How the Flyers can learn from the Eagles’ success

The Eagles won Super Bowl LII and brought the Lombardi trophy home for the first time in franchise history. Can the Flyers glean some ideas from their football contemporaries? 

It’s been a magical past couple of weeks for Philadelphia fans around the world. The Eagles are certainly the talk of the town, and no one is likely to come down from this Super Bowl high for quite some time. However, I think we’d all be remiss if we didn’t at some point over the past week think “can another Philly team do this” and “what do they need to do to get to this level”?

Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post wrote an article in which he quoted Shayne Gostisbehere stating, “We want to emulate what just happened and keep the party going”. So how do they do that? How can the Flyers emulate the Eagles’ recent success?

Well, I have thoughts! Some that apply at a coaching level, and some at an organizational level.

[Ed. note: There will be some slightly esoteric references to specific football events and terminology in this piece. Our apologies to any non-football fans reading; we’ll try to elaborate where necessary, but if you have any specific questions, feel free to drop them in the comments.]

What Doug Pederson and the coaches do well

We’ll start by taking a look at how the Eagles’ coaches, particularly head coach Doug Pederson, set themselves up for success.

1. Play an aggressive style

Something that I believe was apparent from early in the season for the Eagles was how aggressive Pederson was with his play-calling. Maybe the most controversial example of this was his decision to go for it on 4th down and 8 from the Giants’ 43-yard line a few minutes before halftime in Week 3. What we didn’t realize at the time was that this play was setting the stage for the methods that Pederson would stand by all season on his way to a Super Bowl victory.

Overall, Doug Pederson had a pedal-to-the-metal mentality through 19 games. Sure, there were a few instances in the season where he deviated slightly from the usual plan (the loss in Seattle on December 3 comes to mind), but the mantra was that he was going to try to score and score often. The traditional conservatism of punting on every murky-looking 4th down, only running on 3rd and short, going with a QB sneak on 4th and inches, was thrown out the window. Pederson wasn’t coaching not to lose, he was coaching to win.

What makes it all the more impressive to me was that this wasn’t how he began his coaching career. He did not have this same level of aggressiveness as a first year head coach. But after a disappointing season, he made changes. This year, he was going to be more aggressive, and it led to the first Super Bowl win in this city’s history.

2. Put the players before the system

Pederson and his coaching staff were not in the business of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This was not a dictatorship in which his system was the law. Pederson built his system around the strengths of his players.

In 2016, Pederson’s first season, the team utilized a pass-heavy offense reminiscent of the Andy Reid era. This past season, Pederson adjusted his system to emphasize the strengths of what evolved into a three-headed monster in his backfield. He made in-season adjustments, demonstrated in the difference between the offenses led by franchise quarterback Carson Wentz and backup Nick Foles (the latter of whom took over and, y’know, won the Super Bowl after Wentz suffered a season-ending injury in early December). It wasn’t a seamless transition, and Foles struggled mightily in the team’s final two regular-season games. But in the two weeks leading up to the divisional round game against the Falcons, Pederson and his staff took the time to go back and find what helped Foles be successful in 2013 under Chip Kelly, and installed parts of that offense into his system. He and his staff were flexible, always looking to highlight the strengths of his team.

It was evident in his in-game adjustments as well. Pederson and his staff were arguably the best in the NFL this season in terms of making in-game adjustments, particularly at halftime. They were well-prepared going into games and strongly believed in their game plan, but they weren’t stubborn about it. If things weren’t going according to plan, whether it was at halftime or after well-timed timeouts, adjustments were made and problems were solved.

3. Trust in his players

Not only did Pederson put his players before his system, he trusted and empowered his players to be involved in the game plan, whether it was during weekly preparation or mid-game. He empowered Wentz, his second-year quarterback, to install plays from his college playbook that he felt were successful, and trusted him to know the playbook to the point of having control of the offense at the line of scrimmage. In one of the biggest moments of the Super Bowl, he let his backup quarterback call a trick play on fourth down just yards from the end zone.

Take a moment to appreciate the fact that the “Philly Special”, maybe the gutsiest play call in the history of the NFL, may have never occurred if Pederson didn’t instill that confidence in his players to make that suggestion and ultimately trust their input. Again, this is not a dictatorship. Pederson has final say, but he invites any and all suggestions from his players. He encourages his players to have a voice and their voice carries weight.

4. Lets the young men play

Overall, experience was not a determining factor as to whether or not you played and how involved you were this year under Pederson. If you had skill, if you had something to bring to the table, you were going to play. It was demonstrated, again, in Pederson trusting Wentz with the entire playbook. He didn’t cut the playbook in half. He didn’t limit his options on plays. He didn’t prevent Wentz from making audibles and changes at the line of scrimmage. Pederson opened everything up to Wentz and Wentz rewarded him with an MVP-caliber season until his injury.

