Green Bay Packers: Reel Time

By Larry Dignan Print this article Print

The football team keeps its winning tradition alive by using digital video clips and data to improve player performance.

Green Bay Packers fullback William Henderson isn't known for his gaudy statistics. He doesn't pass for 210 yards a game like quarterback Brett Favre and doesn't average eight tackles like linebacker Nick Barnett. His metric: "dominating blocks." And Henderson wants two a game.

You won't see dominating blocks on a fantasy football site or in a box score. But it's a metric Green Bay finds critical to its success and the primary way the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Henderson's performance is graded every week.

"A dominating block is one where I totally remove a player from the play and he has no hands in a tackle," explains Henderson. "Ideally, I knock him on his backside and he has no access to the running back. I try to average two a game."

Developing pro football players—and corporate employees, for that matter—is an inexact science. Part of the equation is based on intangibles (character, or how that employee performs when it counts—whether it's the Packers' quarterback in a playoff game or your project manager in a budget meeting). But another part is based on statistical evaluation (say, sales quotas or third-down efficiency), and it's here that Green Bay thinks it has an edge.

The tools Green Bay uses to manage its talent are similar to those in the business world. Corporate dashboards of metrics such as revenue per employee and inventory turnover provide road maps to meet goals that are then filtered down to employees in sales quotas and product management goals.

However, Green Bay tracks employees more quickly and in greater detail than many other teams—and most corporations. Increasingly, technology in the form of digital video and a computerized database is being used for statistical analysis and business intelligence, allowing management to swiftly check employees' work habits and rapidly develop performance improvement plans. It's a key reason the team—one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, with a record 12 league championships and three Super Bowl titles—is increasingly developing new player metrics such as dominating blocks.

By keeping track of a player's weekly game performance, quantifying it in terms of number of catches or runs, and then analyzing the technique and success of each completion or rush, the team is able to build up a database of what a player is executing well and where he needs to improve. The Packers' coaching staff can then easily spot problems, initiate corrective action, and enhance even their superstars' performance.

The result: In Green Bay, employee development is a week-to-week and day-to-day project, not something conducted quarterly or annually as it is in most corporations.

Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and a sports business expert, says business could take a page out of Green Bay's playbook by more closely monitoring employees during events such as business meetings or sales calls, grading their performances and developing improvement plans. While he says some organizations do this to some degree—such as call centers monitoring phone exchanges—few companies do it consistently.

"When you are in the middle of events—game time or a season—you want that instant feedback to make good decisions," says Shropshire.

The feedback comes from a digital video system developed by Pinnacle Systems. Betacam SX cameras get shots of plays and the scoreboard, which displays the score, time, down, and distance needed for a first down. The film is converted to digits. The resulting files are kept on EMC Clarion storage systems.

The files are supplemented by game data such as completed passes, tackles and interceptions. These come mainly from the league office, which disseminates standardized reports, available to all teams, that include lineups, scoring breakdown and play-by-play. The Packers put the NFL's information, along with coaches' interpretation of each play, into an Oracle database.

The video images and player stats are married in the Pinnacle system, which then allows coaches to call up video from the Clarion systems and sort by situations—third down and long, first-down plays, running plays, screen passes and the like—and by players who are involved with a play and logged in the team database by jersey number. Coaches can also get "cutups," or video compilations of, say, gimmick plays, based on a simple data query such as onside kicks in the first quarter, and add voiceovers if they choose to identify a trend such as "No. 65, puts his left foot back on passing plays."

Packer running back Ahman Green's performance last year provides a good example of how the process of stats, systems and feedback sessions works in Green Bay. Green, one of the top backs in the league, fumbled the ball seven times in the first nine games last year.

In his case, the team queried plays in its database by his No. 30 jersey over the last two years. A compilation of plays involving Green took minutes, instead of days—which is what it took three years ago when team staff had to sort through piles of tapes.

Coaches reviewed the compilation of plays and determined that Green fumbled when his elbow wasn't horizontal to the ground as he was hit. When he cradled the ball with his elbow in a horizontal position, Green didn't fumble.

Using that business intelligence, the coaches could point out elbow positioning to Green, who made a mental note and made the adjustment. Green only fumbled once (he recovered it) during the team's last seven games.

"We can't take technology and make a bad player good, but we can take a great athlete, educate him and show him how to reach peak performance," says Mike Eayrs, the team's director of research and development, who joined the coaching staff three seasons ago. "We try to find out what the winners do better with performance teamwise and individually."

