Sam Francis sits on the sideline during a football game against Middlebury during his junior season at Bates College in 2015. Bates College photo by Brewster Burns

 

Who knew that tailgating could lead to a job in the NFL?

The odds are certainly low, but, then again, Sam Francis has always been good with numbers.

He did need a little bit of luck to break into professional football, but now the Football Data Analyst for the Cincinnati Bengals is trying to take the guessing game out of new head coach Zac Taylor’s game preparation.

Francis, a 2017 graduate of Bates College from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who played both football and lacrosse for the Bobcats, said “a little Bates connection” got him started on his journey from the Lewiston campus to Paul Brown Stadium.

“I was at a tailgate after a lacrosse game, and I was sitting with (teammate Clarke Jones’s father), and talking to him (about my post-college plans), and he looked at me and he’s like, ‘Well, Sam, you don’t sound very excited about it,'” Francis said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m passionate and I’ve learned a lot about the industry of analytics here at Bates.’ … He walked out and popped up his phone and called someone that he knew who works for the (Buffalo) Bills, and came back in and told me I had an interview sometime (the next) week. So kind of just happened randomly, and Bates is kind of to thank for that.”

Francis received an internship with the Bills. Initially, it was supposed to deal with business analytics, but when new head coach Sean McDermott came on board he pulled Francis onto the football side of things.

“Our responsibility was automating the production of their scouting reports right,” Francis said. “It used to be coaches would look through film and sort of aggregate all these statistics manually, whether that be run-pass percentage or the percentage of the time they throw in different situations in different downs, clock management stuff. And with all the data they have, my job was to automate that process so there was no wasted time by coaches gathering all that information.”

Francis went into that internship already having experience breaking down film.

“I know it’s a cliche, but to say that he was a student of the game is an (understatement),” former Bates football head coach Mark Harriman said. “He spent more time looking at video than most guys do, and always had a great grasp of what was going on.”

Bates’ Sam Francis (37) leads a swarm of defenders tackling Middlebury’s Diego Meritusin during the 2015 season at Garecelon Field. Bates College photo by Brewster Burns

Francis said his role with the Bengals will be similar to what he did in Buffalo, where he stayed for the summer of 2017.

Then came a career stop with another NFL connection. Francis took a job with the Kraft Analytics Group in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which is under the umbrella of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

That opportunity also came through a Bates connection. Francis reached out to 2001 graduate Jonathan Fador (another dual-sport athlete in football and lacrosse), who had worked for parent company the Kraft Group, about getting a job for the analytics business. Francis had looked into the Kraft Analytics Group before his Bills internship, but finally got in after his time in Buffalo.

“It was a good experience, but it was on the business side, and that sort of made me realize my passion for wanting to be on the sports side, which is sort of how I ended up in Cincinnati,” Francis said.

As with the Bills, Francis is joining a team at the same time as a new head coach. He arrived in Cincinnati about three weeks ago, and some his responsibilities with the Bengals are still to be determined, since his position a newly created one. But he’s already sat down with Taylor a few times, and Francis said “there will be a lot of interaction with the coaches, especially throughout this offseason.”

“The season’s kicking off, everything’s moving fast, and they’re kind of all over the place right now, especially with him being hired from the Rams, and they had to wait until early February to make that hire official and get him in the building,” Francis said. “So everything’s kind of being done a little faster than normal here right now.”

BRIGHT BOBCAT

Speed shouldn’t be an issue for Francis, especially when it comes to the mental side of the game.

“He was a great football player, good athlete, but he was very, very smart,” Bates assistant football coach Skip Capone said. “He was a kid that was in early watching tape. Tell him things one time and he mastered it. He remembered a lot of stuff. He was a really, really bright kid and just loved Bates football, loved Bates lacrosse. He’s the epitome of a student-athlete. He was an outstanding student.”

Francis double-majored in math and economics at Bates, and he was able to juggle both academics and athletics. He won a Stephen B. Ritter Academic Award (top 10 cumulative GPA for the football program) as a junior, and as a senior he was named to the National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society for scholar-athlete recognition.

