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Analyze This: Bengals Ramp Up Crunched Numbers

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Analyze This: Bengals Ramp Up Crunched Numbers

 

Hobson_Geoff

Geoff Hobson

SENIOR WRITER

 
 

The captains of crunch: Jake Kiser (left) with his analytics team of Sam Francis (middle) and Tyler Gross.

The captains of crunch: Jake Kiser (left) with his analytics team of Sam Francis (middle) and Tyler Gross.

A few weeks ago Zac Taylor rounded out the biggest coaching staff in club history. And Jake Kiser, the Bengals’ senior director of technology, is keeping pace with his own mushrooming I.T. department. Together they’re unveiling an expanding spread sheet meeting on the NFL’s new battlefield of analytics.

The idea isn’t foreign to Taylor or the Bengals. Taylor, the new 35-year-old head coach, comes from a Rams organization known for being on top of the data game and he’s arrived in a building where during the last couple of seasons Kiser and his team have been crafting a framework humming toward automation. Taylor’s hire, along with much of a staff that cut its teeth in coaching during the software boom, intersects with the growing maturity of the system and makes for a perfect storm when it comes to crunching numbers at Paul Brown Stadium.

“Whatever the coaches want,” Kiser says. “The hallmark of good technology is technology that can simplify.”

The previous staff headed up by Marvin Lewis also embraced the tech world, but now they’re running the 40 instead of gassers with the recent hiring of football analyst Sam Francis supplementing the work of Kiser and application developer Tyler Gross. Last year while beefing up director of player personnel Duke Tobin’s data base for pro and college prospects, Kiser and Gross also transformed the on-field information into automation (instead of the coaches gathering it from elsewhere) and married it to the team’s video platform.

“So not only are you able to generate reports, but generate cut-ups to go along with those reports,” Kiser says. “Now we’re looking to push it to the next level.”

Enter Francis, 23, an under-the-radar free agent from Foxboro and the Kraft Analytics Group, a consulting company geared to sports and entertainment that sprung out of the technology built for the Kraft family-owned New England Patriots. One of his projects for the outfit, which is housed about a Brady-to Gronk screen pass from Gillette Stadium, studied NFL ticketing. Now he’s just the ticket for the coaches in his goal to work some calendar karma and pour ten days of preparation into six.

“Do you want your coaches to coach or be technologists?” Kiser asks. “There’s not enough time for the coaches to deal with all the technology. We have to automate it and streamline it for them so it’s on their desks first thing Monday morning.”

When Kiser went scouting last year to re-invent the technology department with captains of crunch, he found himself in the same predicament as Tobin. He sought rarity. He didn’t want coaches that played with computers on the side and he didn’t want software folks that just won their fantasy football leagues. He felt he needed to find people that not only knew the inside of a network, but also what an inside zone looks like.

He found Francis in New England, a suburban Boston native who played Division III football at Maine’s Bates College, where he helped shepherd the defense’s calls as a linebacker and safety through a big win against Bowdoin (think DePauw-Wabash without the bell) during his career. He found Gross right at home. After centering Georgetown College to the NAIA semis while majoring in technology and information sciences, Gross moonlights as the offensive line coach for Northern Kentucky high school power Covington Catholic.

“They’re not exactly unicorns, but they’re pretty close, Kiser says. “We have football guys very good at technology. That’s a rare blend.”

 
 

Kiser even has the Bengal Tiger leaping over his numbers.

Kiser even has the Bengal Tiger leaping over his numbers.

After tearing his ACL in the final three minutes of Newburyport High’s annual Thanksgiving Day game with Amesbury on Massachusetts’ North Shore, Francis went to Bates to major in math and economics, but he wants to bring to this think tank room to debate the numbers. Francis says he’s here to “provoke thought,” among the coaches.

“Our main job is to improve the coaches’ efficiency and provide them with insights and raise questions that have not come up before,” Francis says. “You only have six, seven days, sometimes less than that to prepare for a game. I think if you ask any coach in the world if they had more time to prepare, their game plan would have been better. They would have been better. We’re trying to take those six, seven days and make them seem like 10-11 days.”