Eayrs is a former college football coach who was the research and development director for the Minnesota Vikings—which played in the NFC championship game in 1998 and 2000—before joining The Pack in March 2001. His job, a new position created under current head coach and general manager Mike Sherman, was to formalize the team's statistical management processes. Since Eayrs has been with the team, the Packers have been in the playoffs the last three seasons and have gone 34-14 over that time, second in wins only to the Philadelphia Eagles.

As on any team, improving the performance of one player can increase the likelihood of the entire team's success. When Green regained his grip on the ball, the team went on a tear, going 6-1 at the end of last season.

One of Green Bay's team goals is not to give the other team the ball. Over the last four seasons, according to Eayrs, a team without any turnovers won 78% of the time. With one turnover, the probability of a team winning falls to 64%. Whether a team can win the game with two turnovers is a coin flip. Why? The offense averages 11.9 possessions in an NFL game. If your defense takes the ball from the opposition's offense, you've won one-twelfth of the game. The primary turnover measurement is the differential between takeaways and giveaways. For 2003, Green Bay broke even on the differential, and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were plus-17.

The Patriots are another NFL team using the system, as are the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears. Including Green Bay, four of those six teams made the playoffs and Jacksonville compiled three of its five wins in the last five games.

However, according to Bob White, NFL account manager for Pinnacle Systems and a former lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay is among the most advanced when it comes to using the system's latest features such as integrated game statistics and archiving with smart acquisition technology (SAT), a storage format that saves space and allows for mobile editing so game data can be quickly disseminated to coaches and players.

The system is embraced in the NFL because there's a sense of urgency in professional football. The entire NFL season is just 16 games, compared with baseball's 162 games or basketball's 82. It lasts a little longer than a corporate quarter. What's at stake? Millions. The average NFL salary is $1.23 million, according to the NFL Players Association.

Players also see the system as a career aid. According to video director Bob Eckberg, players are increasingly asking for DVDs of video sorted by situation, tendencies and season. "Players are still feeling out what they can get out of it," says Eckberg.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman, a 286-pound former fifth-round draft pick, looks for something as obscure as how an opposing blocker plants his feet on a pass play. Linemate Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the Packers' leading sacker, gets cutups sorted by plays where he was successful tackling a quarterback in a passing situation. The goal: Find ways to get a sack, a significant event in a game. If Green Bay sacks a quarterback, there's a 92% chance the opposing team will not score on that particular drive.

For now, coaches initiate a lot of player self-improvement. When Green Bay had trouble converting high-pressure third-down-and-long situations in midseason, head coach Sherman and his staff sorted the season's games to date and analyzed each play in that situation. The problem? Wide receivers were dropping the ball. After watching a quick compilation of plays, it was determined that the receivers were taking their eyes off the ball before making a catch. They were kept after team workouts to catch more balls and correct the issue, says Eayrs.

The result: Green Bay ended the season with three players—Robert Ferguson, Tony Fisher and Javon Walker—among its conference's top 20 receivers converting first downs in situations of third down and more than seven yards, according to Stats Inc. Fellow playoff teams Dallas and Seattle also had three receivers among the leaders in that category.

Pinnacle's system does have limitations. For starters, the video system usually only has data on "skill players," considered to be quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks and wide receivers. Other players key to winning, such as offensive linemen, can't be sorted by jersey numbers because the league's spotters are required to follow the action, not take attendance. The NFL, however, is working on identifying all the players on the field at once through live spotting and video.

Despite the increased focus on statistics and technology, Green Bay management is wary of becoming a slave to it. There are no metrics to measure character, heart and desire. Indeed, BruceWarwick, director of football administration, says Sherman drafted Kampman based on character and work ethic.

"Statistics are overrated, they aren't the end-all be-all, but they do pique your interest," says Warwick. "The goal is to minimize risks [in investing in and developing players]."

But there's no denying that in any sport, making one player better can improve the results for the entire team. One characteristic winning teams share, says Eayrs, is the ability to make big plays. Stats Inc. defines a big play as one greater than 20 yards. Green Bay defines "explosive" plays as runs of 12 yards or more or passes for 16 yards or more.

Enter Henderson, who doesn't have gaudy statistics for carries and receptions, but is valued highly because he clears the way for Green's big runs and helps keep Favre safe. He uses Pinnacle to look for opposing linebackers' tendencies, including lateral movement and positioning in run situations.

Says Henderson: "I don't believe football will ever become all statistics, but if I can use science to save me a step or two or learn a new trick, I'm going to use it."

This article was originally published on 2004-05-14
Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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