Path to the NFL

Gowanda graduate links up with Eagles

Zach Steever

Gowanda native and 2012 graduate Zach Steever took a winding road to get to where he’s recently gotten. Following his graduation from Gowanda High School, he attended the University at Buffalo to pursue a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Steever translated that degree, followed by a master’s in operations research into a job with the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League.

Several years ago, this career path may not have been possible at all for someone like Steever, but NFL teams and teams across all sports have transitioned to statistical data to make more informed, fact-based decisions on players, positions and so much else.

But Steever’s path to the NFL started while he was at UB, near the end of his senior year of undergraduate studies, and it began without him even being involved.

“It’s been a long and winding road,” Steever said.

Professor Dr. Mark Karwan, with assistance from another student, wrote a paper detailing discrepancies related to league bye weeks and rest baked into the NFL schedule. That paper was submitted to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that happens at MIT every year. The paper eventually won the ESPN Fan Favorite award at the conference. Karwan’s paper winning that competition is what led Mike North, the NFL’s vice president of broadcast planning, to visit UB for a guest lecture.

“Out of speculation and curiosity, schedule makers and the NFL ended up offering to come to UB,” Steever said. “They had separate, private meetings I wasn’t involved in as well, but as part of that, North lectured about how they look at problems with building the NFL schedule. Turns out it is a very complicated math problem that happens to use the types of mathematics we use as industrial engineers.”

Specifically, the NFL schedule problem uses a subfield called operations research, which is what Steever began to focus on his senior year.

“The whole point of operations research is to model large and dynamic decision systems,” Steever said. “The NFL used principals to model the system that is the very complicated NFL schedule.”

At this point though, Steever was looking to pursue his doctorate in operations research, and was looking at other places until he learned that some group at UB may have the opportunity to end up working directly with the NFL. Steever, who had always been interested in sports, really wanted that potential opportunity for a career with the NFL.

“I got a fellowship offer at Cornell and planned to go there for my PhD,” Steever said. “But I really wanted to work on this NFL project. When I was a freshman, I wrote my engineering impact paper on how the Buffalo Sabres should use linear algebra to make free agency decisions.”

Steever then reached out to Dr. Karwan, who he had a relationship with from prior work in the department, and had a conversation that ended up favorably for Steever.

“It basically boiled down to if UB did any work with the NFL, I could be one of the ones working on that problem,” Steever said. “Then I would take that gamble to stay in Buffalo and work on that.”

So Steever applied to that PhD program, and got his offer letter, which didn’t have any formal writing on the NFL project because it didn’t exist. It boiled down to a handshake agreement between Steever and the school. And for the first year, that program didn’t materialize.

“I worked for a full year on totally different projects,” Steever said. “We hadn’t had a relationship with the NFL yet. I worked on a problem for a food delivery company.”

The school had stayed in touch with the NFL, and at the end of Steever’s first year of his PhD program, the NFL finally branched out and gave them a portion of their data to see what the students at UB, including Steever, could do with it. And they did that to a good amount of success, despite not knowing exactly what they were working with.

“The data they gave us was fully encrypted,” Steever said. “I couldn’t tell you which team or week it had to do with, it was just encrypted numbers and letters. We worked on this problem for a little while in the spring of 2017, and were able to find things the NFL found interesting and valuable to them, without even knowing what we were looking at.”

Those findings were enough to sell North, who wanted to work with UB. The school asked for a grant for three years of funding and the NFL wrote up a contract. After nine months of negotiations back and forth, the grant was finally cleared and UB got the three-year research contract with the NFL. And true to their word, Steever got on to the project, despite it not really being a part of his PhD.

“The NFL was how I got funded,” Steever said. “I had to do different research for my dissertation.”

For the final three years of Steever’s PhD program, he worked with the NFL, even taking several trips to the NFL headquarters in New York, where Steever and the rest of the people working on this project were shown what the scheduling process looks like. In addition, UB now has a computer set up with a direct line into the NFL scheduling systems that requires pretty strong security measures to be able to access it.

“It is physically chained to the wall in the lab in U.B,” Steever said. “If anyone wants into the lab, they have to sign in and out, so if there’s a data breach, people would know who was in the room with that computer. There are many other security protocols too.”

When Steever logs on to that computer, he can query the database of scheduling scenarios. He’s done this on a three-month and nine-month cycle for the last three years, depending on where in the league year the NFL is.

“During the nine months where the schedule isn’t being built, we can look back at things that went wrong or were challenging with previous scheduling while also looking toward future considerations,” Steever said. “Like this year, we’re adding a whole extra week to the schedule.”

While Steever and the other students at the UB program do not directly construct the schedules, they are a testing bed to try different things for the NFL.

“We’re like a research and development team,” Steever said. “We look at ideas.”

Upon graduating from UB last May with his PhD in hand, Steever began looking for jobs. Contrary to what you may expect, Steever’s connection with the NFL is not how he ended up with the Eagles. Instead, he networked himself and got a little help from an ESPN article.

“Mike North didn’t reach out to the Eagles for me,” Steever said. “It was last summer, when I was a year out of graduating. Seth Walder of ESPN compiled a list of everyone who works at the NFL in analytics. I reached out to these people to see what the opportunities would be. There were no job postings and this was deep into the pandemic and lots of places had a hiring freeze. No one was looking to hire a quantitative analyst.”

But still, Steever persisted and continued to make phone calls and send emails to the people on this list, most of them out of the blue. For some, he had to work hard just to find contact information.

“I started cold calling these people, just to do some leg work,” Steever said. “They don’t make it easy to find this information. You can’t just go and find these emails. I was able to find some contact information, and just emailed the Eagles, who are at the forefront of analytics in the NFL.”

As an early adopter, and a strong quantitative team, Steever got a response from them and was asked if he wanted an initial phone interview. That phone call led to additional calls with other employees. Eventually, the Eagles decided they wanted to bring Steever in, but were still on the hiring freeze, which lasted all through this winter. But when spring came around, things went favorably again for Steever.

“That was the state of the situation over the winter,” Steever said. “This spring, the hiring freeze was lifted and I was sent a former offer letter, which I accepted at the beginning of May. It’s all happening very quickly.”

Now as a quantitative analyst, Steever will be responsible for taking data on players to help the team make informed decisions on personnel and positions, as he was hired to be on the football side of the Eagles’ operation.

“We leverage data collected in order to inform football decisions being made,” Steever said. “We can get things like player velocities and acceleration. We can track the path they take on the field and stuff like that. We can use data about players to look into trends, patterns, and the best practices. We can use it to evaluate individual players. You’re starting to hear about this kind of thing more now. “

This information can all be culminated in the NFL Big Data Bowl, which happens every year. This presents similar types of problems that the quantitative analysts solve, with the NFL posting data every year. There is an open call for anyone to try and solve these problems.

“I haven’t participated in the Big Data Bowl, but it was a part of my hiring process to talk about it,” Steever said.

Although Steever hasn’t officially begun doing work for the Eagles yet, nor has he even been to the team facility yet, he is looking for apartments in the Philadelphia area, as his job begins when NFL training camp begins in July. As his winding road of the past few years has culminated in a unique job opportunity, Steever stressed that a lot of the credit for his opportunity goes to the people around him.

“My story is not one about me individually playing my cards right,” Steever said. “All of this has been the result of a massive and wildly supportive network of people in my life paving my way for this.”

And, while the loyalty of his youth lies with the Buffalo Bills, his focus may have to change thanks to his new employer.

“You have your childhood loyalties,” Steever said. “But I certainly will be rooting for the Eagles’ success.”


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