 

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor speaks during the 2019 Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (Perry Knotts via AP)

Perry Knotts/Perry Knotts Photography
Zac Taylor will take a number or two if it helps.

Taylor has made attention to detail one of his early cornerstones and he must love these guys because they’ll be able to tell him things like the percentages of a team running a play when the running back is lined up at a specific spot with exactly how many yards he’s from the hash, the line of scrimmage, the state line, whatever you need.

 

“You’d have to watch every single clip of that player. (Now) we can get that in seconds,” Francis says. “On a run play his average depth is this. On a pass plays his average depth is that.”

Not only that, through automation they can cull all the clips of that running back at a specific depth so for every play they know how deep he is from, say, the line of scrimmage. If he runs that play, it is attached to the video platform and the analysts can pull those plays for the coaches. No longer do the coaches have to spend time scrolling through each and every play hunting for the tendencies and nuances of the play. They can get exactly what they need by searching for it because it’s already been logged and tagged.

“A lot of the information we get adds to the efficiency of what we do,” Tobin says. “Ultimately you might get to the same point. These efficiencies are built in to how you capture the data so you can spend more time doing the things other than the grind work. You can download all that and now you’re freed up to do more game plan type stuff.”

As the automation continued to spring to life, Kiser had more than a passing interest in the Bengals’ search for a head coach. He’d had a good experience with the curious and bright Lewis, an analytics sympathizer. But would the next man throw his hands up at the numbers or embrace them? Taylor, an admitted “Just Win Guy,” has told Kiser to keep bringing it.

“I couldn’t have asked it to work out any better. All these guys have embraced it,” Kiser says.

 

Taylor: “Anything you can do to help your team get an edge before a game starts. Sometimes analytics plays a huge role from week-to-week. Sometimes it’s not as big from week to week. But it’s important to have all the information you need. You take that as best you can and try to go win yourself a game with all that information.”

Everyone knew when they hired Taylor, born the year Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham took his last snap in Cincinnati, a generational wave would sweep the coaching floor. But Kiser says it really hit home to him when they started getting the thirtysomething staff hooked up to the network. And the oldest guys on the staff, like 65-year-old senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner, have been in the league long enough that they could be honorary millennials for their computer work.

But there is a big range here. Duffner, a Woody Hayes grad assistant in the mid-1970s, remembers when college teams had film coaches whose jobs were to drive to a meeting point and exchange film with the opposition. (The Maine Turnpike toll booths were big back in the day for that.) He was pulling 16 mm film out of canisters to scout games and 8 mm to scout high school prospects. Then there is 26-year-old offensive assistant Brad Kragthorpe, an analyst at LSU last season who grew up in the Super Mario ‘90s.

“If we present something to a coach and he doesn’t understand it, it’s useless no matter how sophisticated and great it is,” Francis says. “It’s less about what we create and more about how we personalize it to them. That’s why this whole thing starts with getting to know them and interviewing them and getting to know what they want.”

But that’s going to have to wait. March Madness for coaches means they’re on the road at workouts for college prospects and it’s hard to find one in front of their computers.

 

“They’re all over the place,” Francis says.

Numbers can’t take care of everything.

 

 

 

https://www.bengals.com/news/analyze-this-bengals-ramp-up-crunched-numbers

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Yes please, drag this organization kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

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Posted Yesterday at 7:44 PM
 
Updated April 4
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Former Bates athlete Sam Francis now crunching numbers for Cincinnati Bengals

Former Bobcats football and lacrosse player has made it to the NFL thanks to his analytics acumen.

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BY WIL KRAMLICHSUN JOURNAL
 
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Sam Francis sits on the sideline during a football game against Middlebury during his junior season at Bates College in 2015. Bates College photo by Brewster Burns

 

 

Who knew that tailgating could lead to a job in the NFL?

The odds are certainly low, but, then again, Sam Francis has always been good with numbers.

He did need a little bit of luck to break into professional football, but now the Football Data Analyst for the Cincinnati Bengals is trying to take the guessing game out of new head coach Zac Taylor’s game preparation.

Francis, a 2017 graduate of Bates College from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who played both football and lacrosse for the Bobcats, said “a little Bates connection” got him started on his journey from the Lewiston campus to Paul Brown Stadium.

