Optimizing for Chemistry

It’s no secret I was not exactly satisfied by this offseason.  It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either (I know it’s not over, but the roster-movement phase is largely done).  Between the draft, free agency, and the D-Jax cut, it’s been hard to find a logic thread connecting all of the moves.  For the most part, it looks like the Eagles realize they’re still in the “build” stage of team construction.  That explains the draft.  Smith, Matthews, and Huff are all fine prospects, but as I’ve covered before, they shouldn’t be expected to contribute a lot in year one (the team knows this, the fans haven’t realized it yet).

It also partially explains the Jackson move.  Howie/Chip don’t want to pay a WR that much, and Jackson’s cap hit was going to hurt at some point, especially when it came time to extend Foles, Cox, Kendricks, etc… Now that doesn’t explain the TIMING of it (why now and not next offseason), but it at least has some logic to it.

On the flip side, though, there’s the trade for Darren Sproles.  If you’re still in “build” mode, you probably aren’t looking to give up draft picks for a 30+ year old running back.  I still haven’t quite figured this one out.  Similar to the rookies, I don’t think the team plans on using Sproles as much as fans seem to think they will.  If that’s true, though, a 5th round pick is a lot to give up for a part-time, fill-in weapon like Sproles.  I think this is mainly insurance.  The Eagles know they are heavily dependent on McCoy, and despite what they say, they know there’s at least the risk that the offense without Jackson wouldn’t be as dynamic (that was phrased very carefully so as to avoid another blogwar).  Picking up Sproles gets some of that dynamism (word?) back, at least in theory.  Using Sproles as a band-aid until Ertz and Matthews are ready to step up might be the play here.  I don’t think it makes sense from a resource allocation standpoint, but I can understand not wanting the offense to slide too far.

So that’s the “build” theory of the offseason.  The Eagles overshot expectations last year, meaning fans are now expecting too much this season (recency bias).  The Eagles are not yet ready to contend, and management knows this.  They’d like to contend for the division this year (and with the competition it doesn’t seem that difficult), but they’re more focused on the year AFTER next season.  That’s when the “window” should really start opening if things go according to plan.

There is another story in here, though.  As the title indicates, it’s Chemistry.  Not only is Chip trying to remake the team on the field, he’s trying to instill a different attitude off of it as well.  I don’t think anyone would argue differently.  Whether you call it chemistry, attitude, locker-room presence, or whatever, it’s clear Chip’s trying to change it.  I’m not going to get into whether that’s good or bad.  The general attitude of the team is important.  I don’t typically address it because it’s intangible and unquantifiable.  There’s not data.  Without data, it’s impossible to form an objective opinion of any real value.

BUT….we can analyze it conceptually.  Let’s assume for a minute that Chemistry is both important AND can be quantified.  So for each player we can assign a Chemistry rating, Madden-style.  So along with things like Speed, Size, Catching ability, etc…, prospects and players are analyzed by Chemistry as well.

Now, what happens if you want to optimize for Chemistry?  In other words, in that situation, if you wanted to increase the overall Chemistry rating of your team, what are the other effects?

First, we need to ask a very important question.  Is Chemistry correlated to any other attribute?  So if we assigned a discrete rating for “Skill” as well, would that rating be tied in any way to the Chemistry rating?  Let me start by saying I don’t think they’re positively correlated.  The most “skilled” players do not seem to be more likely to be high “chemistry” guys.  In fact, anecdotally, it seems more likely that the two are negatively correlated.  For now, though, let’s just assume NO CORRELATION.

If there is no correlation, and you want to optimize for Chemistry, you’re going to face a trade-off in skill.  Note that optimizing for BOTH is the same thing, you’re just trying to minimize the negative trade-offs.   So let’s say you’re choosing between three players with the following ratings:

Player A:  Chemistry (90), Skill (70)

Player B:  Chemistry (80), Skill (80)

Player C:  Chemistry (70), Skill (90)

Which player do you choose?  If you’re overall goal is to improve the “Chemistry” on your team, you will take player A, despite that fact that he is less skilled than the other two.  Or, you might compromise and take Player B.  What you WON’T do is take player C.  So one war or another, you’re NOT maximizing Skill.

If we apply this conception to the Eagles, we can see a few issues.  We believe Chip is actively trying to improve “Chemistry”.  As I’ve just explained, doing so will involve trade-offs with other attributes, most notably Skill.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, in the “Chemistry” building process, there will be at least a near-term shortfall in skill.

Now think about DeSean Jackson.  Great player, but probably an asshole in the locker room and during practice.  Think of him as Player C above.  Cut him and the overall Chemistry of the team improves.  However, the overall Skill also decreases.

Over the long-term, a change in attitude is probably a very good thing.  BUT, assuming that the process of improving the team’s attitude does not involve trade-offs anywhere else is foolish.  NOTHING IS FREE (well except trading 6th round picks for multiple 7ths).

