Harbaugh vs. Belichick: Analytics Guy vs. 'Less Than Zero' Analytics Guy

Harbaugh vs. Belichick: Analytics Guy vs. 'Less Than Zero' Analytics Guy

FOXBORO -- After the Ravens lost to the Chiefs in Week 3, 33-28, there were questions. They went for it four times on fourth down. They went for two points after touchdowns on three separate occasions.

Why? As head coach John Harbaugh explained, the numbers had a lot to do with it.

"The point was to score as many points as we could," he said. "I don’t remember the situation, the X numbers for which one was what, but every one of those was clear analytical decisions to go for two . . .

"We had a mindset that we were going to come in and try and score as many points as we could. We’re going to keep playing that way just for the record. When you write your article, just understand that we’ll disagree with your criticism. We’re going after it."

Harbaugh went into greater detail as to how his team uses analytics the following day.

While it's fascinating to hear a head coach -- someone who's more old-guard than new as the fourth-longest tenured boss in the league -- embrace the input he gets from his analytics department, it was counter to what Bill Belichick said just days later when asked about how analytics factors into his decision-making on game days.

"Less than zero," he said.

Belichick and his staff, of course, look at trends and tendencies and the numbers associated with them when preparing for his opponents on a week-to-week basis. He understands that data is critical. One of his most trusted minds on staff is football research director Ernie Adams, a former bond trader, who some believe has some analytics-related responsibilities. The team also employs Matt Lindsay, an MIT graduate with a degree in Mathematics and Physics, as their director of data science and software.

Yet Harbaugh, who acknowledged he studies what the Patriots do even when they're not slated to compete -- "If you’re a head coach, or you’re any kind of a coach in this league, and you’re not watching what Bill Belichick is doing with his football team every single week, even throughout the offseason, then I think you’re making a big mistake," he said -- said he believes Belichick when Belichick says analytics aren't a factor in his game-day decisions.

"I believe it," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "It depends on what we’re talking about. You know, I think that Coach Belichick, in his program that he’s built, has been very out in front in terms of strategic decision-making and using different forms of information. I’m sure he’s got a two-point chart and all that kind of stuff, but I think when you’re a coach and when you’re in the heat of battle, you’re not basing your decision based on what some number tells you.

"It’s just a piece of information that goes into your game-planning, into how you’re approaching your opponent, into what kind of strategic tenner that you’re going to take into the game, and then you make a decision based on what you think is best for the team.

"I mean, the game you’re talking about, the Kansas City game, we felt like we needed to score as many points as we could and maximize the drives and minimize possessions. So, that’s just the way we played it that game, and it wasn’t anything that we needed specific stats, necessarily. We saw it on the tape. I mean, we knew what we were doing. But, I think you take all of the information that you can get and you just kind of roll it up into a decision that you make in the heat of battle, based on your planning going in. I think Coach Belichick has done that better than anybody in the National Football League."

Harbaugh will have a difficult decision to make this weekend in whether or not he decides to treat the Patriots as he treated the Chiefs. The Patriots offense is squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to yards per game (16th, 369.9), but as a team, New England is first in the league in points per game (31.3).

So, will the Ravens be going for it on fourth down? Will they be going for two if they can get into the end zone against a defense that's allowed as many touchdowns as it has scored this season?

"Maybe. Yeah, I think we have to maximize every opportunity," Harbaugh said. "I mean, how we’ll play each possession and things like that, that’s what we’re putting together right now and we’ll decide as we go forward, but you definitely can’t make a lot of mistakes against New England. 

"I think they’re very efficient. They play winning football all the time. That’s their focus, it always has been. Extremely well-coached, very smart players, excellent players playing very well, and you’ve got to make the most of every opportunity in a game like this."

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Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

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Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

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"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

The New England Patriots reportedly have made an addition to their coaching staff.

According to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe, they've hired ex-Los Angeles Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

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Fisch's official role with the Patriots offense is to be determined. But now that there's an opening at wide receivers coach with Joe Judge joining the New York Giants, Fisch could be a candidate for the job.

He brings plenty of experience to the table having coached Denver Broncos wide receivers in 2008 and Michigan receivers from 2015-16. Fisch also coached Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks in 2010 and was the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator from 2013-14.