What Rhymes With Guenther? Being clever is hard

Seriously being clever is hard. Guenther the Hunter? Guenther wont have a Punter? When he uses the bathroom he’s known as Guenther the dum…

I digress.

Overview:

Guenther has been an under the radar name that has intrigued me while looking at candidates for the next Philadelphia Eagles head coach. Guenther is a Richboro native and Council Rocks graduate. He played Division 3 football locally at Ursinus College. He became a head coach at a very young age and has experience winning hearts and minds of the region on the recruiting trail. He has spent the last 15 years grinding his way up through the NFL coaching ranks. He has head coaching experience as well as experience working in all three phases in the NFL. He’s worked for two of the best defensive minds in football with Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer. If the Eagles hire a defensive guy I’d rather have Guenther than McDermott.

Resume:

1994-1995: Western Maryland (McDaniel); Graduate Assistant

1996: Ursinus College; Defensive Coordinator

1997-2000: Ursinus College; Head Coach

2002-2003: Washington Redskins; Offense Quality Control

2005: Cincinnati Bengals; Defensive Staff Assistant

2006: Cincinnati Bengals; Assistant ST/Assistant DB

2007-2011: Cincinnati Bengals; Assistant ST/ Assistant LB

2012-2013: Cincinnati Bengals; LB coach

2014-2015: Cincinnati Bengals; Defensive Coordinator

How he got here:

After a successful college career at Ursinus College where he set the program mark for career tackles, Paul Guenther spent a few years at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) before returning to his Alma Mater to become the DC. When the head coach left to start an FCS program at Jacksonville State, Guenther became the new head coach. He was only 25 and was the youngest HC in college football. Despite his youth Guenther compiled a 25-18 record as head coach including 10-2 and 8-3 records in his final two seasons. He left after the 2000 season due to disagreements with the college president about the level of commitment from the school, as well as to pursue coaching at a higher level. He was hired by the old ball coach to be the offensive quality control coach in Washington. In 2005 his time with Marv Lewis and Hue Jackson in Washington led to the Bengals hiring him. Since that point he has slowly worked his way up the ranks in Cincinnati.

In 2012 Guenther was given full control of the LB room. Along with Mike Zimmer he helped bring out the best in talented head case Vontaze Burfict. He helped turn Vincent Rey from fringe roster player into a highly productive if unsung starting linebacker. He taught an old dog new tricks when he got James Harrison who had been a 34 OLB his entire career to become an off the ball linebacker in the 43.

When Mike Zimmer was hired away, both Zimmer and the Vikings as well as Jay Gruden who he had worked with during their time in Cincinnati both tried to hire him as their DC. Cincinnati wasn’t going to lose both OC, DC and promising young defensive coach so they promoted Guenther to DC. Here’s how he’s performed:

2014:

  • 22nd in Yards Allowed
  • 20th in Passing Yards Allowed
  • 20th in Rush Yards Allowed
  • 12th in Points Allowed
  • 32nd in Sacks
  • T-10th Takeaways
  • 14th in DVOA

2015

  • 11th in Yards Allowed
  • 20th in Passing Yards Allowed
  • 7th in Rush Yards Allowed
  • 2nd in Points Allowed
  • 9th in Sacks
  • 6th in Takeaways
  • 10th in DVOA

 

The 2014 number are not great. That unit was pretty mediocre. However the 2015 group has been pretty good. That shows an ability to improve a unit and learn from shortcomings. When you consider the 2015 Bengals offense has scored a lot (7th), and the defense has had to play with the lead, the numbers are even more impressive.

Takeaways:

Paul Guenther isn’t a homerun candidate. You’re not going to win “shiniest new toy” for hiring him. But he’ a local guy (which Lurie seems to value), with head coaching experience, a diverse background, has paid his dues, can work with “big personality” players, and comes from a team with a strong defensive identity. The Eagles don’t need to win the press conference. They don’t need a big ego. They need a well-rounded coach. Paul Guenther fits that criteria.

 

Sources:

http://articles.philly.com/1997-04-10/sports/25529329_1_paul-guenther-assistant-defensive-coach-ursinus-college

http://articles.philly.com/2000-11-30/sports/25614248_1_collegeville-school-ursinus-coach-ursinus-president-john-strassburger

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/coaches/GuenPa0.htm

http://www.cincyjungle.com/2013/11/20/5126662/a-master-at-work-behind-the-scenes-bengals-linebackers-coach-paul

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.

Eagles Bye Week Review

I desperately need a non-preview post, and with the Eagles heading into the post-bye week part of the schedule, now seems like a great time for a high level look at how this season is progressing.  Rather than attempt to follow a consistent thread, I’m just going to do bullets so that I can touch on everything I think is important and interesting about the season so far.

– Let’s first check in with my preseason projection.  My base-case had the Eagles scoring about 425 points and allowing 366, for an “expected” record of 9.6 wins.  At their current pace, the Eagles will score 488 points and allow 352.  So the defense is largely where we thought it would be.  The offense is pretty far ahead, though.  It’s important to note that the Eagles’ schedule gets tougher from here on out.  We’ll likely see the scoring rate (30.5 per game right now) decline and the points allowed rate (22 per game) go up.  Meanwhile, the current win projection has to be 10-11, meaning the Eagles are slightly ahead of where I thought they’d be.

– Blue Chips Watch – The most important part of the season.  Do the Eagles have any players that can truly be considered “Blue-Chip” or “top-tier” talents?  The answer to that question is a bit mixed.  First, the good news:

Fletcher Cox has become the player we all hoped he’d be.  I was worried about the transition to the 3-4, and the adjustment did take some time.  However, Cox now looks comfortable in his new role and has been a very disruptive player this year.  Here are the Top 15 Defensive Ends by Expected Points Added Per Game (from advancedfootballanalytics.com).

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 3.13.06 PM

First, I have to mention JJ Watt.  If you’re not watching this guy play, you’re missing out on something special.  It’s really tough to project really high-level play into the future, but I’m completely comfortable saying that JJ Watt is currently playing about as well as any defensive player EVER.

Notice who is #2 on that list, though.  Fletcher Cox has had a very big impact this season. That’s a great sign for the Eagles’ future.  The team needs a few cornerstone players, and Cox is playing like one.

One more note about that chart.   Check out #12.  Cedric Thornton has pretty quietly become a really good player.  Maybe it won’t last and maybe he’s just taking advantage of favorable match-ups as a result of the attention Cox draws.  But, he’s also 26 years old and in just his 3rd season.  I mentioned pre-season that the Eagles have to hope for a “surprise” impact player to emerge.  Thornton isn’t quite there yet, but he’s certainly worth keeping a close eye on.

The rest of the “Blue Chip” breakdown isn’t as positive.  Kendricks looked really good to start the season, but his injury prevented us from seeing if that was actual growth or a short-term performance bump.  Lane Johnson had his suspension, and two games isn’t enough of a sample to make any large judgments.  Brandon Boykin seems to have pissed off somebody behind the scenes, because his usage rates don’t match up to his apparent skill level relative to other players on the team (he’s been playing about 1/3 of the snaps, basically only in the nickel package).  With Chip Kelly’s “culture” focus, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some friction between Boykin and the coaches.  In any case, it’s a big disappointment to not see him on the field more.

