Offensive Line

Numbers guy and Stanford MBA Paraag Marathe has become a scapegoat for the 49ers' failure, but he's really the future of the NFL

But football, as Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com points out, has always been "open to doing objective analysis, even if it's not mathematical." What else is game tape study, for instance, if not objective analysis? As far back as the 1960s, Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys was using computers to help determine the value of draft picks, in an era when just about everyone else was picking names out of sports annuals. Last year, the two most statistically minded organizations in the league -- the Patriots and the Eagles -- played each other in the Super Bowl.

What the 49ers are doing, as Schatz wrote in defense of Marathe in Pro Football Prospectus, "is not new." And yet the media insist on pushing a perception of the NFL as a wilderness of pure masculinity where no one need touch a computer. "My goal," Schatz says, "is not to change the world of football. It's to change the world of football coverage."

This season, Marathe, the non-football guy -- whom Beane has called "a very bright young man" -- was promoted to director of football operations, a senior front-office position in the organization, making him responsible for negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap. The arc of his career is clear. As York told the Chroniclein January, "I don't think at this point in time that Paraag has the experience to be the general manager. I think over time that he could."


Paraag Marathe presented the media with an easy 
target: a young MBA with a "kryptonite powered 
laptop."
James Sanders
Paraag Marathe presented the media with an easy target: a young MBA with a "kryptonite powered laptop."
Marathe and his mentor, Steve Tseng, a vice president 
with IMG Consulting.
James Sanders
Marathe and his mentor, Steve Tseng, a vice president with IMG Consulting.

"Here," Marathe says in his office, grabbing a heavy volume from a shelf behind him. "My recent reading." Offensive Football Strategies is the title, and what the work lacks in plot and character development it makes up for in technical expertise. "It's a book by a bunch of ex-coaches who talk about, for example, the quick passing game," he explains, flipping open to the contents page. "I just find it really interesting. LaVell Edwards talking about adjusting pass defense. Tom Nugent on shifting into the I formation. Joe Paterno on creating an offensive philosophy. I've just been a student of [football]. Obviously, I know it a lot better than people think I do, but I know it a lot less than our coaches, than guys who have played the game."

Marathe's office is tucked into a corner on the second floor of the 49ers' headquarters in Santa Clara, a building that, given its sleek look and location, might as well be another Silicon Valley tech company. The room is spare and well ordered; the dry erase board is a Technicolor mess of reminders and inspirational quotes. On his desk are color-coded depth charts for the team's upcoming game against Seattle -- red is for unrestricted free agents, yellow for restricted free agents, green for players on injured reserve. "I give this to all our pro personnel guys," Marathe says. "When they watch the game, they can say, 'All right, I better make sure I pay attention to Steve Hutchinson and Shaun Alexander, because both of them are scheduled to be UFAs, and maybe we'll want to go after them.'" This is the NFL in the Salary Cap Era: a football game with players moving across the field like stocks on a ticker.

"The perception," Marathe says, "is that I'm sitting in here, I've got a laboratory coat on, I've got a protractor and a pocket protector, and I'm just coming up with wacky things. But, no: All I'm trying to do is take things that are complicated and make them less complicated, so that they can make a quicker and more educated decision -- 'they' being [VP] Scot [McCloughan] and Coach [Nolan]."

The most important work Marathe has done thus far for the team -- and the most instructive, as far as his method is concerned -- was last year's coaching search, which led to the hiring of Baltimore's defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, son of former Niners coach Dick Nolan. As Marathe says, "We had a microscope on us, because of the fact we were 2-14 last year and there was all this turnover" -- coach Dennis Erickson and GM Terry Donahue were jettisoned at season's end -- "and then, all of a sudden, John York is using this random Indian guy to help interview head-coaching candidates, and by the way, what the hell is his name?" The coverage was predictable. Marathe says he was mocked for saying that "a head coach in today's professional sports environment is much like a CEO of a Fortune 50 company." "The 49ers," one critic wrote, "are conducting their head-coaching search like the Keystone Kops." In the Merc, Ann Killion again took on the team's circle of non-football guys, whom she described as "a pathologist who married well, a 28-year-old MBA whose background is as a corporate consultant, and a former college nose guard turned budget analyst." She wrote: "The 49ers' first step toward legitimacy had all the makings of a Saturday Morning Live skit. Right now, the 49ers have no NFL credibility. None. Zero. Zilch."

Part of the problem, Marathe says, was that the Niners were one of three teams looking for a head coach, "and we were the only team doing the nonconventional approach." In football, he says, the "common business practice" is the old boy network: "'I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody else who knows him.'" Or maybe there's a hot college coach whose name gets dropped nightly on SportsCenter. The 49ers, however, "wanted to be agnostic about the process," Marathe says. Sifting through the past 25 years of NFL history, they identified a dozen or so of the most successful coaches based on measures like playoff appearances, average victories per season, and team improvement in their first two years on the job. The list that resulted could probably be drawn up in 10 minutes on a cocktail napkin in a sports bar -- Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Mike Shanahan, and so on -- but what happened next was unique: They identified the traits those "superstar head coaches" had in common, traits that Marathe placed in two "buckets." "The first bucket is, What did those superstars possess prior to getting the job?" he explains. "Who else did those superstars work for before they got their chance? What was their background? In their previous jobs, if they were coordinators, did they improve their unit? The second bucket is, What did they possess during their job that made them successful? That was a little more subjective, but we were able to do a ton of research." From his analysis, he discovered that the best coaches tended to have worked on the staffs of winning teams, often under other top coaches. In addition, he found that nearly all of the superstar coaches were disciplinarians by reputation.

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