NFL

Packers stats guru tries to give team edge in Super Bowl XLV

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Associated Press
2/2/2011 2:30:05 PM
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- If the Green Bay Packers face a fourth-and-one in Sunday's Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the decision to go for it or punt will be solely up to coach Mike McCarthy.

Mike Eayrs will make sure his guess is an educated one.

As the Packers' statistical guru, Eayrs already will have studied the probability of success or failure in the most obscure game situations. He obviously can't tell McCarthy what will work and what won't, but he can tell the coach what recent league history says is the wisest choice.

"Obviously, the information never replaces intelligence and intuition," Eayrs said. "But in some cases, it gives you a logical base to make the decision. 'In the past, teams doing x have been right more often than wrong."'

Eayrs went mostly unnoticed during the Packers' Super Bowl media day session Tuesday, mostly staying out of the way as reporters buzzed from player to player. As usual, he was quietly in the background.

His formal title is the Packers' director of research and development, and he has a unique role in helping the team prepare for the Super Bowl. For obvious reasons, he wasn't willing to share his insights on the upcoming game, but he did describe his routine during a typical game week.

Eayrs compiles a statistical team profile on each upcoming opponent, listing specific things they do well and identifying areas where the Packers might have an advantage. Then he turns a few of those nuggets into bullet points for coaches to present to players.

He'll also give a five-minute talk to the team during a typical week, called "game education."

Eayrs' statistical studies go well beyond upcoming opponents, delving into league-wide trends and studying the officials.

"The referees have tendencies, just like the teams have," Eayrs said. "And so what we try to do is talk to the players about what a higher tendency of call they're going to (make)."

And no piece of information is too obscure.

Rookie defensive end Frank Zombo says he remembers standing next to Eayrs one day during training camp and watching him chart the time it took for the Packers to run each play -- including the time it took between plays.

"I thought, 'Why would we ever need something like that?"' Zombo said.

Zombo was impressed; as an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, it was nothing he'd ever seen.

"We didn't have anything like that," he said.

Eayrs says most NFL teams have a staff member in charge of statistical analysis, although those duties sometimes fall to a quality control assistant.

The 60-year-old Eayrs is in his 10th season with the Packers, having worked for the rival Minnesota Vikings for 16 seasons before that. But he discovered his love for statistical analysis, and how it applies to football, earlier in his career as a coach at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

On a key third-down play, an opposing defender stepped right into the space where his team wanted to throw the ball. Eayrs wondered how the opponent knew. So after the game, he asked a friend on the opposing coaching staff about the play.

"He said, 'Well, that's a tendency you guys had. We were playing and gambling that you would run this play at this time,"' Eayrs said. "I started to get really interested in game analysis, and looking at where were we predictable and how could we change things up. Everything spiralled from there."

Now he has far more information to process.

Eayrs said most of the work he does is with the NFL's complex statistics and information system, which he said gathers 75 items of information about every play of every game.

Eayrs said that allows him to study even the most obscure game situations and help guide coaches on their decisions.

"Fourth and one, you go for it and you make it, what's your probability that you're going to go on and score on the possession?" Eayrs said. "Versus fourth and one, you punt, what's the probability you're going to get the ball back in three plays? What's the probability your opponent's going to score? So we have a whole bunch of tables set up that essentially tell us, at least historically, what has happened in a variety of situations."

The same goes for officials.

"The officials are going to be another independent variable in the game," Eayrs said. "If it's a let-'em-play crew, I think it's important for the team to know that."

Eayrs finds that some crews tend to call certain penalties more often at different times in the game.

"There are a couple crews that almost every game they work, there's some type of a player conduct foul -- personal foul, unnecessary roughness -- and it'll almost always occur in the first 10 minutes of the game," Eayrs said. "It's like they're kind of trying to send a message to players that this is, we want it tight within the rules, and there are others that will let them play, and then all of a sudden, they'll kind of take control of the game in the fourth quarter. Those are the kind of things we're trying to know."

And something Eayrs believes fans are growing more curious about.

With the recent popularity of books such as "Freakonomics" -- and a new sports-themed equivalent, "Scorecasting" -- Eayrs said he thinks average fans are more in tune with the idea of studying big-picture statistical trends.

"I think so," Eayrs said. "Just in terms of conversation, I think fans, honestly, are much more intelligent. And then the other thing is, fans have access to so much more information than they used to."

Footballs (Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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