Marcus Smith has been a non-factor.  That’s not a surprise, but it certainly doesn’t do much to quiet those who pegged him as a big “reach” in the draft.

Jordan Matthews has 23 catches and 226 yards receiving.  That doesn’t sound exciting, but remember that rookie WRs rarely make significant contributions.  This year’s class is a very strong one, with Kelvin Benjamin and DeAndre Hopkins making a big impact so far.  We shouldn’t let that overshadow the fact that Matthews performance thus far is a good indicator for next year and beyond.

Zach Ertz has been underwhelming in terms of raw stats, but I think that’s due to factors outside of his control.  He may need to improve his blocking ability in general, but with the O-Line injuries, it’s no surprise Chip has leaned more heavily on Brent Celek than I was expecting pre-season.  Still, Ertz ranks 12th among TEs in receiving yards (20th in targets).    His 61.3% catch rate isn’t good, but that’s largely due to Foles’ accuracy issues.   Meanwhile, he ranks FIRST in the league in Win Probability Added and 8th in Expected Points Added Per Play.  In other words, Ertz is still very much on pace to be a high-impact TE, assuming Celek doesn’t play forever and Chip starts to trust Ertz in the run game.

– Don’t jump ship on Nick Foles just yet.  Nick Foles is not having nearly as good a year as he did last season.  But we knew that would happen.  Several of his statistics from last season were undeniably unsustainable.  As a result, I think he’s suffering by comparison.  For example, Nick Foles’ interception rate this year is 3.0%.  That’s not good.  It’s also not catastrophic.  Andrew Luck’s Int rate this ear is 2.3%.  Given Foles’ history, I expect that rate to come down.  If he can lower it by 1% (one fewer INT every 100 throws), he’ll be right in line with the best starting QBs in the league.

Meanwhile, everyone who was complaining that Foles took too many sacks last year is now yelling at him for throwing too many picks, apparently ignorant of the fact that they two might be linked.  While Foles’ interception rate has jumped this season, his sack rate has declined from 8.1% to 2.9%.  This year’s O-line also hasn’t been as good.  It’s entirely possible that Foles has been trying to limit his sacks by throwing the ball in areas he would have avoided last season.  Hopefully there’s a better balance to be struck, but we can’t ignore the fact that Foles has dramatically improved an area of the game most people were not satisfied with.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the biggest difference between Foles last year and this year is his TD Rate.  Last season, Foles threw TDs on 8.5% of his throws, the highest mark in the league.  This season, he has thrown TDs at a rate of just 4.2%.  Forget the interceptions, THIS is the real difference.  Relatedly, his Average Net Yards per Attempt has dropped from a league-leading 9.18 to 5.98.

Now….what in the world could be the cause of such a decline?

Let’s tip-toe into this one.

On deep throws this year, Foles is 15 of 48 (31%) with 7 TDs, 4 INTs, and 2 drops.  He’s attempting deep throws on 20.3% of his passes (all from profootballfocus.)

Last season, Foles was 25 of 55 (45%) with 14 TDs, 1 INT, and 0 drops.  He attempted deep throws on 17% of his passes.

That’s the difference between last year and this one for Foles.  The deep passing game hasn’t been nearly as effective.  Note that despite worse results, he’s actually attempting such passes MORE often.  Yes, the causality might run the other way, but the basic takeaway is the same.  For some reason, the Eagles deep passing game this year is not nearly as effective as it was last year.

Oh, by the way, the Eagles released the league’s premier deep threat in the offseason.  Again, this is not a judgment of that decision.  I really don’t want to argue about DeSean Jackson anymore (besides, I think I’ve definitively won the argument already).  However, if you’re going to be hard on Foles, you have to at least try to account for the fact that his receiving corps this year is nowhere near as good as it was last season.  Not only is Jackson gone, but Riley Cooper isn’t the same player he was last season.

The upshot, of course, is that Nick Foles needs to play a bit better, but we might also just be seeing the effects of a subpar receiving corps.  That’s a very fixable problem, at least over the long term.

So, on perhaps the most important Eagles question of the year, “is Nick Foles an answer?”, I’m advocating for a measured approach.  Foles needs to dial back the interceptions a bit, but the rest of his game isn’t nearly as bad is it seems.  Much of the decline can be attributed to the decline in the WR talent.  Additionally, the lack of the run game hasn’t helped.  Last season, teams were loading up the box on McCoy nearly every play, leaving a lot of room for Foles to take clear shots downfield.  That’s not happening as much this year.  Watch closely as Kelce and Mathis return.  If McCoy really is healthy, I think we’ll see a pretty big jump in Foles’ passing performance once those guys get back. Foles isn’t the type of QB who is going to win the game by himself, but I still believe he’s good enough to win consistently when he has a little help.

Let’s also not forget that the team is 5-1.

That’s all for now.  I’ll post my odds breakdown article tomorrow, but the short story is: if Darren Sproles plays, I see a narrow Eagles victory.  If he doesn’t, a narrow loss.  In any case, the teams appear to be pretty evenly matched, so a single big play could swing the outcome.

Eagles – Jaguars: Review

That’s why it’s important to focus on areas for potential regression….

As I said in yesterday’s season projection, two major areas of concern this season are Nick Foles turnover regression and health, particularly along the O-Line.  My guess is, after yesterday, those issues are no longer under any fan’s radar.  To reiterate, my theme for this season is: similar results as last season (at least record-wise), but very mixed feelings.  Yesterday fit that perfectly.  Fortunately, the Eagles were able to pull through, largely on the strength of excellent Special Teams (fairly big surprise) and a strong defensive performance outside of a few early breakdowns.

Now for a few individual factors I’m looking at/thinking about.  As usual, I’m going to try to avoid the “obvious” story lines, you can get that elsewhere, unless they’re really important and I think I have something to add to the discussion.

Blue Chips – Pulling from yesterday, this is the most important aspect of this season.  The Eagles will not become a consistent SB contender without developing a few high-impact players.  Fortunately, things were fairly positive on this front for the team.  Mychal Kendricks looked like one of the best players on the field.  He had 6 tackles, a sack, and a pass defensed.  Fletcher Cox also looked very good (despite having his best play erased by a bogus penalty.)  He also had 6 tackles, plus the spread-beating fumble recovery and TD run.  On the flip side, Foles obviously struggled. More on him in a second.  Boykin looked good when he was on the field…but only played 23 defensive snaps.  That’s less than 1/3 of all defensive plays.  Hopefully one of the beat writers will ferret out the reasoning for Boykin’s lack of PT, but until then we’re left watching to see if it becomes a trend.  Zach Ertz has 3 catches on 5 targets, hitting a couple of big plays on seam routes.  I’d be very surprised if his role in the passing game doesn’t get bigger soon.  Jordan Matthews also had strong debut with 2 catches (4 targets) for 37 yards.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember that rookie WRs very rarely make significant contributions.  If Matthews can grab 2-3 balls each game, he’ll have done really well.

Overall, the game itself was ugly, but the long-term factors I’m paying attention to were mostly good.  I say “mostly” because…

Nick Foles – I’m not going to dwell too much on Foles since every other writer will cover him.  I did, however, want to toss a theory out there.  Foles was pretty clearly gun-shy yesterday.  Lots of double-clutching and hesitation.  There are a lot of potential explanations, but I think it’s likely the whole “turnover avoidance” storyline got to him.  If you had spent all offseason hearing about how great you were at not throwing interceptions, it’s probably natural for you to start trying to avoid them more consciously.  Hopefully this is just a one-week issue.  If he gets too far into his own head, though, things are going to get ugly.

