The Dallas Cowboys and “Big Data”


A man by the name of Gil Brandt, who revolutionized player evaluation for the Dallas Cowboys, has just been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

While his reputation is legendary and his track record astonishing – Dallas had a winning season every year from 1966 to 1985 – there was a crucial underlying reason for Brandt’s ability to deliver consistent results.

Under his leadership, the Dallas Cowboys would transform talent scouting from an activity based on observation and gut feel to one driven by the power of analytics.

Big data is a widely used term these days – it’s a sort of conversational punch line – but not many people actually understand its true meaning.

As defined by SAS1, a multinational U.S. based data analytics company with a strong Canadian presence:

“Big data is a term that describes the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – that inundates a business on a day-to-day basis. But it’s not the amount of data that’s important. It’s what organizations do with the data that matters. Big data can be analyzed for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves.”

The man who devised the formula

Turning data into intelligence was the competitive advantage Gil Brandt brought to the Dallas Cowboys more than half a century ago.

Sports Illustrated actually published a story about the computer based scouting platform deployed by the fledgling team back in January 29, 1968. Entitled Make No Mistakes About It2 – in those days the computer was three feet tall and had less computing power than the most elementary smartphone has now – the story explained how player talent was analyzed according to several key criteria:

  1. Character.
  2. Quickness.
  3. Body control.
  4. Competitiveness.
  5. Mental alertness.
  6. Strength.
  7. Explosiveness.

Added to these were three other factors: weight, height and speed.

“Anything you asked for you could get,” Brandt was quoted in The Wall Street Journal article as saying. “You knew which one had the best chance of making it.”

Brandt’s impact on scouting has recently been discussed by Andrew Beaton, writing for The Wall Street Journal (August 3-4, 2019), The Man Who Devised the Formula to Find NFL Stars3.

“Those chances,” Mr. Beaton said, “were compiled in a book that was the size of an entire volume of encyclopaedias. At about 18 inches thick, it was essentially a printed database team executives could use to compare players and project future career paths.”

For years, this information dominated the Cowboys’ player evaluation and was a major contributor to their fabled success.

“Get out the book”

Mr. Beaton shares a story taking us back to 1977. Then, there were two running backs that teams were ambitious to capture: Ricky Bell and Tony Dorsett.

Red Hickey, an influential Dallas talent scout at the time, favoured Bell. Brandt preferred Dorsett. Legendary Dallas coach Tom Landry cut through the dispute with four words: “Get out the book.”

The book offered a clear answer: Dorsett. He had a 99% chance of being an All-Pro. “I bow to the machine,” conceded Hickey.

Gil Brandt was fast to recognize the power of using big data to make smart decisions, even in an industry accustomed to gut feels. In the same way, Total Wealth Management Group’s Investment Committee uses data analytics to develop informed investment decisions and avoid the effect of emotional reactions.

But there is a catch. Gil Brandt didn’t let data take decisions for him, he used it as an input to fuel his thinking. On the side, Brandt was known for being a brilliant psychologist and astute observer of human behaviour. He was both informed and obviously gifted.

We believe these were the key drivers to his exceptional performance. The most powerful decisions are made by the combination of two elements: keen minds that work together with the powerful input of computed data analytics.

That’s how we feel about our Investment Committee.


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