Rewriting the Playbook

with Data

How Cris Collinsworth and Neil Hornsby are using machine learning on AWS to change how we view the game of football

Rewriting the playbook with data

How Cris Collinsworth and Neil Hornsby are using machine-learning on AWS to change how we view the game of football
How PFF is changing the game (2:53)

PFF analyzes football in more detail than anyone else on the planet. And despite a team of over 500, there are limitations on what can be accomplished by just humans alone. By leveraging millions of data points from every game over the last 14 NFL seasons, and using ML models built on Amazon SageMaker on AWS, PFF is leading the way in how players are analyzed and evaluated.

An unexpected analyst

It wasn’t always like this. PFF was founded in 2006 by Neil Hornsby, but his story starts in the early 1980s when Hornsby was inspired by a new TV show, broadcasting weekly NFL highlights in the UK.

Hornsby started reading everything he could on American football, and when he learned about a book by Paul Zimmerman, A Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football, he sent for it immediately. “That book sold me on football,” Hornsby said in a 2016 editorial he wrote for Sports Illustrated. “I’ve read it more times than I’ve read any other book in my life.” The book became a catalyst for Hornsby, cementing his love for the game and opening a universe of complexity and appreciation for all that the game could offer.

In 2003 Hornsby was inspired to follow Zimmerman’s footsteps in grading games and in 2006, took it a step further, while maintaining the spirit of Zimmerman’s high bar in accuracy and equity over conventional wisdom, by taking it online and crowdsourcing the analysis and grading of every player in every game, founding PFF in Luton, England.

By 2014 PFF had over 30 employees located across the globe and had managed to attract over 30% of the NFL teams as customers. This began to draw attention including that of a certain high-profile broadcaster, one Cris Collinsworth.

An accidental encounter

Cris Collinsworth, 16-time Sports Emmy award-winning broadcaster and former NFL wide receiver, has traveled a lot but has always had roots in Ohio. Born in Dayton, his father Abraham Lincoln Collinsworth (who was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) was one of the top scorers in Kentucky high school basketball history and in 1958 won the national championship. Athleticism ran in the family. After playing college ball for the Florida Gators, Cris Collinsworth was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals for the 1981 season, returning to Ohio for his entire eight-year NFL career. Upon retirement from the NFL, Collinsworth began a 30-plus year broadcasting career in Cincinnati and is currently on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

In June 2014, Collinsworth was scouring the internet looking for information to help him with a post-game show and stumbled across PFF’s website, with color-coded depth charts rating each player. He immediately bought a subscription to learn more. Later, Collinsworth emailed the company to see if they could provide even more insights and within five minutes received a phone call. It was Neil Hornsby.

His British accent immediately threw Collinsworth who thought he had just been punked. But after several minutes of drilling Hornsby, he realized PFF was the real deal. Collinsworth eventually purchased a majority stake, and in October 2014, Neil Hornsby relocated the team, and his family, to Cincinnati.

Mining for gold with AWS

The move gave Hornsby better access to teams, and the investment allowed PFF to scale. However, there is an inherent limit to what can be done with statistics and analysts alone—Hornsby and his team began migrating their infrastructure to the cloud, and as these new systems came online, the streamlined processes allowed for more and more data to be collected. With the databases growing so large, PFF began to search for more ways to evaluate and measure what wins football games.

In July 2019 PFF announced it had migrated its entire stack to AWS. “There is this treasure trove of data,” says Collinsworth. “Using AI and ML we can process more data than humans alone and look for patterns that are impossible for humans to see.”

Per a press release in July 2019, “PFF will use AWS compute, storage, database, serverless, analytics and machine learning services to improve operational efficiency, innovate at a faster pace and drive deeper meaning from game statistical data. AWS will enable PFF to uncover never-before-seen metrics that will change the way that teams, fans and the media experience football.”

Said Collinsworth: “We study and grade every player on every play in every game, and by teaming up with AWS, we can better understand, refine and enhance what we do with these vast amounts of data and how to deliver it to the fans…using services like Amazon SageMaker to help us build, train and deploy machine learning models so that we can generate predictions and deliver insights faster to teams and broadcast partners.”

Since going all-in with AWS, Hornsby, Collinsworth and PFF are looking forward to their role in shaping and transforming how the game of football is analyzed, and more importantly, transforming the fan experience, showing that there’s more to the game than meets the eye.

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