Cody Parkey – That was an excellent performance, far beyond anything I expected.  The 51 yard FG was perfect, even moreso because it was the first real NFL kick of his career.  Just as important, though, were the touchbacks.  Parkey kicked off 7 times.  5 of them were touchbacks (or 72%).  For reference, Alex Henery recorded a touchback on 41.5% of his kicks last season.  It must be noted that conditions yesterday were very good, so we shouldn’t expect Parkey to maintain that touchback rate through the fall/winter.  Still, it’s an area I highlighted for potential improvement for the Eagles, and so far that’s what we’ve seen.

Marcus Smith – Not much to say here, the guy didn’t play.  It’s too early to be concerned, but I’m keeping a close eye on this one.  I realize he’s a “project”, but he dressed for the game and couldn’t get a single snap?  That’s worrisome, especially because the Jaguars, despite the first half, are one of the more benign offenses the Eagles will face all year.   If there was a time to get Smith a few live reps with relatively little risk, yesterday was it.  Maybe the big deficit changed the plans.  Even so, it’s hard to stomach having a healthy first round pick on the sidelines and not being able to find him a single live rep.

Special Teams – I mentioned Parkey, but it’s important to note that the entire unit was fantastic yesterday.  Sproles provided a big spark as a punt returner, averaging 15.5 yards per attempt.  Donnie Jones’ net average was just 33.7 yards, but that’s because he put 5 punts inside the 20 yard line.  There just wasn’t room to kick it farther, and he did a great job of keeping the ball out of the end zone (with some help from the coverage team).  I’ve said before that Special Teams plays a relatively small role when compared to Offense and Defense.  That, however, assumes somewhat normal play from the unit.  A great STs performance can have a much larger impact, as it did yesterday for the Eagles.

Finally, it’s pretty amazing that the Eagles could look so bad for so long and still win a game by 17 points.  The competition probably wasn’t good, but having a 34 point swing during a game almost never happens.  It could be a sign that the Eagles just weren’t ready to play or overlooked the Jaguars.  Hopefully that’s the case.  Even if it’s not, though, watching the Cowboys and Washington play should have reminded everyone that the Eagles don’t need to be anywhere near “great” to win the division.

Season Overview

It’s finally here.  The season starts in less than 48 hours, which means it’s just about the last chance I’ll get to set expectations for the season before we start getting actual data.  I still plan to release a Points For/Points Against “true” win forecast before Sunday at 1 pm, but today I wanted to take a much broader perspective.

Above all else, I wanted to stress the following:

This is just season 2 of what looks to be a 3-4 year roster construction phase.

 Yes, it’d be nice to see the Eagles do really well this season, but I’m much more interested in the long-term development of the team.  With Chip Kelly, it’s possible the Eagles can become a perennial contender.  It’s also possible that he’ll flame out more quickly than anyone expects.  In that sense, there are much more important things to watch for than just the win/loss record this season.

With that, let’s run through a few of the things I’ll be watching closely:

Blue Chips – This might be the most important aspect of this season.  Put simply, the Eagles will not grow into a consistent SB threat unless they develop a few true “star” players.  Moreover, signing star players is a very difficult way to go.  First, you’ve got the winner’s curse, which means you will nearly always overpay in free agency.  Second, free agents don’t always fit nearly as well as you think they will (cough…Nnamdi…cough….puke).  High-level talent is a prerequisite for winning a Super Bowl, and drafting a player and developing him within your system remains the best way to source high-level talent.

So…do the Eagles have any?

Well McCoy obviously fits the bill.  The concern here is whether anyone else will develop quickly enough to overlap with Shady’s “prime”.  As I’ve demonstrated a number of times, top-level NFL talent comes almost exclusively from the 1st and 2nd round of the draft.  Here are the recent Eagles picks from those rounds:

2014: Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews

2013: Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz

2012: Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks

2011: Danny Watkins, Jaiqwuan Jarrett (oh god)

It doesn’t make much sense to go farther back than that (not that it’d help anyway), since players who’ve been in the league since 2010 are most likely hitting their peak and so should already be stars if they’re that good.  McCoy clearly is.  I guess it’s possible  Jeremy Maclin can become a star, but I’m very skeptical.

From above, we’re really left with six players to depend on.  I was a big believer in Cox, but the transition to a 3-4 defense may have robbed him of his chance at high-impact status. Kendricks flashes star ability, but consistency is a huge problem (as is his tackling).  Johnson – same story (plus he’s suspended).  The other guys are too young to really judge.  Beyond these guys, I it’s worth adding Foles and Boykin to the mix as well.  Similar to the others, each appears to have the ability to be a true impact player, but we’re really far from being able to depend on it.

That’s why this year is so important.  If you could only look for one thing this season, it should be the development of this core group.  If a few of them become stars, the future is very bright.  If not, the Eagles ceiling might be much lower than any of us are hoping for.

Nick Foles

I mentioned him above, but he deserves his own section.  We don’t know how good/bad Nick Foles really is.  Last season was amazing.  It was so good, in fact, that it suggests the odds of Foles being a “fluke” are quite low.  League-average looks to be the floor.  Of course, league-average isn’t going to get anyone excited.  After this season, we’ll have a big enough sample to start making some conclusions regarding Foles’ ability.  In every sense of the phrase, this really is a “make or break year” for Nick.

Specifically, pay close attention to his ability to push the ball downfield.  Last season, Foles benefitted tremendously from the attention Shady drew.  Foles’ Play-Action numbers, in particular, were off the charts.  For the Eagles to be effective, Foles must continue making defenses pay for loading up against McCoy.  This is why losing DeSean Jackson is such a big deal.  If the Eagles can’t take advantage of the attention McCoy draws, things will go downhill very quickly.

Cody Parkey

This is a relatively minor issue in terms of actual impact, but a huge issue in terms of my sanity.  Remember David Akers?  Wasn’t it nice to never have to worry about the kicker?  Every kicker is going to miss field goals every once in a while, but being nervous for every single kick just isn’t healthy.  I’m glad Henery is gone, it’s time to try someone new.  However, I harbor no illusions that the Eagles have already solved their kicking issues.  The field goals are obvious; you don’t need me to tell you to pay attention to those.  Do look for the distance though.  Henery is not a very strong kicker, and was therefore rarely trusted with a 50+ yard kick.  In a perverse way, this may have actually forced the Eagles to make the correct decision (going for it instead of kicking) more often than they otherwise would.  Or maybe Chip knows the math.  Parkey’s usage will go a long way towards answering that question.

Less obvious are the touchbacks.  Casual fans don’t pay much attention to them, but they’re important, especially with a defense that still has a lot of weaknesses.  If Parkey can kick the ball through the end zone, he’ll already be giving the Eagles a boost.

