Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thoughts on Chip Kelly

Just when we thought the Chip Kelly era couldn’t surprise us anymore, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie pulled the big one on us.

Kelly, who arrived to the team with as much fanfare and expectation as any new NFL coach in recent memory, suddenly finds himself packing up his office and looking for the next destination for his traveling road show.

Lurie, never one to seek the spotlight, was forced to confront a gaggle of reporters to inject some clarity into what exactly happened down at NovaCare.

We didn’t get all the answers we would’ve liked, but we did get some interesting nuggets. And fortunately for me, lots and lots of smart writers have already chimed in with good takes on how all this went down (for my money, Sheil Kapadia’s report on ESPN is most directly aligned with my own stance on things).

But the changing of an Eagles administration can’t go by without some commentary, so I’m throwing out some thoughts based on everything I’ve heard since the Eagles executive team was blown up in the biggest Christmas present WIP and 97.5 the Fanatic have ever received.

1. We can finally confirm what happened this past off-season – Kelly demanded personnel control. It was a strong logical inference that Kelly went to Lurie with the demand for total authority over personnel, because Lurie wouldn’t just go out of his way to completely reorganize the front office. It seemed clear that Kelly, of the back of two 10-win seasons, was looking for more control (whether it was because he genuinely felt he deserved it, or because he was looking to head-off Howie Roseman in a power grab, remains unclear. Probably a mix of both).

2. Lurie at no point considered stripping Kelly of his personnel duties, and had already decided to move on – This was probably the most interesting thing to come out of Lurie’s discussion yesterday. As an external observer, what seemed clear was that Chip was a terrible personnel guy, but that he had strengths as a coach. When I heard he was released, my first thought was that Kelly tried to pull back on the personnel control, Kelly balked, and they agreed to part ways. This seemed reasonably logical, Kelly’s failings as a personnel guy are obvious, but no one likes to give up power. However, Lurie specifically noted that he never considered adjusting Kelly’s role. That’s an indicator of far bigger problems internally.

3. We finally understand why Howie Roseman didn’t leave when he was demoted – In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, I think a number of folks were really curious why Lurie, who had only just recently ceded total control to Kelly and verbally backed him, would turn around and fire him 15 games later. People saw that as wishy-washy, that Lurie flip-flopped on a coach he was so enamored with, and were surprised it happened so quickly.

But people should pay more attention to Lurie’s actions rather than his statements (remember, a verbal commitment to someone when you promote them is what you have to say. Lurie couldn’t give Chip full control and say, ‘well, we’ll see what happens now’).

What had always confused me about giving Kelly control was that Howie Roseman didn’t leave the organization. The fact that he was working on the other side of the building and never seemed to explore other opportunities was a huge indicator that Lurie wasn’t all-in on Chip. In the corporate world, the loser of an executive power struggle never sits comfortably in a minimized role, they leave, unless they have reason to think they’ll be back on top.

4. There’s a public resistance to Roseman, but I still like him – With Kelly out the door and Roseman winning another power struggle, his detractors are certainly coming out in full force. He does not have many fans in the Philadelphia area. But to me, I think his upside outweighs his downside. If we were to look at his record, he’s made a lot of pretty decent moves. The Eagles have certainly had a good amount of talent during most of his tenure. What I like most about Roseman is he understands value. He knows the value of accruing draft picks, he knows the value of locking players up, and he knows better than to just give away assets for nothing.

I believe Roseman, if he had full control, wouldn’t have given up assets like Evan Mathis, LeSean McCoy, or DeSean Jackson, for essentially nothing (I know he was GM when D-Jax was released, but I’m still assuming it wasn’t Roseman who was pushing for that move).

Roseman can make draft trades better than anyone and ensure that most of the time, the Eagles are constantly acquiring picks. No one is perfect in the draft, which is why you should acquire as many picks as possible. And while Roseman’s draft record has some notable misses (Watkins/Jarrett in 2011 – which may have been more Andy Reid, and Marcus Smith in 2014), looking at top picks in 2012 and 2013 (Cox, Kendricks, Johnson, Ertz, Logan) are pretty good hits. Roseman also takes shit for the ‘Dream Team’ in 2011 – but while the Nnamdi Asomugha deal looks awful in hindsight, it was perceived as a great move at the time. Those Dream Team signings also brought in Evan Mathis and Cullen Jenkins, so they weren’t all terrible moves.

