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How the Philadelphia Eagles Mastered the Modern NFL

Can the copycat league imitate the defending Super Bowl champs? According to Jeffrey Lurie, Doug Pederson, and others, they can invest in analytics, be aggressive in free agency, go for it on fourth down, trade for players on rookie deals, find a backup who’s good enough to put up 40-plus points, build two of the best lines in football, build one of the best staffs in football, and, oh yeah, find a superstar signal-caller on a rookie deal.

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When the Philadelphia Eagles had an entry-level opening in the front office 18 years ago, Joe Banner, then the team’s president, got a recommendation from Mike Tannenbaum, then a Jets executive. It was a young law school grad named Howie Roseman, who’d been flooding NFL teams with résumés for months.

“We couldn’t figure out if he was crazy and we should ignore him or if he was really driven,” Banner said recently, with a laugh. Back in 2000, Roseman had sent his résumé to various franchises even though he’d never had a job in football and didn’t play the sport in college. “Everyone thinks that would be a huge disadvantage,” Banner said of Roseman’s lack of football background. “But we looked at it from a completely different perspective. For us, it can be an advantage. Conventional wisdom isn’t driving everything you do.”

Before Roseman took the Eagles job, Tannenbaum gave him some advice. At the time, the salary cap was just seven years old and Tannenbaum said the field of capology was “obviously more in its infancy.” “My advice was to study creating value in building rosters,” he said. “In studying how to be efficient with resources.” Shortly thereafter, Roseman started in Philadelphia as an entry-level salary cap specialist. He studied value and the cap, but he almost immediately also became consumed with studying tape — learning both ends of the game. “Trying to be progressive, looking for the smallest competitive advantage he could,” Banner said.

You probably know how this one ends: Roseman, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and Eagles coach Doug Pederson eventually built one of the most efficient rosters in the NFL — good enough to clinch an NFC East championship with star quarterback Carson Wentz, then, after Wentz’s ACL injury, to win a Super Bowl two months later with his replacement, Nick Foles. It was the payoff for one of the most forward-thinking teams in the sport — early adopters in attempting to understand the salary cap and one of the first teams (if not the first) to have an in-house analytics department. The Eagles won last year’s Super Bowl by mastering modern football. They were a team-building marvel, a case study in how to assemble a deep roster, how to handle a quarterback on a rookie deal, how to use data, how to employ college schemes and play defense in a league where that seems harder than ever.

“My own mind-set is to never be risk-averse, always try to see where the inefficiencies in the marketplace are in building the team and capitalizing on them,” Lurie told me. He was quick to note that there are plenty of smart teams in the NFL and that “we were just lucky enough to win it all.” But in reality, no one was smarter than the Eagles last year.

The modern NFL changes so quickly, both on and off the field. Last summer I asked a defensive coordinator from a well-respected team how to defend a run-pass option, and he didn’t understand the concept; a year later, the play has taken over the sport. The salary cap has risen at least $10 million every year since 2013. The new rookie pay scale, implemented in 2011, has changed the way both rookies and veterans are paid. The sport shifts year to year in a way that it never has before — not even a decade ago. Capturing the moment is harder than ever because it is hard to know what the moment is. The Eagles have joined the Seahawks and Patriots in the pantheon of those who have built a truly great roster over the past 10 years.

The old cliché that the NFL is a copycat league is true because teams are afraid to try things that they haven’t seen work elsewhere. The NFL suddenly shifted its stance from being distrustful of “college” spread schemes to openly embracing them — only after getting stomped by an Eagles team running a jet sweep. When the New York Giants twice beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, everyone wanted to steal their four-man pass rush. When the Seahawks built a tall, physical secondary and hoisted a Lombardi Trophy, the rest of the league scoured the earth for their own Legion of Boom. It doesn’t matter that the imitations rarely work.

The Seahawks built a historically good roster by hitting on their midround draft picks at an awe-inspiring rate. When they won the Super Bowl in the 2013 season, they had two of the best players ever to play their positions, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson, on contracts that paid them less than the team’s long snapper. And those were just two of a number of bargains. Good luck emulating that. The Patriots have built sturdy rosters guided by the best coach and quarterback in history. By definition, there’s only one of each.

The Eagles are now the team to rip off, but what part do you copy? They did about a dozen things that could be considered ahead of the curve: their quarterback management, their approach to the cap, their process with the draft, and their activity in free agency and with trades. Most teams claim to search for inefficiencies; fewer teams build a franchise around the concept.

“They have a relentlessness,” said Tannenbaum, now the executive vice president of football operations for the Dolphins. “They are aggressive but thoughtful in the moves they made. You look at getting guys like Ronald Darby or Timmy Jernigan — there’s an aggressiveness there. They’ve made a lot of moves and the lion’s share of them worked out.”

