Eagles provide roadmap to analytics-driven future of NFL

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PHILADELPHIA -- Every decision the Philadelphia Eagles make as an organization is informed by analytics, including the most consequential in-game decision in franchise history -- the one that led to the Philly Special.

There is a large bronze statue at Lincoln Financial Field commemorating the conversation on the sideline between coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Nick Foles during Super Bowl LII that led to the famous playcall on fourth-and-goal late in the first half.

"You want Philly Philly?" Foles asked.

"Yeah," Pederson replied after a beat. "Let's do it."

Far less celebrated is the conversation moments before between Pederson and Ryan Paganetti, who works in conjunction with the Eagles analytics department and has a direct line of communication to the coach in-game. Paganetti, who has a B.S. in economics from Dartmouth and also serves as the team's assistant linebackers coach, is responsible for feeding Pederson math-based recommendations when it comes to, among other things, going for it on fourth down.

Anticipating such a situation, Paganetti clicked into Pederson's headset prior to the Eagles' third-and-goal play against the New England Patriots, a source said, and told him: if we get to fourth down, the light is green.

Pederson took the recommendation and dialed up the reverse quarterback throwback on fourth down. Touchdown, Eagles. Philadelphia took a 10-point lead into the half, and the rest is history.

The relationship between analyst and coach is melding further with the dawn of league-wide player-tracking data. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie predicted in 2016 that this radio frequency identification (RFID) technology would "revolutionize the sport in the long run" and made sure his team was well-positioned to handle the flood of information that hit the NFL as the league released two years' worth of game data last spring.

Since 2014, the NFL has worked with Zebra Technologies to outfit its stadiums with RFID technology that tracks and records the real-time position and movement of all players using a chip embedded under their shoulder pads.

The Eagles were first in line to have the corresponding technology installed in their practice facility in 2014 -- only a third of the league has followed suit in the five years since -- and built up an already-robust analytics department to decode and weaponize the information that has been captured. The Eagles are one of only a few teams applying that information to help shape game plans and strategy, according to Zebra vice president of sports business development John Pollard.

"The Eagles have long been at the forefront of using technological advances and information and trying to utilize that to the best of their advantage," Pollard said. "They're a model organization in terms of considering the use of information and how they actually apply it day in and day out."

Like their NBA and MLB counterparts, Philadelphia's staff has become peppered with Ivy Leaguers as the power of analytics has grown in the sport, from Paganetti to vice president of football operations Andrew Berry (economics/computer science, Harvard). The head of the Eagles' analytics department is Alec Halaby, a Harvard grad and vice president of football operations and strategy, who has the ear of Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman.

In a league that champions parity, teams like the Eagles -- who will play at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 (8:20 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC) -- have found an advantage that threatens to leave old-school organizations in the dust.

Rise of the 'Moneyball' generation

"Even for Harvard, he's a smart guy."

That's the way Dan Adler, director of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins, described Halaby. Undergrads together at Harvard in the mid-2000s, both had a passion for football (Halaby was a quarterback during his high school days in Madison, Wisconsin) and were curious about the largely untapped potential of analytics in that space.

"We both came up at a time where obviously 'Moneyball' came out when we were in high school, and I think we both had similar thoughts of, OK, this is going to apply to other sports as well," Adler said. "We both saw opportunity to use maybe a little different set of information to supplement some of the traditional coach instinct and scouting prophecies, to try to really dig into the data and see if there were maybe ways to provide teams in football value that I think teams in baseball were already realizing."

Both did some work for the website Football Outsiders. Halaby scored an internship with the Eagles as a sophomore in 2007 and another in '09 that led to a full-time analyst role, while Adler got a gig heading the Jaguars' newly created research and development department before transitioning to baseball. The "Moneyball" generation was on the climb.

"[Halaby] showed up like a lot of young people do in pro football, like, 'Oh golly peepers,'" said Howard Mudd, the gruff, fire-spitting veteran offensive line coach of 47 years who was with the Eagles from 2011-2012.

The two didn't appear to have much in common. But Halaby was hungry to learn everything he could and asked if he could sit in with Mudd while he broke down opponents' film. Mudd obliged, and a working relationship grew from there. Over time, he schooled Halaby on techniques and gave him insight into the traits that make for good offensive linemen.

"He needed to find out how certain things are done because in order to commit it to some statistical thing, you better know how it's done and why it's done that way," Mudd said.

