Annie: I'm so excited to welcome my guests, yes that's plural, today. Rich Eisen and Les Snead. Rich Eisen is one of television's most well-known sports anchors from the past decade, most notably as the face of the NFL Network. After several years on ESPN SportsCenter, Rich was the first on-air talent added to NFL Network's roster in 2003.
During his time with the network, he has hosted NFL Total Access Kickoff, NFL Game Day Morning, NFL Game Day Highlights and Thursday Night Football. I'm not exactly sure when he sleeps, given that spread across morning and night, and he has also anchored the network's on- location coverage of the NFL Draft and the NFL Scouting Combine, the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend, and the Super Bowl.
Rich also hosts the Rich Eisen Show, a daily sports radio program, and is a four time Sports Emmy nominee in the Outstanding Studio Host category. As part of the #runrichrun charitable campaign, Rich competes annually in the 40 yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine while wearing a suit.
Les Snead, my second guest, is general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, a position he has held since 2012. He holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology and originally planned to attend medical school until he was offered a graduate assistant coaching position while in college. He began his professional career working as a scout, first for the Jacksonville Jaguars and then for the Atlanta Falcons before becoming Director of Player Personnel in Atlanta in 2009.
Just three years later, he was named GM of the Rams and his tenure has been described as being marked by strategic aggressive moves that have created a strong core nucleus of talent and improved depth throughout the roster. Les also has a keen interest in the Decision Sciences and in how they can be leveraged in the NFL.
So I'm looking forward to such a great conversation between two amazing thinkers who are coming at it from totally different angles. So, first of all, let's talk about why you are both on here together. If you can talk a little bit about how you met and how you know each other.
Rich: Well I'll start first. Les drafted me many years ago because he saw me running the 40 yard dash, right Les? Isn't that what it was?
Les: It was that. And you said, “when does Rich have time to sleep?” He has plenty of time to sleep, but no time to train for the 40.
Rich: That's correct!
Les: But do you know what the 40 means? Nothing. Doesn't mean you can't play football.
Rich: It's about what's in here, Les. About what beats inside your chest. And I've got that. I've got that every day I wake up and I look in the mirror. Every day I see it. But Les and I go way back, obviously, not just with football. I met Kara, his wife, way back in the day, in the mid to late nineties when I was on ESPN SportsCenter and she was working at ESPN.
So I've known Kara a long time, and I met Les through Kara. And then of course the NFL, my work with the NFL. And that's how, that's how we know each other. Right, Les?
Les: Rich has got to be some sort of brother-in-law right. Once, once I...
Rich: We're family
Les: ...began the relationship with Kara, you immediately know you're going to spend many meals listening to Kara and Rich tell stories. And they're both laughing, like Rich right now. And then I think myself and Rich's bride sit back and watch those two have fun.
Annie: We have all been at those types of dinners Les. What's the fastest that you've ever run the 40?
Rich: You asking me or Les? Because, Les, when was the last time you ran the 40?
Les: It would probably be at Auburn. Maybe 1992 or 1993.
Rich: And what'd you run?
Les: Fastest 40? Probably… on a track—surface matters—maybe 4.67s. And, you break 4.7s, like there's probably nothing, right? There's no difference between the 4.67s or 4.7s...
Annie: You know how I knew that was fast, Rich?
Annie: Because he said a 4.67s. He wasn't like, eh, about a five. When you’re that precise, it has to be fast.
Rich: Absolutely. It's like, you call it a Porsche [pronounced “porsh”] when it's somebody else's car, but it's a Porsche [pronounced “por-shuh”] if you drive it.
Annie: There you go.
Rich: That's the way it works, so, but my fastest time was 5.94, but again, I run it in a suit. It's the logo of my show right there.
Annie: I’d just like to say that was a missed opportunity for you to say that the fastest time you’ve ever run is a 4.66s.
Rich: I know! I would have done... like The Price is Right, closest without going over, but no, I've gotta be truthful. That's part of my brand, I'm real news and I talk about real stuff, but I have fun.
We raise money now for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital [for the Run Rich Run Campaign]. On the day that we're talking for your pod, Annie, we announced that we did this year's run this past weekend, in Les' football home in SoFi. We had eight donors come for the chance to run with eight NFL legends on the field during the Rams season ticket holder event that happened on Saturday. We got Jerry Rice and Ray Lewis and Cris Carter and Torry Holt, to name a Ram great. And a handful of others, Rod Woodson and Cris Carter [are] Hall of Famers. They run with eight donors who raised over a million bucks, and we've got two more weeks to go to the NFL Draft where we're going to show the contents of that run.
Annie: Well bravo. That's amazing.
Rich: That's what we're doing. We're doing our best for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Les: Doesn't matter how fast you are.
Annie: Did the other people have track clothes on?
Rich: They did. They had track clothes on, but I run in my suit because that's my work clothes. That's what I usually run it in, at the combine. But due to the pandemic this year, we had to figure out something else to do. And so it's not the shoes. Les, I wish I could say it was the shoes. I run in actual running shoes now.
Les: Yeah I remember that now.