No Eagle last season counted for more than 6.1 percent of the salary cap, and the leader was Alshon Jeffery, a wide receiver who signed with them on a one-year deal. Those shorter deals — which also included linebacker Nigel Bradham — allow the Eagles to get familiar with a player and see whether they want to sign him long term, which adds more certainty to their decision-making. In Jeffery’s case, they then signed him to a four-year, $52 million extension last season. Bradham received $4.5 million guaranteed on a two-year deal in 2016, and he signed a five-year, $40 million deal this year. Meanwhile, players like Brandon Graham ($8 million cap hit), Zach Ertz ($4.9 million), and Malcolm Jenkins ($4 million) are on second contracts that are the envy of the league due to a long-standing policy to sign contributors to extensions as soon as you can. On top of those bargains, they have the luxury of stacking talent and depth over the five years in which they know they’ll have star quarterback Carson Wentz under contract. Last year, Wentz was the 28th-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL at $6.1 million.

“I think they did a nice job of drafting over the years. They got a young quarterback who showed he can have success, and they supplemented with trades and free agency, which I think is a nice model,” said Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead. “Because you never know when your young quarterback is going to show success. So take advantage of that of that point in your timeline.”

Snead said there’s a lesson to be learned from what the Eagles did on fourth downs, where they went for it 29 times, most famously scoring a Philly Special touchdown in the Super Bowl. Then there’s how Pederson built an offense around Nick Foles “and not just rest on the laurels. That takes courage because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Snead said. “For him, it worked out, and for the Eagles, it worked. So you go, ‘OK, can you apply that to your team-building philosophy as well?’”

When it comes to not resting on your laurels, Snead mentioned that he went out this offseason and acquired a bunch of established stars to surround his rookie-deal quarterback — including replacing Sammy Watkins, who left to Kansas City in free agency, by acquiring Brandin Cooks from the Patriots in exchange for a first-round pick. “We thought it best, more prudent to use a draft asset to go get a proven player,” Snead said.

Despite coming off a Super Bowl, Philadelphia still has a pretty flexible cap situation. Of course it does; the team has been managing the cap as well as anyone since Lurie took over in 1994. Only three players will make over $10 million; two are among the best at their positions in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and offensive lineman Jason Peters, and the other is the backup quarterback who won the Super Bowl.

When I asked Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff what he’d noticed about Philadelphia’s roster-building, he said that the entire roster seemed perfectly in sync. Every player had carved out a role and nearly every player had created value. “I saw a lot of that in New England in the early 2000s, and it’s what I felt we thrived on,” said Dimitroff, a former Patriots executive. “We weren’t thriving on all the top-paid players in New England, and I thought Philly did a heck of a job with that. Hats off to Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson, because it wasn’t always easy but their consistency showed through.”

Do not learn the wrong lessons from the Eagles. There are plenty of teams that saw what they did with their young quarterback — surrounding him with an offensive-minded head coach and good quarterbacks coaches — and did the same. There are teams that tried to work the salary cap to perfection. There are teams trying to build through both lines. There are teams going all in on a rookie quarterback, or going for it on fourth down, or using analytics. These, individually, are not the lesson of the Eagles. All of these strategies might work, or they might not. The lesson is that you need to do nearly all of this to compete for a Super Bowl.

“The Eagles are an example of how every organization needs to run — you’ve got to be deep. When you’re able to win a Super Bowl and to not just lose your quarterback, but lose your starting tackle, lost [running back Darren] Sproles, lose their backer [Jordan Hicks]. The team was just deep,” said Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach, a former Eagles scout. “First-level free-agent deals are big, first- and second-round draft choices are big. But you have to home in on every transactional period.”

I asked Jon Robinson, the Tennessee Titans’ general manager, whether he took anything away from looking at the Eagles’ roster. He laughed and said he did: You need good players. And that, I suppose, is the real point.

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks
Carson Wentz
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

These plans do not look so brilliant if there is no Carson Wentz. There are plenty of ways in which the Eagles do not subscribe to conventional wisdom, but not when it comes to the value of a quarterback: They believe your franchise must have a good one. All of the things Roseman would eventually execute — stacking the roster, building ferocious offensive and defensive lines, acquiring talented skill players to catch the ball — start with hitting on a rookie quarterback who is cost controlled for up to five years. The same can be said of Pederson, whose play calls on third and fourth down look smart because he has an efficient passer to execute them.

