The second of two parts | Part 1
When Doug Pederson was hired in 2016, the Eagles already had an analytics infrastructure in place with Alec Halaby’s team and Ryan Paganetti, a leftover analyst of Chip Kelly’s who worked as a sort-of bridge between personnel and coaching.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie’s original investment had grown from the consultants who then-president Joe Banner had recruited from MIT and Penn to a fully staffed department that worked in football operations. But Andy Reid, like many coaches who were brought up the old way and were successful using those methods, applied analytics with caution.
Kelly took it a step further, but Pederson, partly because he was a neophyte, was willing to leave no stone unturned. It helped that Paganetti, a Dartmouth graduate who majored in economics, presented ideas to Pederson in as conservative a manner as possible.
“I’d be like, ‘If we’re the worst team in the league at fourth downs and fourth-and-1, if we’re the best team in the league at kicking field goals, if we’re the best team in the league at punting, this is still saying to go for it,’” Paganetti said recently said during an appearance on The Taekcast podcast.
“That sort of mindset of not being reckless and having very conservative assumptions was important to give him confidence.”
The Inquirer spent months talking to a dozen team sources, past and present, as well as other league sources familiar with the inner workings of the Eagles to cast a light on the importance of analytics in the organization and to Lurie. The sources, in most cases, requested anonymity because they were unauthorized to speak publicly on the subject, feared retribution, or felt they couldn’t speak freely if named.
Pederson’s aggressiveness is now a part of Eagles lore. He went for and converted more fourth downs than any coach from 2016-17, the most significant, of course, coming in Super Bowl LII with “Philly Special.”
But even after the Eagles’ championship, some assistants on staff still didn’t grasp the methodology. In a 2018 game, the Eagles scored a touchdown to narrow the Vikings’ lead to eight points with about 12 minutes left. Paganetti’s chart said go for two, but when he told Pederson over the headset, several coaches shouted their objections, sources said.
The Eagles converted, but still lost the game. Nevertheless, Pederson gave his team the best chance to win based on the numbers. He called out the objecting assistants in a later meeting. It helped to have a supportive owner, Paganetti explained.
Lurie’s “presence and his mindset of being in support of the head coach,” Paganetti said on the podcast, “was like, ‘Hey, you may do something insanely controversial, but if it’s backed up by the numbers, I’m going to stand up for you. You may get crucified in the media if it doesn’t work, but I believe in the numbers, and over time these decisions will work out for us.’”
Lurie and Halaby, through a team spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this story. Pederson also declined.
» READ MORE: The Inquirer previews the 2021 Eagles
The Eagles aren’t alone among NFL teams who have faced resistance in the implementation of analytics. Paraag Marathe followed Banner’s lead in growing the 49ers’ research and development teams. More recently, Paul DePodesta, of Moneyball fame, was hired by the Browns to bring his statistics-based sensibility to the NFL.
Both have faced obstacles, namely traditionalists who acted as if analytics were akin to the rise of machines. Or they failed to comprehend that, when used properly, it’s mostly a safeguard against dogmatic thinking.
Lurie, though, sometimes felt that even Pederson wasn’t aggressive enough. He was frustrated, for instance, when in the divisional playoff game against the Falcons in 2017, the Eagles kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 to increase their lead to 15-10 with around six minutes left, sources close to the situation said.
It was a toss-up call, but it appeared Pederson’s gut instinct was correct after Atlanta drove all the way to the Eagles 2-yard line on its ensuing possession.
Halaby increasingly advanced the progressive idea that coaches should go for it on fourth down early in games, and depending upon the yardage, even as far back as inside a team’s own 10-yard line, team sources said.
This was radical for even many in analytics circles. But Halaby had long pushed for the devaluing of field position and admired forward-thinkers like Kevin Kelley, the former Arkansas high school coach who rarely punted and almost always followed a touchdown with an onside kick.
Paganetti, meanwhile, started to make his own charts for fourth downs and two-point conversions and in 2017 Pederson brought him onto the coaching staff full-time.
While this allowed for a streamlining of the operation, Pederson had also grown wary of Halaby’s analysis on game planning, which often didn’t take into account all the shifting variables he might have to consider on any given play.