Rich: It's the suit jacket. It's like, it acts like a parachute behind me. So if there's anything that I can use as an excuse for my lack of speed, it'll be that. But at any rate, that's probably not what you want to talk about!
Annie: Where can just, well, while we're on the topic that where can people go to be able to support the cause?
Rich: Thank you for asking. Go to nfl.com/runrichrun, as you were kind enough to mention with the hashtag. That's where people can go and we're raising money for St. Jude, that's all donation-based, and families who go there never see a bill for their kid’s healthcare, or for lodging or for travel or anything. It's heaven on earth.
Annie: Oh that's amazing. What I love about having the two of you on is that you are living in sort of different parts of the ecosystem where you're looking at things from different points of view.
So I just want to start with, obviously we've seen this evolution across different sports, about the influence of analytics on decision-making, starting in baseball and then moving its way into the NFL. One of the things that I think about is, from the perspective of people watching it, it feels a little bit like nobody was paying attention to analytics, and then all of a sudden everybody was paying attention to analytics. And I know that when you feel those sort of tipping point shifts, that that's not true, that there was something brewing underneath. From your perspective Rich, how has it impacted the way that fans are viewing the game, the way that you are viewing the game, and the way that you talk about it?
Rich: Well, I guess the way analytics is... for somebody in Les' position, it tries to help him and his coaching staff “first guess.” For me, in the media, it allows us to “second guess” quite frequently, quite honestly. And [there’s] no greater moment than the last several years involving analytics and an immediate second guess.
A hue and cry amongst fans occurred in the World Series, in the deciding Game 6 last year when the Tampa Bay Rays had their star pitcher Blake Snell on the mound, and he was dominating the Dodgers in a must-win game for the Rays to force a Game 7. Their manager removed Snell, because the way that they operate is mostly through analytics first. Snell was facing the Dodgers lineup for a third time through, and the analytics have proven that the pitcher becomes that much more susceptible to slowing down third time through the order. Whereas the eyes of everybody in that stadium, and also sitting on their couches at home, could see what was happening: that Snell was easily still dominating and they removed him. Mookie Betts, the Dodgers star player, smiled into his dugout, which gave a visual to go along with what everybody was thinking, which is “what the hell is the manager thinking.” And sure enough, instantly the Dodgers took the lead and won the World Series.
That started a whole argument about: what is the role of analytics? And, isn't there a role still for good old fashioned gut and feel? We see it all the time, and we're seeing it more in the NFL, about when to go for two points and when not to go for two points. Normally, the concept has been that traditionally—which you really can't say because the two point conversion hasn't been in the NFL for very long—but traditionally with the two point conversion, you go for two only when you need to catch up, only when you need that extra point to actually tie a game. Not going for two when you're already up by a score. And an extra point would put you up nine, forcing the other team to go and try and have to score twice. You don't go for two there, you just kick the extra point. We're seeing more teams go for two, because the possibility of making that small conversion, what it would mean in terms of the lead that you would get, that the odds of converting on that small two yard play actually pays so much dividends that you'd go for it there. Or, when you're down by 14 points, instead of kicking the extra point there, you go for two there, making the next touchdown an actual game winner with the extra point. The math doesn't really add up to the conventional-thinking fan, but I can already see you nodding your head, Les. You're seeing more and more conversations about going for two, and when to go for it even though it might leave you hamstrung for points later on, at least you know what you have to do the next time you score, which you're assuming you have to do anyway in order to win. That's the concept you're seeing in the NFL that's confusing a lot to fans and causing a lot of fans to second guess.
Les: Rich makes a great point. I immediately think of Sean, our head coach. He's head coach, not manager, but I am pretty sure the big data would say Tampa Bay might've been right. Big data might've supported that third time through the lineup. It's over the course of that 160 games, and it might've been a COVID-shortened season, but that big data says “do this.” But, I know that what Sean will always talk about in the “two point conversion” situation is: what's the feel of the game in that situation? Wow. The Dodgers have no confidence in hitting this guy. Maybe it's best to stick with him. As Rich alluded to, the Dodgers batters now felt like, “we’ve got a chance now because another pitcher is in,” but on the two point conversion it might be, “we just had a long drive and we do have a gut feel that the defense is gassed. They're very tired. They're not reacting like they normally would, so this might be a time to steal a point,” or something like that. The big data will tell you what the probabilities are, and then at that point, using some version of intuition that you aggregate, you determine during the live contest when to use it when not to.
“The big data will tell you what the probabilities are, and then at that point, using some version of intuition that you aggregate, you determine during the live contest when to use it when not to.”
— Les Snead
Annie: So, this is a question that I have in relation to the World Series, in relation to some very famous plays in the past few years in football. In 2015, the end of that Super Bowl is coming to mind for me obviously. I feel like we have a little bit of this “resulting” problem. You have the analytics, they tell you what the statistics are, “what is this going to do for your win probability?” So this should be an input into the decision. And then the coach is taxed with making that decision, but it feels like, if we go to the World Series example, if they take him out and they win, does anybody say boo? Do they say this is great? Like, “this is why we love analytics because they give you this great data.”
Rich:They do not.
Annie: You don't think so?
Rich: No. Nobody. Nobody says “great job mathematicians. Great job with your slides!”
