What NFL Coaches Lead The Data Analytics Charge?

Posted By Brant James on October 5, 2021

Data rules. Knowledge is power. All that stuff.

Data analytics has grown from a curiosity to a major way of constructing and deploying NFL teams. Some coaches are more invested than others. Some are more successful than others.

Who are the most dedicated disciples of data? PlayUSA polled its dataverse of quants and algorithm-lovers for the answer.

The NFL’s top data-driven head coaches

  1. John Harbaugh, Ravens: The Ravens’ coach blipped onto the radar of the analytically agnostic by going for it on fourth down – a lot. In 2019, when analytically-based decision-making became a thing, Harbaugh insisted he actually relied on his gut more, but he’s still the darling of the algorithm crowd, currently. He even has an analyst in his ear during games feeding him probabilities.

  2. Kevin Stefanski, Browns: Data helped Cleveland turn one of the most moribund franchises into a threat, with a growing data team and a coach who has become one of the savviest in the league with fourth-down decisions. If he had been in charge, Earnest Byner might never had a chance to fumble.

  3. Andy Reid, Chiefs: The Chiefs head coach looks like a gruff and stuck-in-his-ways Baby Boomer, right down to his hilarious attempts at facemasks during the pandemic. But from his absolute devotion to the passing game to eschewing running backs in the draft, Reid embodies the regimen.

  4. Bill Belichick, Patriots: A six-touchdown dynasty doesn’t just happen. And a generational quarterback like Tom Brady or big football mind like Belichick’s can’t account for all of it. New England, a dreadful team for much of its existence, turn a digital corner by being the first to plumb analytics as a roster-building technique when the NFL still relied on film study. And remember, Belichick likes math. And don’t get the quants started on his proclivity with pre-snap motion.

  5. Sean McVay, Rams: The construction of the Los Angeles roster and his in-game decision-making underscore his commitments to what stats tell him about trends and outcomes. But, as McVey told Pro Football Talk, feel matters, too. This was displeasing to the analytics community a few years ago. They consider his fourth-down aggressiveness his main flaw.

  6. Sean Payton, Saints: A previous speaker at the Sloan MIT Sports Analytics conference, so he’s fully vested. Payton’s aggressive play-calling helped lift the lid on what analytics was all about for ardent and casual fans alike years ago.

  7. Brian Flores, Dolphins: The coach made his analytical mark by passing heavily and holding his own despite having talent that was scored among the league’s worst when he debuted. A ream of draft picks yielded a crop of data-culled talent. Now Miami must figure out of Tua is the right distributor. Coaches don’t become top-tier analytics heroes without a big-time quarterback.

  8. Sean McDermott, Bills: The coach built his bona fides with deep and voluminous passing and a willingness to roll the bones – often frozen in upstate New York – as Buffalo was changing a culture. With Stefon Diggs and a talented wide receiver cast providing opportunity for quarterback Josh Allen, McDermott could get smarter and smarter.
    Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott, front right, reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

    9. Cliff Kingsbury, Cardinals: If quarterback Kyler Murray’s current evolution is real, the Arizona coach stands to become a genius. As with Baltimore and Buffalo, fourth-and-reasonable is quite often a go, and the Cardinals have enough talent at wide receiver to offset a running back committee.


    10. Matt Ruhle, Panthers: One of the conditions of his hire was a bespoke analytics facility. So, yeah, he’s on board. As is the coaching staff he brought with him. Even with their best player being a running back, the Panthers have found a way to make Christian McCaffery a Swiss Army knife type of player.

Photo by David Becker / Associated Press
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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