The State of The Eagles

As per usual, I returned from two weeks off the grid to find the Eagles in complete disarray.  I missed Chip’s firing, the last game of the season (a regretful win), and most of the “coaching search”.  However, that does put me in an interesting position, in that I was able to view things from a much different perspective than everyone else who was caught up in the narrative along the way.  What follows are my thoughts on a lot of different aspects of the team.  Lighter on stats/numbers than usual, but I just wanted to get high-level thoughts out there before they get stale.

Chip Kelly

A damn shame.  I still think Chip can be a great coach in this league, but it’s clear he won’t be a great GM.  If he ultimately can’t settle for just coaching, I expect we’ll see him return to college within a year or two.  Much has been written about Chip, so I won’t rehash it all here.  Let me just throw a few main points out and move on:

– I admire the emphasis on “culture”.  As I get older, I’ve found I’m more and more interested in having a team I’m happy to root for, rather than one that’s comprised of terrible people, no matter how often they win.  There are also unquantifiable benefits from having a great culture in place.  However, I don’t think Chip has any idea what real culture is.  As you might imagine, we talk a lot about this stuff in my MBA program, because culture is both really important to have and really difficult to develop.

Chip’s idea of culture looks like the football equivalent of casual Friday or crazy shirt day in a corporate setting.  It’s a shallow artifact.  Yes, it’s important to have players who work hard and buy into the system.  But if you take it too far, you end up with unthinking robots (slight hyperbole).  In a dynamic, relatively chaotic game like football, creativity and adaptability are vital to success.  As should be obvious, in this world unthinking robots won’t win.

This is especially problematic when you sacrifice talent in exchange for the “right” players.  I posted on this a while ago, but to repeat: It’s impossible to optimize along more than 2 dimensions, and it’s close to impossible to optimize along more than 1.  So for every additional point of emphasis placed on culture, there is a necessary tradeoff in talent.  Finding the balance is key, and it seems clear Chip didn’t know where that balance was.

– The GM learning curve – Chip showed no signs of getting up it.  A huge part of getting up to speed is continuous self-evaluation and iteration.  It’s possible for someone without NFL experience to become a good GM, but you have to assume you’re going to make a lot of mistakes early.  That’s ok, in fact it’s important.  What’s more important, though, is recognizing those mistakes, identifying why they were made, and avoiding them in the future.  Chip showed little appetite for self-scouting/criticism, which is extremely disappointing.  That, ultimately, is why he didn’t succeed here.  He didn’t evolve from year-to-year and didn’t seem overly interested in doing so.  EVERY coach/GM has to do that to be successful, as the league is constantly improving/adapting.  As a new coach/GM, it’s even more imperative, because you need to close the experience gap as quickly as possible, lest you wash out before doing so.

As I mentioned above, I think Chip could be very successful, IF all he does is focus on coaching.  Maybe he does that in SF, in which case things are going to get very painful for Eagles fans.  Given his apparent inflexibility, though, I think a safer bet is Chip forcing his way into control or leaving without it.

Job Specialization

Nobody should be both Head Coach and GM.  Honestly, I’m shocked any NFL team still allows this to happen.  Not only are each of those jobs really difficult (and more than full-time roles independently), but they require entirely different skills sets.  Moreover, a key aspect of the GM’s job is objectivity.  He needs to be able to assess each player’s value on an objective basis.  As a Head Coach, you have far too much contact with each player to maintain such objectivity.  So, even if you find someone who has both skill-sets (being elite in both areas should, theoretically, be extraordinarily rare), that person is STILL disqualified from being the GM for lack of objectivity.

In fact, I’d take the importance of specialization even further.  I don’t think the head coach should call the plays.  Let the OC call the plays, the DC call the defense.  The HC should focus on higher-level strategy and oversee the OC/DC, providing insights where he can.

As anyone who has watched Andy Reid can attest, calling the plays while also being charged with things like time management and replay challenges is too much for one person.  I’d want to find a coach who understands this and accepts it (Pederson seems like he does, though perhaps not for the right reasons).

Doug Pederson

Not thrilled, not disappointed.  Coaching hires are perhaps the hardest things for fans to evaluate in real time.  The decision process and data is almost entirely non-public, meaning we have absolutely nothing to base a judgement on.  At least with players we can go watch tape and review statistics, developing opinions based on that.  That’s still a very difficult thing to do well, especially for fans.  Coaching, though, is much more about strategic vision, management skills, player development, etc…  Outsiders just don’t have any evidence to work from, unless we’re looking at a coach with a very long track record.

That’s a long way of saying this: you really shouldn’t have an opinion on Doug Pederson.  If anything, you should be cautiously optimistic.

In that vein, here’s what I like about him:

  • Former QB – That should count for something.  He spent 10 years in the league, and played with McNabb and Favre.  Presumably, he spent a lot of time studying the game and seeing it from the player’s viewpoint.  That should prepare him well to identify with his players, something Chip Kelly might have struggled with.  It also provides him with a lot of credibility, which is really important for any leader to have prior to stepping in on day one.
  • Not talented – Not only was he a QB, but he wasn’t a very good one.  I like that.  I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s a safe bet that Pederson had such a long career in the league because he worked very hard and knew the game very well, and people probably liked playing/dealing with him.  He clearly didn’t stick around because of his physical attributes.  With little else to go off of, we could do a lot worse than a likable guy that works really hard and knows the game really well.
  • Backed up McNabb, Favre, and Couch – Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but Pederson should have a unique perspective on QB development.  He saw a young prospect develop into a star (McNabb), he saw a young prospect fail (Couch), and he worked with an all-time great (Favre).  Hopefully he gleaned some insight into why some guys succeed and others fail and can apply that here when finding/developing a new QB.

So that’s why I’m hopeful.  Of course, if Roseman can’t address some of the roster issues, it’s not going to matter much.

The Coaching Search

The whole coaching search narrative is a joke.  We don’t know who Lurie’s true “#1” option was and, regardless, IT DOESN’T MATTER.  The margin of error for coaching hires is huge.  Just as it’s important to recognize the margin of evaluation error in scouting/draft, we need to do the same with coaches. In other words:

How certain are you that your top choice is a better coach/will be a better coach than your 2nd choice?

As a fan, the answer is almost definitely “not at all”.  For Lurie, who presumably has a lot of info we don’t, the answer is probably “a little”.  Given the qualitative nature of both the evaluation and the job itself, I just can’t imagine a scenario where the top choice and the second choice (and further along), don’t have significant overlap when you apply a confidence interval or margin of error to the process.

So, don’t feel bad about not getting McAdoo or Gase, or whoever you think Lurie really wanted.  1) we don’t actually know who the top choice was, 2) even if we did, we don’t know the margin by which that person was the top choice (really important), and 3) the margin of error for these hires is so large, that it likely doesn’t matter anyway.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other factors that go into getting a “great” coach (ahem…the QB…ahem), and we should spend more of our time focusing on those things than on who the media says was the best guy.  If Roseman is a great GM and they find a QB, the coach suddenly becomes a bit less important.

The QB Position

I don’t particularly like Sam Bradford.  He’s been a bad QB most of his career, with brief flashes of mediocrity.  That said, the Eagles aren’t bad enough to truly bottom out and get a top QB prospect, so we’re caught in no-man’s land.  In light of that, I’d franchise Bradford.  The West Coast offense that Pederson will presumably bring with him should be a great fit for Bradford, so maybe things finally click.  At the very least, you get some stability at the position, and the freedom to take a QB in the draft and get a year of practice/evaluation before deciding to turn things over to him.  Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can even trade Bradford to some QB desperate team.

The only negative is a the cost, but given the roster, the Eagles likely won’t need that additional cap space next year.

Don’t forget the young WRs. The Eagles have invested a lot of resources in the WR corps., which still has a lot of developing to do.  Stability at QB would seem to be helpful in that regard.  Absent a compelling reason to change things, keeping Bradford for another year seems to be the best course of action.

