Y. statisticians may help Eagles' game

Published: Friday, Jan. 14 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

PROVO — Andy Reid, a former Brigham Young University football player who coaches the Philadelphia Eagles, hopes a couple of number-crunchers can help his bone-crunching football team dominate the NFL.

Reid has asked two BYU professors to prepare a report that statistically analyzes every play, every coach's decision and every player on the field in the 2003 season.

The football coach made the request after hearing that the professors — Shane Reese and Gil Fellingham — helped improve the performance of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team.

He got in touch with them through former BYU volleyball coach and Orem resident Carl McGown, who coached the Cougars to an NCAA championship in 2000 and was an assistant coach for Team USA in Athens last summer.

The two BYU professors are sports junkies with statistical street credentials — Fellingham has a doctorate in biostatistics, and Reese, who has a doctorate, too, was a nuclear weapons analyst at Los Alamos.

And they have a history of using their academic backgrounds to look at sports in a way very different than that of the average fan.

"Football is the most complex sport we've looked at," Fellingham said, "but it's probably less complex than missile systems."

Still, finding Reid on the other end of a phone line last summer was a thrill.

After all, Reid has a 64-32 win-loss record in six NFL seasons as the Eagles head coach and has led the team this year to a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.

"This rates real high on the cool factor," Reese said.

It was a close association with McGown that put Fellingham and Reese on the path to working with Reid. McGown had read "Moneyball," a book that describes how the Oakland Athletics have used statistical analyses to build winning teams on a budget smaller than 85 percent of other Major League Baseball clubs.

McGown for years had kicked around statistical ideas with Fellingham, who used to help with the volleyball team, but went back to him last year to ask for more.

He provided Fellingham and Reese with international volleyball statistics — information on every touch in every match played by the world's best teams in one year.

The report Fellingham and Reese provided to USA Volleyball last May gave special insight that McGown said helped the U.S. team to its best performance since 1992.

McGown keeps the results of the report a secret.

But in general terms, one important finding of the $8,000 study stressed the importance of serving and how and what to practice to improve it.

"We went from 14th in the world to fourth in the world and played for a medal. If we hadn't known the stuff they gave us, we wouldn't have been as good as we were," McGown said.

What Reese and Fellingham do is take data sets and create Bayesian statistical models to analyze them. Bayesian models are flexible enough to take data from actual events, such as NFL games, and blend that with data created by computer simulations.

Powerful computers crunch the numbers and provide analysis and predictions.

Fellingham and Reese said baseball analysts such as Boston Red Sox consultant Bill James are innovative, but more sophisticated statistical analysis can reveal even more about that and other sports. At the same time, trying to explain what creates success in baseball, volleyball and football can help statisticians blaze new ground in their own field.

Making the connection between computer-generated analysis to on-field improvements is a major step. Fellingham's volleyball background helped with the pair's first report.

"I know the drills the national team does because they are the drills Carl and I did at BYU," Fellingham said. "We suggested modifications."

That's not something they'll be able to do as easily with Reid, but they think they'll be able to provide him with insight on how to improve the Eagles' performance. The Eagles report is halfway done, they said.

Reese and Fellingham hope their information helps Reid make solid draft-day and free-agent decisions. "We're not looking to revolutionize the sport," Fellingham said, "just to help improve Philadelphia's performance a few percentage points."

"In a playoff game," Reese added, "that can be the difference."

Reid was preparing Thursday for the Sunday playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.

If the Eagles win, they will advance to a fourth straight NFC championship game, one step short of the Super Bowl. Reid asked the Deseret Morning News to postpone an interview until after the season and after he has seen the report.

The BYU professors are creating this report for free to prove they can help Reid — whom they still haven't met in person.

They hope it will lead to a long-term relationship with the Eagles.

And they would be happy to do similar work for new Cougar football coach Bronco Mendenhall.

If they reveal new insights, number crunchers will likely find more and more work in athletic fields. "We'll never have enough," McGown said. "There's always better, deeper, more sophisticated ways to look at it."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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