ends up as part of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which also are used during game broadcasts.
Some college football programs began to embrace performance science around the same time. In 2013, when Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky, he hiredErik Korem as UK’s high-performance coach. Korem had become intrigued with athlete tracking systems when he was overseas studying Australian rules football. GPS data was one of the advances he helped FSU incorporate when he was an assistant there (Stoops was the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator at the time) and saw their soft-tissue injuries drop significantly, he said.
GPS data now is quite common around college football programs, but the intel isn’t the same as what the NFL can gather from Zebra. According to Anderson, you get 10 frames per second for GPS, while Zebra technology is able capture 25 frames per second. Additionally, because both teams in an NFL game are wearing the Zebra chips, it registers both teams on the field, whereas college teams are registering their own players but not the opponents’.
“The best analysis is when you have both teams wearing it,” Anderson said. “You wouldn’t watch film of your team running plays without seeing what the other 11 guys on the field are doing.”
Anderson wonders how long before a college conference will try to do a similar deal with Zebra, thinking “Hey, the NFL is doing this,” and realizing that it will create a competitive advantage for its coaches and players. “Eventually, the data will appear right on the screen right below the video,” Anderson said, much like it does with down-and-distance as well as the offensive and defensive plays being run on coaching film.
The Zebra chips allow coaches more data points both in evaluation and in development. “It’ll never replace film,” Anderson said, “but it’ll allow you to shortcut, to shrink that list (of prospective players) from 100 to 15.”
McDaniel said the biggest thing BreakAway has done so far for the Dodgers is “just made us ask better questions and make us think about things from a different lens.” In football, the data is still in its infancy stage, something Anderson is confident he and BreakAway can help programs take the next steps forward with, starting with reengineering the technology.
The data and the data analysts have typically been kept in the basement, he said, adding that a big challenge with it has been so much time spent organizing it and formatting it. “They come out every three months when someone says, give us a report. And that didn’t really work.
“We’re the data scientists because we played the game, so we help coaches to get more from their data and their tech. We can show them: ‘Here’s a road map of what you could and should be doing, and we’ll help you get more from the data you already collect.’”
The potential Anderson sees is geared toward personalized development to provide a different plan of attack for each athlete that year. That could range from diet to redeveloping certain secondary muscles specific to how they play their position and the “load” involved in it, related to what their body needs to do on the field and will go through on each down. His analogy is to a high-performance racing car: What are the tires like? What is the engine like? How is the steering performing?
When the XFL launched, it partnered with Anderson and Gera to help re-engineer its combine drills to make them position-specific. The players wore sensors while performing football-specific drills that were filmed and charted. A wide receiver’s “X-factor” drill provided data on the player’s ability to stop and start, decelerate and re-accelerate, all traits vital to a wideout’s ability to get open.
“Everyone talks about how stupid the NFL combine is and how a lot of the drills don’t matter,” Anderson said. “Now that we have all these devices, maybe we should measure things that are going on out there on the field. We came up with those drills and you can iterate on those drills so you can form-fit the technology to the sport.”
Anderson and BreakAway are in discussions with several college football programs. They’re also talking to a bunch of NFL teams trying to rely on BreakAway to help navigate a draft process without the NFL combine this year. Instead of 40s and shuttle times inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, BreakAway will turn GPS data into change-of-direction scores, simulated 40 times, and an assortment of other customizable in-game measurements.
A void created in the wake of the pandemic is pushing the NFL establishment more into the direction of the performance science world, in part by necessity but also because many there have come around to the notion that it’s a smarter way of doing evaluations.
McDaniel, whose Dodgers team is prepping in spring training to defend its title, sees the coaching world on the cusp of taking another significant step forward.
“I always say (it’s) like we are coaching in the dark,” he said. “We tend to lean toward our biases and previous experiences, good or bad. By putting this system into place, we’re trying to find out this information on the front end and give it to coaches, to athletes, to front offices, to organizations to college football teams. (Like) Hey, you know what? The lights are on now. Things are much clearer.”
(Top photo of Anderson at the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Patrick Daly / ESPN Images)