Pat Fitzgerald likes to say that stats are for losers, and as much as we at InsideNU like to have fun with him about that, he uses stats far more than he lets on. Other than on the punt/field goal/go for it model, stats are highly integrated into the coaching staff's preparation each week. Common sense and a former player have told us that.
If you've read InsideNU or my articles at SB Nation, you've probably noticed that stats are a big part of our analysis, as well. And generally, I'd like to think that our focus on the most important statistics in the game has helped us and our readers better understand the game and their favorite team. We might not have formal football training, but like the staff, I'd like to think we have a pretty good understanding of what went wrong when the team loses, just like our readers do.
That's why Fitzgerald's quotes at Monday's weekly press conference were puzzling to me. In discussing why Ifeadi Odenigbo hasn't seen the field more, Fitzgerald was quick to point out that he sees things that we don't. Coaches, he said, focus on the entire game tape, while fans look more at big plays.
I'm not insulted by this, since I know Fitzgerald didn't mean to be insulting. But it's an assertion that goes a long way in explaining coaches' attitudes toward fans and why, in this era that gives fans access to more football knowledge than ever before, some coaches seem to reject objectively true statistics that can help them learn more about their team. In a broader sense, the increased access to statistics for football fans and media members has substantially decreased the knowledge gap between coaches and those who watch their teams.
Before fans and media members had access to this information, it was generally accepted that coaches had certain knowledge about the game that we did not. A coach could tell us that his team played good offense because they score a lot of points, and we'd believe it, because we didn't have anything to tell us otherwise. But thanks to people like Football Outsiders, Bill Connelly, Ken Pomeroy and Synergy, we do know these things. We can tell if the passing game is actually effective, or if it's just passing a lot. We can tell whether an offense's problems are efficiency or explosiveness related. We know so much more about the teams we watch and cover.
This is great news for fans and writers, but it's bad news for coaches. Not for those who use the information to their advantage, but for those trying to deflect criticism. No longer can coaches attribute substantive problems to something abstract like leadership or "being a football person." They have to answer for specific issues — many of them schematic — and often times they don't, because they aren't used to that kind of criticism.
This isn't to say fans and writers can suddenly do the job of coaches. There is scheming and fundamental coaching involved that writers like me can't do. But we can diagnose problems that we couldn't before, and we know far more about the game than we did before, and we've made it harder to accept "because I said so" as an answer.
The problem facing coaches is similar to the one facing journalists. A smarter readership is demanding smarter articles because they have more choices, and a lot of journalists have been unable or unwilling to do the extra work involved in appealing to that smarter readership. Like journalists, coaches are dealing with a smarter fan base, and it's making their jobs more difficult ... or at least more of a pain in the ass.
This is not a problem with Pat Fitzgerald; it's a problem with coaching in general. It's a problem that many coaches, rather than address substantive issues, still try to pass of "football knowledge" as a legitimate excuse not to answer questions. The knowledge gap in football isn't what it once was — that's great news for us, and it's bad news for coaches who don't want to answer questions that have real, substantive value.