Is Chip Overweighting Special Teams?

I was out for a few days (apparently law school involves going to classes and reading a lot of stuff).  The only thing I really haven’t addressed is the “controversial” decision to cut Acho (presumably instead of Matthews).  So here it is, in a larger context.

There are a lot of ways to think about the move, but the simplest is:

– It’s a minor change at the bottom of the roster; it’s unlikely to affect the team in any significant way.

That’s probably true. The specific move to cut Acho, who looked good in the preseason games, while keeping Matthews (who looked terrible in his REGULAR season games) will NOT have any large effect on the overall team performance this year.  

So why am I talking about it?

It may give us insight into Chip Kelly’s thinking.  Namely, Chip appears to be placing MUCH more importance on the Special Teams unit than Andy Reid did.  

From igglesblitz.com:

“It’s about special teams,” Kelly said. “There’s three ways to make this football team: special teams, special teams, special teams. …If you’re going to be the fourth or fifth receiver, it’s the value to Coach Fipp and our special teams.” Kelly said that’s the reason the Eagles acquired Najee Goode, because special teams outweighs a player’s production on offense or defense because that’s how they’ll contribute in games.

With Andy Reid, STs frequently felt like an afterthought.  Part of that was because the Eagles were blessed with David Akers, who held the kicking job (special teams’ most visible role) down for 10 years.  Coverage units and the return game were rarely a problem and sometimes a weapon (Brian Westbrook as PR for example).  As a result, little attention was paid (in the media at least) to the overall STs unit.  Andy rarely made any substantive changes and the biggest decision in recent years was simply whether or not D-Jax would return punts.  

Last year shocked many of us out of our STs complacency.  The team’s STs unit was AWFUL, particularly in the punt coverage and return game.  I’ve quoted the statistic several times before, but the Eagles Net Field Position was -6.67 yards last year, which was nearly a full yard worse than the 31st ranked team last year (STL) and the third worst measure of any team over the last 5 seasons.  TOs also factor into that measure, but the overall message remains:

– Last year, the Eagles’ Offense and Defense were basically playing the game on a higher difficulty level than the other team (as a result of STs and TOs).

In steps Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly cited STs play as the deciding factor in the roster decisions.  If there was a “battle”, the player who was better on special teams won.  In the context of last year’s performance, this makes a lot of sense.  Chip obviously must have known how bad the STs unit was last season.  He perhaps also knew that it was never a “priority” for Andy Reid.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that Chip Kelly is trying, in his first year, to quickly address the overall team attitude towards special teams.  Emphasize it now, make roster decision based on STs play, and players will subsequently know to both value and focus on their STs contributions.

That’s the positive way to put it.  There is also another side.

Special Teams plays a much larger role in the College game than it does in the NFL.  Essentially, the marginal difference between the best STs players at the NFL level is much smaller compared to the corresponding difference in college.  Therefore, there is less advantage to be gained at the NFL level.  Kickers make a higher percentage of their field goals, returns aren’t nearly as easy to “break”, etc…

As a result, Chip Kelly might have an inflated view of the relative importance of STs at the NFL level.  That’s probably surprising to hear, given the 2012 Eagles experience.  However, we have to note that last year was an anomaly.  STs units, across the league, are rarely as bad as the Eagles were last year.  Additionally, there is definitely an aspect of diminishing marginal returns to overall STs play; going from terrible to average is likely to be “worth” a lot more than going from average to good, and even the best STs units don’t effect the game nearly as much as the Offense and Defense.

In clearer terms, what I’m saying is that STs should NOT be used as the tiebreaker for deciding bottom of the roster personnel.  It absolutely must be a factor, but should not be the definitive issue.

Here is where Chip Kelly is running a reasonably significant risk.  In an effort to improve and emphasize special teams, he has hurt the depth on offense and defense (mostly defense).  For example, if a MLB gets hurt, we now have Casey Matthews stepping in instead of Acho.  It’s possible the coaching staff doesn’t see that as a downgrade, but for the purposes of this discussion we will.

If that injury happens, and Matthews is worse on defense than Acho would have been, then the tradeoff is obviously not worth it.  I’ll take a marginal improvement on defense over a slightly larger improvement on STs any time.  The tricky part, of course, is that the defensive side of the equation is POTENTIAL while the STs side is CERTAIN.

We KNOW that Casey Matthews will play on STs and contribute to the overall team’s performance. 

We DO NOT KNOW that a MLB will be injured and require a backup to play for an extended period of time.

