Detroit Lions looking to make war room decisions more efficiently

Posted Feb 18, 2013

With the help of an in-house database system, the Detroit Lions will have more information at their fingertips on draft day

Brian Xanders

There might be a perception that the computer background Brian Xanders brings to the Detroit Lions' front office means that the whir, click, beeps and hum of mainframes and software will spit out personnel decisions to humans who will use those calculations to make draft picks and sign veteran free agents.

That perception would be wrong on two fronts.

Xanders, hired last month by the Detroit Lions as a senior personnel executive, is computer savvy.  But he has 19 years of NFL experience in coaching and personnel. In his role with the Lions, he will be the chief aide to General Manager Martin Mayhew.

And when it comes to personnel decisions, they will still be made by Mayhew, not a descendant of any link in the computer chain -- from iconic HAL of  "2001: A Space Odyssey" to the current breed that does everything except vacuum the carpet.

Using computers to help the evaluation process is nothing new to the Lions. They've done it for more than a decade. What is new is that the Lions are developing their own program, which is part of a growing trend in the NFL, and Xanders will supervise the development from his 19 years of front office experience with the Falcons and Broncos.

"It's a potentially emerging section of football," Xanders said. "There are some teams that are going to actually have entire departments dedicated towards them, in terms of football systems. That part of it is one-eighth of my job.

"My background is scouting and coaching. The big picture of the job is, I'm here to help Martin Mayhew and everything I can do in player personnel -- college and pro."

In his post-season session with the media, Mayhew touched on the Lions' developing their own database  "to give (the Lions) the information that we want specifically for our scouting process - professional and college scouting."

"That's going to be an important part of the process in terms of our personnel and becoming more data-driven and utilizing all the resources available -- having everything in one place to use those resources to make better decisions," Mayhew said.

Two of the most important periods of roster-building are approaching. The free agent signing period begins March 12, and the annual draft is April 25-27.

Because of the urgency of making decisions in a short period of time, a database that provides detailed information instantaneously on players is an invaluable asset.

"There are a lot of things you can do with it," Mayhew said.

"Say if you're on the clock, or during the draft you want to compare player to player. The ability to line up all their stats, all their measurables, all their combine data and look at that on a screen and compare player to player instead of going by recollection or flipping through books or changing from one database to another (is what we can do with it).

"That's just one example. There are a ton of things we can do with it."

The ultimate goal of any system is to improve the quality of draft picks and free agent signings.

Mayhew believes in building through the draft, calling it "the lifeblood" of the team. Based on his background, Xanders should be a valuable addition. In his five seasons with the Broncos, he was assistant GM for one year and GM for four.

Xanders departed Denver last May when franchise icon John Elway took over the GM duties in his role as president of football operations.

That left Xanders out of work until the Lions approached him about the position as Mayhew's senior personnel assistant.

No matter what system is used – from hand-written notes on filing cards or the most sophisticated database – the human element of collecting information is still the foundation of the process. The Lions' scouts, who generally get high marks from their NFL peers, will still hit the road to evaluate players.

But the information they collect can now be inputted to the database remotely to help make decisions based on a custom profile for positions.

"My theory on it is to have as much information as the team has collected on all these players, from college to pro, so over time, you have a tremendous volume of their background – in high school, their college career, their football character, their personal character, the medical, the durability, the production, the stats, the competition that they played against," Xanders said.

"You get into the actual scouting system that you implement , and you start grading their reports of their physical attributes."

Player evaluations include major factors and critical factors.

"For example, major factors are athleticism, speed, strength," Xanders said. "Critical factors are the top five things critical to that position, based off the position scheme of the coaches."

For quarterback as an example, critical factors are leadership and commanding the team, accuracy, anticipation, decision-making and playmaking ability.

Evaluating leadership in a player who has never been on your team requires observation and research.

"Leadership is how how he carries himself on the team -- how he carries himself in the huddle, on the sidelines," Xanders said. "You really get into some research, and you research from his coaches, coaches that have been there and left. You talk to his high school coaches, his teammates.

"You're trying to acquire the best human talent as possible, and the goal of this system is to have the most quality information you can have from your scouts, your research, from all the sources."

Xanders, 41, learned one thing quickly after leaving the Broncos in May. He didn't need a computer database to tell him what it felt like to be on the outside of the NFL.

"After leaving Denver and being out for five or six months,  I realized very quickly how wonderful the NFL is.  I realized the passion of American fans. It's amazing."