History of ProFootballFocus

First and foremost I’ve always thought of football as being about the players. I have found that the most interesting articles were about how individuals had performed in certain games or seasons, what their strengths and weaknesses were and how they were deployed. I would pore for hours over statistics trying to determine what each player had achieved and, in truth, not learning a lot. It was (and still is) surprising to me that little more than the box score statistics I can read in my old 1971 Sporting News National Football Guide have ever appeared and that certain positions, for example the offensive line, have nothing more than a few sack and penalty-conceded statistics even now.
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It’s gotten pretty bad, really. Strange habits such as judging the run-blocking ability of an offensive line based on yards per carry seem commonplace. I’m not sure how the tight ends, fullbacks and particularly halfbacks figure in all this, but I guess that’s the sort of thing people do when they have nowhere else to go.
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Frankly, in 2004 that’s where I was too. It was at that point I decided I was more interested in real detail about a few games than determining a linebacker’s worth by counting his tackles. So there I sat in Week 2 of 2004, with a printed copy of the game book for Houston at Detroit, happily marking “+” and “-” on each play together with a player’s number. I have to say I quite enjoyed it all until the point when I had to try and make sense of it. It was a complete disaster, trying to count my enthusiastic scribbles over eight pages for each player to the point I finally gave in, threw the paper away and moved on to grading on a spreadsheet.
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In 2005, forgetting my technical inadequacies, I decided to migrate my spreadsheet into an Access database and (unbelievably) came up with something that, after a fashion, worked. Analysis took longer then than it does now (we used to write all our comments in long hand) — about 10 hours per game — but ironing out problems with the application meant I didn’t analyze too many games.
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In 2006 I asked a friend, John McAlinden, to build me a website to display the data and although he did an excellent job, I could never bring myself to “market” something that had about eight games’ worth of data in it. In reality the balance was just as bad, if not worse, than having very limited data about all games; I’d come full circle!
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The only way around this was to ask other people to analyze games, which left two distinct problems:
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1. Finding like-minded individuals without having much to interest them by way of a finished product.

2. Having a methodology for distributing the base data for analysis and then integrating the freshly analyzed data back into my database.

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Obviously I needed to start with No.2, and luckily this is where Ian Perks came in. Caring for football not one iota and learning Access as he went (and cursing it every step of the way), he produced the proverbial silk purse out of my sow’s ear and this became the application which all of the analysts now use. It spits out .zip files containing base data, they import it into their application, analyze a game and then press a button that creates another .zip file they send back to me. I press another button, and “Presto,” that file is imported into the main database. I can also make new games available for you to view on this website at the touch of a button, so as soon as an analysis is complete it’s available for you online.
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So now I could recruit some analysts? Not quite; another issue arose. While all this database development and testing had gone on, my first website was now badly out of date and needed a face-lift. Given the job he’d done pulling the application together, I asked Ian to build the statistical website that is now part of our premium offering.
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So in late 2007 I finally got to recruit some analysts, and once more luck played a part in that the first guy I got in to help me changed the whole way I looked at things. Ben Stockwell is the chief analyst for the site and disproves the theory you don’t get quality with quantity.
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Although we do have a number of other analysts, 90 percent of what you see on the current site has been completed by either Ben or I. I initially estimated that I might need 16 people, each analyzing one game a week but because Ben gets through so much analysis I now know this estimate was way out.
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I also appreciate we would have run into consistency problems doing things that way. One of the disciplines that we most pride ourselves on is the uniformity of grading across analysts. Does that mean we will all grade every play exactly the same? Of course not, but hours of practice and consistency checking means we’re very close. Going into the 2010 season, we believe the differences between our analysts are negligible.
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So if Phase I was the completion of about half the games from 2007, Phase II was looking at what we’d done and deciding it simply wasn’t good enough!
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Some of the data made no sense and we soon determined the reason: a key metric was missing. Was it better for a starter to get a +6 grade or a backup to get a +4 grade? I’d spent so long railing against conventional wisdom, telling whoever would listen that current football statistics were often useless without contextualization, I’d forgotten the most significant dimension: the number of times a player did a certain thing.
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The fact that no one else did this either was not particularly relevant — we had to find a way to determine the number of times an offensive lineman pass blocked, the number of times a DE rushed the passer and the number of times a linebacker dropped in coverage. How important is it, say, to know Adrian Wilson got 8 sacks without knowing he blitzed 200 times to get them? Hence was born our Player Participation initiative, where we logged who was on the field when, what position they played and what, generally, they did; something, to the best of my knowledge, no one had ever attempted before.
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With this added to our stats we were finally able to complete the 2008 season … in July 2009.
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So the next challenge was getting enough people on board to do everything quickly enough. We wanted to complete the week’s games before the next set had started, and for 2009 that is pretty much what we did. The main reason was getting Sam Monson and Khaled Elsayed to join the team. With their superb assistance, we completed the season about 15 hours after the Super Bowl finished.
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So that almost brings us up to date … I’ll be amending this to fill you in on the action since as we now look forward to the 2011 season, which looks more exiting than ever. I hope you enjoy it with us.
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Neil Hornsby – July 2011

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