Annie: But nobody's saying, oh, what an idiot for… nobody is calling that out.
Rich: They're saying it in real time, but if it works out. The number of times it does work out…
It definitely frustrates a lot of fans again in baseball. Daryl Morey, who runs the Sloan MIT sports conference and is the king of analytics in basketball, he basically said baseball was first, the NBA was right behind it, and the NFL is bringing up the rear on analytics. And I just don't know if this sport just doesn't lend itself to the similar concept of analytics that the NBA and Major League Baseball do, or it's just an old school sport that [means that] it doesn't.
But to answer your question, fans don't understand it in baseball and don't like it when decisions on bringing a Major Leaguer up is based on somebody's bat speed, or exit velocity of how fast they can hit a ball out of the stadium, or some pitcher’s spin rate on their curveball. Now we're seeing a game in baseball where somebody steps up to the plate and half the time that person either strikes out, walks, or hits a home run. There is no more variety in the game because analytics has kind of dictated that. Fans don't like that. They don't like the shift where they figure out, “let's put 16 people on one side of the bases because the analytics say that this person will hit the ball in that direction.” They don't like that. The one thing I particularly despise is in baseball, they will now have not a starting pitcher, but what they call an “opener.” Where that pitcher will go and pitch one time through the order, be removed, and then the so-called starting pitcher will come in and face the order second through four times to get a little bit better to somebody who can close the game. It just doesn't look the same anymore. And I think people associate that with analytics as opposed to, "hey, they're kind of right, that's how someone can actually win a game.” That's the way it goes in the mind's eye of a fan, of people who call into my show and talk about it.
Annie: So let me just circle back—and Les, I want to get your thoughts on this—to the understanding of what's happening in baseball, with football bringing up the rear on analytics. In baseball, it’s a little bit more [a case of] individual people acting individually, standing in the same place. They happen to be geographically located together, but they're sort of isolated from each other in a way that makes analytics a little bit easier in terms of trying to figure out how you value a particular person or a player or what you're supposed to do in a particular situation. And my understanding is that football gets to be very complex. So obviously in basketball you've got five people on your team, interacting with five other people. In football, you get up to 11 people interacting with 11 other people, and then there's the issue of: they don't play the same side of the ball, and so on and so forth.
So Les, do I have a reasonable understanding of why the NFL is slower? It's because it's more complex. Is that right?
Les: I think that, yes, that is one reasonable rational truth to why we're pulling up the rear, I think there is some truth to what Rich said, maybe it's a more old-school [sport], but if I give you some quick examples, whether it's strategy, whether it's evaluation, a lot of times in football... Let's go to Rich's example where you take basically the nine defenders and maybe you put them all on one side of the baseball park because you know the batter, a large percentage of the time, is going to pull the ball. That does happen in football. But it's less noticeable. Let's take if we know this particular wide receiver runs this sub set, a route tree, when he's lined up on the left side, or in the slot, or outside the hash, or inside the numbers, we can disguise or design a coverage that tilts that way, but the quarterback and the offense may see that and then go to one of those other players, which is easier to do than maybe the batter in baseball now going, “I'm going to right field instead of left.” So sometimes we're using that [strategy], it's just less noticeable because there are more people in the field and it’s more complex.
So that's one good example. I've found it fascinating. In those minor league baseball parks where they have those sophisticated cameras and can see that maybe this pitcher in AA baseball has a unique rotation that is going, what they're going to say is predict, let's call it getting a lot of Major Leaguers out and they can make this trade for this pitcher.
A little bit harder in football. Let's take the quarterback, we can measure the rotations on the football, but it doesn't necessarily always correlate to accuracy or complete passes because the receivers have to be where they're supposed to be. The offensive line has to block. So there's some nuances there that probably put us in third place. But I do know this: there's a lot of bright people who are trying to at least help us catch baseball and basketball, and I'm not sure we'll be able to do that to their level based on what you said, Annie, but we're trying to get closer to second place.
Rich: Annie, I don't know if you ever saw the movie The Untouchables? Similar to the Robert DeNiro scene of Al Capone with a baseball bat saying, “A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team.” That was basically what you just said without also bashing one of our heads and with the baseball bat in a violent manner! But, it's just a different sport, though. It is true with baseball it really is one pitcher, one hitter. What spin rate can do and what somebody's bat speed can do with a pitch, and what some group of fielders can do, can be collected on the spot. If Les says there's one guy who knows the tendency and the route tree, and we send some people that way, there is a smart quarterback that watches that and may have the same film study and then calls a play to actually use that against Les and the Rams. Baseball and the NBA are different.
There are a lot of teams in the NFL that are beginning to use analytics in terms of the two point conversion in that manner. But again, it's mostly old school folks, still that just say, “screw it. It's the third or fourth quarter. I'm going to go with the gut and feel, I know what the game is. I know how I've set up the defense through three quarters of play calling, or the offense, and with three quarters of play calling on the defense.” They're going to go with their gut and feel, and they’ve got a special play. And I kind of feel the same way. I feel like I'm a smart guy. On the show, I kind of poke a little bit of fun at the NFL having something called Next Gen Stats. And the Next Gen Stats are, “this guy runs 21 miles an hour here,” and “this person has this catch rate anywhere between five and eight yards,” and stuff like that. And if I'm a fan, I'm trying to figure out: what does that really mean? So on my show I have something called “Old Gen Stats.” It's things like touchdowns, things like wins. I should probably pay more attention to analytics certainly since—Annie you might understand this as well—maybe this is why I get called on the “turn and river” in my home game all the time by people that might be doing the math a hell of a lot better than I am. And you're nodding your head that I'm right.