Therein lies the risk.  If it was just one position, it wouldn’t be an issue.  However, it looks like STs play may have been the deciding factor in keeping guys like Maehl, Knott, Matthews, Anderson, Goode.  That’s a lot of roster spots.  (BTW, Chip obviously knows how many roster spots he has now, especially compared to how many he had in college, so I don’t think it’s a case of not appreciating the smaller roster, but that’s a possibility.)

With that many, it’s extremely likely that one of them will need to step into a major role on Offense or Defense at some point during the year.  Contrary to Kelly’s quote above, their “contribution” would then not be coming from STs.  At that point, the trade-off (sacrificing depth for STs) becomes negative.

Naturally, it’s possible that the marginal difference in offense/defensive skill for each of these roster “battles” was negligible, in which case deferring to the better STs play makes sense.  If that’s not the case though, Chip’s decisions are likely to hurt the team more than it helps.

There absolutely needs to be 1 or two STs “aces”, guys who are kept specifically for their STs prowess.  However, the rest of the roster needs to be constructed under the assumption that EVERYONE will have to start at one point or another.  Injuries are a CERTAINTY.  The second one of the “STs” needs to contribute on offense/defense (think Colt Anderson last year), the advantage gained by their STs skill is immediately outweighed by corresponding drop in production on offense/defense.

Overall, the point I’m trying to make is that there is a natural trade-off between Offense/Defensive depth and Special Teams.  Chip appears to be tilting more heavily towards the STs side of the equation than most coaches do (certainly a lot more than Reid did).  While I typically am in favor of his decisions to defy convention, this time I’m inclined to agree with the rest of the league (or at least with Andy).

One things’ for sure, though, the Eagles Special Teams better be damn good this year (they’ll likely have to for the team to be good).

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10 thoughts on “Is Chip Overweighting Special Teams?

  1. Sorry for the itemization, but I’m on my way out of the office.

    1) It’s generally always true that going from poor to average increases ones winning expectation more than going from average to good. However, there seems to be an insinuation here (apologies if I’m mistaken) that excellent special teams play cannot lead to WE increases sufficient enough to significantly affect win differentials. I would argue that this is not the case. I think we’re in a bit of a situation where there is not much in terms of excellent special teams play in the league because it tends to be undervalued. However, the 2005 era Bears fit that criterion and demonstrate to some degree the potential impact of an elite special teams unit.

    2) Obviously some point must exist where the downgrade from Player A to Player B defensively and the upgrade from Player A to Player B on ST achieves a balance. Much of Acho’s defensive appeal is bound up in his potential. Although he is a better defensive player at the moment, that difference is slight, while the ST play between him and Matthews may be quite significant so that this move may very much make analytic sense (hard to evaluate STs without the all 22). Kelly seems more interested in fielding the best team in the now. Accepting that as a given, I find the Acho decision much more defensible.

    3) Just as a side note, using the old adage that you want depth for defense and stars for offense, Kelly’s reasoning would probably be much less objectionable when applied solely to backup WRs.

    By the way, I’m a big fan of the work you do on this blog. Thanks for the reads.

  2. I wonder about this. Were McCoy and Acho Really that “good?” Obviously Kelly says it came down to special teams and I believe him but I also have to say that those three players were probably rated pretty closely in house. I just can’t fathom that Kelly would cut a player who is marginally looked at as better than the player they kept. I just have to assume that special teams was the tipping point. How many LB’s have the Eagles had over the last decade who have looked very good in small samples? I think perhaps there’s some rose-tinted glasses here with any “new” linebacker who looks anywhere close to good is just latched onto since our LB’s have been so weak for a long time. I mean it’s not like these guys were world beaters coming out of college.

    • I doubt the difference in ability between Acho and Matthews was very much. It’s obviously impossible to know how the coaching staff values these guys, but I’m choosing to believe Chip when he says STs was the deciding factor.

      A) It makes sense given Chip’s background and the team’s performance last year b) It helps explain why a guy like Matthews was kept over other players who looked better during the preseason.

      If that’s the case, it comes down to how big the ability differences are (on Defense and STs). My main point was that unless the STs difference is BIG, the advantage on defense (even if it’s small) should be the choice.

      On Thu, Sep 5, 2013 at 5:07 PM, Eagles Rewind

      • I dont think the difference between Acho and Matthews was as big as people claim it to be (remember clean slate right? Kelly have in general ignored play before his arrival). Also Matthews was better in coverage than Acho.

