We’re overreacting to Jon Gruden’s take on analytics

At the NFL scouting combine, the Raiders coach talked about doing things the old-fashioned way. Were you expecting him to talk about the benefits of Excel pivot tables? Plus: Jason Licht on Vernon Hargreaves and Dirk Koetter on red-zone inefficiency.
"I'll tell ya what, I’m not going to rely on GPSes and all the modern technology. Now who can give me directions to the nearest Hooters?" [Associated Press]
"I'll tell ya what, I’m not going to rely on GPSes and all the modern technology. Now who can give me directions to the nearest Hooters?" [Associated Press]
Published Mar. 1, 2018|Updated Mar. 1, 2018

Some Buccaneers-related takeaways from the first full day of the 2018 NFL scouting combine, during which coaches and general managers spoke to the media:

Jon Gruden on analytics

What he said: “Are you talking about the analytics, the GPS, all the modern technology? Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998. You know, really, as a broadcaster, I went around and observed every team, asked a lot of questions, took a look at the facilities, how they’re doing business. There’s a stack of analytical data, or day-ta, however you want to say that word, that people don’t even know how to read it. It’s one thing to have the data, or day-ta. It’s another thing to know how to read the damn thing. So I’m not going to rely on GPSes and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that will help me from that regard, but I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”

The transcript of what Gruden said looks worse than what he actually said. If you watch the video, his comments aren’t something over which the analytics community should get bent out of shape. Chucky’s having fun.

Is it da-ta? Day-ta? Of course he’s going to act as though he doesn’t know anything about analytics. It’s all misdirection. That’s what coaches do. Dirk Koetter has done it, claiming in 2015 that “I don’t need a freaking piece of paper with a bunch of numbers on there to tell me something my eyes can see.” Bill Belichick, too: “Stats are for losers. Final scores are for winners.”

Besides, Gruden has to stay on brand. He coaches the Raiders. They’re pirates. Eyes patches, swords, the whole deal. They pillage and plunder. You know what they don’t do? Punch numbers into spreadsheets and create linear regression models.

We should know by now not to take too seriously anything Gruden says in front of a camera or a gaggle of reporters. This is the same man who talked at length about “turkey hole” during a Monday Night Football broadcast last season.

“Watch Stafford fit the ball in the hole between the corner and the safety. I don’t advise this at home. What a throw by Matt Stafford. I call that the turkey hole. Don’t ask me why.”


As Gruden pondered pronunciation Wednesday, he actually made a couple of sharp points. One is that coaches have access to an abundance of information. That’s great — if you can interpret it. If you can’t separate the signals from the noise, it might as well all be noise.

As much as he talked about doing things the old-fashioned way, I doubt that Gruden, who as a 49ers assistant in 1990 produced reports on opponent tendencies, will deliberately reject good information just because he’s determined to make fullbacks relevant again. He isn’t anti-data. He just isn’t an expert. Instead, he will rely on people who are. As any good coach or leader should.

Remember, this is the NFL’s silly season. The goal this time of year for coaches and general managers is to talk to reporters for 15 to 20 minutes but not really say anything. There might not be anyone better at that than Gruden.

RELATED STORY: When did Gruden decide he would not coach the Bucs again? ‘When I was fired’

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General manager Jason Licht on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves

What he said: “We were very happy with Vernon after his rookie year. We thought that he was really trending up. Last year he had a couple setbacks, and he’d be the first to tell you that. By no means are we giving up on Vernon. He’s got a lot of talent. I thought there at the end of the season, before he got hurt and put on IR with his hamstring, that he was showing glimpses of what he was his rookie year.”

If Hargreaves was showing glimpses of what he was during his rookie year, that is not a good thing. His performance in 2016 was overrated then — he was named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s All-Rookie Team — and continues to be. He led the NFL in targets, catches and yards allowed. Quarterbacks had a 102.6 rating when targeting his coverage.

His struggles continued last season. Through the first six weeks, he was again among the league leaders in targets, catches, yards allowed and opponent passer rating.

Hargreaves didn’t improve until Week 7, when the Bucs moved him from the outside to the inside. His next four games were the best of his young career, as he allowed just six catches on 16 targets for 38 yards.

The Bucs are right to not give up on Hargreaves. They need him, even if they eventually decide he’s better suited to play inside in nickel coverages. Teams are using three-receiver sets more than ever, prompting defenses to shift to alignments that feature more defensive backs. Having two starting-caliber cornerbacks is no longer enough. Two players proved last season how much slot cornerbacks can elevate pass defenses: Kendall Fuller (in Washington) and Patrick Robinson (in Philadelphia). The Bucs no doubt would welcome similar contributions from Hargreaves.

RELATED STORY: ‘We’re very, very close,’ Licht says

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Koetter on the offense’s red-zone inefficiency

What he said: “I think we were seventh at getting into the red zone but 24th in the league in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. We had 53 possessions when we had the ball in the red zone. If we had gotten touchdowns in five more of those, we would have gone from 24th to the top eight in the league. So, I just threw a whole bunch of numbers at you. I broke down every one of those possessions and why we didn’t score. Sometimes it was poor execution. Turnovers were a factor. Untimely penalties were a factor. And sometimes it was bad play-call sequences. There’s always more than one thing. That’s one of our top priorities as an offensive coaching staff to get fixed for next year. When you’re 3-7 in one-score games, and then you watch those red-zone possessions and how many times you had to settle for a field goal, you say, ‘Man, what if we would have gotten a touchdown here instead?’ That’s one of the quickest ways to flip your record around.”

First, let’s take a moment to enjoy the data dump from Coach I Trust What My Eyes Tell Me.

Koetter’s numbers are about right, and so is the spirit of his comments. The Bucs didn’t have trouble moving the ball last season. They just ran out of gas once they got inside the 20.

Turnovers were indeed a factor. While the Bucs didn’t throw any interceptions in the red zone, they did fumble three times. One of those fumbles didn’t have any bearing on the outcome of the game (a Charles Sims fumble against the Bears in Week 2), but the other two did. In Week 15 — the Monday night game against the Falcons — Peyton Barber lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line; the Bucs lost by three points. Six days later, Jameis Winston lost a fumble at the Carolina 18; the Bucs lost again by three.

Koetter also blamed execution, play calling and penalties. But here’s one more factor: field position. The Bucs simply had to sustain longer drives than most other teams. They ranked fifth in the league in plays per drive and seventh in yards per drive but only 16th in points per drive. That’s what happens when your average starting field position ranks 21st in the NFL.

The Chargers were another team that moved the ball well but struggled in the red zone. Their average starting field position: 30th.

Making adjustments on offense won’t be enough for the Bucs to increase their red-zone efficiency. They need improvements in other phases, too — improvements such as longer kick returns and more three-and-outs on defense.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.