Chip Kelly

One of the reasons Chip Kelly was such a risky hire was his complete lack of NFL experience.  As with any other position, we should expect a learning curve at Coach, especially for someone with no previous time in the league.  So, beyond watching the actual players for improvement, we should also be watching Chip.  It’s a bit tougher to judge, but things like TO usage, game clock management, 4th down decision-making, etc., are all easily quantified and/or analyzed.  He did some very good things last year, but has plenty of room to improve in each of the areas I mentioned, as well as in others I didn’t.  Unfortunately, projecting a coach to improve isn’t nearly as easy as projecting a player to improve.  As all Eagles fans know, just having experience doesn’t mean you’ll get better at managing the clock (this is, actually, a shocking feature of the NFL and coaching in general).  My hope is that when Chip looks around for areas in which to get an edge over other teams, he’ll include himself.

Health

This ties into the last point above (segue!): the Eagles were a very healthy team last year.  History says that’s mostly luck.  Chip, though, has taken a much greater interest in the nutrition/conditioning side of the game.  Hence, it’s reasonable to believe that the Eagles are more likely to remain healthy (relative to other teams) than pure luck would suggest.  If that’s the case, it’s a very big advantage.  Tremendous parity in the league means one or two injuries really can make the difference between winning a division/making a playoff run and missing the playoffs entirely.

This is especially true for the Eagles.  Depth is much improved over last year, but there are still some glaring holes, at least from my point of view.  In particular, I worry about the LBs and the Ss.  If Ryans or Barwin goes down, for example, how confident are you in Najee Goode or Marcus Smith to fill in?  The answer is not very.  Similarly, many fans are banking on Malcolm Jenkins to make a big impact in the secondary.  Beyond the fact that he’s not as good as his fame would suggest, if he goes down we’re looking at Chris Maragos?  Did you even know he was on the team?  If any of these backups have to play significant time, the hoped-for improvement in the Eagles defense will be much less likely to occur.

Conversely, if the Eagles have another relatively healthy year, then we can start ascribing more credit (slowly) to Chip Kelly’s #sportsscience.

That’s All

Those are the long-term keys to watch this season.  Once things get going, it becomes much harder to take the long-view, which is why I highlight these issues now.  Just remember, the Eagles are not really a SB contender right now.  Granted, even mediocre teams can win (see NY Giants…), but the fact is the Eagles are still very much a developing team, and likely not ready to mount a strong challenge for the Super Bowl.  I’m much more interested in a sustained run of high-performance (like the Andy Reid era) than I am in a 3 year supernova of Chip Kelly madness followed by another restart.

2014 Risk Factors: Injuries

As you all know, we should be thinking about this season in terms of an expected performance distribution.  There are a range of outcomes for the Eagles this season, which varying probabilities for each related to how good/bad the team is.  Today, I want to first talk conceptually about the distribution shape.  Then I’ll move into the main topic: Injuries.

I’m going to assume everyone knows the basics of a Normal Distribution (Bell Curve).  I’ve used it often enough here that it shouldn’t be unknown.  The relevant question is: how do NFL team performance distributions compare?  Using the Normal curve as a baseline allows us to logic our way through certain adjustments, leading us to a better mental model for understanding ex-ante team expectations.

I’m primarily concerned with two dimensions: kurtosis and skew.  Skew is relatively self-evident, and more important for our topic today.  It relates to the symmetry of the distribution and the existence of outliers to either side.  Kurtosis isn’t as well known.  It also relates to the shape of the curve, but concerns the degree of peakedness vs. heavy tails.  In other words, kurtosis tells us how much data is located in the center of the distribution (or, conversely, NOT near the center).  Here’s a visual example:

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 10.51.33 AM

Now, to the good stuff.

What do we think the shapes of NFL performance distributions are?

I don’t have any data (yet), so we’re operating conceptually (as usual).  Let’s start with Kurtosis, because it’s relatively straightforward and not as important for out topic today.  In generally, I think NFL distributions are fairly Platykurtic.  There is a LOT of luck in the NFL.  That means a team’s “true” performance level is less likely to actually manifest than if there was little luck.  That means ANY projection we make is fairly uncertain.  As a result, it’s not enough to just say “expect 9 wins”.  Any projection of value will also include an expected range, or at least some explanation of downside/upside outcomes.

Now let’s look at skew, because that’s the more relevant measure right now.  Perhaps the most important thing to note here is that performance for an NFL team, as I’ve defined it here (Wins), is bounded on both sides.  No matter how bad a team is, it can’t win fewer than 0 games.  No matter how good it is, it can’t win 16 games.  Hence, when we’re looking at expected performance in terms of wins, the potential for outliers is limited.  Taking the next step, that means the distributions almost certainly are skewed for every team, provided we accept one more assumption as true: it is possibly, at least in theory, for a team to achieve every possible outcome (0 – 16 wins), regardless of “true” ability or expectation.  The Seahawks will almost certainly will more than 0 games this year…but it’s possible.  Even if the odds of that outcome are extremely small, if they exist they must be present on the distribution curve.

Similarly, a bad team will almost certainly not win 16 games.  But an extraordinary run of luck (like opposing injuries) could, in theory, produce a very positive outcome, up to and including 16 wins.  Again, the odds are close to zero, but they exist.

Therefore, an expected performance distribution for the Seahawks might look like this, with the X-axis representing 0 – 16 wins as you move from left to right:

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 11.04.10 AM

That curve is negatively skewed, as are the curves for most “good” teams, for reasons I explained above.

Now that we’ve settled that, we need to think about the reasons a good team might end up in the left side of the curve.  Put differently, we know that the Eagles are a relatively “good” team.  While their curve isn’t nearly as skewed as the Seahawks’, I do believe it’s still negatively skewed.  Given that, we can start to think about WHY, beyond the theoretical reasons (bounded range of outcomes), a team’s left tail might exist/be significant.

The most obvious reason is injuries.

Injuries, especially those to star players, present the type of negative events that can result in a team finishing with an outcome towards the left side of the distribution.  Here’s the important part: the Eagles are particularly susceptible this year, hence the team’s left tail is likely a bit larger than usual.  That’s also a big reason why I’m keeping my expectations for the team’s win total in check.  Outliers to the left side or a fat left tail will pull the mean of the distribution down.  So if we’re just talking about average expected wins (there are certainly other ways to look at this), the Eagles “true” level is likely lower than many fans believe.

If Nick Foles goes down….. If LeSean McCoy goes down….. If anyone on the offensive line goes down….

The Eagles are currently heavily dependent on just a few players.  The defensive depth chart improved a bit this offseason, but the offense (largely responsible for the team’s performance las year) is still very brittle.  The problem is, that brittleness was not readily apparent last year, and therefore is likely to be under-appreciated this year.

Last season, the Eagles ranked 2nd overall in Adjusted Games Lost, a measure from Football Outsiders that quantifies the impact of injuries a team suffers over the course of a season.  Here’s how the site describes it:

With Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric, we are able to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries based on two principles: (1) Injuries to starters, injury replacements and important situational reserves matter more than injuries to bench warmers; and (2) Injured players who do take the field are usually playing with reduced ability, which is why Adjusted Games Lost is based not strictly on whether the player is active for the game or not, but instead is based on the player’s listed status that week (IR/PUP, out, doubtful, questionable or probable).

In 2012, the Eagles ranked 18th overall.

