Steelers Make Analytics Part Of Equation

CMU professor joins organization, but Karim Kassam won't just be pouring numbers into a computer. He brings a unique approach.

LATROBE -- It's been a Pittsburgh Steelers mantra that's spanned coaching staffs.

"It doesn't matter how you got here."

Bill Cowher used it on guys like James Harrison and Willie Parker.

Mike Tomlin uses it on guys like Kelvin Beachum and Kevin Fogg.

"It matters what you do when you get here."

No, the Steelers have never subscribed to any type of prototypical number set when it comes to bringing in players. So when it came time for them to jump -- some say FINALLY! -- into the world of football analytics, they wanted to make sure they went beyond mere numbers-crunching and computer printouts.

No, they wanted someone who could master numbers but with a unique, more humanistic approach.

That's why they hired Karim Kassam, their new full-time Analytics and Football Research Coordinator.

Kassam, 36, is a professor of Social and Decision Science at Carnegie Mellon University, but he's on leave this year as he begins full-time work on analytics with the Steelers, most of which will involve talent acquisition.

But that doesn't mean he's going to use a blind-eye, numbers-only, "Moneyball" approach.

"It's going to be way more complicated," said Kassam. "That's part of what makes it so hard. There are all different types of players of shapes and sizes and speeds that are successful at any different position. You're pointing out some of the guys that we got great deals on that no one saw because they don't fit that prototypical mold. Finding those guys will be incredibly challenging, and the organization's already done an impressive job of that. But if I can help find one of those guys every like five years, I'll be very successful."

Kassam's road to Pittsburgh has to be considered a success already, if only for its geography.

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, to parents of Indian descent, who journeyed to Canada by way of East Africa, Kassam attended Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and earned a degree in electrical engineering. He studied in England for a Master's in computer science, but wanted more.

"I was in England studying artificial intelligence, trying to figure out how people think and then program it into computers," he said. "Eventually the people-think side became more interesting, so I wanted to get into psychology."

From there he attended grad school at Harvard to study psychology, and there he met an undergraduate student who would influence his football direction.

"When the Khans took over the Jacksonville Jaguars, they hired him as their analytics director," Kassam said of his Harvard friend. "That was three years ago. And for his first two years there, I was doing some consulting with him, mostly as a side thing. I visited once a year. I wasn't doing a lot for them."

But he was doing something, and it was football-related, and that's when Thomas Tull entered his life.

Tull, of course, is the head man at Legendary Pictures who's an integral part of the Steelers' ownership group. He wanted to install a movie analytics group at Legendary, and by then, Kassam had begun teaching at CMU.

"He found out I was into football," Kassam said. "So we started talking about the Steelers as well."

Kassam had become a Steelers fan in the 1990s while still in Ontario. "They were an exciting team to watch," he said. "They had that great defense with guys like (Carnell) Lake, and they had Kordell Stewart. When you're young, there's nothing more exciting than those guys on the defense and that quarterback, so I kind of fell in love with them then."

This flew right into Tull's wheelhouse, so he began talking to the Steelers about making Kassam and analytics a part of the organization. Kassam demonstrated his wares in 2014 and was hired full-time this year.

"I'm in the scouting department," he said. "Most of my work is stuff that's going to the scouts. Some of it is going to Brandon Hunt, the pro personnel director, and during the season a lot of that stuff is going to coaches. Once the season ends it shifts to full scouting."

Kassam said he's unsure how much of his work is given to Mike Tomlin, or how much heed is being paid to it. "But you know the atmosphere here," Kassam said. "Everyone's committed to winning and everyone's on the same side and just wants as much information as possible. And Coach Tomlin's a really smart dude. If he can get another perspective that can tell him something different, maybe confirm something he already believes, maybe doesn't, whatever it is, it can only help to have more information."

Is Kassam finding that his psychological angles are meshing with his numerical information?

"At first I wasn't sure how much it would, but there's a lot of it that is relevant," he said. "Part of it is in psychology. Aside from the content of psychology, you're doing statistics on people, and that's a certain type and style of statistics that's appropriate when you're looking at people. And if I'm looking at it in my work, doing work on neuroscience or emotion as an academic, or if I'm looking at it in terms of what sort of predictors are there for college players that are going to tell us who's going to be successful, there's a lot that's in common in those statistics.

"Aside from that, I think content-wise what I was studying were aspects of decision-making and how we can make better decisions. That's relevant as well. I think that's relevant to any aspect of life, and definitely football."

And so the search for the next James Harrison or Kelvin Beachum rolls on, but now with unique, statistical input.

"I'm committed," Kassam said, "committed to seven."

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