Annie: Well, I've played poker with you, Rich.
Les: Here's one for you Rich for your “Old Gen Stats.” Wade Phillips, who was our defensive coordinator and he should be in the hall of fame for defensive coordinating… [with] Old Gen Stats you say, “look, if we score more points than them, we'll win the game.” But Wade, who is a good poker player from Texas, he might not come across as brilliant, but he's brilliant. What he would tell you too is anytime you look at the scoreboard, as simple as that, that will tell you what strategy you should use: are you up by 14 or down by 14?
Let's go back to the 40 and Rich ran the 40 in 5.94. There's Next Gen Stats where it says Rich is actually playing football at 20 miles per hour. And what we've always said in football is, the 40 yard dash is very simple on your central nervous system and you can train to improve that. And by that, I mean you can work with sprinters and track coaches to improve your start, to improve trying to stay in a straight line instead of weaving until you cross that finish line. Football, we say, is a little more sophisticated. You're never running four yards without the enemy trying to disrupt you, you're having to think about what play you're running. Did the quarterback just audible? So you can be fast on the 40 yard dash, or like Rich, slow at the 40 yard dash, but subsequently play football a lot faster.
So some of that Next Gen technology helps. And interestingly I've seen with the strategy, some of the purists in the NFL, and some of our new new school coaches will tell you that there's been a push for the NFL to take technology to the sidelines and be able to maybe watch film of the game that's going on in that moment on the sidelines, which would probably be cool and maybe add to the fan experience, the entertainment factor. What all coaches who are really good strategists say is: that will dilute game theory in that what happens is that we have all the analytics to say this is what our opponents have been doing, but if they call that play for the receiver to go simply right, instead of left, because they know we'd been preparing for him to go left, if you're able to watch that on the sidelines in real time, you're able to adjust a lot quicker, instead of like at the poker table where you have to use your brain, you have to use your mind, your preparation, and then go through all the emotions and the tilts and all of those things. So it's an interesting debate of how much technology do you bring to the sideline, and does that actually dilute the game theory or the gamesmanship that goes on on game day?
Annie: Yeah. So I'd love to get a sense from you, Les, there's so much data now to inform the decisions, but there's different ways that people think about data. There would be people—and I think this would be more likely to be something you could do in baseball—who say “the data is the data, just do what it says.” And then there's people who would say “none of that data stuff, this is old school. I can see what we're supposed to do, and I don't want to pay any attention to that [data].” And then obviously there's the interaction between the two.
I imagine, for you as a GM, that the way that that is now influencing the discussion and the way that people are interacting with each other, and how they're thinking about the decision-making is more in flux than it has been in the past. Not just from the standpoint of how do you have people within your organization—scouts, the analysts, the coaching staff— interact with each other when it comes to the use of data? But then also, I'm just interested from the standpoint of somebody who's a GM, how do you deal with, to Rich's point, that the second guessing of the fans and the second guessing of the media, which might be a little bit like cherry picking, right? Like if you lose and you do something that the analytics didn't say, it feels like maybe you're going to get a, “you didn't follow the analytics” kind of response. And if you lose and you do something that the analytics say, so we can take Pete Carroll at the end of that Super Bowl or Tampa Bay, you're going to get the finger, either way. And it seems to be a little bit like, do you win or lose it? Fans can't see the up and down of the win probability, right? They only can see whether you won or lost.
So I'd love to understand from you—and I know that was kind of a complicated question—how do you manage the ecosystem, both internally, in relationship to the analytics, and then also externally in terms of the way that the fans are now thinking about the game and might be talking about it?
Rich: It's called a long-term contract. Right, Les?
Les: Yes, the long-term contract and stay off of social media. That was those two and, but to answer your question, you mentioned coaching, let's call it scouting and let's call it, we've got the title in our buildings, “The Nerd's Nest.” They embraced the word nerd. In terms of roles, we want our coaches to coach, our scouts to scout, our nerds to do nerd things, independently of each other so that there isn't some infiltration of biases from each. Now, the key, and the hardest part is engineering that ecosystem where we can come together, collaborate to compete. And the key is we got to collaborate to compete because at the end of the day, the Rams, and all that's going on within our organization, is way bigger than one person, right? Each person may have a more important role, quarterback may be more important than myself, but we’ve got to engineer that ecosystem so that we do collaborate and hopefully challenge each other; “okay, wait, there's a perspective there that we weren't thinking of before and now [we should] determine whether it's worth using that or not.” And I do think we internally probably second guess each other more than fans do. That's our job, right? We get to play a game, we get to make a decision and relatively shortly figure out that decision, is an A, a B, a C, or a D or an F. And you're always trying to do that as fast as possible, so you make as many A's and B's as possible. And I think that when the moment’s big, those World Series moments when it's down the two and you're playing for the gold medal or the silver, those are the moments that are going to get the most scrutiny and you’ve got to live with it.