Clearly, they were more effected by injuries in 2012 than they were last year.  Similarly, the fact that the Eagles ranked 2nd last year combined with the relatively uncertain (non-persistant) nature of injuries means we should expect some mean-reversion.  Basically, it’s likely the Eagles will be more negatively effected by injuries this year, relative to other teams, than they were last season.

Of course, that itself doesn’t tell us much.  We also need to know it injuries, as measured by AGL, actually affect performance (as measured by Wins).  Well here’s the scatterplot showing AGL and corresponding Wins from 2009-2013.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 11.28.28 AM

As you can see, there’s good news and bad news.  The correlation value is -.185.  If the Eagles revert towards the mean (as I expect them to), they’ll be relatively worse off than last year.  However, the correlation is relatively weak, so the effect might not be catastrophic.

Anecdotally, though, I think there’s reason to be concerned, particularly because I don’t like the QB/RB Depth Chart.  An injury to a starter is bad (and shows up in AGL).  However, if the drop-off in talent to the next guy isn’t huge, the effect won’t be significant.  Unfortunately, the Eagles don’t have that luxury at QB.  Moreover, LeSean McCoy is SO good that it’s really impossible to keep the gap between him and the 2nd stringer small.

I should probably note here that I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic here.  However, if we want to create a reasonably accurate performance expectation, we need to look carefully for risk factors.

Injuries are always a major risk factor.  But in the Eagles’ case, I think the risk is atypically large this year.  That doesn’t mean they’ll occur, but it does mean or ex-ante projection needs to account for them.

There’s much more to say around this topic, and I want to present a new version of the Depth Chart Over Time that will make potential injury risk more obvious.  For now though, believe in the Eagles this year, but recognize that the existence of serious downside potential (negatively skewed) results in a mean win expectation that is lower than some might expect (I’ll get a number on it before the season starts).  We can talk about median expectations some other time….

Lane Johnson’s suspension and the rationality of using PEDs in the NFL

Sorry for the absence, combination of exams/vacation/world cup conspired to occupy all of my time.  Fortunately, not much has happened that needs immediate reaction.  At least until yesterday.

As everyone knows by now, Lane Johnson is looking at a likely 4 game suspension after testing positive for PEDs.  There are a few different angles to view this from, but let’s start with the most obvious, the effect on the Eagles.  Clearly, this is a big loss.  The Eagles offense is dependent on the run game, which in turn relies on the O-Line providing lanes for Shady to work with.  Losing Johnson for four games means the Eagles, regardless of how they fill Johnson’s position, will see a decline in performance at RT.  Moreover, assuming the Eagles fill the need from within (Allen Barbre is the favorite), the team is left VERY shallow at OL for the first four games.  So an injury to another member of the OL would move the unit from a team strength to a glaring weakness.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that.  That’s the easy stuff.

A more interesting angle from which to view this story is the overall use of PEDs in the NFL.  Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about PEDs….the NFL doesn’t care! Why would they?  They make the players bigger, stronger, and faster; they don’t cost the owners anything; and the fans don’t really care either.  The only real losers in this situation are the players themselves (assuming there are long-term negative health effects from PEDs).  So why do they take them?  It’s essentially a prisoner’s dilemma.  In total, the players are probably better off if nobody uses PEDs.  However, if only a few players take them, they are significantly better off than everyone else.  Given the number of players in the league (hard to trust/coordinate with everyone) and the immense competition for every roster spot, the rational course of action for many players is to take the drugs!  Especially when the first suspension is just 4 games.  They can’t trust the testing policies to catch the cheaters, and they can’t trust the other players not to cheat.  Theoretically, they could actually advocate for very strict testing procedures during CBA negotiations, but that’s a topic for another day.

Ok, so obviously the incentives are pretty badly misaligned and there are structural issues within the league that suggests PED use should be fairly widespread.  That brings me to the next angle to this story, and the only one I think the NFL secretly cares about (if only just a little).  The Seattle Seahawks.

Did you watch them last season?  Bigger…stronger…faster.  The team, top-to-bottom, looked to be in better physical condition than everyone they played against.  Now remember they have a coach, Pete Carroll, who has a history of bending (and outright breaking) the rules.  Most glaringly (perhaps I’m burying the lede here a bit), the Seahawks have led the league in PED suspensions since Carroll took over.

Bruce Irvin…Brandon Browner…Winston Guy…John Moffit…Allen Barbre (oh shit)…Richard Sherman (overturned due to technicality)…

That’s a lot of suspensions.  But that’s not all.  Do you think EVERYONE who uses PEDs gets caught?  I don’t know enough about the testing procedures to suggest a catch rate, but we can use logic to figure this one out.  If 100% of those who used got caught, nobody would use!  Ok, maybe a couple of players who were either really stupid or simply believed their only chance was to use PEDs would still do it, but clearly it would be a very small number.  Moving a bit further, look at the penalty for using.  It’s only 4 games!  Conceptually, think about the expected value of this situation.

Option A: Don’t use PEDs, no chance of getting suspended but you are also at a competitive disadvantage.  What’s the alternative employment for most of these players?  The rookie minimum salary is $375,000.  The veteran minimum is either $450,000 or $525,000 (with 2 years of service).  What would these players earn outside the league?  10% of their NFL salary? 20%?  That makes Option A borderline irrational, at least for players on the fringe.

Option B: Use PEDs, gain competitive advantage (or at least avoid a disadvantage).  We don’t know the odds of getting caught (I personally think they’re VERY low), but let’s be extremely conservative here and say 50%.  So if you take option B, there’s a 50% chance you get away with it (at least for the first year, we can iterate this process to account for testing schedules and PED cycles but the overall point is the same).  Conversely, there’s a 50% chance you get caught.  If you do, you’re suspended for 4 games.  So using PEDs carries an expected value of missing just 2 games?  Against the benefits of using PEDs?

Here’s where I should mention that for true fringe players, the downside of getting caught isn’t limited to just the suspension, it may actually cost them their roster spot and place in the league.  However, we also have to acknowledge the likelihood that some of these players, without PEDs, wouldn’t make the team anyway.  Add in the fact that the PED catch rate is almost certainly far less than 50%, and it’s pretty clear that using PEDs is an extremely attractive risk/reward opportunity.  That ignores potential negative health effects.  That may be important to you and me, but I’d suggest that by playing football (with all of the known concussion risks) is a clear signal that these players are not placing as high a value on long-term health as other’s perhaps would.

The Seahawks appear to have this figured out.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that Seattle has an organized, team-sanctioned PED program.  They almost definitely do not.  However, I am suggesting that there’s probably a don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy, and clearly a relaxed attitude that tacitly condones PED use.  Again, that’s a perfectly rational way for Seattle to run its team.  The team-wide benefits more than outweigh the risks.  The occasional suspension is simply a cost of doing business.  Fans can complain about it and other team’s can claim the moral high ground…but the Seahawks are the Super Bowl Champions.

Enter Chip Kelly.  Unconventional coach with a college background and a history of flouting the rules and pushing the envelope?  Sound familiar? #SportsScience anyone?

Needless to say, Lane Johnson’s suspension does not surprise me.  Not even a little.  Now let’s get controversial….I expect more suspensions under Chip Kelly.  Not necessarily soon, but over the next couple of seasons.

I’m not trying to pass moral judgment here, nor am I taking a side on whether I’d support PED use or not.  Just reading the signs and coming to what I think is the most logical conclusion.  The current league incentives encourage PED use (at least until a player gets their first suspension) and I think Chip Kelly realizes it.