Jason Peters and the OL

Perhaps the most upsetting storyline of the season was the regression of Jason Peters.  The team’s best player for a while, Peters declined before our eyes this year, despite my prediction that he could be expected to play at a high level for 2-3 more years (the aging curve post).  Maybe he can shift inside to G and prolong his career.  In any case, it’s clear the OL is now a huge concern.

I really wish I couldn’t say “I told you so”, but I’ve been warning for several years now that the OL is not a unit that can be built and forgotten about.  It requires continual maintenance and investment.  Basically, if you’re not spending at least a late round pick every year on the OL, you’re doing it wrong.

The Eagles have drafted just one OL in the past 3 drafts (Lane Johnson).  In the past 4 drafts, they’ve selected just two (Johnson and Dennis Kelly).  That’s just terrible draft strategy, especially considering late round OL have, by far, the best odds of turning into starting quality players.  I have a number of “rules” for drafting, generated from my research into draft strategy and history.  Two of my favorites (most compelling given the evidence):  ALWAYS trade 6th round picks for multiple 7th if you can and ALWAYS take 7th round offensive lineman (several if you can).

Most important of all, you don’t want to be in a position where you need to replace multiple OL in the same year.  It’s not that hard to find one new starter in one offseason.  It is much harder to find two, at a reasonable price.  It is extremely difficult to find three, especially without blowing your cap allocation.

The current state of affairs basically means the Eagles are at least 2 offseason aways from having a high-quality OL with some semblance of long-term stability, and that’s assuming they manage to get the right players.

Howie Roseman

It all comes down to Howie, finally.  He is now, unquestionably, in charge of all player personnel. All moves can be attributed to him.  We should know pretty quickly how much of the recent past was with his blessing or over his objections.

What do I want to see from him?

  • Trade with Chip.  I know Chip doesn’t officially have personnel control in SF, but a new coach typically gets some allowance for a few of “his guys”.  The Eagles have a lot of those guys, and Howie should be really anxious to give Chip whoever he wants.  #BadGMTheory is firmly in play here, in that Chip has shown that he undoubtedly overvalues “his” guys.  So Riley Cooper (pleasepleaseplease), Josh Huff, Sam Bradford?, etc…, tell Chip to name his price and ship them out.
  • Trade down in the draft, unless there’s a QB (Lynch) that Pederson loves.  The missing 2nd round pick is a killer, but the Eagles are in a decent position to recoup it by sliding down in the first round.  This will be the true test of Howie’s GM ability.  Can he maneuver at the draft to successfully get the players he wants at a  reasonable price while adding picks in the process.  Joe Banner was really good at this, and it’s the only way to consistently “win” the draft.
  • Use free agency for maintenance and depth, not star acquisition.  Free Agency is not the place to sign “impact players”.  By definition, you have to overpay for them here. That, coupled with the inherit uncertainty regarding fit in a new scheme, means it’s a dubious proposition.  Rather, free agency should be used for middle-of-the-roster players that fill the glaring holes so that the draft process can be used to shoot for the biggest impact.  For the Eagles, in my opinion, that means finding a serviceable offensive lineman (think first guy off the bench or #5 starter), a solid #3 receiver with great hands, a #3-#4 cornerback, and perhaps another safety.  Obviously there are other areas that can be addressed, but that’s where I’d focus.  If there is an “impact” opportunity, it has to be taken at OT position.  It’s just not worth the risk for anywhere else right now.

Reasons for Hope

I said at the top that this isn’t quite the mess some believe it to be, then I proceeded to describe a lot of the biggest problems.  Here are the reasons I’m hopeful:

  •  Track Record – The Eagles, under Lurie, have a very long history of sustained competitiveness.  This is not a bad franchise.  In 21 years of ownership, the team has won fewer than 8 games just six times, with three of those coming in the first 5 years of ownership.  Of course, the long period with Reid and McNabb forms the bulk of that success, but the team also won 10 games twice with Ray Rhodes as coach and Rodney Peete and Ty Detmer at QB, and it won 10 games twice with Chip Kelly at the helm.  I just don’t see any compelling reason to believe the team won’t recover, just as it’s done every time the coach has changed under Lurie.
  • 27 wins in past 3 years – That’s not great, but it’s also not bad.  We’re not looking at a talent-less team here; they’re not starting from square one.  Expectations and the narrative make the performance feel worse than it actually was, but make no mistake: this is not a bad team, it is firmly mediocre.  I know that’s not too exciting, but it’s an important distinction to make as we reframe our expectations for the future.
  • Talent – Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, maybe Agholor.  There is young (relatively) talent on this team, and there are building blocks in place.  Moving to a 4-3 defense might spark a massive improvement on defense, as the personnel has been a better fit for that alignment than the 3-4 since the day the switch was made.  Jordan Matthews, despite the drops, is still putting together an impressive start to his career, especially when you consider the inconsistent/bad quarterbacking he’s had.  The drops need to stop, but they’re not as big a deal as they seem.  Agholor meanwhile, is an unknown.  He was close to invisible this year, which obviously isn’t a good sign.  But it’s too early to call him a bust.
    • He had 23 catches and 283 yards with a catch rate of 52.6%.
    • Demarcusyious Thomas had 22 catches for 283 yards and a catch rate of 56.4% his rookie year.
    • Roddy White had 29 catches for 446 yards and a catch rate of just 42% his rookie year.

I’m not saying Agholor will turn into those guys, there are other players with similar performances that never panned out, or haven’t yet (Jonathan Baldwin, Mike Williams, Matt Jones).  I am saying we should all withhold judgement for another year.

Closing

I’ll leave it there for now.  The Chip Kelly experiment didn’t go like I’d hoped, and there are some big issues to resolve, but the franchise has a long record of success and there are pieces in place for a quick turnaround.  Besides, it can ALWAYS be worse…for example, you could be a St. Louis fan…

 

 

Editor’s note and some pre-game thoughts.

2As you hopefully noticed, I haven’t posted much this season.  I’m finishing up my JD/MBA program while trying to find full-time employment.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t left much time for posting, at least not enough to allow for the quality of analysis I expect (and you deserve).  However, I consider this to be a short-term problem, and hope to have much more time to post next season.  In order to keep things interesting here, I’ve added Patrick Causey as a contributor.  His posts thus far have been tremendous, and we should all be excited to read his future work.  If you would like to contribute, either on a one-off or regular basis, please email me at eaglesrewind@gmail.com.

Now…to the team.

This is a massively important game for a number of reasons:

  • Most clearly, the Eagles need the win.  As maddeningly inconsistent as the team has been (and as terrible on offense as they’ve been), they’re in the driver’s seat for the division title if they can beat Dallas tonight.  Let’s break it down a bit:
    • Dallas – A loss tonight puts Dallas at 2-6, with another week to go before Romo comes back.  Moreover, they play 4 of their next 5 games on the road, and 5 of their last 8 games on the road.  Their schedule includes games against Carolina (7-0), and at Green Bay (6-1).  Basically, the Cowboys, even with Romo, are not going to win out.  That puts them at no better than 9-7, and much more likely, 8-8 or worse.
    • Giants – The Giants are 4-4, but the Eagles hold the tiebreaker over them right now by virtue of the head-to-head win and a Giants loss to Dallas in week 1.  Here’s the key issue for New York:  According to Football Outsiders, the Giants have faced the 28th hardest schedule thus far.  Heading into this week, they have the 5th hardest schedule going forward.  In other words, the Giants have a .500 record through the easy half of their schedule, so we shouldn’t expect anything better over the rest of the year (I expect worse).  That puts the Giants, at best, at 8-8.
    • Washington – Washington is 3-4, same as the Eagles.  They’re currently getting killed by New England, so let’s just assume they’ll be at 3-5 soon enough.  How do things look the rest of the way?  Well, FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings have Washington as underdogs in EVERY game for the rest of the season.  That could, of course, change in the future.  But right now, it means Washington is very unlikely to string together a few wins.  They’re remaining schedule includes: New Orleans (suddenly looking competent), @ Carolina (still undefeated and winning by 20 over GB right now), 2 games against Dallas w/ Romo, and week 16 in Philadelphia.  Just 3 losses out of those games puts Washington at no better than 8-8, and that assumes they sweep the rest of their schedule (Buffalo, NYG, @ Chicago), which they won’t.