The biggest problem Roseman has, from what I can see, is that a lot of people seem to dislike him and perceive him as a bean-counter with an endless appetite for power. Some of this is sour-grapes from people who’ve lost out to him in the past, some of it is (my view) the same type of stereotyping that Joe Banner had to deal with when he was in the same role. If Roseman’s name were Johnson, and he played some college football, half of what we hear disappears.

At any rate, Roseman looks like he may be the Littlefinger in the Eagles’ Game of Thrones saga, but I’m glad he’s back.

5. Chip had many failings during his tenure – but inability to get along with people is probably most directly responsible for his departure – Chip had a lot of issues, it’s starting to emerge that players didn’t really like him, executives didn’t like him, he didn’t really have a great relationship with the media or fans. Winning solves a lot of that. But being a smug asshole becomes much more grating when you aren’t succeeding. Bill Belichick has earned the right to be an asshole, but Kelly seemed to revel in being a dick when he hadn’t accomplished much of anything at the NFL level. That kind of attitude means you’re on a shorter leash, not a longer one. Contrast that with Andy Reid, who by all accounts I’ve seen is reportedly an awesome guy. Getting along with everyone, just being a good human being to other people and having good relationships, maybe that’s what kept Andy around Philadelphia for an extra year or two. Something for Kelly to consider in his next job.

6. I’m disappointed the Eagles are going to lose some of what Kelly has brought them – What sucks about ditching the Kelly administration is that there were areas where he was bringing new ideas and new thinking into the team. Granted, some of those ideas seemed to blow up in his face, but I believe there’s still a ton of value to getting some of those right.

People like to make fun of sports science, because it’s an easy target, and custom smoothies are naturally funny. But a coach who is bringing in leading researchers and trying this stuff is absolutely what you should want in an organization. The future of sports training is only going to get more scientific, not less, and Kelly’s attempts to leverage that were absolutely well-intended even if the results were hard to see. You want you coach looking for ways to get that extra edge (and if you’re the Patriots, that includes cheating), and I’m disappointed that some of what Kelly was pushing for will probably be thrown out the door with him.

7. I’m happy the Eagles decided to hire Chip – judging the process and not the outcome – I was listening to 97.5 yesterday, and the hosts were going on about how they can’t trust the same coaching search committee to do a good job when they screwed up in hiring Kelly. I think that’s just lazy thinking. While it’s clear bringing in Kelly didn’t have the results we all wanted, that’s judging the outcome rather than the process. Kelly represented bringing in ideas and approaches that were relatively novel in the conservative NFL. He was, by design, a high-variance strategy. There was a chance it would all blow up (and here we are), but there was certainly a chance he’d get it right and be a huge source of advantage for the Eagles for years.

I don’t mind Lurie taking a risk on that potential. I’d prefer that to just hiring someone who’s a big name coordinator or a former Super Bowl winner (e.g., Bill Cowher). This doesn’t mean I think the Eagles should always go out and hire the riskiest option available – but Kelly represented a chance to try something distinctly different and had a reasonable chance of succeeding (and still does by the way). You can’t argue the Eagles weren’t interesting the last three years.

8. The Eagles had better lose this game against the Giants – The Eagles are currently projected to pick 12th overall, but if they lose to the Giants they’ll leapfrog them in the only relevant results from this Sunday’s game. If I were Lurie, I’d be calling plays myself and starting all the backups. No good can come from winning this Sunday. Of course, Pat Shurmur as interim coach, might be trying to make himself look good. I’m worried, let’s hope the Eagles administration, having just hit ‘Go’ on a major rebuild, understand how the NFL draft order works.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sports Genetics

We recently came back from our winter vacation (first one without our baby, and a blowout of SPG points as my Platinum status is expiring) - and because our vacation was a relaxing beach destination, it actually gave me the chance to get some good book reading out of the way.