“Doug might get a report that stated blankly, ‘Eagles should throw deep left targets out of 12 personnel vs. the Giants this week,’ ” one source close to Pederson said. “And he would be like, ‘Uh, what? How many times did that actually occur?’ ”
Paganetti declined to be interviewed for this story, but sources close to the situation said he had more success getting Pederson and coaches like offensive coordinator Frank Reich to be receptive to his data because he found ways to supplement their traditional scheming.
“He would be so excited when something that came from a report that I generated matched up with what he had also independently seen on film,” Paganetti said of Reich on the podcast. “He would go, ‘Aw, man, this is like perfect.’
“It was something that was more to complement the game plan. I wasn’t saying, ‘You must do this or you must do that.’”
One of Lurie’s concerns was that this, too, represented a groupthink mentality in which only data that reinforced preconceived notions was being utilized. And any abstruse hypothesis, partly because of who generated it, was immediately dismissed.
When Halaby advocated for his analysis, Pederson would often bristle and in the middle of the 2017 season got so irate that his rising voice spilled out of his office and echoed down the halls of the NovaCare Complex, team sources said.
Some Eagles sources described their personalities as oil and water and that every NFL team similarly has tension within its staff. But after the Super Bowl as the Eagles were reconstructing their draft room, it was decided that the analytics staff would be moved out of the north side of the NovaCare.
The company line was that there wasn’t enough space on the football side, but there were vacancies until Andrew Berry, now the Browns’ GM, was hired as vice president of football operations the next year. It was simply understood that Pederson engineered the relocation.
Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ general manager, told some scouts that Berry would oversee analytics. He told others he hoped that he could help assuage the divide between Pederson and Halaby. But Berry, despite his Harvard degree in economics and masters in computer science, wasn’t ever directly involved in its application.
In 2018, Warren Sharp, an independent analyst who specializes in “visualized data,” was recruited as a consultant. Pederson wasn’t told of Sharp’s inclusion until after he was hired, sources said.
“It became the most confusing, dysfunctional situation you could ever imagine,” a source close to the situation said. “And it just turned into a [20-20 hindsight] questioning atmosphere.”
The Eagles continued to be aggressive, but they weren’t as successful both on fourth down and in the win-loss column. Their success in 2017, though, helped spawn a movement in the NFL. By 2020 the rate of coaches’ aggressiveness — a Football Outsiders (advanced NFL statistics) metric — had more than doubled.
» READ MORE: Analyzing all 53 Eagles players on the 2021 roster
Organizations that had been reluctant to embrace analytics were finally catching up. The Panthers hired the MIT-educated Taylor Rajack away from the Eagles in 2019, and the Titans became the last team to employ an analytics department this year.
The Eagles, meanwhile, regressed for reasons far more pertinent to quantitative success: substandard drafts, coaching turnover, injuries, poor quarterback play and monotonous schemes. They weren’t losing because the analytics weren’t being applied properly, just like they didn’t win in 2017 only because they were.
“The reality is we also could have punted or kicked field goals in certain situations and we probably would have won anyways,” a team source said, “because the talent was there, the quarterbacks played well and we had a top-five defense.”
Still, in retrospect, Pederson’s final undoing might have come in Week 3 of last season when the NFL’s most aggressive coach punted in overtime and settled for a tie.
Like many owners, Lurie has had weekly meetings with his coaches, but they typically occurred later in game week after all the preparation was nearly done. But with Pederson those meetings were held on Tuesdays, and partly because of the timing, when game decisions were discussed, Lurie’s comments could come as nitpicking, sources close to the situation said.
The owner certainly was within his right, and according to some team sources, Pederson’s conflict-adverse personality played a part in Lurie taking a more hands-on approach.
“Doug allowed it,” a source close to the situation said. “To some extent, Jeff stepped over the line. He also felt that he had to step in because his coach wasn’t being proactive enough. But Doug needed to give it back more than he did.
“And Jeff saw it slipping away.”
Future of analytics
Nick Sirianni, the Eagles’ new head coach, is essentially a blank slate. He has understandably kept his plans close to the vest. He has spoken of his openness to analytics and the ways it can be used as a supplement to traditional game planning.
But he has also stressed the “human feel” to play calling, while offensive coordinator Shane Steichen spoke of the importance of a coach’s “gut feeling” in game management.
The bulk of both coaches’ NFL careers were spent with the traditionalist Chargers. Reich had adopted some of Pederson’s aggressiveness as Colts head coach, so Sirianni, as his offensive coordinator for three seasons, was likely exposed to charts similar to the ones the Eagles used.