Where does that leave us?  Well, to put it simply, the Eagles have a great chance at the division if they can just get to 8 wins.  They have 3 right now.  Here’s the rest of the schedule, with the current FO rank and ELO win %:

  • @ Dallas (25th, 46%)
  • Miami (20th, 68%)
  • Tampa (26th, 79%)
  • @ Detroit (31st, 60%)
  • @ New England (1st, 17%)
  • Buffalo (14th, 66%)
  • Arizona (2nd, 49%)
  • Washington (18th, 79%)
  • @ NYG (15th, 46%)

They need 5 wins out of that stretch. Based purely on the ELO odds, the win expectation is 5.1 wins.  If the Eagles win tonight, the remaining win expectation is at least 4.64 (so closer to 9 wins than 8), and likely higher assuming the ELO odds improve to account for an Eagles win.

So that’s why tonight is important.  Win, and Dallas is basically eliminated and the Eagles become the clear favorites, needing just 4 wins against a schedule that includes 3 games in which the team is a heavy favorite.

A few other Dallas notes, then I’ll get to a few bigger picture bullets:

  • Matt Cassell has been awful this year.  Matt Cassel has also been bad for pretty much his entire career (save two seasons, the most recent of which was 5+ years ago).  The Eagles defense should be able to completely shut the Dallas passing attack down.
  • Darren McFadden is the Dallas “rushing attack”.
  • The Dallas defense ranks 17th by DVOA, and 20th against the run.  I really hope Ryan Mathews is healthy enough to play, but regardless, Chip needs to run the ball.  The Jason Peters injury hurts, but it shouldn’t dissuade Chip from sticking with the run.  This is not a game where they need to worry about the other team running away from them if they don’t get points up quickly.
  • The Dallas Punt Coverage unit ranks 3rd worst in the league by Football Outsiders.  Combine that with Matt Cassel and the Eagles defense, and we should be looking at a few big return opportunities for Darren Sproles.

The Eagles have been so inconsistent that I’m hesitant to make any prediction.  The Eagles SHOULD win this game.  But the amount of uncertainty around the Eagles expected performance is so large right now there’s just no way to be confident about it.

Now to a few higher-level notes:

Chip – This is a huge game for Chip.  As I explained above, the implications are enormous.  He’s had a bye week to plan/prepare.  Alonso and Kendricks are back healthy (I think). He’s going against Matt Cassel.  Dallas has lost 5 straight games.

In other words, there are absolutely no excuses for a poor performance.  The Eagles are the better team talent-wise, and they’ve had more time to prepare and rest.  If they don’t perform, it’s going to be really hard to blame anyone but Chip, especially because he’s now in charge of picking the players too.

Sam Bradford – He’s been terrible.  There’s no way around it, and if you’re defending him, just know that you’re doing so with absolutely no supporting evidence from his actual play.  Yes, the WRs have also been bad, and the dropped passes make Sam’s job a lot harder.  But remember that every WR drops some balls that should be caught.  The questions isn’t how many drops, it’s how many drops ABOVE what we should expect.  According to SportingCharts.com (full disclosure: I have no idea if this site is trustworthy or not), the Eagles have a drop rate of 6.6%.  That’s 3rd highest in the league.  The median drop rate is 3.9% (not using average because it would take too long to calculate right now and not make a meaningful difference).

So…the TRUE drop rate we’re talking about is 2.7%.  That’s how much worse the Eagles have been than average, according to this source.  Bradford has 272 attempts.  If we normalize the drop rate, that means Bradford should have 7-8 more completions than he does.  Maybe a few more if we adjust for second-order effects as well (additional first downs).  Regardless, still think drops are why Bradford has struggled?

The only reason to have any hope is that Bradford is coming back from injury and is in a new system.  He has a relatively long track record, which he is currently underperforming.  That tells me that MAYBE, with a little more time to adjust/learn, he will get better.  But frankly, “better” doesn’t get you very far when you’re looking at one of the worst starters in the league.

He’s dead last in QBR, he’s 30th out of 33 qualifiers in Passer Rating. He has the 6th worst Interception Rate.  He has the 3rd worst Yards per Attempt (and adjusted Yards per attempt).

I hate to be so pessimistic, but it seems pretty clear to me that Bradford isn’t “the answer”, unless all you’re hoping for is league-average play.  And in that case, he’s far too expensive, and will continue to be far too expensive after this year (my projection, perhaps the market value will be much different).

The Defense – Not much to say here other than I told you so.  Not that anyone was disagreeing, but I made it pretty clear in my preseason write-up that this defense could be a top 5 unit.  Right now they rank #3 by FO.

Eagles vs. Falcons: Week 1 Pre-Game Thoughts

Some brief notes/questions/things to watch for heading into tonight’s game:

  • The Eagles are 3.5 point favorites on the road.  Atlanta went 6-10 last year and ranked 20th in DVOA.  The offense ranked 10th, while the defense ranked last in the league (also DVOA).  The O/U is 55.5, which was the second highest on the board this week.  Expect a lot of scoring.
  • Has Jason Peters’ slowed at all?  He’s still either the best or second best player on the roster, and the anchor of the OL.  His level of play is vital.  There’s no specific reason to expect him to be any worse than last year, but he’s entering his mid-30s, so it bears watching.
  • Are the Guards serviceable? Barbre and Gardner don’t have to be great. They don’t even have to be good.  But if the Eagles can’t get at least average/mediocre play from them, the running game won’t be nearly as potent as we’re all hoping or expecting.
  • How will the Kendricks/Alonso/Ryans rotation shake out?  Relatedly, how good is Demeco Ryans?  This issue is going to evolve over a few weeks (at least), but we need to see how close to 100% Alonso is, and if Ryans is going to be a strict 1-2 down player.  If Ryans is losing it and Alonso isn’t close to his pre-injury form, then what appeared to be a great strength for the team starts looking like a big hole.
  • Has the pass defense improved?  There are a lot of new names in the secondary, but it remains to be seen if there has been any improvement.  Julio Jones is one of the best WRs in the league, so it’s a good early indicator for the defense.  Last year the team ranked 18th in pass defense DVOA, and 7th in rush defense.  In other words, an improvement in the pass defense could place the overall defense comfortably among the top 10 in the league.  Meanwhile, the Falcons had the 8th best passing attack last year.  So this matchup will play a large role in deciding the game.  
  • Sam Bradford should have plenty of time tonight.  The Falcons registered the third worst adjusted sack rate last year (4.5%), and it seems like they’re betting on rookie Vic Beasley and FA signing Adrian Clayborn to fix things.  Maybe they help a bit, but a drastic improvement is unlikely.

That’s all I have time for.  I’m feeling pretty good about this game, but it’s week one, so inherent uncertainty is high.  Eagles win by a TD.

Projecting the Eagles’ 2015 Record

Just a few days until the Eagles kick off the 2015 season for real.  As is tradition, I will attempt to project the Eagles record.  Before I get to this year, let’s take a quick review of the previous projections.  Remember, the object of the game is to score points and to prevent them.  Wins and losses are derived from how well the team does those two things.  So rather than just throw a win total out there, I try to project the final Point Differential, then I use that number to back into an estimated win total.  Here are my 2013 and 2014 projections:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 1.21.15 PM

I’m really happy with both results.  Missing by 15 points over the course of a 16 game season is about as close as I could ever expect to get.  Also of note: while I was generally on the mark, I slightly underestimated the team each time.  It’s hardly a trend (just 2 seasons of data), but it’s something I’ll be watching for this year.  If it happens again, perhaps I can start to adjust for a naturally pessimistic bias.

This Season

Let’s start on the points production side of the equation.  First up, here are some stats from last year:

  • The Eagles finished 13th in offensive DVOA from Football Outsiders.  In 2013, they finished 3rd.
  • The team scored 1.98 points per drive last year, 13th in the league.
  • The Eagles scored 3.1 special teams points per game last season (Teamrankings.com).  The second place team, Buffalo, scored just 1.3.
  • The Eagles scored 1.8 defensive points per game.

