The Philadelphia Eagles have concluded that a heavy focus on player fit is essential to thrive in the modern NFL, so they chase after it in any way they can, from van rides to the airport to trips deep into the cohabitation matrix.
The cohabitation matrix? Executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman dropped the term during a recent interview session, mostly because he just likes to say it. It's a system set up by VP of player personnel Joe Douglas, he explained, that ensures that every person in the building who has a history with a prospective free agent or trade acquisition gets to weigh in on their experiences with that player before the move is made.
“It’s basically like, if Joe was with someone before we signed that player, we’re going to make sure that we ask Joe everything about that player: how he was in the building, how he was outside the building, how he worked, how he learned. It’s an edge," said Roseman. "So when you have people who are in different places, sometimes in the past you go sign a guy and the coach will go, ‘Hey, two stops ago I was with that guy in Buffalo,' and you didn’t know that. So that ensures that we’re getting all the information."
The front office also consults with members of the leadership council -- a group of 13 players that includes safety Malcolm Jenkins, quarterback Carson Wentz and defensive end Brandon Graham -- oftentimes before a signing or a trade.
"That’s probably not the norm in the National Football League but that’s really from the leadership of Coach [Doug] Pederson and what he wants us to do,” Roseman said.
Those conversations can shine a different light on a player with a sterling reputation, or on the flip side, alleviate concerns about someone with perceived baggage. Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, for example, are two players who blended in well on the Super Bowl squad despite questions surrounding both of them coming in.
The Eagles' pre-draft process is also tailored to be extremely culture-conscious.
“Our grading scale isn’t really round-based, it’s more how this person comes in and fits with our team," Douglas said. "Fit is a big thing we discuss in these draft meetings. Chemistry is a hard thing to quantify, right? It’s not an objective thing. It’s a little bit more subjective, but you know when you’ve got it. We had it last year and we’re trying to add to it.”
The current NFL environment has heightened the importance of looking at fit more closely. Roseman notes that because of social media and the incredible speed at which information spreads, evaluators' boards are now very similar, compared to maybe 10 years ago when some extra nights logged on the road might unearth a sleeper that not everyone was wise to. As such, the role of the scout has changed.
Douglas said the job "has gone into almost private investigation as far as what guys do. You try to gather as much information as you can on a player," he said, "and then determine whether this certain person at any position is a fit with what you’re trying to do culture-wise.”
While still talent evaluators, the P.I. part of the gig has grown in prominence. Scouts are trained on how to dig on players, and are taught interview techniques that will net the maximum amount of information in the most efficient way possible. Sources are built up inside and outside of the school walls, not unlike an investigative reporter, and leads are tracked until no stone is left unturned.
The way to get an edge is by finding effective ways to identify which players will blend into the fabric of your team, and which ones will clash.
Sometimes, that means getting a little creative. Douglas has incorporated the practice of giving out "van grades" from his days with the Baltimore Ravens, where a scout drives a prospect to and from the airport and hands in a grade based off that experience. One source said running back Derrius Guice was dinged because of his interaction with the support staff during his time in Philadelphia. His visit to the NovaCare was part of what soured the Eagles on a prospect considered first-round talent.
Their vetting process certainly isn't perfect -- recently-released cornerback Daryl Worley is proof of that -- but they try to increase the hit rate by doing their research and involving the men who actually have to share a locker room, and a huddle, with these individuals.
The Eagles were off-the-charts in the chemistry department last year. They had resolve and they played with joy and they bounced that bounce with the Meek Mill swagger, and it all screamed of molecular harmony. The Eagles don't profess to have found the elusive formula, but appear to have discovered some effective practices, which include making sure every player brought into the fold possesses a certain core trait.
“Ultimately, you want to have a team full of guys that love this game. There is no Plan B. It’s football or nothing. Those are the type of guys that I gravitate towards," said Douglas. "Love of the game. It’s paramount.”