This also might explain the Matthews and Huff picks.  By all accounts, those two players rate very highly in our “Chemistry” attribute.  I can see why Chip liked them.  But if that played a role in their selection, it’s likely the team passed on more “skilled” players.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing and I’m not suggesting that it is.   Long-term, the hope is that this leads to a team that’s not only successful, but one you can be proud to root for.  But it takes time, and it requires tradeoffs.



19 thoughts on “Optimizing for Chemistry

  1. I think if you expand the definition of “chemistry” to include abstractions like football intelligence, ability to learn, desire to train, work hard, and generally “buy in”, it makes a lot more sense.

    Those traits actually allow Chip to utilize as much possible “skill” as possible from the players he has on the field.

    For all we know, due to his general attitude, football IQ, or work ethic, DeSean may have a skill level of 90, but Chip could only utilize 85% of that because DeSean couldn’t or wouldn’t learn and understand some of the offensive concepts he needed him to.

    A Maclin, Matthews, Huff may be closer to an 80 in skill level, but due to their intangibles, Chip is able to optimize that skill and they end up in the same place.

    And this is just on a discrete player basis – an entire team that is working hard will set a higher standard and generally extract as much available skill as possible from any given player.

    “Dumb players do dumb things, smart players rarely do dumb things”

    • Absolutely, and a good expansion on the conception. I might build on it in the future (include things like Football IQ, which I meant to talk about), but wanted to keep things very simple for today.

      The skill utilization rate is a great point.

      • Yeah, I think this is part of a larger trait that has made Chip so successful in the past: excessive rationality. Obviously, as a head football coach he has to have a significant belief in his personal abilities to coach players up, but I also think he’s more realistic than other similarly successful coaches when evaluating his own success in getting “problem” players like DeSean to reach their maximum performance. I think optimizing for “Chemistry” in your example isn’t so much trading off in total skill, but trading a player with a high “ceiling” but also high variance to his performance for a player with a (slightly) lower ceiling but a higher chance of consistently reaching that potential. Thus, while most people would say that someone who is capable of Jackson’s good plays is worth his salary, that equation might have a different result if you’re wondering if having someone who is as unpredictable on an individual play as Jackson can be.

        I think JPP is a good example of this point. If Chip was in charge of the Eagles and a player matching his profile was available, i.e. someone with freakish athletic abilities but health questions and still very “raw” in terms of football IQ, I don’t think we’d have a first round grade on him. Chip has stressed that it’s not just measurables, but how close a prospect comes to being the total package of athleticism, football skills, and good decision-making. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t draft JPP, but probably have him rated in the high second round.

        I’m not saying it’s a bad or good thing, but I think it’s a different conception of what constitutes “talent” than is traditional. I think too often draftniks and even teams see players as robots that will do what they’re told on every play exactly the right way to the maximum of their athletic abilities. Factoring how likely that is to actually happen isn’t optimizing for a certain attribute; it’s optimizing for total likely remaining NFL production, which is exactly what they should be doing.

  2. The Nnamdi-eating-in-his-car situation was probably the biggest indicator that the Eagles needed to be completely gutted from a chemistry standpoint. The fan base by and large demonizes Nnamdi for it, but having felt isolated in a toxic organization myself, I’d blame everyone around him just as much. A good work environment helps everyone to maximize their potential. A bad one turns into the Bucs, Jags, Raiders, and loner players doing their own thing.

    I think your assessment of this being a team building draft is spot on. Make sure that the foundations are there, and you can take on reclamation projects and divas. Reid got spoiled with an early strong locker room, forgot about the team building aspect, and one too many divas and fastballs ripped the team to shreds.

  3. I don’t understand how you came to the conclusion that more chemistry equals less skill, especially with rookies. Nothing is known at this point. More overthinking.

    • I explained above. Unless the two are positively correlated (and i can’t see how the could be), then more of one probably does lead to less of the other.

      • Chemistry as an individual may not have an impact on his individual skill value, but I think an aggregate of 80/80 players would have a greater total skill value as a unit due to more cohesive play, trust, and efficient communication (especially on OL and each unit of the defense) than an entire team of 70/90 players all doing their own thing. I think we saw enough of that in 2011-2012, and I think that’s why we’ve had so much turnover.

        As long as Chip isn’t trying to sell us a roster full of 90/70 guys, I think there’s merit to the argument that replacing a few older 70/90 guys with younger 80/80 guys makes the team better overall

  4. On Sproles: he is a unique asset with relatively low mileage joining a highly innovative offense. He’s not “replacing” DJac’s production but he doesn’t have to. Maclin and Matthews will also contribute, and Ertz should only get better. None are the dynamic athlete DJac is, but they should all be more consistently productive on a week-to-week basis.

    On chemistry: this is perhaps the most overrated concept in sports. You don’t have to love your teammate in order to play with him effectively. Sure, locker-room cancers do occur, ultimately requiring radical surgery. Otherwise, it’s unrealistic to expect 53 guys to all get along. Some will be high character guys, others will be quiet types, and a few will be prima donnas. It’s up to the coach to set a tone: do your job, stay out of trouble and keep your personal crap out of the locker room.