As you can tell, the offense took big step back last year, but it was masked by excellent, and likely unrepeatable, performance by STs and the defense.  Why was it so bad?

Two main reasons:

(1) Nick Foles only started 8 games, and when he did start he didn’t play nearly as well has he had in 2013.

(2) Turnovers.  The Eagles had .174 turnovers per offensive drive last year, which was worst in the league.  So on more than 1 out of every 6 offensive drives, the Eagles turned the ball over.  It’s really hard to score when you forfeit that many possessions.

The good news is: there’s a new quarterback, and he has a long history of very low turnover rates.  Moreover, turnovers themselves have little-to-no persistence from year to year.

Stay with me here for a few paragraphs, we need to get in the weeds a bit.

Last season, the league average for turnovers was 23.  The Eagles had 36.  So…if the Eagles revert to league average, that’s 13 extra possessions.  If we also adjust on the takeaways side, we get to 9 extra possessions.  Last year that would have resulted in 17.82 extra points for the team (using the average pts per drive), or 1.11 per game.  If we assume a more efficient offense (better QB play almost certainly gets you there), it has an even bigger effect.

I detailed those numbers because we also have to go against the team.  They simply will not score as often on D and STs as they did last year.  A lot of writers have mentioned this, but not everyone has counterbalanced it with the TO reversion.  If we assume the Eagles return to the middle of the pack for defensive scoring, that costs them .5 pts per game.  On STs, doing the same costs the team a lot more, something around 2.5 points per game. In total, that’s 3 points per game that the team likely can’t count on this year.  Note though, that the 3 point estimate is high.  If the Defense and STs hadn’t scored the 11 touchdowns they did, the Eagles offense would have gained another 11 possessions.  At last year’s average, that would have been worth 1.36 points per game.  If we adjust for that, we get to 1.64 points per game from D and STs that the team can’t rely on.

Of course, we know from above that the expected giveaway reversion is worth an added 1.11 points per game!

That was a very long way of saying that the mean reversion on the TO side and the D/STs scoring side come close to balancing out, leaving a deficit of just 0.5 points per game.

We can certainly argue around the margins for the right way to correct for some of those things.  My method is very back-of-the-envelope.  But given the uncertainty and margin of error for any assumptions we make, I don’t think the result will change.  So don’t worry so much about the D and STs not scoring this year.  It means that, IF the Eagles turn the ball over at a more normal rate, then last year’s scoring rate wasn’t actually inflated by the D and STs.

That’s really important, because last year the team produced points at a rate of 29.6 per game.  If we take out the 0.5 points per game from above, we get to 29.1 ppg.  That was 28.8% better than the league average of 22.  For reference, in 2013, the Eagles scored 27.6 per game, which was 18% better than league average.

Can you see where this is headed?  If the Eagles natural scoring rate from last year was 28.8% better than average, than any improvement could lead to an extremely powerful offensive team.

Let’s take a look at the positions to see how things will shake out:

QB

This is the big one, for obvious reasons.  If Sam Bradford is healthy, he has a chance to duplicate Foles’ efficiency from 2013.  Bradford has a very strong arm and, for his career, an interception rate of just 2.2%.  But…we can’t overlook the fact that he’s played 49 games in the league, a big sample, and has been firmly mediocre.  In particular, his career adjusted net yards per attempt, at 5.17, is really weak.  I know a lot of people blame that on his lack of support, which is reasonable, but we shouldn’t just ignore it.

That said, I think Bradford is an excellent fit, and Chip’s offensive system has proven it’s ability to elevate QBs beyond their previous performance levels (see Mark Sanchez, or even better, buy the Eagles Almanac for an in depth look at the issue.)  However, given Bradford’s career statistics, it seems foolish to expect 2013 Foles’-level performance.  If healthy, though, I think he gets reasonably close.

Now a note about health.  I have no idea if Bradford will stay healthy.  I’ve heard the 12% re-injury rate number, so let’s go with that.  But, we have to assume that there is a LARGE margin of error in that number.  To be conservative, let’s just assume for a moment that the real ACL re-injury rate for Bradford is 20%.  That’s really high, but it also means he’s got an 80% chance of NOT re-injuring the ACL.  So in terms of expectations, it’s still pretty clear that he’s much more likely to make it through the season than to go down.

There are plenty of other injuries that could happen, but the season-ender is the one we need to worry about.  Why?  Because the Eagles aren’t winning a divisional playoff game with Sanchez at QB.  Of course it COULD happen, but it’s really unlikely.  So I’ll wrap up my comments on Bradford’s health like this:

  • The Eagles need a healthy Bradford to have any hope in the playoffs.
  • Stepping out of this analysis, my gut says the team wins 3 out of every 4 games Bradford plays and goes .500 in the rest.  That means 8 starts gets you to 10-6 and a good chance at the playoffs.

Verdict: Big Improvement

The OL

I’m more worried about the OL than most people seem to be.  Barbre and Gardner are both huge question marks at G.  Fortunately, Guard is, relatively speaking, an inconsequential position.  If the team has to have a weakness, I’m happy it’s at Guard.  But…there’s a chance at least one of these two guys is terrible.  I hope that’s not the case, and neither seemed like a massive problem in the preseason, but the risk is there for now.

Kelce is what he is, one of the most athletic Centers in the game and a rock in the middle.

Beyond that, depth is an issue and the unit is still heavily reliant on Jason Peters as it’s star.  Lane Johnson seems primed for a big step forward, and that would go a long way to assuaging my concerns, but behind these guys there isn’t much to feel confident about.  When you factor in the reliance on the running game, you can see why one or two injuries to this line could cause the whole season to unravel.  As it stands, I’m optimistic, but if you’re looking for an underrated risk to the team, this is it.

The good news, in a strange way, is that last year the offensive line wasn’t great. From Football Outsiders, it ranked 29th in run blocking and 9th in pass protection.  Since we’re just trying to adjust our performance expectations from last year, that means the line doesn’t need to be amazing to take a step forward.  At the very least, repeating last year’s performance seems like a reasonable expectation.

Verdict: Even

The RBs

Very little to say here.  From a pure “on-the-field” basis, I really like essentially trading McCoy for Murray and Mathews.  I’m ignoring the cap allocation aspects for now, because this analysis is only concerned with this season.  At the very least, the M&M combo is more resilient to injury risk than McCoy, even with the injury history of both players.

I think the N/S running style from both guys is a great match for the team, and I expect big things from them (and Sproles, though I’m curious to see if Sproles’ usage pattern changes at all.)

Verdict: Improvement

The WRs

I’m excited. Jordan Matthews looks like a potential star, and I’m excited that Chip Kelly liked Agholor enough to take him in the first round.  I know that’s a strange way of thinking about it, and whether it was a smart pick is a different question.  Losing Maclin hurts, but I think Matthews’ development can pick up of the slack.  Expected overall performance probably declines a bit, if only because rookie WRs should always have low expectations, but I don’t see a major drop-off from last year.

Last note: depth is an issue here as well.  If Matthews goes down, the WR corps suddenly looks pretty weak, barring a crazy debut from Agholor.  Riley Cooper is a non-factor to me.  I think he’s a pretty bad player that capitalized on one high-usage season, but he shouldn’t be expected to perform any worse than he did last year.

Verdict: Slight decline.

Summing up the offense:

Pulling it all together, and ignoring scenarios involving major injuries, I see a big improvement at QB coupled with a smaller improvement at RB and a slight decline at WR. Together that would seem to lead to a better offense than last year.  Since last year’s rate was +28.8%, we’re left with a pretty aggressive base-case expectation.  I’m setting it at +34%.  I’m only pushing the upside case to +40%, because to go any higher would push us into serious outlier territory, which is a hard place to be for a prediction.

On the downside, I’m setting our expectation at +15%, which would be the worst points production rate thus far for Chip.

Defense

Now to point prevention.  Here are some stats from last season:

  • Last season, the Eagles’ defense ranked 10th by DVOA.  The pass defense ranked 18th, the rush defense ranked 7th.
  • The Eagles allowed 23.9 points per game, 17th in the league and 2% worse than average.
  • The team allowed 1.85 points per drive, 15th in the league.
  • The team allowed 29.34 yards per drive, 7th in the league.

