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“Grandfather of NFL analytics” educates students on innovative practices

| Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mike Eayrs, a data analyst for several college and NFL football teams, spoke about the innovative practices that earned him the name the “grandfather of NFL analytics” at Mendoza College of Business on Tuesday night. Eayrs started out as an assistant coach in the NCAA, where he said he and the other coaches were constantly arguing over new ways to gain a competitive advantage.

“I was trying to think, ‘What’s the lowest common denominator we have in our staff room?’” Eayrs said. “The answer was everybody wants to win.”

Web_EmmetFarnan_SportsDataScienceEmma Farnan | The Observer

In response, Eayrs said he started to study game statistics and how they were connected to the team’s wins and losses. In this study, he said that turnovers were the factor that had the strongest impact on the outcome of a game.

“For the first time since I’d been hired, we actually agreed on something,” Eayrs said. “Everybody agreed that if we could lower turnovers on offense and raise them with our defense and coverage teams, we would have a much better football team.”

As a result, Eayrs said he began catering drills in practice towards ball security, so that players could become better at handling the football and would be less likely to turn the ball over.

“The more you repeat something successfully, the better the neuroconnections become, so that you do it more effectively and faster,” Eayrs said. “Believe me, when it comes to ball security, we want our guys’ neuroconnections firing really fast.”

Eayrs said he soon noticed the profound effect of what he termed “explosive gains,” which is a gain of 14 or more yards, on winning percentage.

“All of the sudden I see the difference, which is long pass gains,” Eayrs said. “We had to get big chunks of yardage.”

Eayrs’ innovative approach to statistics gained him attention in the football world, so much so that he was soon hired by the Minnesota Vikings, where he worked for 16 years before spending 15 years with the Green Bay Packers.

Eayrs said analytics are of vital importance in the NFL, where the difference between teams in much narrower than in college, and consequently, any small edge can be the difference between a win and a loss.

“An NFL team is going to have about six games per season where the team that won the game either scored on their final possession or had to stop their opponent from scoring on the last possession,” Eayrs said.

To gain an advantage in the ultra-competitive NFL, Eayrs said he has studied everything from gameplay speed to limiting soft-tissue injuries to the tendencies of a particular referee.

“Essentially, we’re simply trying to align our team with probability,” Eayrs said.

The importance of football analytics could be seen in the Super Bowl in February, where Eayrs said the Atlanta Falcons could have increased their win probability by slowing down the pace of the game.

“Shorten the game,” Eayrs said. “Narrow the window in which your opponent can get back in the game. They could have effectively shortened the game by at least one possession, which would have been enough for them to win.”

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