By John Turney
So who is he? Siwoff was a WWII veteran was received a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Italy. After returning from the war Siwoff, in 1952, after a stint as the company accountant, purchased what was then Elias Bureau and renamed it Elias Sports Bureau and in 1961 he was hired to organize and product and distribute run the statistics for the National Football League which he has done so ever since. Even now, at age 97, he remains the president of Elias Sports Bureau.
"All that aside, the fact is that pro football's upsurge in popularity has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the statistics that surround it, a phenomenon that Siwoff has openly aided and abetted. Until 1966, for example, individual field-goal records were confined largely to the number of goals and total attempts. Siwoff has since amplified those records to reflect the number of field goals and attempts according to distance—one to 19 yards, 20 to 29 yards, etc. Similarly, statistics on punt and kick-off returns were maintained separately until the St. Louis Cardinals' Chuck Latourette had a big and busy season in both last year. After research by Siwoff, two new categories have been added in the 1969 NFL official record book:
Most Combined Kick Returns, Season 74 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (28 punts, 46 kickoffs)
Most Yardage, Combined Kick Returns, Season 1,582 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (345 punts, 1,237 kickoffs)
Siwoff also added new stats such as team sacks (then called 'times tackled attempting to pass') in 1963 because he saw the yardage total the league had been using and new there had to be a numerative feature to match with the yardage. He added the individual sack in 1982 (with prompting from Jet GM Jim Kensil).
In addition to all the work/improvement, Seymour contributed to the record book and the standard statistics is all the next-level statistics that started under him—Things like red-zone statistics, quarterback W-L records, game-winning drives, average yard line starts, third-down percentages, fourth-down percentages as well as just about all esoteric NFL statistics you've seen in the 1960s-2000s—data that is used to enhance every NFL telecast now—all began under Seymour’s direction at Elias.
Add to that the idea of taking statistics and making fun/interesting facts out of them––most career TD passes from one QB to one receiver, most consecutive starts by a QB, oldest player to start a Super Bowl––all these notes that fill every NFL and team PR release before every game days––started with Seymour and his staff. Heck, just go to Pro Football Reference the online statistical site, How much of that is NOT the initial work of Elias Sports Bureau?
We at Pro Football Journal have had our disagreements with Siwoff over the years. He was adamantly against backdating the individual sack statistics, which we at have attempted to do, but it's an honest disagreement and we respect his perspective. In fact, we don't think they should be official, just available so there wasn't that much of a disagreement.
Also, we called for Elias to backdate net punting stats from 1960-75 (they are available in the 1950s and became official in 1976 but there is a black hole which we'd love to see filled) but again, it's just a disagreement. It does not take away, in our view, Siwoff's contributions to the game of football. And that net punting average is another added stat that Seymour embraced—the idea that the punter’s statistics shouldn’t suffer if he was good at hitting the coffin corner instead of kicking five years further and having it come out to the 20, which is of course why we want it for the missing years. In our own research (which is incomplete) we show Bobby Joe Green may be the most underrated punter ever because he kicked for a high net average year-in and year-out before it was "cool". But without Siwoff adding it we wouldn't have the basis by which to compare, so even in our small differences we only are at the starting point because of Siwoff so who are we to complain?
In addition to the fan enjoyment and understanding of the game, NFL coaches use the work of Elias to set goals and maintain quality control. Here is a shot of the 1980 Los Angeles Rams defensive playbook and the 2009 New York Giants defensive playbook. Both used NFL stats to show what the league did overall and what the league averages are in certain key statistics.
Try playing fantasy football without accurate statistics organized and standardized by Seymour. In that vein, Siwoff has contributed more for a longer period of time (and no offense to these good men) than Edward DeBartolo, Jerry Jones, and Pat Bowlen, three recent owners who are or will soon be in the Hall of Fame. They all bought teams and did good things, for the most part. But if three other men had purchased those teams would things have been different?
What if someone less dedicated to accuracy and innovation had been hired to do the NFL stats in 1963? It's pretty clear NFL fans LOVE statistics and in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s those statistics were a part of the game's growth and storyline.
And to us, that is one way how you can measure contributions—how pervasive are they? The work Siwoff pioneered touches nearly every article, most every Tweet, every book, every blog, and every website that has NFL football as it's subject.
And here is the key: It so so pervasive that it is taken for granted thousands and thousands of times a day, every day. Football fans expect to click on a link or any football site and get statistics. And those who take the more basic stats and twist and turn them to get a DVOA or N/YPA or anything else starts with the work of Elias. There is no way to do most analytics without them. Siwoff's work became more like a utility than anything, like electricity or running water, we expect it to be there as football fans. That is an impact, that is a contribution.
Again, from Kirshenbaum,"For all that enthusiasm, though, Siwoff knows enough to keep his statistics—and himself—in proper perspective. "There's more to sports than just data," he acknowledges. "You have to look at the broader picture, too. In football, a guy might gain a lot of yards rushing. But it could say more about his blocking or the other team's defense than it does about his own ability. And look at fielding figures in baseball; they tell you tragically little. Even an outfielder's assists don't mean much. If he has a really good arm, he might not have too many assists because they're all afraid to run on him."
So, Seymour gets it. Our motto at PFJ is "Football is art. I like the numbers, and love to count things. But I love the art more." and Siwoffs comments are similar, "There's more to sports than just data,". Amen, brother.
Look, we are in favor of George Young getting into the Hall of Fame as soon as possible. But we also strongly support those outside-the-box contributors like Steve Sabol and yes, Seymour Siwoff. We don't think they served on as many NFL committees as DeBartolo, Modell, Jones, Bowlen or Kraft, but the contributions are great in terms of reach and enjoyment and growth of the game than any of these modern owners in our view.
Siwoff is a vital character in the NFL's unwritten history. Sure, one could write the history of the NFL without him (many have) but when you mention Johnny Unitas's 47-consecutive game streak with a touchdown pass or Eric Dickerson's 2105 yards you only know that because of Siwoff and because of that he should be a very serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the contributor's category. His contributions are really incalculable.
Note: Special thanks to Tod Maher for the information that the NFL hired Elias in 1961, not 1963.