Turns out, the two had more in common than you would think. Possessing an analytical mind of his own, Mudd broke defenses down mathematically, collecting data on opponent personnel groupings and alignment to identify when opponents were most likely to blitz. He passed along measurables for evaluating for big men, discovered during his time with the Indianapolis Colts, including 40-yard dash time, which he found was a predictor for a player's longevity in the league.

"Don't compare the 40-yard dash of a 300-pound offensive lineman to a defensive lineman or whatever, compare it to each other," Mudd said. "Over a long period of time, a player that runs more than a 5.4, statistically, doesn't have as good of a chance of lasting five years."

Mudd did most of the teaching, but remembers Halaby bringing up forward-thinking ideas. Halaby would reference Kevin Kelley, the football coach at Pulaski Academy high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, who never punts, which is a math-based approach that has helped his team to multiple state titles. The idea of going for it more on fourth down was a focus of Halaby's from early on.

"He was exploring something that the NFL people weren't doing yet," Mudd said.

The team's working philosophy turned into practice when the open-minded Pederson became coach in 2016. Pederson and Paganetti communicate before every fourth-down situation. The Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times during the 2017 regular season -- second only to the Green Bay Packers (28) -- converting a league-high 17 attempts for a 65% success rate during their Super Bowl run. Since 2016 under Pederson, the Eagles have gone for it on fourth down 78 times, most in the NFL over that span.

With a penchant for asking the right questions and conducting studies that yielded actionable results, Halaby quickly earned the trust of Lurie, former president Joe Banner and Roseman, who champions analytics perhaps more than any other NFL general manager. Before long, Halaby was involved in everything from player evaluation to roster management to game-day prep, and heads one of the most advanced analytics departments in the league.

With the way the game is trending, there is some thought that he is what the GM of the future looks like.

"That's a definite possibility," Adler said. "A lot of teams looking for a person who was the best scout in an organization that has drafted really well, that certainly can be a very successful way of finding a general manager. Somebody with a background like Alec's who is a little more varied and has a pretty good view of big-picture strategy questions, that is definitely the direction baseball has trended toward."

Analytics part of organizational framework

It wasn't that long ago that offering math-based data to a coach bordered on being a contact sport. Banner laughed as one of the more memorable instances of the kind of "bizarre pushback" he experienced as an analytics pioneer popped into his mind.

Shortly after taking over the team in the mid-1990s, Lurie and Banner commissioned professors from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania to conduct various quantitative studies. One concluded passing more on first down would lead to a more productive offense. This ran counter to their offensive coordinator's approach. When the season was over, they brought the study to him. It did not go well.

"To say that this coach went berserk would be an understatement," Banner said, as the outraged coach chewed them out for "thinking we knew better than he did, and interfering, and acting as if we knew football."

Banner did not want to name the offensive coordinator, though the timing points to current Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden.

More and more teams are building up their analytics departments and incorporating them into their organizational fabric. The Baltimore Ravens' hiring of Stanford grad Sean Clement as a quantitative analyst and the Carolina Panthers' move to hire former Eagles employee Taylor Rajack to join their newly created analytics department this offseason are outward signs of the trend.

But there are NFL teams that continue to resist the movement.

"The investment has been one part of the club, and the second thing is that some clubs have not come to terms with the fact that tracking data is important or a vital ingredient of the information set necessary in football," Pollard said. "That is lessening over the last year or so, but I think we have some clubs that have just not looked at tracking data."

Meanwhile, teams such as the Eagles who have been working to master this language for some time have started using the information gleaned from player-tracking data in their game preparation. Teams can efficiently time the pace of play of their opponent -- how fast they get to the line of scrimmage and how many adjustments are made once they get there -- and tailor the tempo at which they practice accordingly. They are using this data to develop schemes, identifying matchups and tendencies they can exploit.

Analytics has not taken over the Eagles organization -- there have been times when Pederson has opted to rely on his gut over math on fourth-down situations, and they continue to value traditional scouting -- but no significant organizational decision is made without an analytical lens. That practice has only grown with the advent of player-tracking data.

"Someone is going to figure out how to best use that information and learn that information faster than others, and they're going to have an advantage," Banner said. "And I can guarantee you the Eagles and a few other teams that have that mindset are going to be on the front end of trying to figure out, 'How can we maximize the use of this information?'

"None of this guarantees success. All it does is give you a little better odds, which in a league that's built to neutralize everything, increasing your odds a little bit in some areas is a big difference."