Sean Payton looks at the numbers.
He studies them. He knows what they suggest to do in specific situations. He also knows when to toss them aside and trust his own instincts.
Analytics have existed in football for years. Any coach who has ever studied the tendencies of another team partook in a form of analytics, even if the practice didn’t yet have a catchall label.
But analytics have grown into the mainstream in recent years, and a statistic for just about anything imaginable can be easily accessed.
Anyone can hop online and follow the odds of gaining a first down on any given fourth down or watch a graph update with each snap on a team’s odds of winning a game.
Payton and the Saints are aware of all of this. The information is valuable and sometimes guides decisions. It’s always in the back of their minds on Sundays.
“Much like if we’re educated and go into a casino, and we want to have our best chance of winning we got to understand some basic fundamental rules of blackjack,” Payton said. “On 16, I’ve got to take a hit. So, we don’t want to be playing a game where we’re just flying by the seat of our pants.”
That doesn’t mean the Saints are letting math make all of their decisions.
There are a lot of times when Payton makes calls on fourth down that go against the percentages. To be precise, there were 15 calls on fourth down last season that cut against the odds.
One of those plays where the Saints coach did not side with the numbers was on fourth-and-9 against the Indianapolis Colts.
The New York Times’ Fourth Down Bot, which processes the numbers in real time on every fourth down to determine if a team should go for it or not, determined New Orleans should have kicked a field goal. Instead, Payton called for a fake field goal and Luke McCown connected with tight end Ben Watson for a gain of 25. The Saints scored a touchdown on the next play.
As Payton said, no matter how good the math is, it’s impossible for a set of numbers to process everything that is happening on the field. That’s why he tosses it aside in these situations.
“I’m not looking at it when to decide when to go for it on fourth down because the flaw and the challenge in analytics (is that it) doesn’t account for what if your left tackle is getting his (butt) kicked by the defensive end,” Payton said. “There’s nowhere in there that factors that in, and yet it’s very powerful.”
What the Saints and Payton are more interested in is finding tendencies and processing the data so that it produces meaningful results. Some of the things he looks at are run-pass tendencies, what plays a team likes to run out of a specific formation and how an offense an offense operates in a specific down and distance.
Those studies are done both inwardly and outwardly. Payton likes to be aware of the tendencies of other teams, as well as any tendencies his team is showing.
The goal of these studies is to make sure everything that happens, or has already happened, means something.
“Second-and-10 needs to mean something based on an analytical study,” Payton said. “It needs to mean that something to me if it’s us that’s second-and-10, and they’re thinking screen draw. Or it needs to mean something if it’s the opponent who is second-and-10. There needs to be some analysis that at least gives us — we can’t defend it all every play. The idea of it is to narrow down the field.”
So, what might the Saints learn about themselves by studying their second-and-10 plays from last season? The first thing one might see is that they ran on 22 plays and passed on another 56.
And on those passing plays, New Orleans used eight different personnel groupings, though it’s 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) was by far the most popular (27 plays). This isn’t a surprise given the down and distance.
The Saints also used their 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers, one running back) 12 times on passing plays, and mixed it up enough to be unpredictable.
The only real tendencies from this personnel package — and they’re hardly tendencies at all — is that the Saints liked to run the inline tight end into the flats at times and Payton twice called a play where the slot receiver would run a go route with two receivers running curls on either side of him.
Payton called the same route concept out of 11 personnel a few times, but it’s not really a surprise since the play is one of the staples of New Orleans’ offense.
The only other thing one might notice is that the Saints threw to a running back or tight end on more than half of the 56 plays. But considering how prominent tight ends are in this offense, and that the passes to the running backs could either be by design or due to nothing being open down the field, there isn’t much to learn here.
And that’s probably the point. Payton and his coaching staff work hard to make sense of the data and remain unpredictable. If they’re showing a tendency, chances are it will only exist long enough to draw a team in so it can be exploited.