“I was at a tailgate after a lacrosse game, and I was sitting with (teammate Clarke Jones’s father), and talking to him (about my post-college plans), and he looked at me and he’s like, ‘Well, Sam, you don’t sound very excited about it,'” Francis said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m passionate and I’ve learned a lot about the industry of analytics here at Bates.’ … He walked out and popped up his phone and called someone that he knew who works for the (Buffalo) Bills, and came back in and told me I had an interview sometime (the next) week. So kind of just happened randomly, and Bates is kind of to thank for that.”

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Francis received an internship with the Bills. Initially, it was supposed to deal with business analytics, but when new head coach Sean McDermott came on board he pulled Francis onto the football side of things.

“Our responsibility was automating the production of their scouting reports right,” Francis said. “It used to be coaches would look through film and sort of aggregate all these statistics manually, whether that be run-pass percentage or the percentage of the time they throw in different situations in different downs, clock management stuff. And with all the data they have, my job was to automate that process so there was no wasted time by coaches gathering all that information.”

Francis went into that internship already having experience breaking down film.

“I know it’s a cliche, but to say that he was a student of the game is an (understatement),” former Bates football head coach Mark Harriman said. “He spent more time looking at video than most guys do, and always had a great grasp of what was going on.”

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Bates’ Sam Francis (37) leads a swarm of defenders tackling Middlebury’s Diego Meritusin during the 2015 season at Garecelon Field.Bates College photo by Brewster Burns

Francis said his role with the Bengals will be similar to what he did in Buffalo, where he stayed for the summer of 2017.

Then came a career stop with another NFL connection. Francis took a job with the Kraft Analytics Group in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which is under the umbrella of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

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That opportunity also came through a Bates connection. Francis reached out to 2001 graduate Jonathan Fador (another dual-sport athlete in football and lacrosse), who had worked for parent company the Kraft Group, about getting a job for the analytics business. Francis had looked into the Kraft Analytics Group before his Bills internship, but finally got in after his time in Buffalo.

“It was a good experience, but it was on the business side, and that sort of made me realize my passion for wanting to be on the sports side, which is sort of how I ended up in Cincinnati,” Francis said.

As with the Bills, Francis is joining a team at the same time as a new head coach. He arrived in Cincinnati about three weeks ago, and some his responsibilities with the Bengals are still to be determined, since his position a newly created one. But he’s already sat down with Taylor a few times, and Francis said “there will be a lot of interaction with the coaches, especially throughout this offseason.”

“The season’s kicking off, everything’s moving fast, and they’re kind of all over the place right now, especially with him being hired from the Rams, and they had to wait until early February to make that hire official and get him in the building,” Francis said. “So everything’s kind of being done a little faster than normal here right now.”

BRIGHT BOBCAT

Speed shouldn’t be an issue for Francis, especially when it comes to the mental side of the game.

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“He was a great football player, good athlete, but he was very, very smart,” Bates assistant football coach Skip Capone said. “He was a kid that was in early watching tape. Tell him things one time and he mastered it. He remembered a lot of stuff. He was a really, really bright kid and just loved Bates football, loved Bates lacrosse. He’s the epitome of a student-athlete. He was an outstanding student.”

Francis double-majored in math and economics at Bates, and he was able to juggle both academics and athletics. He won a Stephen B. Ritter Academic Award (top 10 cumulative GPA for the football program) as a junior, and as a senior he was named to the National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society for scholar-athlete recognition.

“Working to balance both football and lacrosse with all the other commitments I had at Bates — whether that be academics, or jobs on campus, GA-ing, and all those things — kind of puts you in a good position, teaches you the skills you need for this lifestyle, sports work and being sort of fast-paced,” Francis said. “A lot of balls in the air that you’re juggling, and long days, it definitely prepared me very well.”

Sam was no slouch on the field, either. He played in four of the Bobcats’ eight games as a freshman, then seven of eight as a sophomore.