In the four seasons before Wentz, the Eagles had four different leading passers: Michael Vick in 2012, and then Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford. In the five years before Wentz, not coincidentally, the team made the playoffs only once. Lurie said they were waiting for a year when there were “one or two quarterbacks we thought could be franchise quarterbacks. That’s not every year. There were several years you couldn’t identify one. We wanted to be aggressive with that desire, but we’d back off of making the decision because there wasn’t one.”

“We knew if that scarcity turned into possibility and there was a good quarterback that Howie, Doug, and I would do everything possible to leapfrog in any way we could — from 13 to 2 — and we tried to get to [pick] one,” Lurie said. “There are very few top quarterbacks in the league — very few coming out of the draft. And you’re competing with all of the teams who need one in the present and all of the teams who have quarterbacks but because of age they are starting to think of succession planning.”

At the time of the 2016 draft, many teams had bad quarterbacks. A golden generation of signal-callers — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers — was in at least its mid-30s. The competition to find a franchise quarterback could have been, in theory, nearly leaguewide. Plus, people inside the Eagles’ building knew that if you did find one, you would be set for over a decade and no more resources would have to be thrown at acquiring one.

Roseman had to swing two trades: He shipped cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso and the 13th pick to Miami for the eighth pick. He then snagged the second pick as part of a package in which he shipped the eighth pick, 2016 third- and fourth-rounders, a 2017 first-rounder, and a 2018 second-rounder to Cleveland.

“I cannot underestimate for us that it has always been our mantra: the primacy of the quarterback position. Throughout the organization we understood that you can’t succeed at a high level without an excellent quarterback,” Lurie said. This also includes a second quarterback. Yes, Lurie said the team doesn’t refer to them as backup quarterbacks, but rather the “second quarterback.” “We’ve valued it for many, many years,” Lurie said. “Our hope is to have a top-10 quarterback as our second quarterback.”

And that is why the Eagles won the Super Bowl. They won the division because they had a great quarterback on a rookie contract and talent at nearly every position. They won the Super Bowl because after Wentz went down in December, they had a quarterback who could help put 41 points up against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Foles, who signed his contract before last season, now has the second-highest cap hit on the team, according to Spotrac. His $13.6 million cap hit is more than that of Blake Bortles, Ryan Tannehill, or any of the top picks on rookie contracts like Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, or Philadelphia’s own franchise QB.

The rise of Foles to Super Bowl MVP is another modern football miracle. The team eschewed norms by returning to padded practices during its playoff bye week in January. NFL rules since the 2011 bargaining agreement limit padded practices to just 14 during the 17-week season, with 11 of those coming in the first 11 weeks of the season. This limit does not extend past Week 17, so the Eagles were free to strap the pads back on. So the Eagles’ veterans came to Pederson and said they needed to practice in pads to help get Foles, who struggled through most of December, up to speed. During this stretch, Pederson added a few more RPOs to the offense and figured out what routes to add for Foles, who liked slants and dagger routes.

“Honestly the biggest thing was getting him back to playing the quarterback position,” Pederson said. “We didn’t redesign the wheel; he was the right guy for the job. He embraced it. He didn’t listen to the outside world. He really liked these concepts. He liked throwing to a big target like Alshon.”

Jeffery came over in free agency, where the team has been aggressive due to the rising cap. But they’ve also made a point of acquiring talented players who are still on their rookie deals.

“Internally, we valued very highly some young players — Tim Jernigan, Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi, and others — and we thought we could take advantage that some of them are still on their rookie contracts. That’s value in the short term and potentially in the long term. Why not try to maximize both the short and long term?” Lurie said. “Especially with the thought we’d re-sign some of them and they’d become part of our core, along with the guys we already had like Ertz or Jenkins. It fit with our notion of being aggressive.” Jernigan, a defensive lineman traded by the Baltimore Ravens, signed a four-year, $48 million deal last season.

It helps that these players fit the scheme so well, and it’s not a coincidence: Banner pointed out how well the coaching staff and personnel department work together under Lurie. The fact that some college elements helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl should not come as much of a surprise. Pederson borrowed Chip Kelly’s “mesh” concept on the key Eagles touchdown drive against the Patriots, and Pederson acknowledged Kelly’s influence on the play. Pederson worked in Kansas City for former Eagles coach Andy Reid, who has been football’s leading innovator with college schemes in the past few seasons. Pederson kept members of Kelly’s staff, including running backs coach Duce Staley and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who helped inform Pederson’s knowledge of RPOs. Pederson knew about the play from Alex Smith in Kansas City, and he’d learned it from Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco.