“In terms of roles, we want our coaches to coach, our scouts to scout, our “nerds” to do nerd things, independently of each other so that there isn't some infiltration of biases from each. Now, the key
and the hardest part is engineering that ecosystem where we can come together, collaborate
to compete… and hopefully challenge each other, “okay, wait, there's a perspective there that
we weren't thinking of before” — Les Snead
And your book would be great for any of us that go through that, because what you want to make sure is when you have to live through that moment. We were part of losing a Super Bowl a few years ago, right, where we were tied with the Patriots going into the fourth quarter and they had less than 10 points. We'd sign up for that scenario any day, except we'd probably rather have more points and things like that. But now you’ve got to go back and make sure that you make sound decisions off of that and not just tilting because “wow, you're always going to know that you skied for the gold medal that day, but you only got the silver medal hanging on your wall.” And as long as you live, that silver metal is still there and you know that it could have been the gold and that PTSD is there. And just the key there is being disciplined not to allow that negative emotion to affect what's going forward.
Rich: I got a question for Les, if you don't mind that.
Annie: Yeah please.
Rich: I think it was Week 11. Where you took on the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, right? On Monday night, I think it was that this past year.
Les: You know the week, I know it was Monday night.
Rich: Yeah, I think it was Week 11. And the Rams are winning, they had the ball with a handful of minutes to go. You're deep in your own end. And you had a short 4th down yardage situation to go, if I'm not mistaken, and decided to punt the ball back to Tom Brady and give him the ball back with two minutes to go and say, you try and win this game, and put all in the hands of your defense to win it. And this was before the Bucs started tearing off wins.
And I'm wondering, was that an analytical decision? Or was that just Sean “gut and feel” saying our defense is playing lights out, their offense hasn't been able to do a darn thing, the Bucs have been struggling all year long on offense in those situations. Very rare, I mean, in my years of covering the NFL and before that on SportsCenter, I can't recall the number of times a team basically told Tom Brady “ball's yours, go for it.” And it worked out. The Rams won the game. I'm wondering what was that? Was that analytical driven? Or was that just Sean going gut and feel right there. What happened?
Les: Probably an element of... let's say, the analytics would have been: like you said, the Bucs weren't in, let's call it “Super Bowl sync” yet at that point. And on that particular night, our defense was playing very, very well. So, and I don't remember the exact field position, but I know Sean would have said, similar to the World Series, “tonight on this Monday night, our defense has Tampa Bay's offense number,” maybe even Tom's number per se, on that particular night. So what we probably didn't want to do and what Sean didn't want to do is now go for it and all of a sudden, [there’s] this huge momentum switch because they now make a big play, right? It's almost like you put the game down into these two yards. So if you lose that play you give Tampa Bay life, similar to a new pitcher coming in. They have better field position. So on that night, punt the ball and now make Tom Brady earn it. And I do believe we won the game...
Rich: You did.
Les: ...with him throwing an interception. And at that point in time, we knew that they didn't have as much time left. They were going to have to throw the ball down the field. So the analytics will say, we now know where to place our DBs and make it very hard on Tom to get the ball down the field. And it worked out in our favor. If we would have played them, Rich, in the Super Bowl, maybe the NFC championship, [it would have been a] different story, because I do believe after that game and maybe they played another game...
Rich: They played the Chiefs a week later and that's their last loss of the season, against the Chiefs.
Les: And then they probably did their after action review and a “come to Jesus” moment. And whatever they determined right after that Chiefs game actually ignited a run that [means] Tom becomes Tom again.
Rich: But that's where the analytics come into play, because 4th and 1, make it from this part of the field with that much time left, your win probability goes up to this. You punt it, you're actually losing a few percentage points off your win probability. You don't make it, obviously your win probability plummets, and then of course there's the unnamed factor named Tom Brady, you’re giving the ball back to him. I honestly remember that game and I thought, wow, I don't remember the last time an offense just said, "Here Tom. You take it, let's put it in the hands of our defense." But it felt like the right decision that night.
“That's where the analytics come into play, because 4th and 1, make it from this part of the field with that much time left, your win probability goes up to this. You punt it, you're actually losing a few percentage points off your win probability. You don't make it, obviously your win probability plummets, and then of course there's the unnamed factor named Tom Brady, you’re giving the ball back to him.
I honestly remember that game and I thought, wow, I don't remember the last time an offense just said "Here Tom. You take it, let's put it in the hands of our defense." But it felt like
the right decision that night.” — Rich Eisen
Les: And in that moment, take it to the third level thinking that the Bucs defense was very salty. Getting a yard on that defense... that defense has Ndamukong Suh. They're big men. Vita Vea. It is tough to get a yard or two against that defense. Big linebacker, Devin White. They're big, fast, explosive.
