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Josh Harris values analytics. Is that likely to be a point of friction with Ron Rivera?

Washington Commanders Introduce New Ownership Group Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The first press conferences for Washington’s new ownership team were great, and full of hopeful goals for the future in terms of winning back fan confidence, re-establishing a championship identity, and affirming the good faith of the new owners in striving to do so. But, necessarily, they tended to be fairly thin on detailed prescriptions, by design.

Josh Harris, Mitchell Rales, and Magic Johnson want to give themselves some flexibility in terms of concrete actions they’re going to take, which is totally understandable. That said, in both his introductory speech and a follow-up interview, Harris did get pretty specific in terms of steps he’s going to take to “create the best team.” He offered the following:

  • Hiring the best front office
  • Maintaining the best coaching staff
  • Attracting the best people
  • Developing analytics and developing any edge you can

Harris’ commitment to the use of “analytics” - relying on data to shape everything from draft processes to play calling - is well established with his other franchises. The 76ers, for instance, are considered to be one of the most analytics-driven teams in the NBA. Early on in his ownership tenure with the NJ Devils, Harris hired a former poker player, Sunny Mehta, to head up the team’s analytics department.

The Past

This stands in stark contrast to Washington’s football team, who has, through 2022, been one of the NFL teams least reliant on such a data-driven approach to decision making.

That’s not to say the team didn’t toy with the idea in the past. In the mid-2000s, two University of Pennsylvania economists pulled together what would become a seminal paper on the so-called “Loser’s Curse,” analyzing why bad NFL teams tend to stay bad, despite being given substantial advantages in the NFL draft.

Dan Snyder and the Redskins were the first NFL team to meet with the paper’s authors - Thaler and Massey - largely by virtue of a fortunate coincidence. Snyder had been invited to speak at the University of Pennsylvania Business School, and Thaler, on the cusp of publication, took Snyder aside at lunch to excitedly tell him of his findings:

Mr. Snyder had only been an owner for a brief period when we met. I told Mr. Snyder about the project with Cade and he immediately said he was going to send “his guys” to see us right away, even though they were in the midst of the season. He said, “We want to be the best at everything.” Apparently when Mr. Snyder wants something he gets it. That Monday I got a call from his chief operating officer, who wanted to talk to Cade and me ASAP. We met Friday of that week with two of his associates and had a mutually beneficial discussion. We gave them the basic lessons of our analysis, and they were able to confirm some institutional details for us.

After the season ended, we had further discussions with Snyder’s staff. By then, we were pretty sure they had mastered our two takeaways: trade down and trade picks this year for better picks next year. Cade and I watched the draft on television that year with special interest that turned into deep disappointment. The team did exactly the opposite of what we had suggested! They moved up in the draft, and then traded away a high draft pick next year to get a lesser one this year. When we asked our contacts what happened we got a short answer. “Mr. Snyder wanted to win now.”

Fate tried to offer Snyder a gift, and the arrogant twerp spat in her face. From that point forward, there’s not much evidence that “analytics” were ever a priority of Snyder or his front office or coaching staffs.

As of 2021, a survey of analytics staffers across the NFL pegged Washington as tied for the second-least analytically advanced team in the league - tied with the Bengals, and just above the Titans. At that point, Washington, like Cincinnati, only had one full-time analytics employee. In contrast, at that point, the Browns, Ravens, Eagles, and Bills were considered the most analytically inclined teams in the league. In 2022, Washington was one of only 6 NFL teams with a single analytics staffer.

As a side note, the Titans have since brought on a new General Manager, one much more steeped in data:

The Present

Since his arrival in DC, Ron Rivera has made occasional statements indicating that he utilizes “analytics,” but there’s not much indication that he’s benefitting from them:

Whether that’s a data issue, or an analysis issue, isn’t entirely clear. I initially gave Ron the benefit of the doubt based on some things he had said in an interview with Rich Eisen in 2021.

But, given some terrible in-game decision making last season, including punting from the Giants’ 34-yard line in a critical game, my faith in Ron’s commitment to analytics has been seriously rattled.

Meanwhile, Harris has wasted absolutely no time adding analytics staffers to the organization. Alerted by a tweet from Nicki Jhabvala late last night, I went to check out the organizational staffing chart.

The Future

It appears that the organization now has, at least, two analytics staffers: Preston Biro, a Football Data Scientist (who was actually hired in late June), has a PhD in Statistics from the University of Texas, and has written multiple papers on football play-calling strategies. He’ll be working under Doug Drewry, the team’s Coordinator of Football Analytics, who apparently played a significant role in the team’s 2022 draft.

Will Harris’ aggressively pro-analytics style end up clashing with Rivera’s slow pace of analytics adoption, in a game that grows ever more data-driven by the year?

Only time will tell, but if things do begin to go sideways during the season, particularly as a result of conservative play-calling, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that facilitate an eventual change at the top of football operations.


How do you feel about Washington’s use of analytics?

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  • 14%
    It’s just right.
    (107 votes)
  • 2%
    It’s too much.
    (17 votes)
  • 83%
    It’s not enough.
    (617 votes)
741 votes total Vote Now