In today’s NFL, where teams utilize everything from underwater treadmills to iPad playbooks in pursuit of even the slightest edge, perhaps it should come as no surprise the Indianapolis Colts would make use of a one-time aspiring sportswriter and a former actuarial consultant as they develop game plans and while navigating their way through Sunday afternoons.
Still, try being George Li or John Park, the Colts’ two football data analysts, while attempting to explain your job to strangers.
“Most people don’t get it,” Park said.
How could they? There was a time not long ago when their jobs did not even exist. Now, the Colts are one of the teams at the forefront of the analytics evolution underway in the NFL, fully integrating Li and Park into their coaching and front-office operations. And they believe they’re a better team for having done so.
This is not about fancy stats. It’s about improving the odds of winning – nothing more, nothing less. And the Colts are committed to this path, from the ownership level, to general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich, who are huge proponents of the use of analytics in every area of the franchise’s football operation.
“It’s not just lip service,” said Li, in his first season with the Colts. “This is something they’re really committed to doing. And with Chris and Frank, I can’t think of a better leader on each side as far as forward thinking, collaborative, humble. It’s kind of that (Warriors coach) Steve Kerr approach, where he’ll change his starting five in the Finals off a video assistant’s suggestion in a text message.
“Frank has said this before, that humility is key. He says, ‘I don’t care who has a good idea. I’m going to want to incorporate it.’ That’s great for us, for guys like us to have a seat at the table and not be afraid of an old-school guy saying, ‘Oh, put your computers away. That guy can’t play!’ ”
Indeed, the opposite is happening. The roles of Li and Park are growing by the day. That buy-in from Reich and Ballard is the key here. Reich became a believer in the value of analytics while working for the Philadelphia Eagles the past two seasons. The franchise was already onboard with the analytics movement when Reich arrived with head coach Doug Pederson in 2016. Reich and Pederson, however, were somewhat less open-minded at the time.
“They put a real big emphasis on it there,” Reich said. “But Doug and I were a little bit old school. Like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ And then we gradually warmed up to it. It was a slow, building process. And it was great for me because now I’m already past that. When we came (to the Colts), we could have a starting point further down the road.”
Now, there practically are no boundaries for the use of data for Reich and his staff. You might presume that when Reich speaks into his headset late in the fourth quarter of a game he’s conversing with one of his offensive assistants in the coaches’ box.
While that’s certainly possible, Reich might instead be talking to Li and Park. These days, data is ever-present in the Colts organization, including at the most critical points in games.
“We’ll be talking (on the headsets), ‘Hey, if this is a completion, do we take the timeout here?’ ” Reich said. “I’m talking about during the game.”
That last scenario gives you a sense of the breadth of the information available. If you can name it, Li and Park have a data point to address it.
“The sheets we use change from week to week based on the opponent, based on what their record is, based on who their quarterback is – based on everything,” Reich said. “It’s really customized each week. How much of an (impact) does that have on when you go for it on fourth down, for example? Maybe only a little bit. (The data) might say you should go for it on fourth and 2 versus this team but against another team it’s fourth and 4 based on all the factors, even weather. I mean, they include everything. Indoors, outdoors, bad weather, you name it.”
Park’s academic credentials are remarkable. Duke undergrad. Columbia grad school. He’s every bit as sharp as that resume would suggest, too.
And the man knows numbers. His actuarial science degree from Columbia helped land him consulting job with international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. It was important work. What it wasn’t was fulfilling.
Park – his title is Manager of Football Research and Strategy – played football in high school and felt a calling to return to the game through friends who worked in the sport. He landed an opportunity at Rutgers in what Park describes as, essentially, a graduate assistant role.
“I did everything from breaking up fights in the dorms, driving (Colts rookie and Rutgers product) Kemoko (Turay) to class – everything,” Park said.
That role led to a stint in the NFL’s player engagement department where Park was able to build a network of contacts around the league. Given his actuarial background, the Colts in 2016 hired him as their first full-time analytics staffer.
Park’s exact purpose was initially unclear though. Much of his first year on the job, he said, was spent “figuring out my role.” Things began to change for the better last year. Ballard came onboard and brought with him an openness to the role of analytics. Data is now widely used by the front office in both free-agent and draft decisions.
was still enough time to trust our defense to stop them. But at least you know. It gives you something to think about.”
That’s the whole idea behind Li’s and Park’s jobs. They provide the information, the coaching staff and front office does with it what they wish. But however big or small their roles, the rewards they reap cannot be captured with numbers. There is no metric for measuring what a winning locker room feels like.
“There’s no better feeling than celebrating with your team and knowing that you had a small part in that,” Li said. “I don’t think John and I would do this otherwise. We’re not in this for the money. I don’t do this to sell tickets. We want to be a part of the process to win games. We could both probably make a lot more money doing other stuff. I mean, we’re always working, man.
“But at the same time, are we really working? Because we’re doing what we love.”