Friday Night Bytes: Can Analytics Revolutionize High School Football?

MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — The Mater Dei Prep Seraphs faced fourth-and-6 from the Middletown South 40-yard line in a scoreless October game with about four minutes left in the first quarter. Their coach, Dino Mangiero, encountered a pretty standard decision: Go for it or punt?

His headset crackled.

The voice on the other end belonged to a Columbia University graduate perched atop the school’s tiny press box: George Mahoney, who doesn’t have an official title on Mater Dei’s staff or attend every practice, but who, in many ways, represents the early glimmers of what could be the future of high school football. A chemical engineer with 19 years of coaching experience and an affinity for innovative thinking, Mahoney serves as the analytics arm of Mater Dei’s football operation.

That very term, “analytics” — which refers to the use of data analysis to inform decision-making — has polarized big-money sports, pitting adherents against traditionalists in a zero-sum feud. A recent, prominent example of advanced metrics’ sway over game decisions, when Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash pulled his starting pitcher, Blake Snell, in Game 6 of the World Series last month, renewed the longstanding debate.

The hidebound sport of football has been slower than most to accept the findings of the data army, with longtime coaches and executives generally distrustful of those who didn’t play at a high level. But that is changing. In N.F.L. and college programs, some more than others, the growing influence of data science has reshaped everything from roster construction to asset management, elements of football dogma that might have seemed untouchable even five years ago.

Still, one area remains off-limits to analytics: N.C.A.A. and pro teams are prohibited from using computers to guide in-game tactics and must depend on static reports to make strategy calls. A small number of high schools, though, like Mater Dei, can, and do, use decision-making aids in real time.

On that afternoon last month, Mahoney, 42, on his tablet computer, consulted prescriptive analytical software called EdjVarsity, a new tool in his arsenal. It simulates hundreds of thousands of games to determine which in-game decisions improve a team’s likelihood of winning. He had spent more than a decade trying to penetrate high school football with statistical analysis, finding the culture of community and tradition nearly impermeable until he massaged his pitch. Now, he is testing the risk tolerance of a middle-class Catholic school that has reached the state championship in New Jersey in each of the past four years.

Mahoney entered basic details of that first-quarter drive — score, time, field position, down and distance — and out came a bar graph at the bottom of his screen totaling the win probability to be gained by going for it on fourth down in one-yard increments: fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2 and so on.

He relayed his recommendation to the coach, as he always does, balancing his radical approach with the stakes for Mater Dei’s season. “You don’t want to be in the position where you’re this analytics guy,” Mahoney said, “and you’re blowing it for these guys that are legitimately calling X’s and O’s and working with these kids all year.”

Tripping Over the Truth

As an agent of change, Mahoney acts deliberately. He knows Mangiero has a threshold for aggressiveness, so he doesn’t push him beyond his comfort level. Instead, Mahoney relies on data to make other coaches, as he puts it, trip over the truth — and Mangiero trusts him.

“He could be anything,” Mangiero said, referring to a job title. “The assistant head coach for analytics? Whatever George wants.”

They have known each other for more than 25 years, since Mangiero, 61, a former N.F.L. defensive lineman who is in his fifth season at Mater Dei, coached him at St. Joseph by-the-Sea High School on Staten Island. When he pondered in September adding someone to manage analytics, Mangiero didn’t hesitate. He called Mahoney.

For Mahoney, 5-foot-8 and a brawny 185 pounds, chasing efficiency is the through line connecting his personal and professional pursuits. It has been an obsession since childhood, when he would accompany his father, George, on calls to repair heating and air-conditioning units. Sitting in traffic, Mahoney would lament the time squandered that he could have been playing with friends.

He walked onto the team at Columbia, where he obtained degrees in chemical engineering and mathematics, and then managed to manipulate his work schedule to allow him to coach.

The first time he worked under Mangiero, in 2008, as the special-teams coach at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, Mahoney was frustrated. Not with his boss but with preparing for an opponent that, after it scored, would occasionally bypass kicking deep for an onside kick. The threat consumed him all week and then into the off-season, when he wondered whether data supported the risky play.

Poring over statistics he had collected, Mahoney discovered that, yes, it made sense. But he also divined some unexpected special-teams trends. Namely, if 70 percent of punts were either fumbled or not caught at all, then what’s the point in sending out a punt returner?

“I kept looking at the data and hoping I was wrong,” he said.

Mahoney considers this experience formative in his path to enlightenment. It fueled his interest in later projects, such as trying to quantify the correlation between offensive penalties and scoring drives. But his initial resistance also embodied the risk-averse culture so prevalent in football, where convention is doctrine. Especially in the high school realm, where a certain intimacy exists among town and team and sport.

“If a decision doesn’t go well, you’re going to hear it walking the school halls,” said Adam Clack, the coach at Milton High School, north of Atlanta, one of the top Class 6A teams in Georgia. He is using EdjVarsity for a second consecutive season. “You’re going to hear it from the parents who have your phone number and aren’t afraid to give you a call.”

Mahoney was so curious about the challenge of securing community support in that climate that in 2016 he flew to Arkansas to visit another contrarian with a zeal for statistical analysis, Kevin Kelley, who felt like an outcast 17 years ago when he pioneered a no-punt philosophy that has propelled his Pulaski Academy team to eight state titles.

“People want to know why — they really, really do — and as long as you’ve got a great reason,” Kelley said, “they’re willing to at least accept it.”

When Mahoney was promoted to head coach at St. Peter’s Boys High School, on Staten Island, in 2018, he reflected on that advice in his introductory speech to parents. Showing a video of two wildebeests standing backside to backside, Mahoney explained that if lions surrounded them, the wildebeests could swing around and protect each other. But if one strayed, the lions could eat them both.