I'm not sure I read any books in 2015 until this trip, and the causes are threefold:

1. New baby - obviously something of a life change there
2. New job, trading consulting for corporate life - you'd think this would create more time, but it really works out to trading 2-3 hours of daily work time into 2-3 hours of daily commute time. On the plus side, I'm absolutely crushing my podcast listening queue.
3. My weekly Economist - I really need to take the throttle down to 26 issues a year instead of 52. There's just too much content and it starts to sound similar after a while. I'm now at the point where I can't hear the acronym OECD without immediately following it with, 'a group of mostly rich countries'. Next subscription, I'll take it down a notch.

Anyway, I got through three books while we were in Mexico:

- The New Rabbi: A book detailing the succession planning for a rabbi at a major conservative synagogue. Super-interesting, although it happened to be about my childhood synagogue where I spent hour after hour of agonizingly boring hebrew school - it was really interesting inside baseball office politics stuff.

- The Prize: The new book detailing Mark Zuckerberg's $100M gift to the Newark school system and what came of it. Also really interesting and at times infuriating.

- The Sports Gene: A book which outlines a number of recent studies/research into the science of genetics and its links to athletic performance.

The Sports Gene book was really interesting (and recommended), in part because it raises a ton of weird ethical questions around hypothetical scenarios that I, as a new parent, haven't really considered.

The author traveled all over the world, talking to genetics experts and world-class athletes, with a particular focus on many recently-identified genetic mutations that confer huge potential advantages in sports. As a few examples:

- Genes that influence what share of your muscles are 'fast-twitch' vs. 'slow-twitch' - which has major implications for sprinting vs. endurance events
- Genes that influence your responsiveness to training - which may explain why some high-potential college athletes plateau vs. unheralded walk-ons who rapidly progress
- Genes that influence your red blood cell count, your arm/leg length, your Achilles tendon stiffness - all of which could significantly help you in some (but not all) competitive sports

I didn't think the book was perfect. It really plays it down the middle on nature vs. nurture (which to be fair, it's not like there's an answer on), and for all its research on genetics impact on athletic traits it just hand-waves away the potential for genetics impact on academic traits. To me that's just as interesting...but I guess it's not called 'The Study Gene'.

But the book raises some interesting hypotheticals around genetics. Ones that will only become more real for society as more and more of the human genome is understood and linked to human performance.

If you knew your kid was predisposed to succeed at a certain sport, would you 'encourage' them to play it?

Let's imagine you had genes that made your red blood cell count super high, which means your blood could carry more oxygen than the average person, and you'd have a natural advantage at long-distance running...would you push your kid to run cross-country when they want to run the hurdles?

I think your answer will depend on what you think would be more beneficial to your kid -- is it better for them to pursue their own interests -- or maximize their chance at winning.

There are those who might say you should push your kids towards natural advantages because that might make them more likely to get a college scholarship or become a professional athlete -- but those odds are so small that let's hold that scenario out.

The answer might seem straight-forward, shouldn't you just let your kid do what they want? That's where I'm leaning too, but the devil's advocate in me is wondering if the value in being more successful might have more positive knock-on effects than just having a good time.

I say that just in the context of my own sports experiences as a kid. When I was a kid, I played all kinds of sports, and because I was a fat kid starting around the age of 11, I wasn't really good at most of them. Most of my sports genetics advantages, so much as they existed, applied primarily to Nintendo.

Soccer, baseball, basketball -- I played all of them every year, and probably met expectations for an overweight kid playing in the team's least harmful position (hello right field).

There was one completely bizarre outlier, and that was every summer when I went to overnight camp, because I was a freaking amazing swimmer.

Somewhere, buried in my old room, there's a pile of ribbons from all the swimming races I won over various summers. All form of strokes, distances, I was actually pretty good. I'm still not sure why - but it's probably both nature and nurture. I have long arms relative to my height, and a short torso. That's probably a small factor, because I also grew up with a pool and swam all the time as a kid growing up.

So - in hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have been afraid to wear the speedo as a high schooler (remember, I was a fat kid)? Would it have been better to play a sport I was pretty good at, rather than serve as the 4th string midfielder on the lacrosse team?

I'm not sure much would've changed, but it's an interesting question.

And what does that mean for my own kid? I'm not sure, but we'll have to see whether she wants to play sports at all. Remember, she's only 1. But with that said, right now her favorite activity by far is to grab a book, give it to me to read, pay attention to it, then grab another new book and give it to me.

I don't need new genetics research to help me with where she gets that.