Let’s go back to the golden age of Carolina Panthers football, and perhaps the greatest head coach in franchise history:
Red “Peppy” Schmidt, who went from being a two-way, leather-helmeted player in the 1930s to a gruff, no-nonsense Panthers head coach.
I’ll never forget his classic press conference in 1946, when a reporter had the chance to ask him about the forward pass, a newfangled fad that was gaining popularity around the league.
“Maybe it’s just that I’m an old-school guy,” ol’ Peppy said, with a glare that almost knocked the fedora off the reporter’s head, “but give me the chance to stick the ball in someone’s gut. I’ll take that any day and twice on Sunday.
“You see,” Schmidt said, “these kids talking all the time about how it’s the fastest way to get the ball down the field. What they don’t realize is that sometimes, a guy doesn’t catch it. Forward pass only works if the end catches it, you see.
“If they’d wanted us to spend all day throwing and catching the ball,” he added, “they’d have made it round.”
Then, satisfied with his chance to educate the media, Peppy stuck his cigar into the corner of his mouth and went about his business.
A few years later, a brave member of the press corps worked up the nerve to challenge Peppy again, asking why he wasn’t taking up the new practice of recording games and practice, and showing players the film, so they can work on mistakes.
“A lot of you got here today by driving automobiles, I’ll bet,” Peppy said. “Probably those trendy Muskrats or Mustangs or whatever they’re calling them. Not me. Give me a good old dependable Model T any day.
“Anyway,” he self-corrected, getting himself back on track, “how would you feel about taking some black paint and putting it all over that windscreen — I guess you call them ‘windshields’ now — painting that black, and just driving around by looking into your mirrors at what’s behind you.
“That’s what game film is, you see. It’s stuff that’s already happened. Call me crazy, but I prefer to focus on what’s going to happen.”
Traveling more than a half-century into the future—and jumping from fiction to real-life — the winningest coach in Panthers history, Ron “Riverboat Ron” Rivera has been very outspoken about analytics.
The Panthers started an analytics department over the offseason, hiring a hearty few who probably know how the team staffer felt years ago, when he tried to get Peppy to use a headset to talk to coaches in the booth upstairs.
The week after Cam Newton, who Rivera blamed for not throwing the ball downfield in the opening loss and not telling the team about his foot injury in Week 2, was placed on season-ending injured reserve, Rivera deftly pivoted to a new scapegoat for the team’s struggles — the math guys.
“If analytics were so perfect,” he said. “This league would be 8-8.”
In a nursing home somewhere, Red “Peppy” Schmidt leapt out of his recliner, spit out his cigar butt and yelled, “Gol-durn right!”
If everyone used analytics, Rivera reasoned, “All you’d have to do is just follow the numbers, but it’s not. This game is played by humans, and there’s emotions involved. There’s the momentum. Things you can’t put into numbers. You can’t calculate those things with analytics. I use them as a guide, to be honest with you.”
After the loss in Green Bay, in which Rivera used a classic analytics tactic by going for two down 14 in the fourth quarter — perhaps hoping it failed so he could once again point to the problem with math nerds — Rivera explained, “Some things you can’t judge in analytics.”
“Momentum, how it’s going to affect momentum, weather and injuries.”
Rivera did a good job of identifying one of the most popular topics of football analytical study … in 2014 (momentum) and 2016 (injuries), both of which have been studied extensively, despite his belief that it’s impossible to quantify.
“Last week, there was no analytics for a fake punt,” Rivera said, looking like he was ready to drop the mic. Perhaps that’s because many of the more popular studies on fake punts and field goals were done back in 2012.
“It’s about winning,” Rivera said. “The numbers are put together, and based on those numbers it’s supposed to increase your opportunity to win. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win. It just increases those opportunities.”
So Rivera has astutely determined that analytics cannot guarantee a win. Therefore, they can be ignored in favor of his gut feel — presumably undefeated.
“There’s a lot of factors you have to take into account,” he said. “Each game is an individual game. I can tell you that much right now.”
Spoken like a true Panthers legend.