Lastly, this is from a 2013 ESPN article that looked at PED suspensions by team from 2010-2013.  Here are the top 5:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.33.31 AM

Note the Bengals, Texans, and Rams also had 3 suspensions each.

Here are the teams that did NOT have a PED suspension:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.35.15 AM

The NFL…if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.

 

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.

 

Short term setbacks and My Response to Tommy Lawlor

In my last post, I mentioned that, from my point of view, there’s a relatively significant chance that the Eagles will take a “step backwards” next season.  Many people took exception to that, specifically Tommy Lawlor over at Igglesblitz.com.  Today I will respond, after I make a few important points.

First, I have not made any projection for this team yet.  It’s very possible that after examining each factor in more detail, I’ll come to a different conclusion. However, it’s foolish to do such an analysis now.  There are simply too many things that can happen between now and the start of the season.  Moreover, we’ll get more information about specific players as we move through the summer and training camp.  Once that’s all finished, I’ll have an “official” projection that probably looks a lot like what I did last season.

Second, I’m relying on a number of factors, not just the on-paper roster changes, when I suggest the potential for a step-back.  For example: Nick Foles’ regression, injury regression, aging, harder schedule, etc….  Each of those (and there are others) requires an in-depth analysis, and deserves a full post.  I won’t do much of that today, but rest assured we’ll take a closer look between now and the beginning of the season.

Third, I am not a pessimist or perma-bear.  In fact, prior to last year, I was one of the few Eagles writers/bloggers/analysts/whatever predicting such a good season.  I thought Nick Foles should start from the beginning.  I thought Chip Kelly was a great hire, provided Lurie was confident he really wanted to be in the NFL.  I projected the team to win between 9 and 10 games.  How did I do that?  An objective analysis of the team, including a deep look into what made the 4-12 team that bad (a lot of bad luck).  Here’s the important part though:  If you’re truly being objective, the numbers and factors say what they say, and you need to be willing to believe them whether that’s good or bad.   Ideally, the team does its own analysis before the season, identifies (objectively) the expected performance distribution for that season, then tries to make specific moves to improve it.   Here, we can only do the first part.

Lastly, the rest of this post is done in typical “takedown” form.  However, I want to stress that this is NOT a “takedown”.  As Tommy said, we’re all better off when smart people look at the same information and disagree, provided we’re each willing to change our stance in light of new evidence or arguments.  The biggest virtue of blogs, in my opinion, is that they allow this type of back-and-forth in a public forum.  These blogger-to-blogger conversations happen a lot in finance and economics (though they’re not always as civilized as they should be) but rarely in sports.  That should change.  Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, he’s actually provided a response to some of the things I will say below, and I encourage you to go read it at Igglesblitz.com afterwards.

In italics you’ll find Tommy’s words.  Mine are in regular type.

First, I don’t get why Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff can’t be expected to contribute. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin both contributed as rookies, and that was in a more complex passing offense.

The questions isn’t “can they contribute?”, it’s “how much can they reasonable be expected to contribute?”.  The track record of rookie WRs, unfortunately, is not good.  I will do a full post about this with a more in-depth look at the statistics, but for now just note that from 2000-2013, 49 WRs were selected in the 2nd round and played at least 10 games in their rookie years.  The average receiving yards of that group is 437.  Jordan Matthews was taken in the second round.  

That does NOT mean he won’t do better.  I’m very confident he will.  BUT, when you’re making a projection for him, you need to keep that context in mind.  If you say he will register around 800 yards, just know that would be nearly TWICE as good as the average 2nd round WR.  Again, I’ll have more detailed stats later, but the upshot is: be very careful in assuming any significant contributions from rookie WRs.  There are a number of reasons Matthews might be different, and they are important to note as well.  But if you’re analyzing those factors without reference to the context of average rookie performance, you’re not going to end up with very good projections.

Speaking of Maclin, why isn’t he mentioned at all? I know he’s coming off an ACL injury, but that happened last summer and these days players are coming back from standard ACL tears at a pretty high rate.

If the Eagles tried to replace Jackson with just a rookie or just Maclin, I could see some extreme skepticism. Instead, the Eagles brought back Maclin spent 2 early picks on WRs and added Sproles to help the passing game.

I should have mentioned Maclin, though Tommy hits on the primary reason for concern.  He’s coming back from a torn ACL injury.  I intend on doing a post-ACL injury study to see just what we can expect from Maclin, but for now I don’t have any numbers.  Yes, Maclin has come back from a torn ACL before.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  The fact is, we don’t know one way or the other, at least until I do the analysis (provided there is good data on WR cal injuries).  However, even at 100%, he is a VERY different receiver from DeSean, and the offense will look much different with him as a #1 option.

I explained in two very detailed posts just why DeSean will be so hard to “replace”.  I won’t rehash that here, just see those posts.  We can argue about why DeSean had such a good year and whether it was him, Foles, or Kelly that deserves the credit; but that doesn’t actually matter!  The point is, whatever was going on, DeSean + Foles + Chip = one of the most ridiculous and unique seasons EVER put up by a WR.  Again, see the post.  If DeSean was still here, we’d have to look at whether that was largely luck or whether it could have persisted.  With him gone, though, we can say that it will not persist (it can’t).

While I like Maclin, I think it’s a near certainty that he isn’t putting up a 65% catch rate while going deep 40+% of the time.  He’s just not that type of player.  So the offense will undoubtedly look different, even with Maclin at full strength, whether it ends up better or worse is a tougher question to answer.

I’m less impressed by the addition of Sproles than many others seem to be.  He obviously represents some “addition”, but I think fans are getting carried away a bit.  He’ll be 31 at the start of next season and he’s just not the same player he was a few years ago.  Over the past three years, his receptions, yards, and TDs have declined.  So has his yards per rushing attempt.  We can examine the general performance/age correlation for RBs in more detail later, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s not good.  The upshot is that I don’t see any good reason to expect Sproles to exceed his production from last year (604 receiving yards) and he will likely do worse, considering his trend.  There’s a lot more to look at there, and I haven’t looked at his “advanced” stats like target rate and catch rate, but that’s my hypothesis for now.  It’s not as if Sproles is leaving some terrible offense either, he’s been catching passes from a HOFer for the past 3 years.

Combined, Maclin and Sproles and the Rookies certainly COULD fully compensate for losing Jackson.  I just don’t think it’s likely, or if it is, I don’t think it will be enough to compensate for risk factors elsewhere.  Moreover, while they might match his production on a pure yards/TDs basis, there are additional effects that are harder to account for.  For instance:  DeSean likely helped open things up for the rest of the offense more than a 100% Jeremy Maclin can.  Again, that needs analysis, but I think that hypo is more reasonable than the opposite (saying Maclin will have greater effects on the rest of the offense).

The defense added a veteran Safety in Malcolm Jenkins. That means that Nate Allen and Earl Wolff will battle for the other starting spot. Nolan Carroll and Jaylen Watkins add depth at CB. If you don’t think that is important, just go re-watch the loss to San Diego. Bradley Fletcher missed that game and Philip Rivers threw for 419 yards and looked like Peyton friggin’ Manning.