“If you guys stick with us, we’ll be OK,” Mahoney said he told the parents. “But the second one of you complains that we’re not punting, or we onside kick, now you’ve exposed ourselves to the lions.”

At St. Peter’s, he shortened and streamlined practices to keep players and coaches fresh. By never punting, they could devote more time to offense and defense. He applied the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule: By focusing on the 20 percent of plays that the opposition ran 80 percent of the time, he eliminated unnecessary film study. Since players weren’t running downfield to smash the wedge on kickoffs, their risk of injury was diminished — not a single concussion, he said.

To offset a disadvantage in talent, Mahoney felt St. Peter’s had to play differently to compete, and indeed, games there doubled as a veritable advanced-stats carnival: The team used onside kicks, rarely deployed punt returners and went for it at counterintuitive times. Behaving in the extreme, he said, felt like the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who attacked Native Mexicans in 1519 with a small force and, to ensure his troops wouldn’t retreat, ordered them to burn the boats they came on. Assistants who didn’t agree with Mahoney quit.

St. Peter’s was 5-8 under Mahoney, but the record bothered members of the community less than the image the team projected. Fans booed when the team recovered onside kicks. In citing reasons for Mahoney’s dismissal, the principal, Michael Cosentino, mentioned analytics but also said the team wasn’t as physical or conditioned as he wanted.

“It didn’t seem like we were putting our kids in the right position to win football games,” Cosentino said. “Certain things looked good on paper but don’t really translate sometimes to the game. When you’re dealing with individuals, they’re not just numbers, our kids.”

Scaling back, Mahoney said, would have felt like a betrayal of his values. But getting fired in the middle of the season still crushed his ego. In the aftermath, he wrote a 12-page treatise assessing his tenure. He attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at M.I.T. and corresponded with Daniel Stern, an analyst with the Baltimore Ravens, one of the more analytics-savvy organizations in the N.F.L.

As time passed, Mahoney grew ever more confident in his philosophy. It was his presentation that needed refining.

“Most people in the world, they’ve never won an argument with statistics,” Mahoney said. “To change conventional wisdom, you usually need a good story.”

And when Mangiero called, in early September, Mahoney had one.

The New Guy With the Tablet

In his first few weeks at Mater Dei, Mahoney felt like an outsider. He worked with the specialists, but mainly, he observed, trying to negotiate his place. He wasn’t sure how the other assistants perceived someone, even with his football background, coming in to oversee analytics, and he found it difficult, at first, to form relationships or read their expressions beneath their masks.

On a staff that skews younger, Mahoney’s arrival was met with enthusiasm but also some skepticism — mostly, Mangiero said, from older coaches. But Mahoney had an ally in Mangiero, who said he had been interested in fourth-down aggressiveness since 2009, when New England went for it on fourth-and-2 from its own 28 late in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis — and failed. Intrigued, Mangiero peppered his former player Brian Flores, then a Patriots assistant (and now the Miami Dolphins’ coach), about Coach Bill Belichick’s tactics.

And when the Ravens excelled last season on fourth down, Mangiero went to a game in Baltimore — his friend Joe Cullen is an assistant there — and discussed their methodology afterward with Coach John Harbaugh.

From Mahoney, Mangiero had heard about EdjVarsity, and asked him to use it to research whether Mater Dei should adjust its punting strategy. Breaking down the Seraphs’ 27-25 loss in last season’s state championship, he told Mangiero a story. On a video chat, Mahoney showed him a presentation detailing how certain decisions affected win probability.

“This whole thing is connected,” Mahoney told him. “All this stuff is chapters of a book. Let’s put the chapters together and write the whole book.”

Impressed, Mangiero, the next day, authorized investing $1,500 to buy an EdjVarsity yearly subscription. To acclimate himself, Mahoney would play an old edition of the Madden video game on simulation mode, pausing after each play to enter the updated details of the game.

Every week, as Mater Dei has tripped over the truth, Mahoney’s responsibilities have expanded. He now manages the clock and advises on 2-point conversion strategy. He communicates the fourth-down plan, based on the tablet readouts, early in the series to guide how Mangiero and the offensive coordinator, Taylor Groh, call plays.

If on third-and-7, for example, Groh knows that Mater Dei will be going for it on fourth-and-3 or less, he might call a play that could net 4 or 5 yards instead of trying to gain all 7 at once.

During the week, after synthesizing customized postgame reports, Mahoney prepares a slide show presentation for the coaching staff. One was so illuminating, Mangiero said, he showed it to the team as part of a larger message about precision.

By demonstrating that turnovers cost the Seraphs 15.5 percent in win probability in their previous game, he reframed the importance of ball security in more urgent terms. When someone jumps offsides in practice, Mangiero reinforced his point by saying the offender cost them a touchdown.

Mahoney marvels at how quickly Mater Dei has incorporated analytics, and to its advantage: The Seraphs (4-1) have won four consecutive games heading into Friday’s season finale and are positioned to earn a playoff berth.

He wants to continue bridging the gap between science and 150 years of football. He wants to educate coaches without demanding they conform. He wants to research and experiment, build templates and confidence. He also wants to be a head coach again, and to train an acolyte or two.

Until then, he will appreciate giving Mater Dei an edge, as he did against Middletown South.

As the final seconds ticked down in the Seraphs’ 10-3 victory, Mahoney bumped fists with the assistants flanking him. He grabbed his Columbia laptop bag — “I need to bring the nerd side of me to football games” — and his headset. One by one, they headed down the stairs, toward the field, to their team, to celebrate together.

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