And so either we were going to really use analytics and go outside the box, and maybe do a play-action pass on 4th and 2 or, or you're going, “okay everyone knows it's it's 4th and 1 or 2, and they load the box, and we load the box, and it's man on man, and the odds of that our 11 men beating their 11 men to get two yards... the probability was probably not going to be good for us. They probably had a good chance of one of their defenders getting an edge and shutting us down because at that point everyone knows what's going to happen. It's going to be some version of a handoff. And now it's more like MMA fighting then. It's man on man. And that's a tough place to be. So that's a great call where you're using analytics to prepare for that game. And also at that point, analytics may say, go for it and keep Tom Brady off the field. But Sean had a gut feel, an intuitive feel that this was our night instead of Tom's.
Annie: That's so interesting. So I wonder, it's interesting when you say, Tampa was so strong there and your defense was doing really well that night. How do you take those in-game factors into account? Obviously there's places where the analytics are very clear, right? Just go for it. You're supposed to go for this no matter what, but then there are these gray areas where it's a little bit of a judgment call. So do you feel like that's where the great coaches are really stepping in and saying, we understand when we're in a gray area where the decision isn't clear, how we're supposed to be handling all these different factors and what matters.
Les: Yeah, I think Sean would say there's an element of knowing the data and then knowing the situation, how are we executing? What's the confidence of our team? A few years ago at Seattle… similar situation where it's probably 4th and 2. The division’s on the line and we're on our side of the 50. So that means if we don't get it, Seattle's got momentum and have the ball a lot closer to their goal line, but Sean determines we're going to go for it. And that's based on how our heart, the look in our team's eyes. Hey coach, if you go for it, we got you. And we're going to now, we'll kneel down and win this division. And then Sean also knowing that, okay, we've been able to run the ball today. Because there's an element you don't want to just listen to foolish confidence that could be driven by ego or some, aroused testosterone or adrenaline. So it's all of those factors. And I think Sean does a good job of using what you'd call gut feel, but that gut feel is determined… Sean might not have gone for it that day in Seattle if two plays before we would have lost one of our starting offensive linemen or two, right? And so you knew that running the ball might not have been the smartest thing to do and it's better to punt and play defense, but all of those things come into play.
Annie: Yeah this is something I've heard Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein talk about, which is, there are certain situations in which it's a little bit like “I've been here before, and I know what this is.” And one of the examples they give is firefighters going into a burning building, that they have to make these what we could think of as “in-game decisions” about: is the roof going to collapse? Is this a situation in which it's safe for me to go in or go out. They get very good at those situations because they can understand, in a way that I couldn't, what all these different factors are and just weigh them very, very quickly, having had that feedback in the past.
Do you feel like that's a fair way to think about what's going on with Sean in the moment there? It's not that he's making a random decision or necessarily that it's completely “gut,” it's that he's been in those situations before, he knows what the factors are that are really important, and he's able to weigh them very quickly to come up with an answer that's more accurate than I would make. Sometimes when you describe something as your gut, actually you can break that decision down and you can explain it pretty well, actually Les as you just did, right? What are you seeing in the game? What are the factors that matter? You have to know what matters, and that can’t be isolated. So the thing is, you have to make those decisions pretty quickly. But then for example, Sean needs to become able to come back and say, “let me tell you what I was considering in that moment,” so that you can create a feedback loop in order to improve those in-game decisions.
So I just want to separate out the way that people would think about “gut,” with how you would think about, “I have to make this decision very quickly.” And I don't think that one is disorderly just because you're making it quickly, necessarily. It's clear that wasn't a gut decision. It was incredibly well reasoned out. It was just fast.
“Sometimes when you describe something as your “gut”, actually you can break that decision down and you can explain it pretty well… What are you seeing in the game? What are the factors that matter?... you have to make those decisions pretty quickly. But then… come back and say, “let me tell you what I was considering in that moment,” so that you can create a feedback loop in order to improve those in-game decisions… It's clear that wasn't a gut decision. It was incredibly well reasoned out.
It was just fast.” — Annie Duke
Les: Just fast.
Annie: I think that that's where people get really confused. There's a difference between “fast” and “gut.” The way that we think about “gut” is that I'm just like, “whatever that feeling is, that's going over me, let me do it, ” as opposed to a repeatable [process].
Annie: It's the repeatability. In the way that you talked about Sean's decision, it's very clear that somebody could model that, somebody could learn from it, and start to learn how to take those factors into account as well. Obviously there's a talent aspect to just how good of a decision-maker you are in those situations. Or as you said in the 40, there’s a difference between just doing that in isolation and having to do that in-game when there's a whole lot of stuff going on. And that obviously is part of what makes a coach great. But theoretically, someone could repeat that decision just on the information that you gave them. And that automatically sort of takes it out of that world of “guts.” The way that you described that was so clear.
“It's the repeatability. In the way that you talked about Sean [McVay]’s decision, it's very clear that somebody could model that, somebody could learn from it, and start to learn how to take those factors into account as well. Obviously there's a talent aspect to just how good of a decision-maker you are in those situations. Or as you said in the 40, there’s a difference between just doing that in isolation and having to do that in-game when there's a whole lot of stuff going on. And that obviously is part of what makes a coach great. But theoretically, someone could repeat that decision just on the information that you gave them.” — Annie Duke
Les: Yeah. I think it's more like when you're playing poker, you're not making gut decisions.
