RENTON, King County — Of all the moves the Seattle Seahawks made before the start of this season, the acquisition of a pair of analytical 20-somethings flew under the radar.
But they're hoping Peter Engler and Becca Erenbaum will have a huge impact on the organization.
Their job is to make sense of numbers and systems. They run code and develop programs and live in a world of language that if interpreted and translated correctly can be a differentiator between success and failure.
Coming off their worst season in coach Pete Carroll’s tenure, the Seahawks aimed to supplement their analytics staff that before this season was on the smaller side compared to other NFL teams.
Enter Erenbaum, 22, and Engler, 24.
They’ll be called upon to take various data streams and create a statistical analysis of situations.
They're not the ones calling a 10-yard slant, choosing which player to blitz off the edge or making the call whether to go for it on fourth down or punt. But their work helps determine if those are the correct decisions.
“We have to continue to challenge ourselves to use the information properly and appropriately so that we can make sure that we’re getting the most out of it,” Carroll said. “And it’s not for any kind of lack of data. We have all kinds of stuff.”
Erenbaum and Engler joined a team that’s been headed by Patrick Ward and Brian Eayrs, who have been with the Seahawks for nearly a decade. Erenbaum will work primarily with football operations and player personnel. Engler will be focused on working with the coaching staff.
Ward said there are teams with more staff but the seven total Seattle has — including developers — is “pretty healthy.”
“We had some openings to get some headcount and get some help to answer some of the questions that you’re trying to get after,” Ward said. “There’s no shortage of questions and there’s no shortage of data.”
Data and analytics. They are all encompassing concepts that often struggle to have definition with how they’re put into context and used to the benefit of a team or individual.
Erenbaum has worked in the NFL and NBA, and is still finishing up her graduate degree at Columbia.
Engler’s background is almost entirely in football. Both have NFL connections from working for “The 33rd Team,” a football think tank co-founded by former NFL executives Mike Tannenbaum and Joe Banner.
“I always knew I wanted to be in football, especially on the team side just because of the competitive aspect,” Engler said. “I grew up playing all these different sports and so I want to be able to win things.”
When asked in prior years about how the Seahawks use analytics, Carroll was usually coy, mostly just acknowledging that Seattle used analytics. Seattle has an analytics team on the business side of the franchise, but getting a handle on how it’s used on the football side has proven a challenge.
Now, the oldest coach in the league who will turn 71 in September, is a little more open about it.
“We start from the basics charting our own stuff, and then analyzing our own so we know what our tendencies are, know what our opponents tendencies are, all that normal, typical stuff,” Carroll said.
“Although we do it better now and we can do it more specific ways. There’s really no limitations. Only in our ability to come up with ideas and how we want to look at stuff because the data is in there.”
Carroll said the idea of bolstering staff was part of the message from owner Jody Allen during meetings following the end of last season.
“She made a point a while back that let’s make sure that we’re staying at the cutting edge, and I said, ‘heck yeah,’ whatever that may be,” Carroll recalled. “She was the first back in February to make a statement about it so people jumped at it. ... We made room and we created the opportunities for people and she was totally behind it.”
Erenbaum was working as an intern for the New York Knicks while taking classes at Columbia, but knew she preferred working in the NFL. She estimates sending 60 or so emails to various front office staffers in the league and as she said, “expecting not one person to answer me.”
Erenbaum believes she and Engler complement each other.
“You’re gonna have strengths and weaknesses no matter where you go. You just have to adapt to who you’re working with, because not everyone is going to be able to read a regression model or be able to code,” Erenbaum said. “We both have different coding skills.”
Engler has more of a scouting background and Ward was looking for someone specifically with that experience to work directly with the coaching staff on projects. Engler said that means being concise and direct with the info being presented.
“The quicker you can give this analysis to a coach or whoever your audience is, the more valuable that it’s going to be,” Engler said. “You see so many people online who can make really great graphs that have tons of information. You can see these 16-page papers on, ‘this is what you should do on fourth down,’ and that’s great.
“A coach doesn’t have time for that. So how can you condense that information, and really be able to get your point across as quickly as possible while still retaining the important parts.”
Quantifying the impact this increased investment in analytics won’t be easily measured, though everything in the NFL comes down to wins and losses.
“It’s really a framework of conveying information and knowledge. That’s what analytics is. You’re in the knowledge generation business,” Ward said. “We’re just doing studies. We’re just doing science. We’re just doing science on football.”