Of course depth is important, but from a pure points for/against standpoint, the 1s and 2s matter far more than the rest.  Malcolm Jenkins is a nice addition, but let’s be clear: he’s not a great player.  He’s an OK safety.  Last season he registered an Approximate Value of 6.  Nate Allen, by comparison, registered a 7.  Pro Football Focus says QB’s registered a Rating of 101.8 when targeting him last season.  He’s also never played in all 16 games.  So the value of Malcolm Jenkins is debatable.  I do believe the Safety corps will be better than last season, but I’m not seeing a great leap in performance.

I do like the Nolan Carroll addition.  No argument there, he definitely helps the CB depth chart.  Jaylen Watkins is a different story.  He’s a 4th round pick.  It’s possible he contributes on D this year, but I don’t think that’s likely, given the historical performance of later round DBs.  Note: I like the pick!  I just don’t think it will pay big dividends THIS year (which is pretty much the overall theme of this offseason).

Marcus Smith adds depth up front and gives the coaching staff an athletic option to mix into different packages if they want. He can play on the right or left side. The backup LOLB last year was Casey Matthews. That meant the coaches stuck with Connor Barwin as much as humanly possible.

Marcus Smith is a wildcard.  However, if the Eagles do take a step forward this year (record-wise), he really HAS to play a big role.  I don’t think the depth chart sets up that way.  Long-term, Smith might turn out to be a great pick.  However, we’re only concerned with this season.  I’m going to put him in the wait-and-see category for now, because we’ll learn a lot more about his potential usage during training camp and preseason.  It’s just very difficult to tell how much playing time he’ll get this year.  Without a lot of snaps, he obviously won’t be able to make a big impact.

The qualitative benefit of having better depth behind the 1s is real, but the magnitude is difficult to evaluate.  If having Smith allows the Coaches to make more optimal strategic decisions, then his impact could be big beyond the snaps he sees.  However, how much stock can you put in this?  Again, we’re not trying to predict what WILL happen!  We’re trying to get a sense of what is MOST LIKELY TO HAPPEN.  Just as we can think of hypos benefitting the team, we can also think of hypos working against them.  If you’re not looking at both sides of the coin, your analysis is incomplete.  For example, maybe Smith isn’t ready to be an impact player but the Coaches want to get him snaps to speed along his development.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Of course, that would (probably) leave the team with worse on-field performance in the near-term (this season).

Ideally Chip Kelly would rotate his players on defense to limit some of their wear and tear. The Eagles played more snaps on defense than any other team last year. They didn’t have the depth to rotate as much as they wanted. Players like Smith and Watkins and Taylor Hart and Beau Allen can help that situation. They don’t have to start or make lots of plays in order to help the defense.

Might be a valid point, and it’s one I’ll have to take a longer look at.  To the extent the additions to the defense allow the 1s to play fewer, higher impact snaps, there could be an increase in overall performance.  However, beyond Smith we’re talking about late-round draft picks.  Over the long-term, most of these guys (late rd rookies in general, not just these specific players) will NOT contribute anything significant to the team.  We know this. It’s possible the Eagles had a great draft and that each of these guys will see the field this season, but it’s NOT likely!  The objectively reasonable assumption is that guys drafted from the 4th round and beyond will contribute, if at all, on Special Teams.  I do think the Eagles STs will be much better this year than last.  BUT, STs just don’t have a very large impact on games.  They absolutely matter, but generally speaking, teams do not get a lot better just by improving on STs.

I get that the Eagles lost a star player in DeSean Jackson and didn’t replace him with an obvious star. That fact is going to skew the perception of some folks when it comes to the offseason discussion. I don’t know if Brent is in that camp and I don’t want to try and speak for him.

I’m not sure enough people appreciate the Foles angle in regard to DeSean Jackson. Foles doesn’t have a great arm and he’s not a consistently good vertical passer. Jackson had 3 catches that covered 50 or more yards from Foles. One was a short pass from Foles in the MIN game that Jackson turned into a big play with a long run after the catch. There was the 55-yard TD vs the Packers on a ball that was underthrown. Foles did make a pretty good throw for a 59-yard gain in the Oakland game.

Jackson is a dynamic deep receiver. Foles is not a dynamic deep passer. Jackson was still a good receiver for Foles and the Eagles last year, but his value becomes diminished because of the fit. You’re limiting what makes him special.

I don’t understand this line of argument.  Again, see my posts on DeSean’s performance last season.  He was spectacular last year.  One of the best WRs in the league.  That doesn’t mean getting rid of him was a bad idea, perhaps there’s a rational “scheme” or “chemistry” argument there.  But that’s LONG-term thinking, not short-term.  In the SHORT-term, i.e. next season, the Eagles offense has lost a dynamic weapon.  There’s just no way around it.  Repeating myself: This might be a long-term positive, but a short-term negative.

There is no denying that losing Jackson will affect the offense, but I think it won’t be nearly the same as if Vick or even McNabb was the QB. They were much better vertical passers. Foles excels on short and intermediate throws. This is where having a WR corps of Cooper, Maclin, Matthews and Huff should be fine. You lose some verticality, but gain some physicality.

As I said above, the offense will definitely be different.  The question is: is the “physicality” more than enough to make up for the loss of “verticality”.  Also, I don’t quite understand the QB argument.  Foles and Jackson did great things last year.  Yes, Foles is not the deep passer Vick is, but why does that matter?  Foles is still the QB, and he did great things with Jackson last season.  Maybe Tommy is saying the Eagles weren’t dependent on the deep game last year.  That’s probably true (I need to check), but it doesn’t mean that losing it won’t hurt a lot.  The WR corps certainly seems to “fit” Foles better, but just how many WRs/TEs can you really have running short routes?  Someone has to go deep, regardless of the QB’s strengths, and Jackson was really good at that.  Conversely, I don’t see the huge benefit of “physicality”, outside of perhaps the running game, which was already great.  

I think the offense will still be very good (assuming OL stays healthy, another potential issue given age), but last year the offense was great.  A small step backwards seems like a reasonable expectation.

It would have been great to see the Eagles land some major impact players this offseason, but the team didn’t miss out on anyone that I coveted. There was no Kearse or TO to go get. Brian Orakpo would have made the most sense, but he got tagged. I admit to being curious about DeMarcus Ware, but age and injuries have started to affect him. Darelle Revis would have been interesting, but I’m guessing Kelly didn’t want a “mercenary”. Revis wanted a 1-year deal so he could turn around and go for another mega-deal in 2015.

There were no slam dunk, can’t miss, gotta have him guys for the Eagles.

Agree completely.  But the above explanation is also completely irrelevant.  It perhaps explains why the Eagles didn’t make more significant additions.  But it doesn’t mitigate the fact that they didn’t.  Again, I don’t hate the offseason moves, I just don’t see them translating to big short-term benefits.

Another question some may have is at QB. If Foles gets hurt, can Mark Sanchez or Matt Barkley win games? That is a mystery. But it also would have been with Vick. He was an erratic player for the Eagles and lost his starting job last year. He didn’t want to return as a backup. I’m not worried about Sanchez or Barkley for a game or two. You can argue that having Vick would have helped if Foles went down long term, but then you have to acknowledge Vick’s biggest problem…getting hurt himself. He never stayed healthy for the Eagles and when he got dinged, his performance level dropped quite a bit.

