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.


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…




5 thoughts on “The State of The Eagles

  1. Really great column. Particularly loved the paragraph on talent/culture trade off with the boldface sentence which, in my life, I have independently come to believe as well.

    Would love if you could explain the 6th round / 7th round argument in more detail. Could not recall example of this working.

    Disagree only with your argument about FA not being place for me mpact players. Agree it’s risky, but look at NE with Moss and Revis, DEN with Peyton and DeMarcus Ware. Us with TO and the Freak. Think there are a fair number of success stories.

    • Thanks.

      On the 6th/7th stuff: The basic gist is that by that point in the draft, every prospect has roughly the same odds of turning into a valuable contributor. Pretend you knew that for sure, and it’d seem obvious that it didn’t really matter where in those two rounds you picked. Some teams don’t realize that (or more likely, they have guys on their board that “fell”, and don’t really understand how probability/stats work), and therefore there’s an arbitrage opportunity.

      On FAs: Obviously there are exceptions, but those are really rare. QB is a bit different, because they dictate scheme, rather than the reverse, so fit is less of an issue. The other guys you noted were signed onto team that were already very good and stable. At that level, I’m fine with using FA to find the last guy to get you into true contention. For most teams, though, and certainly for the Eagles right now, it’s not a great way to go.

  2. Did you mean Demaryius Thomas? Also, I think that you are overestimating the strength of the personnel. This is a firmly mediocre team in the hands of Chip Kelly. He drafted players to his idiosyncratic requirements and put a lot of these guys in a better position to succeed than we should expect a successor to.

    • Certainly did. Good catch. That’s definitely a worry, but I’m not sure about the whole “better position to succeed” bit. Just because he picked them doesn’t mean he knew how to best use them. In fact, I think one of his biggest failures was not adjusting his scheme to maximize his talent. We might see guys like Agholor and Huff fall by the wayside, but that’s not a huge loss based purely on production (would still be a big waste of draft resources). Other than that, Bradford and the RBs were Chip’s biggest acquisitions, and I just don’t see a compelling reason to believe Bradford played better under Chip than he would under anyone else. He’s had better runs of play in STL before last year.

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