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Spreadsheet to playbook: How analytics has changed the way the Jags operate

There have been whispers, even some coming from this site, about how analytics was a tidal wave ready to slam the NFL. Once football grabs ahold of how to use analytics, they said, look out. Actually, take it straight from the horse's mouth:

"Once football grabs ahold of analytics -- and that's where we are heading into 2013 -- it can redefine the sport," said STATS LLC general manager John Pollard.

That's great to talk about in theory, but was does it really mean? When it's third-and-8, how and when are analytics really going to help teams move the chains? 

Thanks to ESPN the Magazine's Dave Fleming, we now have some real life anecdotes about how the guys behind the laptops and iPads are changing the product we see on Sundays. Fleming profiled the analytics department of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Like any team with a new owner, new general manager, new head coach and a 2-14 black eye of a record, the Jags will open just about every door in the name of improvement. Tony Khan, the team's vice president of technology and analytics as well as the son of owner Shahid Khan, heads Jacksonville's analytics staff.

Among the ways Khan and co. will change the way the Jaguars play include:

- Keeping quarterback Blaine Gabbert employed. With a dismal 70.2 quarterback rating, Gabbert's future with the organization was naturally in question. Head coach Gus Bradley sought Khan's opinion, and the next morning Bradley learned that Gabbert's rating spiked a dozen points when ignoring drops, spikes and throwaways, grows 14 points when given adequate time to throw, and that the 23-year-old signal caller possessed the NFL's second-highest completion percentage when facing six or more rushers. Instead of drafting his replacement, the Jaguars moved to insure Gabbert's success by selecting right tackle Luke Joeckel out of Texas A&M.

- Inventing stats, then using those stats during the draft. Frustrated with the limited avenues for evaluating cornerbacks, Khan invented his own: the self-explanatory Passes Touched per Target. A high PTP number helped Connecticut corner Dwayne Gratz receive a third-round selection. Jacksonville thinks he can start for them. 

- Changing the way coaches allocate practice reps. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wanted to know if the amount of time dedicated to certain situations mirrored how often they occur on the field. Soon after, Fisch had a report analyzing every NFL play from the past five seasons. Thanks to the report, Jacksonville now spends much more time working out of second-and-long situations, a scenario that Fisch learned pops up frequently in games. 

"All we've ever asked for was an audience," Jags analytics staffer, and Harvard graduate, Daniel Adler said. "We've got that. Now the challenge isn't to come up with the perfect football stat -- that would be impossible and paralyzing -- but to challenge the conventional wisdom while maintaining people's trust."

Read the full story here.

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