After spending years around the game of football, including several as a front-office executive for the Green Bay Packers, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has gained a certain reputation.
“He’s a real scout,” said Packers general manager Ted Thompson, Dorsey’s former boss. “In this day and age, sometimes those are hard to find.”
Dorsey, a 53-year-old former linebacker, has embraced that description while tackling the task of turning the Chiefs into Super Bowl champions.
However, you’d be wise not to put the Chiefs’ second-year boss in a neat little box.
“I’m an old-school guy,” Dorsey said recently. “But I’m also open-minded enough to see if new technology can help make us better.”
One of the ways Dorsey has backed up his words is with the use of Decision Lens, a analytics-based software firm based out of Washington, D.C., whose advanced software platform is designed to help the Chiefs’ internal decision-makers identify the players who best fit their criteria for what they want at every position.
“It’s just another mechanism (we use),” said Dorsey, who also called it a “game changer for identifying and analyzing talent” in a news release provided by the company.
But how does it work? Let Dan Saaty, Decision Lens’ chief technology officer, explain.
“You’re going to collect data on these players all year,” Saaty said. “Some of the data is highly accurate, quantitative measured data (from the combine). Some of it is subjective, judgmental data (from scouts). How do I take their raw capabilities from the combine and blend it with the scout’s (judgments) about how the guy will play in the field, what his character is like, how intelligent they will be and get a whole picture of how a player performs for a given position?
“That’s what we help them do. We give structure to that.”
In other words — and without going into too much detail, Saaty noted — the company essentially asks each team how much they care about each workout drill (such as the bench press or 40-yard dash), then based on that, the software can assign each player a physical score. The software then integrates that score with each team’s own scouts’ subjective assessments of the qualities the team deems important in order to produce an overall score based on uniform standards.
“It helps them synthesize information that most teams can’t,” Saaty said.
Saaty said the company also counts another NFL team as a client, but declined to give the name because he wasn’t sure he had permission to do so. He said the Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks and Calgary Flames have also used their services.
“It’s a progressive way of doing analytics,” Saaty said. “But the truth of the matter is, how you use the tool and wield it defines how it works for you. You can put this in somebody’s hands, but if they don’t know how to use, they might not get a lot of value out of it.”
Dorsey, Saaty said, knows how to use it.
“I’m not as close as everyone else, but I’ve found that people engage with John in a very positive way,” Saaty said. “He’s a collaborator, from what I’ve seen, since I worked with him at the Packers. He’s not going to let ego get in the way of getting the job done.”
Dorsey was introduced to Decision Lens back in Green Bay before the 2009 season. Saaty said he made his first pitch over the phone to Dorsey.
“He’s like ‘I’ll tell you what, you come up to Green Bay, I’m going to give you data in the morning, you’re going to put that data in your model, I’m going to help you define some of those rules and then we’re going to present it to the leadership of the Packers that afternoon,’ ” Saaty said.
Dorsey made no promises, but when they made the presentation, it went over well.
“When we showed them the kind of analytics we had, they were like yes, this is cool,” Saaty said.
Shortly thereafter, in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Packers took two eventual Pro Bowlers in linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive tackle B.J. Raji.
“I’m not saying how it was tied to our thing,” Saaty said. “All I’m saying is they were using our (analytics) in their decision.”
Dorsey thought enough of Decision Lens that when he left to take over the Chiefs in January 2013, he continued using the company.
“The information we can get on a team is pretty significant, and you’ve got to have a pretty serious trust with them for them to want to share a lot of data,” Saaty said. “Our trust was with John.”
Since then, Saaty said he’s visited the Chiefs multiple times. And while he only visited once during Scott Pioli’s regime, he said the culture at One Arrowhead Drive appears to be different now.
“I did not meet with Pioli but I was there before and I did not feel the same empowered sense in the organization in the limited interaction I had,” Saaty said. “I came up for one (visit) and spent time but a lot of the questions I asked, people were like ‘we’ve got to defer to what the management would say.’ That is not the environment I see today.”
It is one of many changes Dorsey has made to the franchise since his arrival last season, in addition to his effort to be as forward-thinking as possible.
“I thought it would be best to see if new technology and old-school thinking can blend together and see how it works out,” Dorsey said of Decision Lens.
Based on the fact he has a history with the software — not to mention the fact Dorsey said Decision Lens is the only analytics company the Chiefs use — chances are Dorsey already has reason to think it will work out just fine.
“Their decision criteria (on draft day) is going to be different than any other team’s, and part of what I think John believes is a strategic advantage is being able to manage that knowledge and information better than other people,” Saaty said.