There is no statistical “Holy Grail” in football, nothing as definitive as baseball’s OPS or WAR, Alec Halaby was saying Wednesday.
Halaby, a 2009 Harvard graduate, is the Eagles’ special assistant to the general manager. That doesn’t mean he fetches Howie Roseman’s dry cleaning.
Halaby sees himself as working in all aspects of personnel evaluation, but his specialty is analytics.
“I think it’s where the world’s going,” Roseman said during a morning session in which the Eagles made their personnel staff available to reporters. “Every business you look at – I have friends in different industries – there’s so much data, so much information, that you’d be silly not to use it in any avenue you’re in. When the onfield matches the off-field, the objective matches the subjective, I think you feel really confident about your decisions.
“Sometimes you see a player and you really like him, but you realize – ‘hey, wait, maybe there’s never been a running back who runs that at the combine and been a starter. So I really like him, but I’m really playing against the odds.’ When you talk about the percentages in the first round of hitting on a player, I think it’s 50 percent. Now if you’re taking a guy who doesn’t have the criteria that makes successful guys successful, you’re decreasing those odds again. Do you really want to use a resource, when we have limited resources, on someone like that?”
Halaby has been affiliated with the Eagles since a 2007 internship, but with Roseman running the personnel show now and Chip Kelly as head coach, he is very much among kindred spirits.
Halaby acknowledged that Kelly’s saying of “science over tradition” is “a view that is a great one to have in the building.”
Football analytics is an evolving field. Halaby cautions that football isn’t baseball, where so many activities are easily charted, independent of variables outside a player’s control. Football is 11 on 11, each guy to some degree dependent on the guy next to him. But that doesn’t mean you can’t break down situations and movements and discern patterns. Halaby calls what he does “trying to understand a player in a systematic way.”
He also notes that analytics are only one tool, used in concert with more traditional scouting techniques. “You’re seeing it from multiple angles,” he said.
Halaby might have the soul of a numbers geek, but he was a high school quarterback in Madison, Wis., and he seems to understand both the allure and the limitations of analytics.
“I think it in terms of the end point, which is an accurate evaluation of the player,” Halaby said. “Part of that is looking at what the data can tell you. You have to understand the imperfections in the data, where it’s telling you something really true and clear, and other parts, where you’re getting a really noisy signal. I think that’s one of the challenges, is sorting through … what’s telling you what you think it’s telling you.”
Roseman clearly sees a little of himself in Halaby; it was just over a decade ago that Roseman, armed with his Fordham law degree, started peppering the Eagles and other teams with emails, looking for an entry level job. He saw a similar drive in Halaby.
“Incredibly smart. He’s got an incredible work ethic, and he’s got a good feel for the game,” Roseman said. “It really is a big resource to us as a staff to have someone like that, who’s not sitting there saying ‘I just loved the kid when I interviewed him.’ He’s really a safeguard for all of us.”