The new, evolving structure of NFL front offices was on display Wednesday morning in the cafeteria of the NovaCare Complex.
Members of the Eagles’ scouting and football operations staffs were in attendance to meet with reporters. In the back left corner sat Tom Donahoe, a veteran scouting man who now serves as the team’s senior football advisor.
At the table next to Donahoe sat 26-year-old Alec Halaby. When Donahoe began his NFL career as a regional scout with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late ’80s, Halaby was in diapers. But now, the two men are part of Howie Roseman’s staff, both tasked with helping the Eagles make wise personnel decisions as they begin a new era under Chip Kelly.
Halaby’s title, special assistant to the general manager, is as vague as Donahoe’s. The question he answered time and again Wednesday was simple: What exactly do you do?
“I’d say my core function is player evaluation,” Halaby said. “So that’s a mix of traditional, whether you’re watching tape, interviewing, that sort of thing, and analytics, the more data-driven end. A secondary function, working on roster management, resource allocation, general football operations issues, working with Howie on those. And then third I would say working with coaches week to week preparing for opponents or improving your processes in season or out of season.”
The buzz word in that description, of course, is analytics. It’s how Halaby got his foot in the door of an NFL organization as a sophomore in college. The Harvard grad – he majored in English and minored in economics – went online, dug up some e-mail addresses and started contacting NFL teams.
An internship in 2007 led to a second one in 2009. And then a full-time personnel analyst role that led to his current position last season.
Halaby grew up in Madison, Wisc., played quarterback in high school and figured out at a relatively early age what he wanted to do. In college, he would attend coaching clinics, conduct original research and spend time on Web sites like Football Outsiders.
The old “scouting vs. analytics” debate has grown stale. Halaby, like all smart analytics people, realizes this isn’t an either/or scenario. It’s about gathering as much information as possible before making critical decisions.
“I would say the approach is really a full-information approach, see the player from multiple angles,” Halaby said, adding that both Andy Reid and Kelly were open to incorporating analytics. “Traditional methods where you’re watching tape, you’re interviewing, your off the field issues. And then part of that is the analytical method. So that’s the more data-driven part, focuses on trying to understand the player in a systematic way usually within a quantitative framework. And so you try to bring both of those together and see it from the different angles and put a value on them and project them for the future.
“I think there’s not a holy grail or a magic bullet or a single play or a single number that’s gonna answer the question. It’s more of trying to get a 360-degree idea, get all the angles.”
Like most NFL teams, the Eagles are reluctant to cite specific examples of how they use analytics. But Roseman referred to Halaby as a “safeguard” of sorts. If Roseman sees a player he likes on tape and is giving serious consideration to drafting or signing him, he’ll often call on Halaby for a different method of evaluation.
And Halaby will sometimes come back with answers Roseman doesn’t want to hear.
“It’s hard for me,” Roseman said.
“He’ll come back with the research and I’ll be disappointed. I’ll go, ‘I really like this guy.’ I’ll try to convince him, and he’ll say, ‘You can do whatever you want obviously, but the chances are we’re playing very highly against the odds.’ I’ll take 24 hours and I’ll realize that’s the right decision and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Added Halaby: “If there’s data to bear on a question, we’re gonna usually want to look at it. There are questions where maybe all the answers are on the tape. There are other questions where maybe the answers are all in the data. So it’s a part of our process on all the decisions we make.”
It’s clear Roseman believes Halaby has a bright future in the organization. When Halaby expressed a desire to be involved in more than analytics, Roseman listened and essentially created a new position for him.
“Alec’s taken on a bigger role here in the last couple years and become a bigger voice,” Roseman said. “Part of that is because [we’re] going back and looking at his track record.
“I remember telling him, even if you’re the quickest rise in the history of GMs, it’s gonna take you a decade to go through that process. And the money that he can make outside this isn’t going to be the same. So how much does he really want to do it? How much is he really willing to sacrifice? And it didn’t take long to see his passion for this.”