After future Hall of Fame tackle Jason Peters was injured in October, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a second-year player drafted in the fifth-round, had the unenviable task of replacing Peters as the blindside protector of the franchise quarterback and eventually the backup quarterback on a run to the Super Bowl. Many, including myself, felt Pederson and the staff needed to help “Big V” with extra blockers, as there was no way he would be able to handle the job on his own. But despite some early struggles, Pederson did not waver in his trust of his young tackle, and he was ultimately rewarded with a level of play that has those same doubters confident that Vaitai can succeed Peters when the left tackle decides to hang ‘em up.

And how about Corey Clement? An undrafted rookie free agent running back who wasn’t even expected to make the team out of camp, Clement went from special-teams specialist to third-down magician and Super Bowl x-factor. This is a player who could have been inactive most of the year and no one would have been surprised. Instead, Pederson rewarded his hard work in practice throughout the season by installing him in the offense, and it now appears that the Eagles may have stumbled upon a diamond in the rough.

Pederson has shown an understanding of the fact that development of young players and success at the highest level aren’t mutually exclusive. Young players can grow while also helping the team win if – like any other player – put in position to do so.

Doubters were aplenty the day of Pederson’s hiring. Today, nary a whisper of doubt in the first head coach to bring the Lombardi trophy to Philadelphia.

What the organization does well

Next, we’ll talk about what the Eagles’ front office has done to assemble a franchise that was capable of reaching football’s pinnacle.

1. Use of analytics

Few NFL teams rely on analytics more than the Eagles do. Days before the Super Bowl, an article by Ben Shpigel in the New York Times highlighted the Eagles’ use of analytics in their preparation for games during the week.

Hearkening back to the aforementioned fourth-down play in Week 3 against the Giants, the decision to go for it (rather than to punt the ball away) was largely criticized, and the result was a sack of quarterback Carson Wentz that gave the Giants excellent field position just before halftime. Many, including myself, questioned the call at the time, wondering why in a game in which he was leading 7-0 would Pederson decide to make such a risky decision. As it turns out, Shpigel’s article explains that decision improved the Eagles’ chances of winning that game by 0.5%, a number that, while seemingly small, is statistically significant for a single play in a single game. That decision wasn’t made on a whim; it was a calculated risk that Pederson was confident in making due to the use of analytics as a valuable tool in their game-planning.

The Eagles were the most aggressive team in the NFL this season and analytics played a role in that aggressiveness and ultimate success.

2. Quality assistant coaches around the head coach

A lot of praise has been heaped on Pederson, and rightfully so, but the organization deserves a lot of credit for how this coaching staff as a whole was assembled. Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, made a conscious effort to speak to players individually to find what characteristics they gravitated toward and looked for in a coach. That may seem insignificant, but it was a factor in the hiring of Doug Pederson and, later on, the likes of offensive coordinator Frank Reich, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, as well as the retaining of running backs coach Duce Staley.

This coaching staff is (at least, was; DeFilippo and Reich have both been hired away for promotions on other teams since the Super Bowl) ripe with talent and intelligence, and each hiring was geared toward the strength of the players that would make up this roster. This coaching staff as a unit did a phenomenal job of utilizing the strengths of their players and putting each of them in position to succeed.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know how much I love to talk about lineup optimization. The job the Eagles coaching staff did this year was Exhibit A.

3. Talent makes the playoffs, depth wins championships

This Eagles group definitely had some star power. Between Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Lane Johnson, Jason Peters, Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, and Malcolm Jenkins, this team was not lacking in star-level talent. But as we saw throughout the season and ultimately in the Super Bowl, this team would not be where they are today without their depth players. Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas and the rest of the front office deserve a ton of credit for constructing this roster and providing depth all over the field.

They signed a backup quarterback who had 36 career starts under his belt. Just before the season began, they traded a player from a position of strength (wide receiver Jordan Matthews) for a player at a position of weakness (cornerback Ronald Darby), and now the team’s cornerback lineup appears to be one of its strengths heading into next season. They held onto a player in Mychal Kendricks who appeared to want out in the off-season, and ultimately ended up using him in a significant role after starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks went down. They constructed a defensive line rotation that went seven or eight players deep.

Star players are absolutely necessary to win in any sport. But once the playoffs begin, generally every team there has star players. At that point it comes down to which team goes deeper than that; which team has more ability to spread the wealth and create the most mismatches. That ability comes from depth and the Eagles were a prime example of how that can pay off in spades.

Bringing it back to the Flyers

So, taking all of this into account, how does all of this apply to the Flyers? Where are they on the spectrum at the moment? Let’s name a few things that their counterparts from across the street were able to do to be successful, and apply them to the team we spend most of our time discussing here.

1. Utilization of depth

I believe that, while the Flyers don’t have the depth to necessarily be elite contenders at the moment, they do have the depth to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. They clearly have the star power, as they have three forwards in the top 20 in scoring (two in the top 10) and a defense pair in Gostisbehere and Provorov that is statistically one of the best in the NHL at driving play and creating chances.

The issue is that, for nearly the entire season, their depth has been deployed inefficiently. They have players who have mostly played in roles above their level of ability (Manning, MacDonald, Hagg, Filppula) and players that have largely been underutilized (Laughton certainly, Leier to an extent), even to the point of being sent down (Sanheim). How, for example, do the Flyers explain being unwilling to use two defensemen on the 2nd power play unit while Sanheim was in the lineup, yet found the setup applicable with Brandon Manning for a stretch of games once he became a regular in the defense corps?