He said the majority of his game planning will be based on film study. He also said that he was willing to circle back if there is contrary data. But Sirianni said he would be wary of selective math.
“In analytics, you want to know what the sample size you’re working with, too, is, right?” he said. “You get one game of analytics and it says this team is really good against 12 personnel. Well, who were those guys in 12 personnel that they were playing against the last time, right?
“So, you’ve got to think it’s always, always, always, always about the players first. … It’s still – I guess the old saying goes, ‘It’s about the Jimmys and Joes, not the Xs and Os.’ ”
Cliches aside, it’s unclear how much weight Sirianni will place on analytics. Halaby returns for his 14th season in Philadelphia, and his staff remained untouched in the offseason aside from one departure. Paganetti was not retained.
Sirianni doesn’t have an assistant on staff with a specific title related to analytics or game management. As far as who will fill the role on game days, he said it would be “a group effort.”
He did provide some detail on how headset communication will be handled. He said that pass game coordinator Kevin Patullo will be responsible for feeding him information related to “scenario.” Sirianni also said that he will feed his offensive calls to Steichen, who will pass it along to the quarterback.
Jon Ferrari, vice president of football operations and compliance, previously aided Pederson on rules and officiating, having previously worked for the league. He could have a larger role in terms of game management.
Sirianni declined to tip his hand on fourth down and field position aggressiveness. He said he handled the first preseason game as he would a regular-season game. On the Eagles’ first possession, he kicked a field goal on fourth-and-7 at the Steelers 29. Later in the second quarter, he kicked again at the 29, this time on fourth-and-4.
While standard analytics would have supported the first kick, the second was a toss-up.
“We have a chart,” Sirianni said. “We have what it says. But you have to be ready to adjust.”
How much room will Sirianni leave for adjustment? More than the 4 percent Lurie allowed for “instinctual predilection,” when he laid out the math for when to go for it or not on fourth down in 2017?
And what about run-pass ratio? Lurie’s analytically supported pass-first preferences were ahead of the curve. But even after an upset at Green Bay he found reason to nitpick Pederson’s ground-heavy play calling, sources said, even though the Packers’ defensive set-up begged him to run.
“The only messaging that I’ve ever gotten from Mr. Lurie,” Sirianni said when asked about his boss’ run-pass bent, “is: ‘Do what you need to do to win games and I will support [you].’”
In Lurie’s 25-plus years as owner, the NFL has expanded exponentially and with it his franchise. Analytics is just one piece of the much bigger pie, but it is an entrenched part of all NFL football operations that will only grow as teams seek any competitive edge.
Still, the majority of GMs come with scouting backgrounds. Only a few, like Roseman, came from the business side. There isn’t yet a Theo Epstein, baseball’s version of an analytics guy who successfully made the crossover to GM, in the NFL if Halaby has those aspirations.
Halaby’s relationship with Lurie, like the one the owner has with Roseman, has been described by some sources as imperishable. He also forged a bond with Lurie’s son, Julian, that some team insiders described as nothing more than “friendly.”
They did both attend Harvard but not at the same time. They talk on the sidelines before games. And they do have conversations on topics related to their kinship for analytics, sources said.
Julian Lurie isn’t always around the team. He is currently a senior manager of business strategy at Overtime, the sports network and branding company based in Brooklyn, according to his LinkedIn page.
But his father has increasingly placed him in various settings to learn the family business, most significantly the head coaching interviews in which Julian Lurie was a stand-in for analytics. He didn’t have a major say in the Sirianni hire, but he did have “a meaningful voice in their discussions about who they liked and who they didn’t,” a front office source said.
“It may not be fair, but a [prospective] head coach walks in and he sees the owner’s son there, and he’s 25-years old, it’s not ideal,” the front office source said. “But that’s clearly where this is headed. And there’s absolutely no doubt there was a significant difference in his role from Doug to now.”
Born into ownership, and unlike his father, Julian Lurie will be a lifelong Eagles fan when he is given an active role and inevitably succeeds him.
But Jeffrey Lurie, who turned 70 on Wednesday, has no apparent plans of slowing down. His presence at Sirianni’s first training camp was the same as ever. He remains as hands-on with the Eagles as ever, team sources said.
Which begs the question: Will he continue to have Tuesday meetings with the head coach?
The Eagles’ official response: No comment.