        Regarding McCoy, lets remember he impressed as a pass rusher against the likes of Jason “one of the biggest busts ever” Smith. Yea sure it nice to see he can beat what amounts to a street bump, but if you cant set the edge against the run, are you really worth more than a blitz ILB or a pass rushing DL?

  3. Until you quantify your argument about STs in a way I find convincing, I will remain, um, unconvinced. Also, if Chip improves his STs from terrible to very good, your argument fails, because the improvement is not marginal, and your argument hangs on the margin.

    Our STs are broken and must be fixed. They are the easiest to fix, so long as you have good kickers and you populate the units with good athletes. My old college coach swore by them and used seven or eight starters on them. George Allen (before your time) always said he won more games with them than with either offense or defense.

    One of the most important things Chip has to do is change the culture. Making ST guys feel important is a big step toward that. Making ST guys think that close games are theirs to win makes it more likely that they will do just that. You’ll see the starters lined up on the sidelines watching the STs instead of walking around or sitting. It keeps everybody in the game.

    In close games you need somebody to make a play. There are more big plays to be made on STs that are left on the field than anywhere else, an admittedly anecdotal and eccentric notion. You talk about college vs pro and the stats may support that, but I would like to see the argument laid out. Never putting your D in a bad position is a very big thing; pinning the other team back is too. Flipping the field is always big. In a wide open game, STs become even bigger. Look at last year’s Oregon-K-State game. A KO return blew that game open in the first half-minute.

  4. Pingback: Chip Kelly Update: Boots on the Ground

  5. I think the biggest point of this is something you only briefly hit on – Chip is changing the culture here, and he’s doing it in a systematic way. I believe, given what Chip has said and what he has done, that he’s installing a culture that says “EVERY detail is important.” Nothing gets taken for granted. So the ST statement, along with the “response to turnovers” statement, the focus on WRs blocking, etc., should be viewed in that light – he’s emphasizing things that other coaches de-emphasize in an effort to make a point about it, as well as in an effort to implement his systems. We don’t hear much about it in the press, but it has been said more than a few times that Chip has a “big picture” from which he works from to structure everything. One piece of that big picture looks like that slogan above. I also think that the excess of Ducks at the bottom of the roster this year has something to do with bringing in this “culture.” He wants guys at the bottom of the roster that he knows will bust butt and set a good example. Once the ship is righted a bit, (hopefully next year?) he can de-emphasize it and let his locker room be enforcer and example of the culture he wants his team to have. I think that, absent an absolute demolition of Chip’s offense to point where it’s a laughingstock, you’re not going to see anyone on this team quit like they did last year – Chip’s doing the dirty work of establishing the correct culture to ensure that can’t happen on his watch.

    • Very good point about the Oregon guys that I should have discussed. Chip knows this isn’t a one-year rebuild. To that end, he might actually be taking players he knows are marginally worse because he also knows those guys will be 100% committed to him (which helps set the overall mood).

      To that end, I like the moves. However, that assumes that once he “changes the culture” his roster decisions will be made a little differently. Won’t know that until it happens, obviously.

      On Fri, Sep 6, 2013 at 8:42 AM, Eagles Rewind

  6. Personally, I think it makes more sense to evaluate our special teams players based on their special teams ability than their ability at some position that they aren’t as likely to play. But I think in Chip’s mind the decision was even simpler than that. He decided to keep the guys that he wanted to see on the field and cut the guys that, if everything went according to plan, would never see the field.

    By keeping players on a size limited roster that would have no impact on the game in the ideal situation, you are wasting resources and placing a larger burden on the players who actually will be on the field. To make personnel decisions in this way is very risk averse. Chip Kelly is not risk averse. He’s trying to make the best possible team in the ideal situation and if an injury eliminates Plan A, he’ll MacGyver together a Plan B with the pieces he has in real time.

    I don’t think we can safely say that this approach is worse than the conventional approach of holding a lot of just-in-case guys with the data available.

    • You and I have the same analysis, just coming out at different ends. In my mind, “depth” players are actually very likely to play. Regardless, the point was Chip is taking a gamble. Higher risk comes with higher return, I certainly don’t disagree with you there.

      The whole thing is too subjective to fully analyze, so we’ll never know who’s right. But in general, If I was the coach I would not put much effort/resources into being anything more than average on STs.

      Ill do some research on that though and see if I can put some numbers together. At the least, I should be able to use FO’s STs rankings to see how much of an impact it has.

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