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For the Love of the Game

Posted Jul 30, 2012

For those that love the NFL the addiction to the game usually begins on the living room sofa, eyes glued to the television, soaking up the big hits and amazing catches.

However unlike most of those that love the game, Pro Football Focus’ founder Neil Hornsby’s sofa was in northern England.

“Back in 1983 they used to show highlight programs in the UK and it was San Francisco against Miami, Montana against Marino. Miami won that game in San Francisco I think. I’ve still got it on DVD somewhere…”, Hornsby said. “That was probably the first game that I actually saw.”

Hornsby relates this story, with a heavy northern English accent, from the sidelines of the practice field at Chargers Park as he watches the team run through drills. He’s here as a traveling companion to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, checking out eight training camps across the country in eight days (San Diego is their second stop) for the second year in a row.  While his trip this week may be fascinating, it’s nothing compared to the journey he’s been on over the past 30 years. 

Having been bitten by the football bug in the early 80’s growing up just a few miles south of the Scottish border, Hornsby began reaching out to those covering the NFL through e-mail, including King. What started off as a sporadic correspondence between the two eventually helped lead Hornsby to his current occupation.

“Peter had written an article and I sent him an e-mail and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ in my more cocky years and it just turned out that it was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever said. It’s what partially forced me to do this because I realized that… picking information, second-hand information, was never going to get it done.”

So Hornsby created Pro Football Focus, a company he started in 2007 that provides detailed game information to teams, agents and fans. “What we do is we take every NFL game and we tell you exactly which players are on the field for each individual play, what position they play, what their role is, what they generically did – did they blitz, did they stay in the box, etc. – and then we tell you how well they did it,” Hornsby said.

While teams have reams of information and numbers, Pro Football Focus provides a level of analysis that goes beyond statistics. “Nobody else has snap counts, nobody else has that information,” Hornsby said. “There’s a whole host of other information on the routes that are run on a particular play. Who was in coverage on those particular plays. When we say whether a tackle gave up a hit, a sack or a pressure we can also tell you if that was on the outside of the tackle, the inside of the tackle, via bull rush.” And with meetings set up with a number of teams during his week-long training camp trip, there’s a clear interest in the NFL for the information he provides.

As for his thoughts on the Chargers, he loves the addition of LB Jarret Johnson (“I’m not sure there’s a better player against the run from the outside linebacker position in the NFL”, he wrote) and believes that fullback Le’Ron McClain and wide receiver Eddie Royal will be valuable assets to the Chargers offense.

Despite the time that he and his employees dedicate to their craft (analyzing one game can take up to 24 man hours), Hornsby couldn’t be happier with his chosen profession.

“I always believed that the best way to earn a living is by doing the thing you love the most, because that’s the thing that you’ll do the best,” Hornsby said. “I’ve never worked harder, but never felt like I was working less.”

As the sun began to set on Chargers Park, Hornsby returned his attention to watching the Chargers practice,  the game he’s loved for nearly 30 years.  It’s easy to see why.

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