Lurie said one of his organizational cornerstones is “demanding that you surround yourself with strong people, even if they may not agree with you. You have to be comfortable enough to be a really good leader. One of the epitomes of that is Doug taking the best of [Kelly’s] coaching staff and adding to it in really great ways. He didn’t just hire people he knew.” Lurie mentioned defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp as strong coaches who Pederson likes having on staff.

Roseman is on his second tour of duty as general manager, with the first coming from 2010 to 2014. He was stripped of his GM title after a power struggle with Kelly in 2015, and then spent a year meeting with different executives in different sports and thinking about how to approach things. “I think he became more collaborative,” Lurie said. “He was a better leader in the organization. He was always really smart, analytic, but I think he became a better communicator, a better leader of men.”

It’s not just the team building; it’s staff building: Dan Hatman, a former Eagles scout who now runs the Scouting Academy, a school for scouts, said that one inefficiency the Eagles have cornered is building a superior coaching staff. At most franchises, scouts tend to start at the bottom and work their way up, so the majority of player personnel executives are simply longtime employees who were promoted over the years. “They are one of the few teams who constantly acquire guys who build reputations as scouts at other places. They are building a super scouting staff,” he said. Hatman mentioned vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas (formerly of Chicago), Andy Weidl (Baltimore), and T.J. McCreight (Indianapolis) as Eagles front office members who came from elsewhere to bolster the staff, giving them a competitive advantage in finding prospects. The Eagles have lost employees in the past decade who went on to become other teams’ general managers — from Ryan Grigson to Veach — so some of the turnover has been forced. But ultimately, hiring a lot of good scouts is just a good idea.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots
Howie Roseman
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

“The league is driven on a mind-set of self-protection. It’s extremely slow moving,” Banner said. Even though Banner thought that Roseman had a lack of fear and the mentality needed to succeed, he couldn’t really know until Roseman started making decisions, which is when some of the employees who’ve never fallen for conventional wisdom begin to fall for it. Roseman never fell into the trap. “There are not five people who would have been willing to take the risk of what he did to get Wentz,” Banner said.

Pederson noted that this organizational aggressiveness is constantly evolving. The team made a slew of changes this offseason. “Mike Wallace is here, Haloti Ngata, Michael Bennett. We are trying to stay ahead of the curve. It gives us an advantage — we as a staff, we’re going to keep bringing in talent, good character guys, good quality people,” Pederson said. “If you are going to do the normal thing every year, you aren’t getting better, you aren’t acquiring talent. We are going to continue to stay aggressive. Last time I checked, players make this game go. We are going to keep building for the future.”

This aggressiveness trickles down to the field with the number of attempts at converting fourth downs, but it’s all backed up by evidence. The team has had an in-house analytics wing since Banner’s days. Lurie points out that with new player-chip tracking and real-time data, the NFL will only see this field get more valuable and complex.

“The bottom line is, I trust my guys. It’s going to be calculated,” Pederson said. He has an analyst, Ryan Paganetti, in his ear to advise him on the percentages of big decisions, like going for it on fourth down. The numbers overwhelmingly favor going for it on fourth down far more often than NFL teams do. “Doing what everyone else is doing, that’s not me,” Pederson said. “I want to be out of the box.” He said he was first shown data about making big decisions in Kansas City. “Then my first year here, it was just about understanding the data in situational football, short-yardage situations, goal lines, the best two-point concepts, run or pass decisions. You look at all that information you can get your hands on.”

Lurie said that analytics has “always been a piece of the puzzle. It’s much more elaborate now with [tracking data in shoulder pads]. The amount of information we’re getting is much more; how you reduce it is what’s implementable.” He said his franchise “treasures both observational scouting and analytical scouting.” If you see something on tape and the numbers don’t support it, you may want to look harder. If the numbers say something and it doesn’t show up on tape, that requires more inspection too.

“We purposely don’t reduce things to one mode of being. Doug is so bright and a great listener that he understands the numbers, understands the probabilities of each game and each series,” Lurie said. “This is not about taking a chance; it’s about reflecting on the research and the numbers that he’s listened to long before that.

The Eagles won the Super Bowl — and are set up for years of contention — because they got Carson Wentz, because they manage the cap as well as anyone, because they follow the data and analytics but marry it with traditional scouting methods, and because they are using all of their resources in an efficient way that surprisingly few teams do.

Lurie continued to talk about Pederson’s on-field aggressiveness, but he could have been talking about anything in the organization.

“And it doesn’t matter if three, four, five times in a row, we do things that don’t work out. He’s got support from myself and everybody else. There is no downside to taking action that gives us a better chance to win.”

He went on: “You don’t always accomplish what you want, but whenever you have an aggressive mind-set, it helps you.”

Of course, sometimes you do accomplish what you want.

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