Les: You're using your brain and you can be on the wrong end of the stick. Like you've discussed, right? Emotions are the game. You could be tilted. You have to make [decisions] fast. So those emotions, they do weigh something because your frontal lobe may not have had enough time to…
Annie: It's like, it's so fast. You see something, you can't necessarily say what it is that you see, but after the fact you can.
Annie: Right? And then you can check in on it to see where you're going.
One of the reasons why I love the way that you put it is that I don't think it's a great thing to tell people one of two things, either: “you can make a great decision without any thought or checking back in on it.” Which isn't true. Like that would be an accident. But the other is, to let people know that these are teachable skills, you don't just have to be born with some kind of sixth sense in order to be a great decision-maker. There are parts and pieces to every decision that interact with each other and you can skill up in that stuff.
Again, the way that you described Sean's decision makes it so clear that these are things that you can skill up in. Are you going to be elite? Not necessarily. But if you think about decisions that way, you're going to have the best chance to be elite and you're certainly going to be better.
Les: Right. You're exactly right. That's what I said. I think when we use the word “gut”... there's gut decisions and then there's fast decisions. In the spirit of Daniel Kahneman, a lot of the slow thought occurs, in our case, in Sean's case, in the week of preparation. The Monday after the Sunday game [when we] do an after action review on what we can do better the next Sunday. And then Tuesday through Saturday, putting all of those thoughts into a plan and then riding faster on Sunday.
“In the spirit of Daniel Kahneman, a lot of the slow thought occurs, in our case... in the week
of preparation. The Monday after the Sunday game [when we] do an after action review on what we
can do better the next Sunday. And then Tuesday through Saturday, putting all of those thoughts
into a plan and then riding faster on Sunday.” — Les Snead
Annie: Right. And then as you're closing those feedback loops in that interaction between what's happening in the more System 2 decision-making with the System 1, which would be like the fast in-game, System 1 gets better and better because you're creating this amazing feedback loop that’s making those faster decisions get even better.
So let me just ask you, about Sean. Was that a gut feel or what was the thinking behind that hire, for you?
Les: I'll start by saying, I do think we use the word gut. To me, gut means you're using your brain, and in this day and age of technology, I do think the brain is very fast and sophisticated and may actually be even faster and more sophisticated than the computer in certain things. So it's more than just your big fat belly that you're using. So I think that gets lost when you go “gut.” In the case of Sean, it's definitely not just a gut feeling. The rational thought was in using analytics, The Redskins—while he was calling plays—were top five, even top three, in most categories. And at that point in time… the quarterback's a very important position, Kirk Cousins was their starter and he was a fourth round quarterback. So he didn't draft a first round quarterback. So there were two elements there, of “this offensive coordinator definitely can utilize a chess piece quarterback…” Even though we got Jared as a number one overall pick, [Sean is] proven to be able to develop quarterbacks, help them execute, help offenses perform well. That's just statistically, when you didn't watch them play. You could see that while there's people and you could use the Next Gen Stats. There's actually receivers, I call it the five eligibles. There's always five people in the offense who can run or catch the ball. Many times a few of those players are running wide open. That doesn't happen in the league. That means Sean's ability to strategize, his game theory skills, are pretty elite. I know this 30 year old—at that point in time he might've been 28—can he handle being the face, the leader of an organization? Who's better to tell us that than the players? We did reach out to agents, players. Don't just go to the quarterback room. Don't go ask Kirk Cousins if Sean can command a team. They had some good players, they had some guys like DeAngelo Hall, guys like DeSean Jackson, who we just signed. We talked to a few of their players and what was interesting, every one of them almost lambasted us for even asking such an absurd question. [They said] "hey, you should have hired that guy yesterday. Why are you asking me today?" So it was interesting getting that sign-off.
And here's a good one, Rich. Let's call it my leadership as a GM, ours as a front office. At that point in time, you might've wanted to buy stock in us because we were low. It wasn't like the world was confident in what we were saying. But it was interesting when we had Sean meet with Stan, we intentionally had Marshall Faulk at the dinner. Marshall's a Hall of Fame Ram and a very bright football player. So he's very talented. Some would say he was the most talented running back coming out, or wide receiver coming out, when he did come out of San Diego State. He is a very bright football mind. What we figured was we could have Stan Marshall at this dinner and Sean and Marshall would begin chatting about football. And if Sean was who we thought he was, next thing Marshall and him probably would… it would be like Rich and Kara in this conversation, and Stan's over listening to these two humans talk calculus. And that's exactly what happened. So there was, you want to call it a gut feel.
If I give credit to Jim Collins, a mentor of mine who wrote the book Good to Great. He said “You've got to shoot bullets before you shoot the cannon ball.” And by that, he means if you have one cannonball to shoot, make sure you shoot your little bullets first. And then when you hear the bullet hit the ship, you have the cannon ball aimed right. Now, shoot your cannonball. So there were these elements in the process of shooting the bullets to see if Sean was the right guy. And then I think when you meet Sean, less than four minutes in you’re going, “okay. Yeah. This is it. He's got it. We're good. Exclamation point. Check the boxes.”
Annie: I love that. I love the way you broke that decision down. I think that was so great.