  5. I appreciate your perspective because I think your point is that Chip is trying to recast the team in his image reflecting his standards. History is not necessarily supportive when coaches start playing God. Ask Schiano. I personally have not found a casual or robust correlation between high character i.e. chemistry and winning. I presume Chip is trying to win, right? In order to do that you have to put the best 11 players on the field. Period! the Eagles once had a receiver named Frank Budd. At the time the fastest man in America. High character guy. Unfortunately, he couldn’t catch a cold on a TB ward. DJax will be missed.

  6. In the social sciences, it’s common to look for quantifiable variables at the organizational level which bear some relationship to chemistry. I’m in education policy, and we often use advanced statistical techniques like hierarchical linear modeling to parce out organizational level effects. I.e. the performance of teachers is nested inside schools, which are in turn nested inside districts. In this setting, there are several variables that drive effective school performance, such as having a shared mission and vision, a shared sense of accountability, etc. This seems a lot like chemistry and a good locker room to me.

    Of course, it’s a lot easier to get at these organizational level variables with big ass data sets. It’s also hard to imagine understanding these sort of quantifiable relationships without qualitative data (e.g. interview and observation data) about what’s happening inside of the organization.

    This is all to say that (1) I’d place a strong bet that chemistry on football teams is real, (2) it’s very difficult to quantify because of the available data and structure of the league, but (3) there’s plenty of qualitative data out there that we could use to build a good argument for the value of chemistry.

    There’s no easy risk/reward calculus about skill/chemistry that would flow from this kind of analysis – it’s more ambiguous than just balancing the likely numerical outcomes – but I also bet it’s a critical element of effective team building over the long haul.

  7. Sproles’ biggest contribution this season, and partly why Kelly traded for him, will come on special teams. If Sproles can contribute immediately on ST(return man) and O(out of the backfield and in the slot) he will have been worth the 5th rounder to me.

  8. The Eagles grade players in tiers based on skill, meeting physical requirements for each position. Then they eliminate from each tier those players lacking in character, work ethic, intelligence, etc. it is not skill 90, more a case of groupings, say 90+, 85-89, 80-84, etc. there are enough players within each tier so that they don’t have to sacrifice skill for character, at least that is my assumption.

  9. I agree with Marty and will add Brent that you’ve posted before on the crapshoot that is the draft. So on top of the fact that you are just using “chemistry” as tie breakers within a tier, and the fact that this could just be a way to differentiate players within the crapshoot that is the NFL draft, it seems a really hard sell to me to theorize or at least imply that Kelly is taking less talented guys who have chemistry.

    I also don’t agree that the Eagles believe they are in the build stage. Yes, they aren’t where they want to be some day. But geez, they were a playoff team and their division is terrible. You don’t “know” that they are a step behind a sufficient number of teams, that they would even know to play enough of those teams in the playoffs head to head, etc. You just don’t know how the season breaks, or how your team gels in the playoffs, or how luck plays a part. The Eagles can win the SB this year.

    They don’t like DeSean. He cost too much, he doesn’t block, keeping him one extra year keeps other WR’s off the field. I can wrap my head around that without having to conclude this means the Eagles don’t think they can win this year.

    Aside: Brent, I always wondered, of the draft is a sort of random experiment, do you think that certain teams known for drafting (Steelers, Ravens) were really better, were just expected results from a random output (where someone will likely do better), or were the results of development (ie, being able to teach players behind starters like the Steelers). I tend to think that it’s a combination of it all and that those teams get more drafting credit than they deserve.

  10. Good analysis Brent. I agree that most of the moves the team has made over the offseason have been less about immediate impact. I agree that the team will take a step back( I have them at 8-8 or 9-7). In the long term though, I think that the team will be a terror in 2016+. I hope that they blow everyone away this year in win it all, but its hard to see that happening with a lot of rookies being relied on to play major snaps and produce.

  11. It seems that if injury history can be used as a measurable risk assessment, then character history could be added to the chemistry equation and provide a risk variable based on likely availability – Josh Gordon, Daryl Washington, Justin Blackmon, Sean Lee, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Vick – there are only 53 spots on the roster; losing a talent for any reason is a huge impact.

    I see Chip choosing to minimize risk in building the roster initially. Once the key pieces are in place, he may decide to increase the risk factor as it relates to character/injury – he certainly had a number of character-related challenges at Oregon…

  12. I would argue that you need to disaggregate skill and talent. Talent (athletic ability) is most likely negatively correlated with the amorphous chemistry category, but I would argue that skill (hitting a baseball) is positively correlated to chemistry, especially over time. Guys with good chemistry are likely to be the guys who work on the skills.

    • Bah. Barry Bonds was by all accounts a complete asshole AND one of the greatest hitters in history. Just because a guy despises his teammates doesn’t mean he won’t work on his craft.

      Besides, winning breeds chemistry, not the other way around.

      • Bah. Correlation doesn’t mean complete equivalency.

        And I was under the assumption that the “chemistry” we’re talking about is something different from the trite kind of chemistry you’re referencing.

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