They also have players in their system that could potentially provide better value than some currently on the roster in Sanheim, Lindblom, Vecchione, Martel and Aube-Kubel. I’m not suggesting every one of those players should be called up, nor am I suggesting each of them will absolutely be an upgrade. However, at this point there is a large enough sample in-season to suggest that a few of them have earned a chance to see what they can do at the NHL level over players who we now know are not capable of providing positive value.

2. Coaching staff

This coaching staff is light years behind the Eagles’ coaching staff in pretty much every way. The more I break down Hakstol, the more he reminds me of the college coach who preceded Doug Pederson, Chip Kelly. He is inconsistent in his decision-making regarding performance, particularly with young players that don’t readily fit his style of play like Sanheim, Gostisbehere and Konecny. His ability to evaluate talent, particularly depth talent, is a big question mark. How players like Brandon Manning and Andrew MacDonald have earned as much trust as they have from this coaching staff will never cease to amaze me. In-game adjustments are also a weakness. Hakstol always seems to be two or three steps behind when it comes to decisions like timeouts and pulling the goalie, yet too quick to juggle lines in stressful situations.

Where he differs from Kelly is in his type or style of system. It becomes more evident by the game that, outside of the top talent on this team, Hakstol and his staff place a strong emphasis on safe, almost risk-averse play.

That said, he is once again similar to Kelly in that his system takes precedent over his players. And frankly, this is an issue that I feel applies to most of the league. Take a moment to think about how many teams in the NHL you feel have a system that suits their players’ strengths. A lot of emphasis is placed on system play in the NHL. There isn’t a lot of talk about utilizing the strength of players; the talk tends to be about whether or not the players can execute the system in place. There isn’t a lot of talk about adding to leads; the talk tends to be about protecting leads.

Maybe a bigger issue is that coaches get married to their system and don’t allow for enough wiggle room to adapt and evolve as they realize the strength of their players. Hakstol and his staff appear to be very much entrenched in this traditional, conservative mindset, be it at even strength, overtime, the penalty kill, or the second power play unit. And as the game has evolved into a faster and more skilled competition, this largely conservative system has aided in preventing this team from reaching its full potential.

3. Use(?) of analytics

I’m struggling to understand the Flyers’ use of analytics. Given the publicly available data, I assume that the Flyers’ analytics department creates these numbers as well, and likely has its own statistics that they use and present to the coaches and front office. I have concerns over how much emphasis and significance the Flyers coaches and front office places on those statistics and which statistics they choose to believe or favor.

And again, I feel this could be a league-wide issue. I realize that there’s a “war” going on out there, maybe most prominently in the hockey world among the four major sports, between the analytics and “eye test” communities. NHL front offices are filled with former players, more than any other sport, and while it’s great that these organizations are providing jobs for players after their playing careers are over, I feel it lends itself to certain biases and makes it more difficult for innovation to occur.

The point about analytics that maybe has been glossed over and/or misinterpreted is that analytics aren’t here to monopolize sports. This should not be viewed as equivalent to machines taking over for people on the assembly line. Analytics are another set of tools in your toolbox. They are there to help you be better and more efficient at your job. I also understand that everything is not equal between sports. Hockey is a much more continuous-flow type of game and therefore it’s more difficult to track and break down analytically than sports like baseball and football, where there are individual plays and scenarios.

But just because it’s more difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or unlikely to help you gain a competitive advantage, which is ultimately the point of sports, right? Therefore, I feel it is incumbent upon organizations to take the time to learn how they can help and gain an understanding of their significance. Don’t conform; evolve. Don’t rest on your laurels; do your best to be steps ahead of your peers.

Based on the coaching staff’s lineup decisions, I cannot help but feel that the coaches favor statistics that tend to agree with their eye test, and when the statistics don’t fall in line with what they believe they are seeing in practice and in games, they dismiss the statistics and trust their eyes. So given what we know (thanks to publicly made data) about guys like Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald, Valtteri Filppula and Robert Hagg being clearly given responsibility above their level of play, should they be trusting their eyes as much as they are in those situations? Are the Flyers doing more than just their due diligence with respect to analytics? Are they doing their very best to learn and gain an understanding of analytics and how it can improve their team?

The Eagles have clearly done their homework in that regard. I question whether the Flyers and frankly the NHL in general have done as much work and/or have been as open-minded to the potential of analytics.

Conclusion

Overall, despite their obvious shortcomings, I think the Flyers have a lot going for them. The stars are playing like stars. They have young players currently on the roster and lower in the organization who continue to show their potential. Cap space is now a reality. And despite the issues I’ve pointed to, this team is very much in position to make the playoffs. It’s far from doom and gloom. That said, if they want to ascend into the upper echelon of their sport, I feel they can learn more than a few things from their neighbor across the street at Lincoln Financial Field.

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