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Bills restructure 'robust football analytics operation' set by Russ Brandon

What's the opposite of robust?

A long-running joke about the Buffalo Bills has been about their much-heralded "robust football analytics operation," a phrase used by Russ Brandon in 2013 to indicate grand plans to bring a progressive and aggressive approach to football.

Five years later, the Bills have blown it up.

The Bills last week dismissed director of analytics Michael Lyons and system analyst Peter Linton.

General Manager Brandon Beane will hire replacements, although the next department's structure isn't clear.

Analytics are a mysterious sports realm. The mathematical approach to finding objective data for everything from player performance to contracts gained popularity in baseball. The 2003 best-seller "Moneyball" — a deep dive into how the Oakland A's implemented concepts espoused by statistics revolutionary Bill James — propelled the trend, leading more teams and different sports to seek a similar edge.

There are three main uses for football analytics: in-game decisions, such as clock management and when to punt or go for it on fourth down; roster building; and performance science that involves wearable sensors and motion tracking.

Teams formulate individual approaches and mine much of their own data. They then closely guard their propriety information like state secrets.

As such, an analytics department's effectiveness will vary significantly from club to club.

Buffalo's first attempt to establish its department will be viewed as a failure.

Brandon announced the Bills' intentions to implement a "robust football operation" while sitting next to then-General Manager Buddy Nix on Jan. 1, 2013, the day after the Bills fired coach Chan Gailey and six days before hiring Doug Marrone.

The Bills didn't hire Lyons for another 10 months. Lyons, originally from East Aurora, spent 26 years with Xerox as a data strategist. He has an electrical engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from the University of Rochester.

Lyons worked with three coaches (Marrone, Rex Ryan, Sean McDermott) and three general managers (Nix, Doug Whaley, Beane).

Linton worked with the Bills for years in information technology before Lyons arrived.

As expected, the Bills never would divulge how Lyons or Linton crunched the numbers.

But Brandon gave a glimpse into their approach for a June 2016 story in The Buffalo News. Brandon conceded it's fair to say Lyons' work pertained more to the Bills' ticket pricing than with X's and O's.

"We look at it from a holistic perspective," Brandon said. "We hired Michael to oversee all of our business analytics as well. He is a crucial part of the mix between marketing and content and the decisions we make in all platforms of our business.

"Most people assume the analytics person is driving data and running it down the hall to the GM. But it's a lot bigger than that."

In a quote from Brandon's interview that didn't make it into the story, he noted Lyons' role in generating football data was predicated on the direction given.

"With Jim Monos and the player personnel department and with Rex and his coordinators and [contract negotiator] Jim Overdorf and his department," Brandon said, "Michael is able to provide information that is almost custom to what they may or may not be looking for."

A June 2017 Sports Illustrated overview of every NFL analytics department declared the Bills would get more aggressive under Beane and McDermott.

The story said Lyons' "role has been pretty limited since his arrival. That is about to change. Lyons and analyst Peter Linton have simply provided the information up until now, but ... their influence is expected to grow, and additional hires are planned for before the season begins."

The Bills never made those additional hires.

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