June 6, 2023

O’Leary: CFL, PFF embark on analytics journey


You know Cris Collinsworth as the voice of Sunday Night Football, a decorated sports broadcaster, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver in the NFL and as the owner and chairman of Pro Football Focus (PFF). The sports analytics company is a fixture in the NCAA and NFL, offering thorough analysis of its subjects.

Had a few things worked out differently, you may have known him instead as a Montreal Alouette.

“I came close to playing in the Canadian Football League,” Collinsworth told CFL.ca in a recent interview.

“In ’81 I got drafted in the second round by the (Cincinnati) Bengals. They had drafted David Vercer in the first round, another receiver. Vince Ferragamo, I think was the guy who played (quarterback) for the Montreal Alouettes at the time. And (the Alouettes) were making a big push to sort of Americanize and they were recruiting. I went to Montreal, and I went out to meet with him.

“As soon as I got off the airplane, I swear there was a television reporter there. And they go, ‘Cris, tell us how you feel about taking jobs away from Canadian citizens.’ I was like, 22 years old,” Collinsworth laughed. “I mean, if the deal would have been right, I would have played. I would have signed.”

Forty-two years later, Collinsworth, through PFF, is re-familiarizing himself with the CFL.

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The two unveiled their partnership on Tuesday, with PFF providing its unique and impactful analytics to the CFL. It’s a move that will help bolster analytics use for all nine of the CFL’s clubs — all of which used the product in 2022 — while providing better insight for the media that cover the league and for the fans that can’t get enough in-depth statistical analysis that will allow them to see the game and the players that impact it in new ways.

“It improves the depth of analysis. The teams may have been doing this on their own but now they have someone else to do it for them. It saves time. It goes maybe into a deeper dive of certain parts of the analysis or evaluation of a player that they might not otherwise have had time to do,” said Greg Dick, the CFL’s chief football operations officer and head of Grey Cup and events.

The CFL will share PFF’s insights publicly via weekly grading reveals, along with statistical integration into the freshly re-launched CFL Fantasy game for the 2023 season.

“The CFL has this kind of longstanding vision,” said Rick Drummond, PFF’s general manager of football. “It’s been around for forever and we’re happy to be associated with it.”

This partnership is one that’s been in the works for years. While the pandemic and the subsequent cancellation of the 2020 CFL season slowed things coming together sooner for the two, both sides feel that they were able to take advantage of that situation to get to where we are today.

Eugene Lewis led the league with 23 contested catches last season, per PFF, which should help the Elks rebound in 2023 (GoElks.com)

“That’s probably what I’m most proud of, is the patience that both sides had, the vision that both sides had,” said Bryan Hall, PFF’s chief revenue officer. “I think it was a four or five year process to get this done.”

Hall said that the challenge posed by adjusting to record and analyze Canadian football was a significant one that required resources, which the CFL helped provide.

“It took us time with that,” he continued. “I don’t have to tell you there have been challenges for the CFL, just like there have been for other leagues the last few years that have been significant. So we kind of played a slow game and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get this into (teams’) hands, first of all, let them understand what our data is and what it can do more on the scouting side of things.'”

That gradual process allowed PFF’s team to dive in on breaking down Canadian football and all of its nuances — three downs, the wider field, the extra player, pre-snap motion and of course the rouge, to name a few — and finding a fit for them in analytics that had been crafted to varying levels of four-down American football.

CFL teams used PFF’s data last year to analyze NFL and NCAA players, while getting data on their own players. That initial sampling brought the data to life and showed teams what PFF can offer them.

“In many ways, we’re geared to probably help the CFL more than any league because we’re doing a lot of that (quality control) work or that (film breakdown), Hall said. “We’re doing all that work and so I think it really fits well.

“As (CFL teams) started to use it, I think it was pretty much a no brainer, pretty quickly was was kind of the feedback, we got it on it. A lot of what we do is pretty basic and simple. It’s just work efficiency and that’s something every team could find value in.”

“The teams saw a benefit, they talked to their football operations colleagues…they were really just getting periphery top level scouting stuff on players (coming into the CFL via the NCAA and NFL). Now they have the full gamut in terms of how they can scout guys in our league with the analysis they provide,” Dick said.

All these years later, Collinsworth looks at the CFL game and is intrigued by its offensively friendly aspects.

PFF has Lions’ cornerback Garry Peters as a candidate to lead the league in interceptions this year (BCLions.com)

“There are a lot of things about the Canadian game that I really like. I love all the motion I love all the moving parts. I love the three downs so that you ended up having to end up having to be more aggressive playing the game of football. All those things make it very, very fan friendly and drew me to it a little bit as a player when I was coming out,” he said.

“I think now it gives us a chance to explore some of the differences in the two leagues. These leagues are all sort of melding together at the end of the day, they take rules from the USFL that they like and bring them in the Canadian league be all right with me as a former X receiver who had to sit on the ball with some of the best cornerbacks in the league right on my nose smashing the heck out. I mean, I would like to add about a five yard run and start at them, that would have been all right.”

What PFF’s data has done for Collinsworth, who implements it throughout his workweek with his NBC colleagues (“I can’t remember how I got ready for a game before PFF,” he said), is taken a far-reaching football community that spans the collegiate and various pro ranks now and brings it together under one analytical tent.

“I think probably the final touch for me has been how it’s not just impacted broadcasts, how it’s impacted football. How it’s impacted the way that running backs are getting paid compared to the way that cornerbacks are getting paid, compared to edge rushers,” he said.

“What’s come out of this is a real pecking order of salaries and front office structure and all the different things that have really sort of changed the game going for it on fourth down, when does that make sense? When does it make sense to punt or kick a field goal?

“Those are all mathematical equations now that these teams are just clicking through and almost all of it originated inside the building with Rick (Drummond) and his team just continuing to dig and find ways to turn the football globe upside down, shake it a couple of times and see what falls out of there.”

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