ESPN recently released a cool feature on their site where they researched the strength of analytic staffs of 122 sports teams across four major leagues: the NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NFL. It was no surprise to the the Philadelphia's basketball team at the top given Sam Hinkie's approach to rebuilding the Sixers. You may or may not be surprised, however, to see that the Sixers aren't the only analytic-friendly team in town. According to ESPN, the Eagles are one of nine teams in the NFL classified as "believers." From their description:
Eagles were one of the healthiest teams in 2014
For the second straight year, the Philadelphia Eagles were among the healthiest teams in the NFL. #SportsScience
"Led by coach Chip Kelly and "sports science coordinator" Shaun Huls, who earned his stripes training Navy SEALs, the Eagles have developed a health regimen that incorporates hydration tracking, individualized smoothies, sleep monitors, daily massage therapy and Catapult's player-output technology. Under Kelly, who consolidated control of the football side of the organization in January, the Eagles will consider any technology, data or strategy on the market.
The Eagles have used analytics over the years as much as any other NFL team, dating back to Dick Vermeil and more recently Andy Reid (now in Kansas City), Joe Banner (now in Atlanta) and recently-deposed GM Howie Roseman, whose influence is now limited to contracts and salary cap management. The Eagles employ a small team of analysts and consultants, even after the departure of Mike Frazier, who joined Reid with the Chiefs.
While Kelly was expected to innovate on and off the field in Philly, he hasn't asked the Eagles to convert fourth downs as frequently as he did at Oregon. Then again, the Ducks' potent offense was facing college defenses.
As one informed member of the NFL analytics community put it, "You can arrive at the same answer through math or through experience. I think he arrived at those answers at Oregon through experience. He has an open mind, but he lets the situation dictate what he does."
Much has been made of the Eagles sports science program. As BGN's James Keane notes, in two years under Chip Kelly, the Eagles sports science program has maximized player health relative to other NFL teams.
But beyond the smoothies, what else are the Eagles actually using analytics for? Back in 2013, Eagles' assistant to the general manager Alec Halaby and then-GM Howie Roseman touched on the topic in a media session with reporters. Here's what I wrote at the time:
"Howie talked about the role of analytics. He said he feels its the way the world is going: important to combine the objective (analytics) with the subjective (watching tape).
Howie said Alec Halaby (mentioned later) is a "safeguard" for their staff. He does a stellar job of bringing objective information during decision making.
The role of analytics in football compared to more analytic friendly sports like baseball and even basketball was discussed. In baseball/basketball, advanced stats are more publicly accessible and accepted. Football is more of a challenge.
"Roseman: For us, the big part of analytics is making sure that the tape matches the measurements. When I look back at some of the mistakes that not only we have made, but have been made around the league, a lot of times you look at guys that flash on tape. Maybe they show incredible toughness. Maybe they dominate a low level of competition. But when you look at their measureables, there's very few, if any, players succeeding with those sort of traits. So [Alec] is a safeguard for us. He makes sure that we're just not looking at the tape. You talk about the percentage of hitting [on a pick] in the draft, and hitting on a first round pick in the draft is 50 or 60 percent in the first round. Now if you take a guy who doesn't have the measureables that the players who are successful at that position, you're decreasing your odds again. So now you're talking about taking the 50 percent down to maybe 20, 15, 10 percent. And no matter how much you like that guy you probably have to let him go."
And here's what Halaby had to say:
"Halaby: You see what's on the tape and you augment and enrich it with the data and I feel it enriches the analysis and kind of guides you with the final evaluation."
Halaby on advanced stats: "It's challenging in football because it's 11 on 11. It's inherently a complex thing that's happening [compared to baseball/basketball]. As in terms of a single number [like WAR in baseball], there isn't a holy grail or a magic bullet."
Once again, this was back in 2013. A lot has changed since then. Halaby is still with the team. But his role of "special assistant to the GM" doesn't make much sense now that there's no actual GM and Roseman being moved out of player personnel. Perhaps he will be involved in helping Chip Kelly and Ed Marynowitz, but it remains to be seen how it plays out.
Among the other teams listed as believers in analytics include: the Atlanta Falcons, the Baltimore Ravens, the Dallas Cowboys, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Kansas City Chiefs, the New England Patriots, and the San Francisco 49ers. 16 teams, which is exactly half of the league, have been ruled as either skeptics or non-believers. The Philadelphia Phillies rank dead last out of all 122 professional teams.