For Eagles, Halaby's analytics play big role

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For Eagles, Halaby's analytics play big role

September 2, 2013, 1:30 pm
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A slender, bony frame and long, spindly fingers suggest that Alec Halaby once played on fields similar to the ones that now serve as the background to his office in the NovaCare Complex.

“Yeah, I was a high school quarterback,” Halaby said earlier this summer. “And a very average one.”

Halaby, a Harvard grad with the squeaky clean face of a high school valedictorian, represents the analytics voice of the Eagles’ front office, among his many tasks as special assistant to general manager Howie Roseman. He first interned with the Eagles in 2007 and came back in 2009.

Analytics is a trendy phenomenon that has become the primary source of player evaluation in Major League Baseball and more pervasive in other college and professional sports. It is quickly growing into the new method for sizing up NBA players.

A big part of Halaby’s specialty is using statistics and data to compare and contrast with what the scouting department sees on tape to come up with a separate scouting evaluation.

If, for example, Roseman has a high grade on a specific college prospect, Halaby will crunch the player’s size, 40-yard dash time, vertical and other tangible measurements to see how they compare against NFL players at the same position.

Several times, Halaby’s analysis has contradicted what the tape revealed and Roseman has reluctantly altered that player’s draft stock or free-agent value.

“No matter how much you like that guy, you’ve probably got to let him go,” Roseman said. “We’ve been very disciplined in the past couple of years about doing that and making sure that we’re not taking a running back who runs a 4.9 [in the 40-yard dash] just because he runs really tough between the tackles and we like the physicality he shows on tape, because we know the chances he becomes a really good player in this league -- where talent really is the most important thing at this level -- are really low.”

It’s a simple game of percentages that becomes very complex, because just like tape, numbers don’t always tell the full story.

“It’s hard for me,” Roseman admitted. “Alec can probably tell you. There are times that I’ll say, ‘I really like this guy and we’re thinking about signing him or drafting him and can you do some research?’

“And he’ll come back with the research and I’ll be disappointed. I’ll say, ‘I really like this guy’ and I’ll try to convince him. He’ll say, ‘You can do whatever you want, obviously, but the chances are that we’re playing very highly against the odds.’

“I’ll take 24 hours and I’ll realize it’s the right decision and that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve been very fortunate in that the players we’ve brought in over the last two years that things are matching up better than they had.”

Halaby, 26, is part of Roseman’s front office reshuffle, which started after personnel chief Ryan Grigson and former president Joe Banner each left the organization within a five-month span in 2011; Grigson taking the Colts’ general manager job and Banner leaving to eventually become CEO of the Cleveland Browns.

The front office is now streamlined, Roseman has said several times, with fewer people making final decisions but more voices representing different factions being heard throughout the course of player evaluations.

Analytics first became appealing to Halaby as a teenager growing up in Madison, Wisc. Knowing that his future as a quarterback wouldn’t go beyond high school, Halaby’s interest grew in the mathematics behind sport.

He made the transformation from athlete to stat geek, as his curiosities intensified about the role data and statistical analysis could play in evaluations. At the same time, Halaby is quick to point out that analytics can only go so far in player evaluation.

It’s still an inexact science and tape is still the foremost resource for gauging potential success or failure.

“In terms of the end point -- which is getting an accurate evaluation on a player -- every evaluation I do, part of that is going to be watching the tape and seeing what the player looks like, coming up with an evaluation that way,” Halaby said. “And part of it is going to be studying the data to see what I can extract from that. Usually, those two things are speaking to one another.”

Roseman sees some of himself in Halaby, who said he sent resumes and cover letters to every NFL team several times before the Eagles finally opened their doors to him.

Before he worked his way into the scouting sector, which cleared the way for his ascent to general manager, Roseman first started low on the front office totem pole under Banner. Halaby started off his Eagles career as a personnel analyst.

“When you get a resume from Harvard, obviously it’s impressive,” Roseman said. “The way I got in and almost the pledging I had to go to get a foot in the door, and the persistence and determination, I judge people for how they’re doing it.

“I would never hire someone at the ground level who sends one email to me or one sends one letter. It doesn’t take long to talk to him and find out how smart he is, and so does he really want to do it? Because it’s going to take him a while to get where he wants to go.

“I remember telling him, ‘Even if you’re the quickest rise in the history of GMs, it’s going to take you a decade to go through that process.' So how much does he really want to do it? How much is he willing to sacrifice? It didn’t take long to see his passion for this.”

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