Nerds' revenge? Their win probability is up

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
1:30
PM ET
BOSTON -- Five years ago, San Francisco 49ers fans weary of losing might have cringed seeing team executive Paraag Marathe representing them on a "Revenge of the Nerds" panel put on by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Marathe himself might have cringed. At the time, the academic credentials Marathe brought to the NFL made him an outsider in an acutely insular world. He was conveniently cast as a "non-football guy" distracting the 49ers from the important stuff.

The 49ers' success over the past couple seasons has provided public cover for Marathe, now the team's chief operating officer. But the world around Marathe is what has changed the most. Marathe, hired by the forward-thinking Bill Walsh in 2001, is doing what he's always done, but to an increasingly receptive audience.

Marathe's specific audience Friday included some of the 2,700 attendees at the seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Marathe joined Moneyball author Michael Lewis, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, statistical analyst Nate Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey on the "Revenge of the Nerds" panel discussing the evolution of analytics in sports.

That evolution remains ongoing. Revenge is not total. But the nerds' win probability is sharply on the rise.

Marathe, who completed business school at California and graduate school at Stanford, worked at Bain & Company and International Management Group before Walsh hired him. Walsh wanted Marathe to develop an updated model for valuing draft choices, the better to inform decisions regarding their use, including in trades.

"I was this young kid with all these ideas and wanting to do things, telling the coaches and the general manager at the time to invest in the offensive line, only do incentive-based contracts for running backs or to accumulate second- and third-round picks," Marathe told the Sloan audience.

It was an uphill fight.

"Just throwing stuff out there with analysis and stats, it is threatening if someone is not comfortable with analytics or some guy showing up with all these charts and graphs on why you should do things," Marathe said.

That has been true here on the NFC West blog as we've introduced Total QBR and other advanced metrics instead of relying solely on conventional stats. The resistance usually forms as a general aversion to such things, not as specific objections to the information itself.

"What I learned five or six years into my tenure is, it's not about the analytical work that you do," Marathe said. "That is less than 50 percent of it. The majority of it is communicating that work and representing that work in a way that you can get by with, whether it's ownership or the head coach or the scout, so that they believe it, so that they embrace it."

Marathe pointed to New England's Bill Belichick and New Orleans' Sean Payton as two head coaches who have successfully implemented analytics -- identifying and harnessing trends culled from large quantities of data -- into decision-making during games. He expects others to follow.

Overall, though, Marathe sees the use of analytics as nascent to the NFL. He pointed to players' mental aptitude and injury prevention as two areas largely unexplored using advanced methods.

Margins for mental makeup are so much wider than those for physical ability, Marathe said. The NFL's recently adopted psychological testing will arm teams with new levels of information. The goal will be to close the gap.

On the injury front, teams want insight into which players are additionally susceptible at various points in their careers.

Note: I'm bouncing from one panel discussion to another as the conference continues through Saturday. St. Louis Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and senior assistant Tony Pastoors are also among those in attendance.

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