The San Francisco 49ers’ win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday came down to the wire, ending with the team taking a knee to set up a field goal in the closing seconds. There was some question as to whether or not the Bears were going to let them score a touchdown, but in the end, the 49ers kicked the field goal, and ended things on the ensuing kickoff.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan was on KNBR Thursday afternoon, and he got a chance to discuss the thought process behind that final drive. That led to him discussing analytics, and how he views the process in his overall decision-making.
“First of all, I think there is no absolute answer. I know you can get the analytics, and go with percentages and things like that, but there are penalties, there are missed field goals — there’s different opinions. And that’s why a lot of times you’ve gotta go with your gut, which is usually what I do. I always listen to the analytics, I hear the percentages, and then you’ve gotta go with how you feel.
“We were down two points when we were running the ball. If they would have let us score, we probably would have scored, because I hadn’t told them to not do it yet. I was starting to do that on the last place, and that’s when I started to take a knee. And the reason being is I’ve had too many things go wrong in the past. When you’re down two points and someone is giving you the lead, that field goal isn’t guaranteed. I know field goals are high percentage, but you get a penalty, you get set back like that — we lead the league right now in red zone penalties. And the last two times we were down there, we had 2nd and 1 and got a number of penalties. I’m nervous about getting pushed back a little bit.
“You don’t want to be too picky and be too cute with it, but you also want to make sure you don’t give them time to come back. And I thought it worked out perfectly. Once they did tackle on the last power that we ran, we quickly went to the knee, and thought we could finish it with the field goal.
“But there was no exact answer there. And I’ve got a guy who helps me with the analytics standpoint upstairs. His name’s Cordell. We were talking about it through the whole exchange, and we didn’t feel 100 percent on what the right answer was until we took that knee.”
Cordell appears to be Ryan Cordell, special assistant to the general manager (not assistant general manager). He is in his fourth year with the 49ers after spending several years as a high school football coach. Last season, he was football operations coordinator, where he assisted with clock and game management. In 2015, he served as an offensive assistant on the coaching staff, breaking down film for the offense, running the scout team, assisting all offensive coaches, and assisting in the coaching of the running back position. He joined the 49ers in 2014 as a salary cap intern.
It sounds like he is up in the coaches booth on game day, providing insight into what the numbers say Shanahan should consider doing in a given situation. We’ve heard plenty in the past about Paraag Marathe’s involvement in that role, but whatever that was has changed over the past four or five years.
Shanahan said that if Cordell provides a response where it is a 100 percent likelihood that X will be the result, then yes, Shanahan would follow that advice to a T. However, as Shanahan put it, it is best not to think in absolutes. Every situation is different, providing a host of variables that sometimes cannot be plugged into a traditional analysis.
“I sit and meet with our analytics guys about once a week and go through stuff. It could say it’s a 95 percent field goal, but that doesn’t say what the weather is. That doesn’t say maybe your long snapper has been struggling. It doesn’t say how your kicker’s been struggling because of what happened the week before. There’s so many variables that go into things in the NFL — weather, home or on the road — that you can’t always take that stuff as absolutes.
“So, I take it as education — it definitely helps you, you know where you’re gonna go with stuff — but there’s certain situations that I’ve gone through throughout the offseason with our guys, that I’ve gone through during the week where I’m like, that definitely is the analytics right answer, you make sure whenever we get in that situation, you just tell me, and I will go on auto-pilot and listen to exactly what it is. And then there’s times where it’s like, hey, this is about a 70 percent chance you should do this, but then I can bring up like six variables where I’m like, what if this is the case, what if this is the case? And they’re like, well yea, that could change it. Alright, well, you can always suggest, but those are the ones where I’m gonna go with my gut after. And that’s what you try to do.”
Numbers can tell you a lot, but they can’t tell you everything. In the decision-making process, the use of analytics is one of many tools that can provide context to shape a decision. You can choose to go in another direction based on various other variables, but to ignore analytics entirely is ignorance personified. And to be perfectly honest, it is pretty hard to ignore “analytics” entirely. Basic counting stats are one form of analytics, just like DVOA or Expected Wins or Pro Football Focus’ signature stats are varying forms of analytics.
You don’t have to go by the book every single time, but to ignore it without even giving it a listen is only going to hurt in the long term. Thankfully the 49ers have a coaching staff and front office that are at least open to hearing what it might bring to the table.