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San Francisco 49ers ranked fairly high in analytics discussion

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The most recent issue of ESPN the Magazine has ranked the use of analytics by all teams from the four major U.S. professional sports leagues, and they have ranked the San Francisco 49ers No. 9 among NFL teams. ESPN ranked teams as "All-In", "Believers", "One Foot In", "Skeptics", and "Nonbelievers". The 49ers did not appear in the top of the overall rankings, but they were one of the nine among the "Believers". It is interesting to note that the NFL was the only league with no teams listed as "All In."

The intro to the article included this description of the project:

ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com unleashed our experts and an army of researchers to rate 122 teams on the strength of each franchise's analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its approach is predicated on analytics. After looking at the stats, reaching out to every team and dozens of informed sources and evaluating each front office, we ranked an overall top 10 and bottom 10 and placed each team in one of five tiers by sport.

As I understand it, the "experts" included ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert (NFL), ESPN Insiders Kevin Pelton (NBA) and Craig Custance (NHL), former Mets stats guru Ben Baumer (MLB). They do not seem to clarify their methodology.

Here is what the 49ers section said about the team:

Paraag Marathe got his break with the 49ers in 2001 when coach Bill Walsh and exec Terry Donahue hired him based on his work as part of a consulting team providing a data-oriented approach to the draft. In the years since, Marathe has risen to team president, along the way building a robust database and an analytics department with "four or five folks," he told FiveThirtyEight, working on "helping scouts better evaluate players, helping coaches, as well as the salary cap."

Marathe couldn't have a stronger advocate than CEO Jed York, and said he'd "like to think" the whole organization has bought in to analytics. Colin Kaepernick's 2014 team-friendly contract was crafted according to analytical research, with a refundable, "pay as you go" structure, setting an NFL precedent for QB contracts.

On the other hand, the 2011 signing of 28-year-old running back Frank Gore to a three-year contract extension worth $21 million raised doubts. It paid off -- Gore has run for at least 1,100 yards in the past four seasons -- but the contract ran counter to the new analytics wisdom against committing premium cash and salary cap space to the running back position.

On the coaching side, former coach Jim Harbaugh wanted little to do with analytics. But new coach Jim Tomsula, while he has similarly old-school roots, is, according to sources, more amenable to input from the analytics staff.

The most interesting thing to take from that might be the Harbaugh comment at the end. I am extremely curious to know who told them Harbaugh wanted little to do with analytics. That's not that I think they are wrong, but that's a particularly pointed comment to make in light of the issues of the last year. I suppose it would not be surprising for this to be the case. When Seth Wickersham wrote his big Harbaugh feature for ESPN last year, he mentioned something potentially connected to this:

Harbaugh's vision as a coach is unchanged from his vision as a quarterback: He trusts his instincts. That frustrates the 49ers' more buttoned-up staffers, who worry that his team's habit of botching situational football -- last year, some believed the coaches weren't emphasizing two-minute situations in practice, and sure enough, the season ended on a failed two-minute drive against Seattle -- is rooted in Harbaugh's disorganization. While the NFL is slowly trending toward a corporate and scientific style of football, a 49ers staffer says that, for better and worse, "We're the Scranton Bureau."

If there is better cohesion between the front office and the coaching staff, could these result in a greater use of analytics? The issues of situational football and general game management have been problematic for some time. There are a lot of issues we're waiting to see resolved when football season returns, and how the game is managed by the coaching staff is a somewhat notable one.