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Publicly, Bill Belichick dismisses analytics

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has never been in the business of publicly discussing his strategies. So when he dismisses analytics, that dismissal needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Belichick was asked today how much consideration he gives to analytics when deciding whether to go for two or go for it on fourth down, and he answered, “Less than zero.” He added that “Analytics is not really my thing.”

That’s long been Belichick’s public talking point; in 2016 he scoffed at analytics websites by saying, “I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say.”

But while Belichick rarely uses the buzzword “analytics” as anything other than a pejorative, it’s clear from studying the Patriots that they do, in fact, think about statistical analysis in sophisticated ways. In fact, Belichick’s Patriots have consistently been ahead of the curve on statistical analysis, and when other teams have gotten the best of them -- such as the Eagles in the Super Bowl two seasons ago -- it’s often because those teams are relying on analytics as well.

One of Belichick’s most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before he worked for Belichick, first in Cleveland and then in New England. Many of the methods that sports statistical analysts use are rooted in the same methods used to analyze economic data. Adams understands both, and that makes him valuable to Belichick.

Looking at Belichick’s strategies, it’s clear that he thinks along the same lines as analytics experts. In the NFL draft, Belichick prefers trading down to trading up, and he particularly likes to trade a pick this year for a higher pick next year. That suggests that he’s studied the economic phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting.

On the sideline, the most controversial call of Belichick’s career appeared to be influenced by analytics: When Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line in a 2009 game against the Colts, it was the analytics people who said he had made the mathematically correct decision, while most football fans and media members thought Belichick had lost his mind.

That approach to analytics goes to the very top of the organization. The Patriots’ official website wrote in 2016 that “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owners Robert Kraft.”

A belief in analytics runs deep within the Patriots organization. Belichick isn’t in the business of announcing that publicly, but there’s little doubt that he has a firm grasp of analytics.