I think Sanchez is a better acquisition than people realize. He failed in New York because the Jets saw him as a franchise QB, which I don’t, and because they failed to keep the right pieces around him. Sanchez has made some big plays in some big games. He’s just not a guy you build a team around. I think he can be a solid backup.

I like Sanchez less than Tommy does, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  We’re talking about next season, and Nick Foles was healthy (mostly) last season.  I don’t think anyone would argue that if Foles misses significant time this year, the team will take a step backwards in performance, regardless of which backup plays.  Health is always major risk factor, but I’ll have more on that later.  The fact that the Eagles got such good QB play last season means they’re more likely to receive worse play this season!  Foles’ expected regression is a HUGE issue that I’ll analyze later, but I’m very comfortable saying he will not duplicate his performance (he can play a lot worse and still be really good, though).

While the team may not have gotten the dramatic help many wanted, I do think it got better. I see the loss of Jackson and Jason Avant as a wash when you look at Maclin, Matthews, Huff and Sproles coming in. I realize I’m projecting with the rookies, but they have the size, skills and athleticism to help right away. They also have experience in a similar offense that makes the adjustment easier.

The defense didn’t lose any key players, but added a good FS, some CBs and an athletic OLB. How is that not an improvement?

Tommy’s is ignoring the fact that while some players will improve, others will get worse!  I addressed the rookie WRs projection above.  I agree that the defense got better, I just think it did so by a smaller amount than Tommy apparently believes.

Overall, what I’m seeing is: Moderate step back on offense, small step forward on defense, and an improvement (potentially large) on special teams.

If you’re stuck on Jackson, that’s fine. I disagree, but I get that.

Not “stuck” on Jackson, I’m done analyzing it as a strategic move.  But if you’re comparing last year’s team to this year’s team, it’s impossible not to address Jackson.  He’s the biggest piece either added or subtracted.  I know people are tired of hearing about him, but he simply MUST factor into any year-over-year comparison or analysis.

I just think the team brought in too many talented players to think that it took a step back. That isn’t to say the Eagles might not go 9-7 this year or something like that. There are no guarantees when it comes to results. We saw that when the 2011 offseason happened and the Eagles added all the big names, but the team got worse.

If you’re asking me whether I like the 2013 roster better than the 2014 roster, no way.  I’ll take the current group in a heartbeat. Kelly has brought in another set of players who fit his system and fit his football culture. They also happen to be pretty talented as well.

We’re much closer to agreement here than it might seem.  For the long-term, I like this year’s roster better.  For this season, though, I think there’s a significant chance of a step backwards, but that also relies on factors beyond the roster.

As I said above, most of these points need more unpacking and research, and I hope to do that over the next few weeks.  The possibility for a step backwards is there, though.  That doesn’t mean I hate Chip Kelly (I love Chip), or the direction of the team (I like it a lot). We’d be foolish, though, to drink so much Chip-flavored Kool Aid to believe he is infallible, or that EVERY one of his moves will work.  They won’t, at least not quickly, and this year that could be a problem.

Free Agency – Eagles Stick to the Plan

Got back from Iraq last Sunday, but it took me a week to catch up with school, hence the delayed posting. Thanks again to everyone who contributed to the trip.  It was very productive and laid the groundwork for us to do some very impactful work in the future.  Meanwhile, I missed the bulk of free agency, so let’s talk about that today.

First, though, the elephant in the room:

What the hell is going on with DeSean Jackson?

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this week trying to game this situation out, searching for some logical thread that will explain it adequately.  I’m sad to say I haven’t come up with anything.  Frankly, I can’t remember a situation as unexpected and bizarre as what’s going on right now.  At first, I thought it was just a leak test.  However, if that was the case the team would have issued a statement by now denying any efforts at trading D-Jax.

Sadly, it sounds like the team really is looking to remove Jackson from the roster.  His contract is onerous, but the team has plenty of cap space.  Cutting/trading him for little value seems like a strange way to deal with that.  The team could, for example, renegotiate Jackson’s contract.  However, it’s possible that Chip is also factoring in Jackson’s attitude.  I have no inside knowledge of DeSean in the locker room, but it certainly doesn’t appear as though he’s that “bad” of a teammate.  Unless there’s some unreported incident or serious cause for concern, this angle seems sketchy as well.

Perhaps we’ll get more information if/when Jackson is moved.  However, if the rumors are true, then it’s pretty clear the team has botched the process to an incredible degree.  That’s strange.  This front office (Howie/Lurie) have made mistakes in the past, sometimes big ones.  However, they’ve never been downright incompetent.  If Jackson gets released and/or traded for a late draft pick, it will be the biggest indictment of the front office yet.

In other, better, news:

The Eagles did exactly what I hoped they’d do in free agency.

If you remember my brief primer, I suggested the team follow a very similar plan as last season.  Namely, pick up a handful of mid-tier players on reasonable contracts, strengthening the middle of the depth chart.  The team is still in “build” mode, and I’d prefer to maintain flexibility for another year before looking to land a premier player via free agency.  The Eagles did just that, and it bodes well for the future.

Malcolm Jenkins is probably the “biggest” signing, and will help improve the team’s biggest weakness from last year, safety play.  Jenkins isn’t a great player.  However, when you’re replacing Nate Allen (hopefully), you don’t have to be great.  If the Eagles, with Wolff and Jenkins (or whomever else), can get anything close to league-average play from the Safeties next year, the team will be in great shape.  Moving from bad to mediocre can make a bigger impact than moving from mediocre to good.

Nolan Carroll is an interesting addition to the secondary also.  Good size/speed, and at 27 years old, he could contribute for a few years.  He’s not a guy you can pencil in as a starter, but the team sorely needed some competition/depth behind Williams and Fletcher.

Braman and Maragos are both bottom-of-the-roster, special teams guys.  Not much to say here other than to note that Special Teams was very weak last year, despite a good year from Donnie Jones.  In general, I’d like to see the team churn the bottom of the roster a bit more than it did during the latter Andy Reid years.

Darren Sproles was not a free agent signing, but he’s obvious a “major” addition, at least in the mind of the pundits.  I put “major” in quotation marks because I’m not sold.  I like Sproles, but he’s 31 and coming off a poor season by his standards.  Basically, if you think he’s going to be the extra “weapon” we were all hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed.  However, I do think he fills an important need.

The Eagles offense is extremely vulnerable by virtue of the fact that it’s built around a single, elite talent (Shady).  Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are decent backups, but they’re completely different players.  In a pinch, they can handle the carries.  Unfortunately, they don’t provide much of a receiving threat.  Sproles fits that need; he had 71 receptions last season.  It means that if Shady gets injured, the offense won’t have to be completely reworked.  None of the plays will be as effective because nobody is as good as McCoy, but the team won’t lose a significant dimension to the offense.

I don’t see Sproles taking the field much WITH Shady.  I think the team will use him to ease McCoy’s workload a bit, hopefully keeping him healthy and perhaps prolonging his career a bit.  If an injury does occur, Sproles will allow the Eagles to keep operating out of the same general philosophy.

It’s a very expensive insurance policy, for sure, but if the Eagles really do believe they can contend next year, it makes sense to sure up the biggest vulnerability on the team.  Of course, that’s hard to reconcile with letting D-Jax go for nothing….