NEW YORK (AP) — For those NFL fans whose heads are swimming as all kinds of numbers are bandied about, fear not when watching CBS telecasts this season.
Unless the statistics and analytics improve the broadcast, viewers won’t be inundated by them, the CBS announcers promise.
“You take it and integrate it into our own brand of storytelling,” says Solomon Wilcots, who will work games with play-by-play man Spero Dedes. “There is a place for it, but it always has to humanize our stories. We will use the numbers to quantify the impact a player has on a game, to distinguish him and his contributions.
“But it has to be a support, not the basis or the foundation for our story. The numbers can be an add-on, can complement the storytelling. It’s necessary to find a balance, otherwise the numbers fall flat. How does the data translate to making for a better player. Connect the dots.”
Wilcots, a former defensive back with particular expertise in matchups between receivers and the guys covering them, points to Lions star Calvin Johnson. Wilcots believes analytics and Next Gen Stats, particularly those using digital chips in players’ pads, can be very enlightening in evaluating Johnson’s advantages against opponents.
“The data is able to show exactly that — where he’s most impactful, where he has the biggest edge on a defender. Where Matthew Stafford throws the ball to Calvin; does he know from this data that he can just throw the ball to a certain place and Calvin is going to get it?
“Has there ever been a player like this, who can do what he does? The chip in the pads shows us this data; there was never a chip on Randy Moss to show us, so we don’t know if he could do the same things Calvin can do. So we now have that data and we can compare Calvin to the next player.”
Less beneficial is a stream of numbers that obscures or misleads. As 2002 MVP Rich Gannon, the analyst for play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan, points out, there can be extenuating circumstances that result in certain statistics and rankings.
Say a team leads the league in sacks allowed, prompting fans to determine that the offensive line is full of holes. Well, it obviously isn’t great at pass protection, but there could be much more to the tale.
“When you look at the video and the stats and then you find that half of those sacks were on the quarterback for holding the ball too long,” Gannon says. “And another dozen were on the receivers for running bad routes, not getting open. And maybe some more are on the tight ends.
“You can’t put it all on the offensive line. That’s the story you need to bring to the fans.
“Stats help tell the story and can make for a good mix. When you can back it up with analytics, thanks to the incredible technology we have, we can show a player’s explosiveness or see how a running back can run away from a cornerback and safety. We simply need to integrate it all.”
While doing so, it’s critical for a TV broadcaster not to use the stats and analytics and graphics — whatever — as a crutch. Veteran announcer Ian Eagle, who works with analyst Dan Fouts, a Hall of Fame quarterback, shakes his head when asked about potential quantity overdoses.
Eagle recognizes that a play-by-play man’s main job is to describe the action. It’s not to extrapolate a player’s or a team’s numbers to find some deeper meaning.
“Stats need to provide context, give the fans a baseline, or they mean little,” says Eagle, entering his 18th season doing NFL games; he also handles national radio duties for prime-time games, as does Harlan. “You can develop awareness of what is happening by more explanation through the stats, and you see analytics and stats and graphics becoming more prominent as the years go by. It’s a matter of weaving it in.
“And you don’t want the numbers to go into a vacuum. There has to be some understanding of what they mean.”
Boomer Esiason, who works with Harlan on many Monday night radio broadcasts and also teams with Harlan to announce the Super Bowl, isn’t so sure listeners and viewers are all that eager to get more and more stats-filled info.
“I will refer to them, especially when they are emphasizing a trend or they accentuate something in a game,” says the 1988 league MVP. “Analytics can help you spot trends, and then you can accentuate the stats. These Next Gen Stats are a fancier way of giving graphically enhanced information.
“But you have to ask if the fans want hard-core football or more of these stats. You don’t want to turn them off with too many numbers.”