There are no huge red flags for mean reversion on the defensive side from last year.  The team had 16 fumble takeaways last year, against a league average of 9.5.  Overall, the team had 28 takeaways versus a league average of 23.6.  The fumble number is high, but the overall TO count was reasonable.  We can adjust for the 4 extra turnovers (though there are reasons to believe the Eagles will force more turnovers than the average team) the same way we did for the offense.  That gets us to an extra 7.4 points or .46 points per game.  That pushes the defensive performance to 4.2% worse than average.

The DL

This might be the strongest unit on the team.  Cox is at the beginning of what should be a long stretch of dominant play.  Bennie Logan has developed into a better player than I (or anyone else) expected at NT, and Cedric Thornton is a very solid 3-4 D-E, especially against the run.  The players haven’t changed, so our only question is whether we think the group will get better organically or get worse.  I don’t see any reason they’d get worse.  There’s a chance for continued development, though, so a small improvement is possible. A stronger LB corps. behind them should help as well.

Verdict: Even.

The LBs

This is a wildcard for me.  Barwin has been tremendous and should continue at the same level.  Graham has grown into his role, and seems ready to take another step forwards.  Regardless, I think trading Cole out for Graham is a likely improvement just based on last year.  In the middle is where things get tricky.  Demeco Ryans’ role is unclear.  I don’t expect much from him this year, and given his age (31) and the fact that he’s already played 126 games in the NFL (regular season), it’s fair to wonder if he’ll decline much more quickly than one might expect.

The good news is the team added Kiko Alonso, who has the potential to be a very good LB.  As a rookie, he showed star potential.  Therefore, the upside of a Kendricks/Alonso combo is huge.  They’re both very fast, athletic LBs who could, if used correctly, form the most disruptive ILB duo in the league.  Unfortunately, Alonso has some serious durability questions, and even if he’s healthy, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to regain the form he had his rookie year.

If healthy, there’s potential here for a big improvement, but the uncertainty gives me pause.  Instead, I think a small step forward is a better expectation for this year.  If Alonso stays healthy and works himself back into shape, though, next season could be dominant.

Depth is an issue, especially on the outside, but Barwin has been very durable, playing in every game over the past 4 seasons.  Graham, similarly, has played in all 16 games for 3 seasons straight.  I still have no idea how Vinny Curry will be used, but he’s a great piece to have, even if he just comes in pass-rushing situations.

Verdict: Slight improvement.

The DBs

The Eagles’ biggest offseason move, to me, was signing Maxwell.  And I have no idea how good he is.  If he play’s like a true #1 CB, then it’s going to be hard for this unit not to improve from last year.  If he turns out to be a guy who benefited from a great scheme and talent around him, though, things could get ugly.  I’m guessing he’ll be solid, not great, which would still be an improvement over Cary Williams.

On the other side, it looks like Nolan Carroll is going to be the starter, and might move inside to the Nickel when the defense shifts to that formation.  I’m not excited by Carroll, he’s just a guy.  BUT, similar to several positions above, he doesn’t need to be great.  Bradley Fletcher was not good last year.  So just mediocre play from Carroll should help prevent a decline in performance from this unit.  I think Carroll can be mediocre.

In the nickel package, Eric Rowe will have to play.  That might be a problem.  In any case, there’s no objective way to expect anything other than a step down from what Brandon Boykin provided last year.  (I know I just said Carroll would rotate in, but I’m really talking about the 3 CB tandem here).

Depending on how often the team moves to that package, the improvement from Maxwell could be quickly drowned out if the rookie isn’t ready to contribute.

At Safety, Jenkins is solid.  Thurmond has never played Safety before, but filling in for Nate Allen really should be that hard.  He looked solid in preseason.  I think it’s likely he turns out to be at least a small improvement over Nate Allen.  Once again, depth is a big issue, but last year’s corps was such a mess that a big step down seems unlikely.

Verdict: Slight Improvement (Based almost entirely on Maxwell, so there’s a lot of risk in this particular assessment.)

Where does that get us?

It looks like the defense is likely to improve slightly.  There is, without a doubt, more high level talent on defense this year than last (Alonso and Maxwell additions).  How they’ll fit is anyone’s guess, and depth outside of the DL is an issue.  I’m betting on the talent though.

Last year’s points allowance rate 4.2% worse than average (adjusted).

I’m setting our base case at league average.  Note that by DVOA, I think the Eagles will finish in the top 10 on D again.  Due to the pace of the game, though, that doesn’t map directly to points.  On the upside, if Alonso is full-speed soon and Maxwell plays as well as his contract suggests he’s worth, 7.5% better than average is eminently reachable.

On the downside, I’m putting a floor at 10% worse than league average.

A note on Special Teams

STs performance has no persistence from year to year.  That’s why I’ve adjusted the Eagles to league average.  Of course, the unit was amazing last year, and it’s possible the extra attention or coaching the team devotes to STs has produced a sustainable advantage.  I haven’t seen enough to assume that though, and since STs is generally a small part of the game with no persistence and a lot of variability, I just zero it out.  Think of it as an error factor thrown onto the end of the final equation.  If the Eagles come anywhere close to matching their STs performance from last year, the team could challenge for home-field advantage.

Pulling it All Together

So let’s combine our scenarios just as I did last year.  Scoring was actually down overall last year, at 22.6 points per game per team (23.4 the year before).  That went against the previous trend of 0.6 points per game annual inflation from before.  For this year, I’m going to use 23 points per game as a projected average, and guess that last year’s decline did not represent a fundamental change in the game.  Also note that I’m not trying to adjust for effects of the new extra point rules.  I don’t think they’ll make a big difference this year (but hope I’m wrong about that).

Here they are:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 4.16.17 PM

Our base case gets us to an expected point differential of 125, which results in a win projection of 11 (10.98 to be exact), using Pythagorean wins and a 2.67 exponent.

Here’s a full scenario chart:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 4.21.27 PM

The average and median value is 10.5 wins.

So there you have it. Barring any major injuries to Bradford, Peters, Cox, and Maxwell, I project the Eagles to win 11 games.  That SHOULD be good enough for the division crown, and it’s almost definitely good enough for a playoff spot.

How long can we expect Jason Peters to play?

In my previous post, I mentioned that one of my biggest concerns about the roster is that staging of the “rebuild” might be disjointed.  In other words, the Eagles have a lot of good players, but I’m worried there aren’t enough of them that will be in peak form (or close to it) at the same time, lowering the potential ceiling of the group.

While I still have a lot of work to do to explore this issue, it seemed natural to begin with a look at Jason Peters.  He is one of the best players on the team (arguably THE best), a potential future HOFer, and a keystone of Chip’s dominant running attack.  He’s also going to be 33 years old this year.  How much longer can he be expected to play at a high level?

There are a few ways to dig into this, but I began with the simplest.  I used Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value measure as a proxy for impact/skill.  I searched for all OTs, post-merger, who registered a combined Approximate Value of at least 20 in their age 31-32 seasons.  Basically, I was looking to get a sample of Tackles who played as well as Peters has this late in his career.  There were 15 such players.  I then looked at how those players progressed.  The results, unfortunately, were not encouraging.  I rebased the annual AV of each player to their age 32 season value.  I then took an average of those to get an aggregate aging curve.

Below is a chart illustrating the analysis.  The blue line illustrates the performance progression.  The red bars show how many players remained in the analysis each year.  Studies like this are highly sensitive to survivorship bias, so I wanted to make it very clear how few of these players remained in the league as they got older.  In general, this effect serves to OVER-estimate the contributions of players as they age (unless you make adjustments for it, which I have not done here).

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 11.01.09 AM

 

Jason Peters is entering his Age 33 season.  The 15 tackles I looked at, on average, recorded an Approximate Value in that season of just 73% of their age 32 season.  Also note that by age 36, just 4 of the 15 players were still playing, and beyond that, only Lomas Brown continued.