“Watching him go against our offense on the scout team his freshman year, he was always around the ball,” Harriman said. “Obviously, some of that was his athleticism, but, as I came to find out, it was probably more due to his ability to diagnose plays and understand what an offense is doing by formation or backfield sets. He was really, really adept at that. It’s something that I think was a natural ability of his.”

Francis started all eight games at linebacker in both his junior and his senior seasons. He was third on the team in tackles as a junior, with 49, and fourth, with 51, as a senior. He finished his career with 110 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and as a senior he was given Bates’ Alan C. Goddard Award for career improvement.

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“He picked it up really quick, and he got into the lineup relatively early in his career,” Capone said. “But he really came into his own as he matured physically in his junior and senior year, and he really made an impact on our defense.

“Those years he was part of our 3-3 package, he was a big part of our defense. We were very, very good defensively and he made a lot of great plays for us. He was very instinctual.”

Bates went 7-1 against rivals Bowdoin and Colby during his career, the lone loss during his freshman campaign. As a senior, he had forced fumbles against both rivals.

CRUNCHING HITS

Later in his career, it was Francis’ job to help line up the defense from his linebacker spot. Harriman, who was also Francis’s linebackers coach, said Francis had a “special” ability to get all three levels of the defense lined up, and he didn’t realize how “impactful” that ability was until Francis had graduated.

Now it will be Francis’ job to help the Bengals make that process a little easier for defensive signal-callers.

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“It’s automating scouting reports, creating processes for gathering information efficiently,” Francis said. “The way I look at it is, all the teams across the NFL are provided and pay for these massive pools of data, and my job is to take that and communicate it clearly to the coaches and have that process be efficient and accurate. They spend a lot of time flipping through cutouts and trying to find trends, and different ways they attack opponents, and scout a game plan. My job is, ‘How can we take those questions that you’re answering weekly and raise the answers to the (Microsoft) Surface automatically using the data that they have available?'”

Francis said he’s long had a passion for analytics, and it wasn’t until his time at Bates that he realized the sports involvement with number-crunching was an even stronger love.

“I wrote my thesis on salary and inequality within the NFL, and that was sort of the beginning of the passion in me trying to figure out how to apply my passion for analytics to sports,” Francis said. “But I’ve always loved math and that sort of that stuff because there’s a right and there’s a wrong answer, and that’s always intrigued me.”

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Bates’ Sam Francis looks to gain control of the ball after facing off with Plattsburgh State’s Joe Eiseman during the 2017 season. Sun Journal file photo

Francis’ tireless pursuit of the right answer is matched with the work ethic he had on the field.

“There wasn’t a day that Sam came to practice … you know, he felt that was the one place in the whole world he wanted to be, was on Garcelon Field, just getting ready to play whoever,” Capone said. “He was ready to go every single day.”

AN UNLIKELY OUTCOME

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A Bates football player making it to the NFL isn’t unprecedented, at least off the field.

Francis is following in the footsteps of former Bobcats quarterback and 2000 graduate Matt Bazirgan worked in the New York Jets’ scouting and pro personnel department for 14 years before becoming the Houston Texans’ director of player personnel in 2018.

Still, even Francis has some disbelief that he has made it to where he has since his NCAA Division III athletic career ended.

“It’s something I would have never predicted, right? Like I thought I was going to go and work a somewhat-math-related desk job in Boston,” Francis said. “And then, just through who I know at Bates, and the relationships I created, I end up with the Bills, and then I go work for the Kraft family with the Kraft Analytics Group, and then I end up here

“I don’t know, life took some crazy turns, but I’m definitely excited where it’s gotten me, and Bates had a lot to do with that.”

“Bottom line,” Capone said, “is a degree from Bates can take you in many different directions, and here’s a kid who’s a really bright kid, and now he’s in the NFL, and I’m really proud of him.”

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Change Races Through Taylor-Made PBS Renovations

 

Hobson_Geoff

Geoff Hobson

SENIOR WRITER

 
 

New nameplates are just one of the many changes the Bengals will see next week in their work space.

New nameplates are just one of the many changes the Bengals will see next week in their work space.

Because they’ve got a new head coach, the Bengals could have started their off-season program on Monday. But new head coach Zac Taylor has a plan, which is why it starts April 9.

