Boston College: Hafley balancing analytics and instinct while leading the Eagles

PHOTO: The Wharton School/University of Pennsylvania

If you haven’t noticed, numbers have taken over sports.

It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball (the worst of the worst), football, hockey or basketball, numbers have infiltrated the games we all love and we’re probably never getting them back to their purest form. So, with that in mind, it’s probably time to start embracing the fact that even in football, numbers are becoming more and more of a deciding factor in those big moment decisions than gut instinct is.

As someone who was absolutely terrible at math (hence the writing career) the idea of sports no longer being decided by pure athleticism or smart coaching but rather by computer programs and algorithms is hard to accept. On the flip side, there’s clearly a benefit to coaches knowing certain things that we may never even think of when a team is trying to make a game-altering decision.

On Wednesday, I asked head coach Jeff Hafley if he’s more of an analytics coach or if he’s more of a ‘coaching off your gut’ type of coach. His response was interesting and also is probably one that many coaches have these days while trying to balance this new age of athletics.

“I read all of it,” Hafley said of all the different data as his disposal. “Fourth down, field position, whether to go for it, when to go for two, you look really hard at it. When to call timeouts, those things are really important. But, then you’ve also got to know what your plan to win is. Is it an aggressive plan to win? Or, is it a little bit less aggressive? We need to figure that out and calculate it. So, if the chart says on 4th-and-5, that’s the aggressive ‘go for it’ but your mindset isn’t to be that aggressive in the game then you’ve got to figure it out before the game starts.”

Pregame prep is obviously critical in any situation, but now it seems more imperative than ever that coaches have every bit of information possible at their fingertips. That, of course, could almost lead to having too much information, which can be dangerous at times.

“On my call sheet, I have all those (numbers) so I’m not just guessing,” Hafley continued. “Now, a lot of it is I get a feel for the flow of the game. How are we playing? How’s the defense playing? How’s the offense playing? If the chart says to go for it on 4th-and-5 but I really don’t love the way it looks and I feel good about how our defense is playing I might punt it.

“There’s so much…yeah, there’s a lot of feel and gut that goes into it, but I’m definitely going to use the analytics as well.”

The conversation of how much is too much when it comes to analytics in sports is only going to get louder and louder as more and more stats are broken down, used or even discovered. Hell, did the casual fan know what WAR in baseball was 15-20 years ago? I didn’t and if someone tells you they did they’re probably lying.

For now, Eagles fans are getting a nice mix out of Hafley and his staff when it comes to analytics and coaching on instinct, but it’s a topic that may never fully have everyone in agreement on one side or the other.

“We could talk about this for a while because there’s a lot of interesting stuff,” Hafley added. “If you really do study it – and I’m definitely learning and I’m getting better at it – but there’s no right or wrong answer. A lot of times, guys get criticized for going for it in certain down and distances when they shouldn’t because that was their plan to win and they had a feel about their team. When you have a feel about your team you go with it.

“Sometimes, that’s hard because you don’t get it and everybody thinks you made a mistake, but when you’re the guy calling it and it has to happen like that (snap finger) it’s a lot different than when I used to sit on the couch and yell ‘go for it!’ you’ve got to make those decisions fast. You’d better have a plan.”

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