“Working to balance both football and lacrosse with all the other commitments I had at Bates — whether that be academics, or jobs on campus, GA-ing, and all those things — kind of puts you in a good position, teaches you the skills you need for this lifestyle, sports work and being sort of fast-paced,” Francis said. “A lot of balls in the air that you’re juggling, and long days, it definitely prepared me very well.”

Sam was no slouch on the field, either. He played in four of the Bobcats’ eight games as a freshman, then seven of eight as a sophomore.

“Watching him go against our offense on the scout team his freshman year, he was always around the ball,” Harriman said. “Obviously, some of that was his athleticism, but, as I came to find out, it was probably more due to his ability to diagnose plays and understand what an offense is doing by formation or backfield sets. He was really, really adept at that. It’s something that I think was a natural ability of his.”

Francis started all eight games at linebacker in both his junior and his senior seasons. He was third on the team in tackles as a junior, with 49, and fourth, with 51, as a senior. He finished his career with 110 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and as a senior he was given Bates’ Alan C. Goddard Award for career improvement.

“He picked it up really quick, and he got into the lineup relatively early in his career,” Capone said. “But he really came into his own as he matured physically in his junior and senior year, and he really made an impact on our defense.

“Those years he was part of our 3-3 package, he was a big part of our defense. We were very, very good defensively and he made a lot of great plays for us. He was very instinctual.”

Bates went 7-1 against rivals Bowdoin and Colby during his career, the lone loss during his freshman campaign. As a senior, he had forced fumbles against both rivals.

CRUNCHING HITS

Later in his career, it was Francis’ job to help line up the defense from his linebacker spot. Harriman, who was also Francis’s linebackers coach, said Francis had a “special” ability to get all three levels of the defense lined up, and he didn’t realize how “impactful” that ability was until Francis had graduated.

Now it will be Francis’ job to help the Bengals make that process a little easier for defensive signal-callers.

“It’s automating scouting reports, creating processes for gathering information efficiently,” Francis said. “The way I look at it is, all the teams across the NFL are provided and pay for these massive pools of data, and my job is to take that and communicate it clearly to the coaches and have that process be efficient and accurate. They spend a lot of time flipping through cutouts and trying to find trends, and different ways they attack opponents, and scout a game plan. My job is, ‘How can we take those questions that you’re answering weekly and raise the answers to the (Microsoft) Surface automatically using the data that they have available?'”

Francis said he’s long had a passion for analytics, and it wasn’t until his time at Bates that he realized the sports involvement with number-crunching was an even stronger love.

“I wrote my thesis on salary and inequality within the NFL, and that was sort of the beginning of the passion in me trying to figure out how to apply my passion for analytics to sports,” Francis said. “But I’ve always loved math and that sort of that stuff because there’s a right and there’s a wrong answer, and that’s always intrigued me.”

Bates’ Sam Francis looks to gain control of the ball after facing off with Plattsburgh State’s Joe Eiseman during the 2017 season. Sun Journal file photo

Francis’ tireless pursuit of the right answer is matched with the work ethic he had on the field.

“There wasn’t a day that Sam came to practice … you know, he felt that was the one place in the whole world he wanted to be, was on Garcelon Field, just getting ready to play whoever,” Capone said. “He was ready to go every single day.”

AN UNLIKELY OUTCOME

A Bates football player making it to the NFL isn’t unprecedented, at least off the field.

Francis is following in the footsteps of former Bobcats quarterback and 2000 graduate Matt Bazirgan worked in the New York Jets’ scouting and pro personnel department for 14 years before becoming the Houston Texans’ director of player personnel in 2018.

Still, even Francis has some disbelief that he has made it to where he has since his NCAA Division III athletic career ended.

“It’s something I would have never predicted, right? Like I thought I was going to go and work a somewhat-math-related desk job in Boston,” Francis said. “And then, just through who I know at Bates, and the relationships I created, I end up with the Bills, and then I go work for the Kraft family with the Kraft Analytics Group, and then I end up here

“I don’t know, life took some crazy turns, but I’m definitely excited where it’s gotten me, and Bates had a lot to do with that.”

“Bottom line,” Capone said, “is a degree from Bates can take you in many different directions, and here’s a kid who’s a really bright kid, and now he’s in the NFL, and I’m really proud of him.”


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