In retrospect, Russ Brandon probably wishes he had been a little more cautious. But it was Jan. 1, the start of a new year and new era. So Brandon, newly installed as the Bills' president/CEO, boldly announced that he was going to create a “robust football analytics operation.”
“Thanks to me opening my big mouth, I received about 1,000 resumes,” Brandon said. “Maybe over 1,000 resumes from people all over the place.”
Brandon took heat for it, too. For the next 10 months, skeptics skewered him on social media, wondering what had happened to his lofty analytics idea and when he was going to get around to establishing his robust, cutting-edge department.
The long search finally ended Wednesday when the Bills announced the hiring of Mike Lyons, a 50-year-old East Aurora native, as their director of analytics. Lyons will be responsible for analyzing and developing strategies for all aspects of the organization.
Lyons, an MIT graduate, doesn't have a football background, like most of the 1,000 or so people who wanted the job. He spent 26 years as a data analytics expert at Xerox. His resume says he analyzed raw data and created business solutions for the company.
Brandon, who witnessed the advent of baseball analytics during his time with the Marlins, said Lyons studied virtually every aspect of the business at Xerox, from the CEO on down, and helped provide people with data “to make informed decisions.”
Ultimately, that's what Brandon wants for his evolving football team. He believes in young people and young ideas, and he wants to explore every possible angle that might make the Bills more competitive on the field.
Coach Doug Marrone was known for his analytical approach at Syracuse, where he revamped his offense and turned a chronic loser into a team that played in two bowls in four years.
“Doug is old school with a very new-school element to him,” Brandon said. “That was important.”
Analytics isn't an easy thing to define. When I asked Chiefs coach Andy Reid on Wednesday's conference call what his analytics people do, he said, “They do analytical things, how's that?”
NFL teams are notoriously secretive about their methods, perhaps because they're so good at copying one another. Brandon was reluctant to get into too many specifics. But it's not as if football coaches haven't been analyzing data since the leather helmet days.
More and more, though, teams are looking for an advantage. Everything in the NFL is getting more precise: Replays, strategies for fourth downs, the rate of recovery from injury, preparing for the draft. Some teams (the Patriots, not surprisingly) entered the modern age sooner than others.
Eventually, Lyons will examine every aspect of the operation, including ticket sales, stadium operations, the works. Brandon wants everyone in the organization to be smarter.
“Right,” Brandon said. “We want to provide smarter, cleaner information and the best information possible to everyone who makes decisions in this organization – me included. And I look at that as my responsibility. We are always looking to find a better way to build the box.”
All fans want to know is what you're going to do when the opposing team puts eight or nine men in the box, or what the percentages of victory are when it's fourth-and-2 from midfield with a four-point lead late in the game.
Marrone has been candid about his strategic gaffes in his first year as an NFL head coach. He has mishandled the clock at times, especially late in first halves. On challenges, he is 0-for-4. He lost two early in the fourth quarter at New Orleans, both when he challenged the spot of the ball on inside runs, which is rarely overturned on video review.
Marrone said the Bills need to do a better job of preparing for challenges. Both he and Brandon said more sophisticated analytics might have helped.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Marrone said. “Let's say you take all the challenges for 2012 or 2013 or combined them. You say, 'OK, what was challenged?'
“Right off the top of my head, I would bet that when you're challenging a spot in the field, it's less than 6 percent. At best.”
Lyons is a long-time Bills season-ticket holder, but has no football background to speak of. Lyons was a distance runner and son of a cross country coach. But Brandon said Lyons has been analyzing football as a hobby for years.
Anyway, you don't need to have played or coached football to figure out how often NFL officials overturn their spot on inside running plays. Or how often teams give up points after running three quick plays from deep in their own end late in the first half.
Brandon said he was especially impressed with Lyons's communicating skills. He said Marrone had no problem with taking advice from a guy who's more familiar with mouse pads than shoulder pads.
“I'm really excited about Mike Lyons coming aboard,” Marrone said. “The people I've dealt with in the past on it (analytics) have been MIT grads. I told Russ those guys were off the charts amazing.”
It took 10 months and sifting through 1,000 resumes. The new guy better be off the charts. Brandon raised the fans' hopes when he promised “robust analytics” on New Year's. He knew people were skeptical, but he felt it was too crucial a hire to rush.
“I told people internally, 'We'll make the decision when we're ready to make the decision',” Brandon said. “I knew I was taking a lot of heat. I didn't care about that. I wanted to bring in the best person possible, and I think Mike's the guy.”