The Broncos’ playoff hopes hinged on the strength and accuracy of Brandon McManus’ leg. This was no exaggeration. Not as the Broncos’ Week 12 game against divisional rival Kansas City stretched into the 75th minute with the score tied at 27.
In hindsight, the late hours of Nov. 27, 2016, were when the Broncos’ Super Bowl follow-up seemed to come unhinged. Denver, facing a critical fourth-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 44-yard line, was left with three unappealing options and one major decision.
“A lot of teams kind of describe that as ‘No Man’s Land,’ ” Mitch Tanney, the Broncos’ director of analytics, explained at the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March. “It’s a bad area of the field, primarily because there are a lot of things in play. Punt, the decision was certainly in play. If your kicker has a strong enough leg, a field goal is certainly in play. Even going for it on fourth down is certainly in play.
“There are times when you’re forced to make a decision. You have to do something, and you know that all three options, numerically, are not great options.”
The thinking, as former coach Gary Kubiak reasoned, came down to this: You play to win. Not to punt. Not to maybe tie. Not to maybe get a second shot. So they tried for a 62-yard field goal, one that McManus and his coaches had seem him nail time and again back at Dove Valley.
“It was one of the most challenging decisions we’ve encountered from a game-management standpoint, because there really weren’t any good options,” Tanney said. “Obviously, the missed field goal, the resulting field position, K.C. ended up kicking a field goal to win the game.”
McManus’ miss certainly wasn’t the sole reason Denver lost that night, but it was the turning point and the decision that led to it — made on the sidelines and in the booth — had lasting impact.
Although the NFL lags behind other pro sports leagues like Major League Baseball and the NBA with its late embrace and still limited scope of advanced analytics, teams are increasingly relying on them before, during and even after games.
For Kubiak, Tanney’s voice and input were a “comfort” on game days, and his probabilities of certain outcomes for certain plays in certain situations at certain locations aided the coach’s decision-making on the sideline.
“I can tell you what analytics guys say on fourth down. They say, ‘Go for it,’ every time,” Kubiak said in 2105. “We don’t always agree, but he’s just always talking to you about percentages. He’s awesome with time, timeouts and when to use them. He’s always thinking ahead. As a coach, your mind is on the play and his mind is on everything else that’s going on. He’s been very impressive, and the thing that I like about him is that he played. He’s an ex-player, so he has a real perspective of some of that too, I think.”
Last season, the one-man analytics crew of Tanney grew to two when the team hired Scott Flaska, a University of Colorado graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, to work as a football analyst.
And this season, despite a new coaching regime and an offensive scheme that resembles one from their past, the Broncos have kept their eyes on the future.
“In Miami last year, the analytics department played a big role for us as far as the advanced scouting and game-day management, also,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “Mitch is a bright guy. He’s great with the numbers and the rules. For me, it’s going to be an important part of what we do as far as our game plan each week, and as far as game management. He’s going to be directly involved with game management during game day. He’ll be in the box and will be tied right to me.”
Tanney has been already. The game-planning and reliance of numbers includes the mornings on the practice field, even during the offseason. Players have been wearing tracking devices on their shoulder pads to monitor their performance and exertion, providing Tanney a wealth of data to parse and review.
It will continue to game days, where Zebra Technologies’ sensors in the stadiums and even inside the footballs track nearly all on-field activity, including the distance and speed of every pass and every run. The data is made available to all 32 teams after each game. To take it a step further, this year, Zebra partnered with Kinduct, a data and analytics software company, to provide athlete health and performance data in real-time.
More information available immediately.
More information that needs interpretation.
More work for Tanney and Flaska.
“The information they give us is the information that we’ve been researching as coaches for years. But it takes us longer to do it because we coach football and are coaching players and having meetings, so their information, as far as the numbers of the game, is critical, in my opinion,” Joseph said. “Each week in Miami last year, we had those guys research what the teams were doing wrong and what they weren’t doing wrong. You can kind of game plan for what they’re doing wrong, and to attack what they were doing wrong. It’s a big part of what I believe in.”