RENTON, Wash. — A decade ago, Todd Nielson worked part time for the Green Bay Packers at $6 an hour.
Now, he’s quietly invaluable to the Seattle Seahawks.
Nielson gathers and crunches numbers, studies probabilities, looks for any sliver of data concerning the Seahawks or opposing teams that could give Seattle an edge. That includes drawing up statistical reports for Coach Pete Carroll and his assistants, documenting plays and coverages during games, and even analyzing officiating crews for their specific tendencies.
“You look at it, and eventually it’s going to pop off the paper at you,” said Nielson, who spends much of his day at his modest cubicle, sleuthing tendencies.
“My interaction with Coach Carroll is very limited,” he said. “I go in his office when he’s not there, and I drop a piece of paper on his desk with what he calls ‘the orange stuff’ on it, which is the highlighted stuff.”
Throughout the week, Nielson fields requests from coaches — for instance, compile all the New York Jets’ runs in goal-to-go situations — then creates a written report, complete with corresponding video.
“The stats tell you the when and the where,” he said. “The video tells you the how and the why.”
Nielson started as a part-time employee with the Packers in 2002, when he was a sophomore at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis., making the 1 1/2-hour drive north several times a week to make copies and staple reports. There, he learned under longtime Packers statistician Mike Eayrs.
Later, Nielson got a job analyzing numbers for the Minnesota Vikings. Several NFL teams have similar statistical analysts, but Carroll embraces the information as much or more than any coach, and has since the early 1980s.
“I get numbers thrown at me all day long, just looking for justification or motivational thoughts or the truth,” Carroll said. “It’s compelling. Sometimes you get really good stuff.”
Nielson studies the patterns of what certain officiating crews call, and what they let go. In a report to Carroll, he’ll remind the coach that referee Walt Anderson is a retired dentist and a proud graduate of the University of Texas. The coach might want that information for an icebreaker. Any little edge.
On game day, Nielson is on the field and wearing a headset, charting the formation, protection and play of every Seahawks snap. As soon as a drive ends, he talks to quality-control coaches in the booth to get the defensive front and coverage on all those plays.
He then makes a beeline for the running backs and tight ends coaches, and they match up the data with the instant black-and-white stills that the Seahawks shoot from the sideline and end-zone angles. It’s vital to know how defenses are lining up against different offensive packages.
“We’re obviously running plays to gain yards, obviously,” Nielson said. “But we’re also running plays to see, OK, what are they showing us here? So next time when you’ve got that personnel up, or next time we go in that formation, we can do something different.”