The plan has already been in motion for two months, ever since the Bengals signed Taylor the day after Super Bowl. That was a month before they spent in free agency when the club committed about $1 million to Taylor’s vision of a renovated Paul Brown Stadium workplace he wants to reflect his culture. When the players show up on the ninth, the walls plan to tell them before Taylor does that a new era is under way.

“A big splash,” says Jeff Brickner, the Bengals’ sun-up-to-sun-down director of operations. “A lot different than what we’ve ever had. Guys walking into the locker room (will see it) … Not that the culture is bad here by any means. It’s a new feel. It’s different. And we’re trying to get Zac’s message across to the team.”

Brickner, who still has the work ethic of growing up on a farm, has noticed Taylor’s change-in-the-wind eye for detail. It ranges from small (how the new locker room nameplates and the other signs match the lettering in other parts of the stadium) to big (how he wants the players’ locker room entrance to set a tone) and how it fits together.

“He’s definitely got a plan,” Brickner says. “He wants there to be unity in everything.”

With apologies to Hemingway, it’s a clean, well-lighted place. Well, it’s always been clean. But since the locker room and the coaches are in the basement, it can be dim.

Taylor covets light. Light means energy. Light can also symbolize no gray in communication. That’s a big part of Taylor’s message that seems to also emphasize pride in the logo, the brand and the history. So the lightning quick crew from the four-generation downtown Cincinnati construction company of JDL Warm figures to get it all wrapped in a bow by early May.

“Those guys are machines,” Brickner says.

But the players are going to see plenty next week:

 

The catwalk above the weight room is shrouded in construction.

The catwalk above the weight room is shrouded in construction.
 
  • Upstairs on the mezzanine level that houses the largest coaching staff in Bengals history are seven new offices as well as two new viewing rooms for each offense and defense, as well as remodeled copier and coffee rooms.
  • Downstairs the players get to the locker room through the same hallway that passes by the cafeteria and television studio, but the corridor is going to be flooded by more lighting, images of franchise greats and a wall with four 48-inch television screens. At the entrance of the opposite end of the locker room the plan is to have a wall with quote from Bengals founder Paul Brown and that’s not very surprising. Taylor has already hung a painting of Brown on the Bengals sideline in his office’s re-modeled anteroom that features an added row of lights above the desk of Taylor’s assistant, Doug Rosfeld.
  • There’ll also be new signage in the weight room, where the biggest change is on the floor with the new turf field Taylor had installed to match the markings he wants for various on-field activities.

“(We looked) at the offices and how we could re-allocate the space so every coach would have their own office,” says Brickner of a duty roster that is now at 23. “And Zac wanted the players, when they walked into the building, to know it was different. That was why the walkway was done.”

 

Jeff Brickner: point man.

Jeff Brickner: point man.

There’s also the catwalk upstairs that leads to the coaches. Now it’s going to be filled with three coaching offices and a viewing room that has whatever the players need to watch film.

“I look at the positives of it, is that things have been consistent here for a long time, but they are certainly open to change,” said Taylor last week at the NFL meetings about getting hired by a team that has begun a season with a new head coach just six times in 51 openers. “Everyone is open to change, everyone is open to doing it a different way. But that’s what’s unique about the Bengals, they’re very loyal and it’s been a certain way for a long time, and there’s a lot of really good people in the building who are open to the ways that we want it done, and changing a couple of things here and there, it’s been a fun process for us.”

 

He's changing more than a couple of things, like starting the offseason a week later than he could have. But he went by the book because the collective bargaining agreement allows only a certain number of days in the facility during the spring. (No, C.J. Uzomah. It's not because of Giovani Bernard's Italian wedding this weekend.)

“If you did that, you would have to take a week off, probably Memorial (Day) Week,” Taylor said of an April 1 start. “I did not want to take a week, do all this work and then take a week off, they're not lifting, they're not running, they're not practicing and then come back. To us, it just made more sense, start a week later, do it all consecutively and then when they're done for the summer they're done and we've got good consecutive work in.”

Like Brickner said. The man has a plan. That’s what the walls, say, too.

 

 

https://www.bengals.com/news/change-races-through-taylor-made-pbs-renovations

 

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