This is obviously a very rough analysis.  OL contributions are very difficult to quantify and Approximate Value isn’t a perfect statistic.  Also note that Jason Peters’ AV last season was 12.  Just 60% of that would still result in an AV of 7.2.  By comparison, Lane Johnson’s average AV over the past two years is 7.  The takeaway is that even if Jason Peters follows the above progression exactly, he can still be a decent contributor for another year or two.  Expecting much beyond that, however, seems irrational.

Now let’s take a less systematic look at things.  I also searched the PFR database for all post-merger OTs that recorded an AV of at least 7 in the seasons corresponding to the following ages, which are shown with the number of players meeting that threshold:

34 yrs – 36 players

35 yrs – 23 players

36 yrs – 6 players

37 yrs – 4 players

38 yrs – 3 players

As you can see, it’s extremely rare for OTs to have a great season beyond the age of 33, and it almost never occurs after age 35.  The conclusion is that we shouldn’t expect Peters to play at a high level for more than another 1-2 yrs, and if he plays longer than that, it might be due as much to a failure of finding a decent replacement as to his ability.

A few other notes (all post-1970):

– Willie Roaf recorded an Av of 17 when he was 34 yrs old.

– Just 4 tackles made the All-Pro 1st team after age 33: Walter Jones (33), Mike Kenn (35), Willie Roaf (34), and Gary Zimmerman (35).  Each of them was also drafted in the 1st round (not saying that means anything, just thought it was interesting).

– 25 OTs made the pro bowl after turning 33 (includes multiple appearances by the same player).

– OTs older than 35 have started at least 12 games 49 times (36 different players).

 

 

The State of the Eagles

Been a long time since I posted, and a lot has happened in the interim.  Instead of parceling out my thoughts over several days, I decided to just throw them into a single long post.  Apologies for some rambling, I hope to return soon with more detail on the more important issues highlighted below.

Chip Kelly the Coach vs. Chip Kelly the GM

Chip has taken over as GM of the Eagles (functionally).  Thus, in order to adequately evaluate the team’s decisions, we need to get one thing very clear:  It is entirely possible that Chip is a great coach but a terrible GM.  I’m not saying that’s the case; we don’t have nearly enough data to make that judgment.  However, everyone needs to understand that those are two separate positions, requiring completely different skill-sets.  Additionally, you can absolutely be a huge fan of Chip Kelly the coach, but hate Chip Kelly the GM.  That might be too much nuance for some fans, but it’s the way it is.

I happen to think Chip Kelly is a great coach.  Time will tell whether he can also be a good GM…but we do have a few decisions to start looking at.

The QB Situation

I’m intrigued by Sam Bradford, but there’s no question the Eagles paid too much.  I was always among the bigger Nick Foles fans, but recognize that he was never going to be one of the best QBs in the game.  There’s really no argument regarding Foles’ performance last season: it was bad.  Not Blake Bortles bad, but certainly appreciably worse than what you’d like from your QB, and a far cry from his 2013 season.

Foles ranked 20th in Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt (5.93).  He ranked 14th in QBR (62.21).  27th in Rating (81.4).

Of course, he did that behind a really bad offensive line and against a erasable difficult schedule.  But qualification aside, he was comfortably in the bottom third of the league in terms of performance.

So why do I think the Eagles paid too much for Bradford?

Well….

Bradford’s career Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt is 5.17.  His career Rating is 79.3.  I haven’t calculated his weighted-average career QBR (and can’t calculate it because nobody knows the formula), but his BEST single season QBR was 50.28 in 2012.

See what I’m getting at?

Bradford, by nearly any measure, has been a bad QB in the NFL.  He gets a bit of a pass because he plays in a small market, was a former #1 pick (retains the pedigree associated with that), and has had a dreadful supporting cast for his entire career.  Objectively speaking, however, he’s never proven himself to be even a league-average QB.

Basically, there’s a very good chance Bradford doesn’t provide even marginally better expected performance than Foles.  If you want to make the argument that Bradford has been held back by his cast, and that Foles, conversely, was inflated by his, then you might convince yourself that Bradford can, at best, be expected to be slightly better than Foles.  Of course, slightly better is not enough for a 2nd round pick.

I am confident that Bradford, if healthy, will outperform his career averages to date.  Kelly’s offense has proven its ability to juice the QB’s stats.  Still, if you think you’re going to be much more confident in Bradford than you were in Foles, I think you’re going to be disappointed.

To summarize: I think Bradford can absolutely be a “good-enough” QB in Kelly’s system.  However, I also think Foles and a 2nd round pick was far too much to pay.  For those keeping track, that would seem to amount to support for Kelly the coach, but skepticism of Kelly the GM.

The RBs

I liked the McCoy trade.  Culture issues aside, McCoy just wasn’t going to be worth what he was getting paid, and Alonso, if healthy, is a very good player at a position of greater need.

Of course, we also have to deal with the signings of Murray and Matthews.  These signings bothered the “analytics” crowd because it’s become widely accepted that you shouldn’t pay a lot for RBs.  Giving big deals to both players clearly goes against this notion, and the signings undercut one of the main benefits of trading McCoy (better cap allocation).  However, when you look at the figures, the Eagles actually have made progress:

In 2014, the Eagles allocated 8.22% of the salary cap to RBs, more than any other team. In 2015, the Eagles are allocating 6.94% of the cap to RBs, 5th in the league.

(Update: The above allocation doesn’t include McCoy’s dead cap money for 2015, which is significant at $3.4 mil.  That obviously should be accounted for and pushes the cap allocation for 2015 above 9%.  I’ll have more to say on cap allocation later, so for now the take-away is: Eagles haven’t made “progress” like I initially thought, but it’s also not that big of a deal for reasons explained below.)

That’s not a complete picture, because the Eagles could have achieved the same result by just getting a new deal done with McCoy (as the Bills have).  The overall point, though, is that the Eagles’ cap allocation to RB isn’t really that concerning.  In a vacuum, it’s not ideal. However, Chip’s offense is the most run-dominant in the league and he’s proven his ability as an offensive coach.  Of all the areas in which Chip has control, the run game deserves our highest level of deference to his decisions.  However, there are reasons to be concerned about Murray/Matthews:

Murray will be 27 next season.  Matthews will be 28.

For reference, here’s an illustration of the RB aging curve (usage via attempts) pulled from something else I’m working on:

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 1.19.19 PM

As you can see, on average, RBs peak (in terms of usage) at age 26.  This is far from a hard-and-fast rule, but it highlights the fact that we shouldn’t expect “peak” performance from either player.  The bigger concern is that we’re looking at a 1-2 year window where we can reasonably expect decent productivity from both players.

Unfortunately, the Eagles signed Murray for 5 years and Matthews for 3.  That means we’re likely looking at some dead money towards the end of those deals.  That’s not a huge problem if Murray produces for 2-3 years.  If he only has 1 good year, though, the Eagles are in a very tough spot.  Matthews isn’t as significant, as I don’t expect him to get to the third year of his contract (when he’ll have a $5 mil cap hit).

The Draft

I liked the draft. Given where the Eagles chose and the price to trade up, I think the team did quite well.  I certainly would have liked to grab several OL late, and would have tried to move down more in the later rounds, but those are very minor aspects.  Whether a draft is “good” or not is almost entirely determined by the first two rounds.  If Agholor and Rowe turn into impact starters, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the players do.  If they don’t, the rest of the picks similarly won’t do enough to make up for those busts.  Remember, it’s extremely rare for a late-round pick to turn into an impact player.  So we can quibble over the later round selections, but they just aren’t that meaningful in the grand scheme.

In other words, if you like both Agholor and Rowe, you should like the draft.  If you don’t like them, you don’t like the draft.

Also note that the draft has to be evaluated on its own basis.  For example, one might say that the Agholor pick was a bad one, because the Eagles shouldn’t have needed a WR (they could’ve resigned Maclin or not cut DeSean).  If that’s your critique, you’re still arguing past moves rather than this one.  On the day of the draft, the Eagles could have used a top WR prospect, and it looks like they got one.

