The past year has been dominated by chatter of Jed York and Trent Baalke, and their involvement in Jim Harbaugh's departure from the San Francisco 49ers. The "whisper campaign" that preceded Harbaugh's departure is viewed by many as having been instigated by York and/or Baalke. However, one person that has managed to fly under the radar throughout is team president Paraag Marathe.
Over the past decade, Marathe has come to assume a significant leadership position on the football side of the organization. He is the club's chief contract negotiator and salary cap architect, and also runs the team's football analytics efforts. He is responsible for the 49ers compliance with the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and works closely with general manager Trent Baalke on all aspects of the club's football operations, including the draft.
On Wednesday, Steve Berman took a dive into Marathe's involvement in the organization. He took a look at how he has avoided the pressure York, Baalke and others have dealt with, and how he arrived at this position. However, I wanted to take another look at Marathe through some public information, as well as a source at Marathe's former employer, Bain & Company.
Marathe active game involvement is something that has been discussed in a limited manner, but has picked up a bit of steam more recently. Play calling and other football decisions – normally reserved the coaching staff – was a point of escalating tension under Nolan, Singletary and finally Jim Harbaugh’s coaching tenure. Marathe – an analytics guru and numbers cruncher – often presented mid-game suggestions for Harbaugh to go for it on fourth down, or go for two instead of kicking an extra point. At certain points, Marathe was even given a chair in the coaches booth and put in charge of replays and determining whether or not to suggest challenging questionable calls.
Marathe’s active game day role underscores one of the primary criticisms leveled at Jed York: that he and his fellow suits in the owners suite meddle too much with football decisions, and that has contributed to one of the most stunning collapses of a successful sports franchise. It also highlights the growing chasm between football strategists who rely on the growing body of analytics and statistics available versus the more old school types who remain wary of using newfangled algorithms to coach football.
There's a lot of data in football and it has been used in one form or another throughout the history of the game. When teams prepare for a game on a weekly basis, there is a significant amount of data accumulated. The coaches take information and use data in an effort to put together a game plan. Yet, sometimes the data does not match what happens in the games, and the coach has to be able to adjust the plan.
That's the crux of the problem. Even when it is possible to identify the statistics of the game, the data does not show the full story or guarantee future performance. A wide receiver is dependent on his quarterback. A running back needs an offensive line to create gaps. A speed pass rusher needs a nose tackle. In football, there are 22 moving variables.
The 49ers organization, however, are among the leaders in advanced football analytics, in large part because of Paraag Marathe. He has been a true pioneer in football analytics. Marathe, like many analytic guys, had never stepped foot on a professional football field or inside a locker room, never felt the game changing effect of momentum, has never experienced the team chemistry or what nerves can do to those black and white numbers.
Harbaugh has a more conservative football nature. And, he is largely driven by emotion and gut instincts. According to sources, it drove Marathe, and by extension, York and Baalke, nuts. Harbaugh resented Marathe’s meddling and often refused his counsel. Jed York and GM Trent Baalke threw their support behind Marathe, exacerbating the, by now, well documented breakdown of the relationship between Harbaugh and ownership.
That is not to say the entire relationship hinged on Harbaugh being on board with the use of advanced analytics, but it is symptomatic of what went wrong between them. If the execs believed they were running everything correctly and if they could just get Harbaugh on board, they probably felt they could rip off five more Super Bowls.
So, here we are in Jim Tomsula era. By all accounts, he is a noble man. In his press conferences, he takes full responsibility for losses. When questioned about specific plays, he will say "it came across my desk". It is not difficult to see Tomsula is being fed analytical information; ironically, he coaches even more conservatively than Harbaugh. That is, until last week.
In the 49ers win against the Atlanta Falcons, Marathe's more aggressive statistic-driven approach seemed to work out well for the team. In that game, Coach Tomsula made a couple of gutsy decisions to go for it on fourth down, in circumstances where statistics may support taking the risk, but where most coaches tend to punt. It's unclear what role Marathe had in those decisions. Meanwhile, Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s decision to kick a field goal on a key fourth down from one yard line instead of going for the touchdown, may have cost the team the game.
Marathe was originally hired to figure out how much each position was worth, how much to pay them under the salary cap, and when to draft them. The 49ers went to the Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Company and asked them to develop an algorithm. Marathe worked for the firm at the time as a business guru, specifically focused on branding and naming rights. Marathe, however, was "on the beach", i.e., not currently assigned to a project, when the 49ers came calling, according to a source at Bain. He was a young, promising consultant who was available at the time that the 49ers reached out. Marathe quickly won over 49ers owners. This was not a football hire, rather a temporary financial consulting job to help the 49ers accumulate information. Marathe quickly emerged as a strong advocate within the organization for the team to rely more on statistical analytics in calling plays.
49er fans have another reason to hope that the analytics guys have it right: Blaine Gabbert. Just about the only people who have shown faith in Gabbert in recent years are the number crunchers. In 2013, with the NFL draft approaching, the Jacksonville Jaguars had some tough decisions to make: use their top pick to replace quarterback Blaine Gabbert or bolster Gabbert’s supporting cast.
After the Jags selected him 10th overall in 2011, the team was 5-19 with Gabbert as the starter. Gabbert had a passer rating of 70.2, second lowest in the league. The Jags needed to know whether Gabbert was a lost cause or whether his meager numbers were a result of a weak offensive line.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Tony Khan is the son of principal owner Shad Khan. He is the team's Senior Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics. After his dad bought the team in 2012, the younger Khan was put in charge of a newly created analytics department in the Jaguar’s front office.
Shortly before the 2013 NFL Draft, Khan presented the Jags' new coach, Gus Bradley, a three page memo bursting with statistics. ESPN’s David Fleming reported the memo at the time:
The page titled "Blaine QB Rating Stats" revealed that when adjusted for drops, throwaways and spikes, Gabbert's passer rating in 2012 was a respectable 82.8. The next page, "Blaine Time in the Pocket," detailed the Jags' woeful pass protection: The line gave Gabbert an average of just 2.56 seconds to throw the ball. When he had more than 2.6 seconds to throw, his QB rating jumped to 84.5. The final page, "Blaine Under Pressure," showed that when facing a six-man rush, Gabbert ranked first among QBs in completion percentage.
Six weeks later the Jags used the second pick in the draft to upgrade his protection, selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel. If Khan’s analytics-driven analysis was correct, the 49ers may have stumbled on a permanent replacement for Colin Kaepernick. But again, analytics are only one part of the discussion.
The big take away with analytics is how you streamline them into an organization. You need the right leaders in place, and everyone else is a worker bee in their general guidance. There is no question in my mind Paraag Marathe probably knows more about football analytics than most people in the NFL; however, he has not been able to entirely bridge the considerable gap between his computer screen and the football field.
Inasmuch as the football guys have to embrace the analytical guys, the analytical guys must be willing to learn from the football guys. All the talent is worthless if you don't have the right people in charge. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they have not yet been able to bridge this gap. But, if they do, fans could very well be singing a new tune about Jed York and Paraag Marathe.