For me personally, as a poker player, I love the game theory of that dinner. Like how can I think about what are the right pieces to put on this board? How are they going to interact with each other? That's going to get me to the place that I need to be.
Rich: He stacked the deck, Annie.
Annie: He totally did.
Rich: He gave himself a pair of aces is what he did. Literally.
Annie: Les, what people might not know about you, or maybe they do widely, is that you are a voracious reader. Something that you really live and breathe is this space. In terms of books, it feels like you're someone who's really taking this idea of lifelong learning and putting it into practice in one of the biggest ways that I've seen in anybody. So I would love to pass on for the people listening: is there a particular book that you would recommend to people who are really trying to improve their decision-making? Because you've read so much in this space, what book in this space has made the biggest impact on your own decision-making and your own thinking?
Les: Oh. But this is going to come across. Like I'm...
Annie: Oh wait no. You can't!
Les: It'll be two things. I'm going to say, Thinking in Bets. I feel guilty because I probably haven’t championed it enough, but it's authentic. The reason you and I have connected is because that book, based on the gamesmanship of poker, it’s less textbook, right? You were able to take this wisdom that some very, very bright people have researched and proven to be beneficial, and you were able to articulate in a way that someone like myself, who's in sports, gravitates to, wants to read it, actually wants to finish it. I grew up in a small town in Alabama. So if I would have had the wisdom that I have now from reading books by you and going to the bibliography and then reading those books. Two things, if I’d had the discipline to read those as a high schooler, or someone would have somehow taught those skills to me in an entertaining way that all of us high schoolers need. I know this, the road after high school would have been less rocky than it was. I was fortunate enough to get through those rocky roads and be able to be enlightened by people like you, and then use some of those skills to help myself in life and make the Rams the best football team we can possibly make them.
My wife, Kara, as we mentioned at the opening of this, is really the… what did you call it? Voracious?
“I grew up in a small town in Alabama. So if I would have had the wisdom that I have now from reading books, by [Annie Duke], and going to the bibliography and then reading those books. Two things, if I’d had the discipline to read those as a high schooler, or someone would have somehow taught those skills to me in a entertaining way that all of us high schoolers need. I know this, the road after high school would have been less rocky than it was. I was fortunate enough to get through those rocky roads and be able to be enlightened by people like you, and then use some of those skills to help myself in life and make the Rams the best football team we can possibly make them.” — Les Snead
Les: She reads all those books behind you in maybe a month. And I'm still amazed at how fast she reads. And then she may say, “hey, Les, you ought to read one or two or three of these,” and I'm able to read those. So I’ve got to give her credit. Without that partnership... because she can synthesize information and go, “I think this book, this author, can help you be better at what you do.” Because interestingly when you're in sports, for probably the worse, everything revolves around sports.
Les: So any book I read, I'm always trying to relate it to what we do here.
Annie: Yeah. So just for the listeners, I actually met Les through Kara who wrote me out of the blue. She's done more work than most PhDs that I know in terms of reading in this space, and decision-making. She is truly just voracious in her reading, in this space. I mean, she's also just brilliant. I just would like to say as well, you both are doing a podcast. Where can people find that?
Les: It's Six Ways of Sunday. And unlike Rich, I can't give you hashtags and Twitter feeds, but I know you could go to the Los Angeles Rams website, and from there, use your technological skills to find that.
Annie: So Rich, if you could, I'd love to get your thoughts as someone who's observed over the years. As you think about watching and commenting on this game that is so much about the decision-making on the field, and you think about the way that we educate our kids to be decision-makers—which is maybe not so much—if you were master of education, what decision-making tool or idea or strategy would you want to make sure that the next generation of decision-makers is equipped with?
Les: Rich, you thought it was going to be easy
Rich: No, I know.
Les: You thought you'd get to critique the Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade
Rich: No, I know. I didn't think I'd be talking about something writ large, but I've got a 12 year old, a 10 year old, and a 7 year old at home. And I just think, courage of conviction might be something, I don't know how that's taught. I don't know how that would be actually taught, but we’re trying to teach our children to think the way they feel and, and have the courage of conviction to tell people what they think. Understanding somebody's reaction to it would be another, I guess, subset of what to do next, but in this day and age where, certainly in the pandemic, watching my children sometimes communicate with their peers through texts is just one of the most frustrating things I've ever seen because good old fashioned face-to-face was gone. And those who had the courage of conviction to say something could be misconstrued or it led to more recriminations, but I still keep telling my kids, and so does my wife, that what they believe and what we are trying to instill in them as a belief system, that they should have the courage of conviction to make a statement and live by it and move on with it. I just don't know how that gets folded into a curriculum. That's where, I guess you're the expert at it.
Annie: We will try. So for leaders who want to find out more about you and your work and see more of you. Where would you send them?
Rich: I guess after me saying that we've been texting too much... I guess go to my Twitter feed @richeisen or youtube.com/richeisenshow, to see what I do. And again, www.stjude.org/runrichrun or nfl.com/runrichrun to give money for St. Jude.
Annie: Awesome. Thank you, Rich. And as usual, I'm so grateful for you Les. Thank you for coming on.
Les: I appreciate you having me in. As always, this is educational. It's a great conversation.
Published August 11th, 2021