Nerd's Nest: The Rise of Football Data

Over the last five years, there's been a kind of data boom in the NFL. As the league approaches its centennial, teams now have more access than ever before to information that can assist each part of an organization — from decision making in personnel to creating more efficient processes to watch film.

While there are departments across the NFL that serve these purposes, the Rams' Football Information Systems team is unique in a few ways. One of which is the department's common name across the organization.

"You know, it's interesting, I think everybody has a 'nerd's nest,' has an analytics department," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "I think what separates us probably the most is we actually call them nerds in a very un-poltically correct way. And they actually enjoy it."

Affably named for their office at the Rams' facility, Jake Temme, Ryan Garlisch, and Rebecca Lally are the three "nerds" who help to gather and disseminate data to the football side of the organization. They're a trio of 20-somethings who might look a bit more like they belong at a Silicon Valley startup than an NFL front office.

"I always say, they're way too smart to be in football. They should be doing something else," Snead said. "But the unique thing about them — the rare thing — is they're passionate about sports, in particular football, in particular NFL football, and in particular Rams football. And just, you get three people [who are] young, smart, talented, a little bit out of the box in terms of being in a football building — but they're just as passionate as any of us in the building. And those guys, using that passion, working together trying to help us is pretty fulfilling."

The nerd's nest serves multiple facets of the Rams' football operation in both scouting and coaching. Temme and Garlisch are both heading into their fourth NFL seasons, while Lally is embarking on her third. Garlisch built the club's intranet system from the ground up and continues to manage it. Temme created Los Angeles' personnel information database, and analyzes football data and information. And Lally focuses on analyzing and interpreting data to improve player performance and evaluation.

When Snead became the Rams' general manager in 2012, he envisioned a group that could become a critical tool in helping the organization evaluate information and make decisions. Temme says Snead's open mind in creating an innovative department was a significant factor in accepting his position.

"One of the most attractive reasons that I decided to take this job in the first place was just being with him, and understanding the vision that he had and how he was going to let us do our job. And he was going to let us gather information, give him information, and not necessarily curtail how that process worked," Temme said. "I think he evaluates all the information that we put in front of him. And that was something really valuable to me as well, was not having someone breathing down your neck and telling you, 'This is how I want things done.' But being open-minded to the creative process and saying, 'Find what is the best way to do things, show me, and let's get there together.'"

The first step in implementing the vision was to create an intranet system to improve communication throughout the organization.

"There was a system in place — it was pretty old," Garlisch said. "We came in, we upgraded the system, took our time, had about a year to really understand the ins and outs of each department, what their needs were, and wants. And then built from the ground up a complete, custom intranet site for our scouting staff and incorporating now our coaching staff.

"So it's been a process, but we're really trying to hit every group on the football ops team to help them out, improve efficiency and time spent so they can use that time to better themselves, to watch film to help them," Garlisch added.

One of the ways the group increases efficiency is through synthesizing data that comes in — and there is a lot of it. With the advent of advanced metric groups like Pro Football Focus, Temme says there's been a major increase of available information in recent years.

"I would say on a given play, before Pro Football Focus, we had maybe 30 to 35 tangible data points for every play — a tackle, an assist, yards, what have you. Now we have 550," Temme said. "The amount of information we're receiving both in pro and college now is exponentially greater than it was for both prior regimes — and really before the genesis of Pro Football Focus. I think that has had a tremendous impact on the way we looked at stats."

It's also changed the way teams are able to analyze situations.  

"I like to look at all the stats that we've accumulated — 550 columns wide — and now look at it by, really, it's criterion. So, now only look at this from third down. Only look at it when it's seven-plus yards for down and distance," Temme said. "There's so many examples of that. But that really has revolutionized how we've used statistics and also the ability to analyze the data from college and pro."

With the NFL Draft coming up, the data the nerd's nest has gathered becomes that much more important. While analytics certainly aren't the only basis for player selection, information the nerd's nest has gathered can be a useful tool.

"I think what happens is, when you're doing a corner or a wide receiver, you may rely on different subsets of the data that are specific to each of those two positions," Snead said. "What I think you use that also for is to go, hey, is my intuition correct? Is there some case studies, is there some history there that shows that, yes, that intuition is correct. Or is it off a little bit? And I think with each decision that you make, whether it's a certain position, whether it's a certain situation in a game, whether it's even the coaches using to self-scout — you use that history to see if, hey, if there's a lesson in that history that you can apply to future decisions."

But even after the draft is complete, the nerd's nest will have plenty to do under head coach Sean McVay's new staff.

"Les has done a great job implementing some of those people on his staff, where they're able to give you information. And it's things that we'll use, football-wise, throughout the course of the year when we gameplan, as well," McVay said. "It's not exclusive to just the draft stuff, but it'll also be very helpful when we go into game planning and some of those numbers, just from a preparation standpoint. I think it's been very helpful and it's definitely a valuable tool to utilize."

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