The O-Line

I’m not satisfied with the offensive line, and can’t believe the Eagles didn’t make any other moves to address the positions.  Allen Barbre is starting at RG.  It’s possible he’s terrible.  Over the course of a 7 year career, he has an Approximate Value of 7.  Over his past 4 seasons, he’s appeared in just 23 games with an AV of 0.  This isn’t some young player who is getting his first chance.  Barbre has played for 3 different teams and will be 31 this season.  He might be fine; Guard is a low-impact position.  He might also be a big problem.

Behind the starters are Gardner, Tobin, Kelly, and Molk.  Not a confidence-inspiring group.

This wouldn’t be quite as bad if the Eagles weren’t so heavily dependent on the OL.  The offense is run-dominant, and the QBs aren’t good.  Any weaknesses on the OL will be magnified.

My concerns about the age of Peters and Mathis have more to do with finding their eventual replacements than they do with their expected performance this year.  If healthy, I expect both to be good (Peters can be great again).  But at some point, the Eagles will need to replace them, and as I’ve said before, having to replace 2+ starters on the OL in one offseason is not a good position to be in.

As I mentioned in the RB section, Peters/Mathis look like they’re able to provide another 2-3 years of high-quality play (though I expect less from Mathis).

When you take a step back and look at the roster, it really looks like the Eagles are a team whose “window” to contend is actually now.  The problem?  Sam Bradford is the QB and there’s still a gaping hole at Safety.

I need to dig much deeper into this problem, but I think it’s perhaps the biggest question facing the team:  Did the Eagles screw up the staging of their rebuild?  I’ve discussed this before, but depth chart breakdowns are woefully incomplete if they don’t project over 3-5 years.  You need to plan ahead, and have each unit of the team in close-to-peak form at the same time.  Otherwise, you’re just a mediocre team perennially treading water and patching holes.  I worry that’s where the Eagles are headed, but will come back with more detailed thoughts on the matter once I’ve had more time to think about it.

Byron Maxwell

Byron Maxwell is the most important acquisition the Eagles made this offseason.  It was overshadowed by the moves on offense, but make no mistake: this is THE big one.  Maxwell is 27 years old, and if he is truly a #1 CB, could have a huge impact on the defense for 5-7 years.  They certainly paid Maxwell like a #1, which is why it’s so important  he play up to that standard.  Note that his contract is front-loaded, so the dead money isn’t too bad after the first 2 years of the deal.

Maxwell has started just 17 games, with 6 interceptions and 27 passes defensed during that time.  From PFF, QBs had a rating of 81.1 when throwing against Maxwell last season, WRs had a catch rate of 63.4%.   (Note there are some minor discrepancies in the PFF data. I pulled from the leaderboard pages, not the individual player pages).

Those are good numbers, but not great ones.  Boykin, for example, allowed a rating of 77.2, on just 5 fewer targets.  They were playing different coverage positions, of course, but it gives you some context to work with.  Bradley Fletcher allowed a Rating of 107.6.

Maxwell also played alongside Richard Sherman, the best CB in the game, and in front of Earl Thomas, the best S in the game.  I don’t know what effect that had on Maxwell’s performance, but it’s worth noting.  In theory, he should have been OVER-targeted last year, by virtue of being the “easier” CB to throw against, but he was targeted just 6 more times than Sherman.

Regardless, Maxwell MUST be REALLY GOOD if the Eagles are to truly contend.  He’s far from a sure thing.  That’s what makes him the most important player for the Eagles this season.

Back to Chip

The above issues all point to one unavoidable conclusion: Chip has a LONG way to go to prove he can be a good GM, and if he can’t, it won’t matter how great a coach he is.  To date, none of the moves he’s made are definitively “wrong”, but they’re not “right” either, and several of them seem more likely than not to prove unwise.

That’s enough for now.  I really just wanted to throw a lot out there, and drill down in more detail later.

Are NFL Teams Faking Injuries?

Sorry for the recent absence, I returned from Beirut and went right into recruiting season.  Once I’ve accepted an offer I’ll start posting again. In the meantime, I’ve got a guest post (unedited) from Jared Cohen (previous posts include the 4th down chart and the kick return strategy post).  You can find the original here. and follow the author on Twitter @jaredscohen.

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Given all the animated discussion over the Patriots tactics against the Ravens in their divisional round playoff game, I thought it would be as good a time as any to post some gamesmanship research.

If you read about the game – you know the Ravens were a bit upset with the Patriots usage of receiver eligibility to disguise their offense. The response from the Patriots was, well, Patriots-like. If it’s not against the letter of the law, it’s all good (unless it’s videotaping other teams, in which case even the law doesn’t matter).

Clearly, the NFL is a league where teams will look for any edge, even if it means pushing the bounds of fair competition.

So it’s with that issue in mind that I started digging into the possibility that players are faking injuries.

As a Philadelphia sports fan, I’m generally inclined to assume that my teams will ultimately lose, and so once the Eagles started running Chip Kelly’s offense, I was quick to accuse every injured defender a liar and a cheat (not to their faces of course).

The Eagles run a very high-tempo offense, one that doesn’t allow opposing defenses to leisurely make substitutions or get a full play clock to catch their breath. It’s a major feature of their strategy, and one that opposing teams would love to minimize, particularly if they aren’t well prepared for it.

One way to slow down the pace of the Eagles offense would be for an opponent to use their timeouts while the Eagles offense is in full-swing. But since a team only has three timeouts per half, they’re a little too valuable to burn. An injury however, is an official’s timeout – these are unlimited – and there’s no cost to the injured team outside of the last two minutes of a half, except that the injured player must sit out for the next play.

So in the current NFL world where fake injuries don’t have a cost (apart from having the ‘injured’ defender miss a play) and can help defenses maintain an easier pace – you could see why an Eagles fan might look at an opposing defender’s injury with suspicion.

Could the Eagles opponents be faking injuries to slow them down? The idea is one that makes the rounds in Eagles bars, but one that’s hard to actually evaluate. So this is my attempt to try.

Others have analyzed NFL injuries via metrics like games lost (i.e., players who aren’t active on game day because they’re injured), but to my knowledge, this is the first attempt to use play-by-play data to look at in-game injuries for trends and whether teams might be faking against the Eagles or other high-tempo teams.

The analysis is a bit long, so below are some quick takeaways:

– The Eagles suffered (or inflicted depending on your point of view) the most defensive injuries against the in league in 2014, and are 2nd in the league when adjusted for a per-play basis
– Across the league, there is a significant positive correlation between running more offensive plays and a higher per-play rate of defensive injury
– Such a correlation could be attributed to fatigue, but this correlation does not hold for the three other possible game situations (own offense, own defense, offense against) – these show no strong relationship between running more plays and a higher per-play rate of injury
– Taken together, these last two points support my hypothesis that players fake injuries against higher tempo offenses

Data Collection and Methodology:

I gathered play-by-play data from all the regular season games this year, and identified all the in-game injuries noted in the descriptions. In case you haven’t read play-by-play before, each play has its own line and explanation, and any play that resulted in an injury timeout is noted. Below is an example:

2-10-DET 40 (14:05) (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete deep middle to 80-V.Cruz (27-G.Quin). DET-27-G.Quin was injured during the play.

If an injury was noted as a stoppage, it was recorded. In an ideal world, we’d eliminate injuries that are serious and clearly not fakes, but there’s no detail on the injuries in the game data, so we have to take the major with the minor.

The play-by-play injuries were then coded as to whether they occurred to the offense, defense, or on special teams (e.g., kick coverage). There were approximately 700 total observations, and while it’s possible that not all injuries were noted in the play-by-play data, this is the only comprehensive source for such information. Given that there are ~700 injury stoppages in our set, that works out to 2-3 injury timeouts per game, which sounds possible but could also be low. It’s possible that whoever officially creates the play-by-play gets lazy and misses some, my assumption here is that if any injuries are somehow missed, they aren’t biased towards one particular side of the ball.

After gathering the data, one additional adjustment is for play frequency. Simply put, the more snaps a player gets, the more likely they are to sustain an injury. Therefore, any team that runs more plays is more likely to see a higher absolute number of injuries. To account for this, I also looked up the total number of plays for each team’s offense and defense during the course of the year – to understand the rate of injury rather than the total number.

