Study: Vikings Still Skeptical About Value of Analytics


A new ESPN study places all the major sports franchises under the microscope in an effort to find out which teams have fully embraced modern analytics and which ones still go old-school in evaluating players.

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The Great Analytics Rankings breaks down teams into five categories: All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics and Nonbelievers.

The study shows that, overall, the NFL lags behind other leagues in embracing the power of analytics. No NFL team ranks as “All In” according to ESPN. Multiple MLB and NBA teams fall into the “All In” category, and even one NHL team.

In a league where many still remain skeptical about the power of analytics, the Minnesota Vikings are considered one of more backward. ESPN placed the Vikings in the “Skeptics” category, noting the contrast in styles between geeky numbers-cruncher Rick Spielman and old-fashioned go-with-the-gut Mike Zimmer:

"General manager Rick Spielman is an obsessive accumulator of information, whether it is on potential draft picks, during a coaching search or in preparation for free agency. Before hiring coach Mike Zimmer, Spielman developed 13 separate profiles of NFL coaches, based on history, to help guide his search.Zimmer takes a decidedly conventional approach to game management, and in a 2014 interview on the topic, Spielman said: “We have all those charts and looked at them. But when the game is going, you still have to go with what your gut instinct is.”"

The piece notes that the Vikings did hire an intern-level employee to accumulate data but that it’s unclear whether Spielman or Zimmer ever used that data. The intern eventually was assigned to assist ST coordinator Mike Priefer.

Last season, Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner made their analytics skepticism widely and somewhat angrily known when they bashed the site Pro Football Focus for their negative assessment of left tackle Matt Kalil. Both Zimmer and Turner warned fans to take PFF’s grades “with a grain of salt.”

Zim and Turner are certainly not alone in their “grain of salt” approach to analytics. ESPN ranks 11 other teams in the “Skeptical” category and four teams – the Redskins, Titans, Chargers and Jets – in the “Nonbelievers” range.

By contrast, nine teams are ranked as “Believers,” including the Super Bowl champion Patriots. It’s worth noting that the “Believers” category also includes perennial loser teams like the Jaguars and Browns. So clearly belief in analytics does not necessarily lead directly to success.

In the end, as Zimmer and Turner were perhaps trying to point out, blind faith in numbers is not going to get you anywhere. As the ESPN study shows, analytics are a tool that some teams use to great effect and others…not so much.

The Vikings currently lean toward old-school methods when it comes to running their program, though the ESPN study does indicate they’re willing to at least consider new-fangled approaches. You can’t teach an old dog like Mike Zimmer new tricks, but his old tricks worked pretty well last season so I’m not going to complain.

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