Output:

Let’s start with the absolutes. I found 692 injuries in the play by play data, 66 of which were special teams plays. I took these out, because they aren’t central to the question of are teams faking injuries to slow down offenses. Of the remaining injuries, I looked at whether they happened to an offensive player or a defensive player and which team they occurred against, below is the data from this season:

Not a shocker to see the Eagles at the very top of that list, and indeed they led the league in defensive injuries against this season.

However, as I already noted, this metric can be misleading. The Eagles offense runs more plays per game than any other team, so we would expect them to be near the top of this list. We need to adjust our data for the number of offensive plays – and we can examine the rate at which opposing defensive players get injured against the Eagles and whether they are still an outlier.

So as we see when we look at it on a rate basis (number of injuries/number of total offensive plays), the Eagles are still close to the top of the league, and roughly 50% above the league average. Houston is just above them, and while no one would consider their offense up-tempo, the fact that the Eagles are so high would be consistent with the theory that opposing teams might be faking injuries to slow them down.

Now, before we get any further down the faking rabbit hole, what if there’s a simpler explanation that doesn’t involve fake injuries? There’s another obvious possibility to explain why the Eagles are so high in defensive injuries against. What about the idea that as you run more plays, players get more physically exhausted, and therefore are naturally more susceptible to injury?

That seems possible, right? So let’s examine that idea a bit.

The first thing we can do is very simple, does injury frequency vary by quarter? If teams get physically tired during the course of the game and that leads to more fatigue and more injury, there should be more injuries as the game goes on:

Interesting. This sort of muddies our waters a bit.

In absolute terms, the number of injures rises dramatically as the game goes on. Injury stoppages in the fourth quarter occur at 2x the rate they do in the first quarter. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the clock stops more frequently in the fourth quarter than the others (and thus more plays), but that wouldn’t explain a 2x difference. I would want to check against the sheer number of plays run by quarter, but I don’t have that data without a bunch of more work.

Still – it looks like that thinking may be reasonable, injuries increase as the game goes on. But it’s also interesting to note that the increase is much more pronounced on the defensive side of the ball. We’ll come back to that later.

For the time being, let’s move on to looking for evidence of fake injuries.

As a general framework for this analysis, I’ve split the types of injury stoppages into four buckets:

1. While on defense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Defense)
2. While on defense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Offense)
3. While on offense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Offense)
4. While on offense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Defense)

We’ve been focused on bucket #4 thus far, and saw that on a per-play basis the Eagles are close to the top of the league in terms of defensive injuries against on a per-play basis. We also saw that overall injuries increase as the game goes on – but it seems much more prevalent on the defense, which is the side that would be interested in faking injuries.

So can we look a bit deeper to see if play frequency increases injury risk across each type of injury stoppage? The idea that running more plays increases the rate of injury should not be exclusive to offense or defense – although it appears that way at first glance – it’s hard for me to believe that defensive players are in any worse shape or take any harder hits than offensive players.

To take a look at the issue, I ran some basic correlations across each of those four injury types, looking at the number of plays run and the rate of injury. Just to clarify, I summarized the four below:

1. Your defense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a bad defense)
2. Your defense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often
3. Your offense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a good offense)
4. Your offense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often

Again, if the rate of injury increases with more plays, we should see relationships in each of these situations. So what do we see?

#1 – So earlier we saw defenses suffering more injuries as the game goes on…and yet, when we look at number of defensive plays per game and the rate of defensive injury, there really doesn’t seem to be any relationship. Teams with defenses that are on the field a lot don’t seem to get injured at a higher rate than those who execute fewer plays.

#2 – Our next picture shows a similar lack of correlation, this time between defensive plays per game and the rate of opponent offensive injury. This idea would be that if an opposing defense is really bad, your offense gets more plays, and might get hurt more frequently. But the data shows nothing that looks like a relationship.

#3 – Now we’re on the offensive side of the ball, looking at whether an offense that runs a lot of plays suffers a higher rate of injury. There’s actually a relatively weak negative correlation between running lots of offensive plays and suffering offensive injuries. If you want to believe in things like Chip Kelly’s Sport Science program, you would expect a negative relationship as teams that employ high tempo offenses are more adequately prepared to stay healthy while running it. While a very slight relationship exists, it doesn’t look to be that large, if it even exists at all.

#4 – Hmmm…now it’s officially interesting. When we look at the rate of defensive injury against offensive plays per game, there is our most significant positive relationship. A correlation of 0.39 is significantly more than we’ve seen in the other three instances, and it’s also the only one where there is a clear incentive to fake injuries.

Taken alone, this relationship might be explained by the fatigue theory, but I think it’s tougher to make that argument when you don’t see anywhere close to the same relationship in all other situations. When a defense is bad and on the field a lot, they don’t get hurt more often, when an offense is good and runs lots of plays, they don’t get hurt more often, and when a defense is bad and their opponent runs a lot of plays, they don’t get hurt more often. The only ones who show a substantial increase in injury stoppages as plays increase are opposing defenses.

To me, that’s pretty freaking suspicious. Either opposing defenses are the only ones who suffer from fatigue-related injuries…or maybe some of the injuries aren’t injuries at all.

Now, this is far from 100% conclusive. It may be that defensive players naturally get more fatigued than offensive players due to their roles (i.e., offensive players can take more plays off because they know the play calls)…but I don’t really buy that. I think there’s at least a little bit of shenanigans.

It’s also an entirely different question as to how much this even matters. Any fake injury will happen on the margins, as you see the number of total injury stoppages remain relatively small (2-3 total per game). But for an Eagles team that narrowly missed the playoffs, the marginal differences matter.

Solutions

So is there a way to address teams that fake injuries? There are certainly options, but some of them are just impractical. The NHL has a penalty for diving, but you really can’t ask the officials to diagnose injuries and try to penalize fakers. You could charge a team a timeout, which the NFL already does if an injury occurs in the last two minutes. That’s much easier than trying to penalize teams, but also provides incentive for coaches and players to hide injuries (also, what do you do in the case of a ‘Body Bag Game’?)

One idea I think might actually be workable, is to tweak the NFL’s current rule for injured players. As it stands today, an injured player who causes a stoppage has to miss at least one play. Well, if you want to eliminate fake injuries, you should raise the cost to those players for faking, and you can do that simply by making them sit out longer. What if, when a player is injured and causes an official stoppage, they must sit out not for just one play, but for the remainder of that series or until a change of possession?

Missing the rest of a series is a bit more significant than missing just one play, and is something that could balance the equation on faking injuries. It also dovetails nicely with the NFL’s stated emphasis on player safety (interpret my use of the term ‘stated’ as you will, based on your own level of cynicism)

If there are fake injuries happening, such an increase in missed time might be enough to keep anyone from acting hurt. Requiring a player to miss the remainder of a series also isn’t as significant as forcing them out for the rest of a quarter or a game.

Some would argue that this isn’t even a problem worth focusing on. But if fast-paced offenses gain greater acceptance in the NFL (which will happen if more of them succeed), the issue will only become more prominent (beyond the realm of the paranoid Eagles fan) and could materially impact the game.

Summary Data

Below is a table of all the raw data I used here, as a reference:

Bonus – Jevon Kearse All-Stars

One last thing I did with this data, after pulling it together, was dig through and sum up all the specific players who sustained injuries in a game this season.

I wanted to look into it because I was really interested in what I’ve termed the ‘Jevon Kearse All-Stars.’ It may just be a bad memory on my part, but one of the things I really remember about Jevon Kearse’s tenure with the Eagles was his tendency to hurt himself and fall to the ground like he got shot. I feel like his injuries always looked more serious than they actually were. It’s possible I’m misremembering, and if so I apologize to the Freak. But with that said, here were the league leaders in injury stoppages in the NFL this year:

Now I’m not accusing these guys of faking injuries, these just happened to be the guys with the most injury stoppages in the play-by-play data (excluding special teams, which most of these guys don’t play anyway).

Enjoy your spot on the Kearse All-Stars guys – the trophy (it’s an ace bandage) is in the mail!