It’s Week 1 of the regular season and all teams are tied with a 0-0 record. This week, the Washington Redskins will be facing off against the division rival Philadelphia Eagles. I asked Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation five questions to better understand the state of the Eagles and what to look for in this game.
1) Both Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson seem to be heavily invested in using analytics to inform football decisions. In what ways do the Eagles use analytics in football decision-making (both FO and coaching) and how does it give them an advantage over teams with a more traditional approach? Are there any tradeoffs in relying on analytics over a traditional approach or areas that analytics are not so good at informing?
Really good question. I’d say the Eagles’ investment in analytics has a lot to do with their recent success.
From a front office perspective, it’s clear positional value matters a lot to them. They’re not going to be a team that hands out, say, $90 million to a running back. It’s also clear the team has been seeking market inefficiencies. One such example is acquiring older players who might be devalued because of their age. This strategy worked out for them when they won the Super Bowl back in 2017.
From a coaching perspective, Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive head coaches in the league. Not just in terms of the offensive philosophy but the willingness to go for it on fourth down and two-point situations. Pederson’s aggression was on full display during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. Look no further than the Eagles’ decision to run The Philly Special on 4th-and-goal.
I can’t recall a time where it feels like analytics have really burned the Eagles. If anything, there have been times where it feels like they should be relying more on analytics. Pederson could’ve afforded to be even more aggressive last season. And the Eagles blew a 2019 fifth-round pick on a quarterback prospect (Clayton Thorson) who didn’t seemingly grade out favorably from an analytical perspective.
Earlier this offseason, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said the team is “pretty obsessed” with analytics. He also added: “It will always be a priority.” And, again, it’s worked for them recently.
Meanwhile, up in North Jersey, Dave Gettleman mocks analytics. At least the Giants are in great shape with his traditional football experience though.
2) The Eagles recently lost Joe Douglas, who became GM of the Jets. What was his role and importance within the Eagles’ FO and are there any specific things (scouting policies, drafting decisions, FA signings, etc) Eagles fans credit him with? How will the Eagles replace him and what kind of impact do you think his departure will have down the line?
Former Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas used to run the scouting department. He ultimately reported to Eagles general manager Howie Roseman but he was the one setting the team’s draft board. He also had a clear influence in pro personnel acquisitions.
It’s not always easy to parse the specific things you’re asking about. It’s kind of a guessing game from the outside looking in. There were some moves that could be traced back to Douglas since they involved the team acquiring a player he overlapped with during his previous stops at Baltimore and/or Chicago. Draft picks that seemed favored by traditional scouting as opposed to more analytical models might be traced back to Douglas as well.
There’s no doubt that Douglas was an important figure in the Eagles’ front office. He drew a lot of praise for being one of the most respected executives in the league. Douglas also seemingly worked well with Roseman, which was important because the Eagles haven’t always had rock solid front office stability.
With all this said, losing Douglas hardly seems like a death knell. Nothing has changed with Roseman having the final say. Besides, the Eagles replaced Douglas by promoting his former right hand man, Andy Weidl. And most of the staff that Douglas assembled in Philly is still with the team since the Eagles were able to block the Jets from hiring them away.
3) The Redskins recently signed Wendell Smallwood and Treyvon Hester after they were cut by the Eagles. What are we getting in these players? How are they on special teams?
I think these were solid pickups by Washington.
Let’s start with Smallwood. First, some background. Heading into 2017, there was some thought that the Eagles’ 2016 fifth-round pick could lead the team in rushing. That didn’t happen, though, and he got phased out of the running back rotation entirely about halfway though the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. Smallwood had to fight just to make the roster as a fourth running back in 2018. Multiple injuries at the position forced him into playing time and he did OK as he averaged 4.3 yards per carry over seven weeks. Then, for the second year in a row, Smallwood was phased out of the rotation entirely in favor of an undrafted rookie free agent running back. But, unlike 2017, Smallwood later worked his way back into the rotation and finished the season on a decent note.
The feeling here is that Smallwood is a replacement level talent. You don’t want him being anything more than a third or fourth running back in the rotation. He can theoretically do multiple things (rushing, catching, kick returning, special teams coverage) but he’s not really great at any one thing. Smallwood really lacks explosive ability; he only had one run of 15+ yards on 87 attempts last season … and his longest run was exactly 15 yards. In the words of BGN contributor Michael Kist, Smallwood has “the lateral agility of a dump truck.” Smallwood was also an absolute disaster at times in pass protection for the Eagles.
Looking at Washington’s depth chart, I see Smallwood is poised to be RB4. That’s perfectly fine.
As for Hester, his Eagles career began last year when the team desperately needed defensive tackle depth. Hester didn’t especially stand out in the regular season but he seemed like a fine rotational backup defensive tackle. Hester obviously made his mark in Eagles history by JUST getting his finger on Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal attempt to cause the kick to Double Doink off the uprights and cement Philly’s Wild Card victory over the Bears. Hester seemed primed to be a fourth defensive tackle in Philly’s 2019 rotation but the team went out of their way to trade a seventh-round pick to the Colts for Hassan Ridgeway. Ridgeway ended up beating out Hester for a roster spot this summer.
Hester was talented enough to make the Eagles’ roster; he just got caught up in a roster crunch. He should be a solid backup defensive lineman for Washington. In addition to tipping Parkey’s kick in the playoffs, Hester also blocked a field goal in the preseason the year. So maybe he’ll end up blocking a kick for Washington at some point.
4) Carson Wentz had an amazing 2017 season where he looked nearly unstoppable until his injury. But in 2018 he seemed to come back down to earth a bit, going 5-6 in the regular season before again being shut down for injury. Although wins are not entirely a QB statistic, Nick Foles went 4-1 in the regular season that year with essentially the same team (including a win against the Rams). Do Eagles fans have an explanation for the difference in how the team seemed to perform under Nick Foles vs Carson Wentz last year? Was there an obvious change compared to 2017 in the way the offense operated due to the departure of Frank Reich and John DeFilippo?
I mean, a big part of the explanation is that Foles wasn’t coming off an ACL tear and playing with a broken bone in his back like Wentz was. I’d say that was significant.
Another key thing to note with that win-loss disparity is that Foles had more defensive support than Wentz did. The Eagles’ defense allowed 5.2 fewer points per game in Foles starts than Wentz starts. The defense also had two really bad blown late game leads during Wentz starts. That doesn’t happen and suddenly Wentz is 7-4.
The rise of the Eagles’ 12 personnel package is another thing that coincided with Wentz going down and Foles taking over.
This isn’t to suggest their starting records were ONLY by coincidence. Wentz obviously didn’t resemble his 2017 form in 2018. Foles did a nice job of coming in and running the offense.
For all the criticism surrounding Wentz, though, it’s not even like he was bad. He still finished the season with a higher passer rating than the likes of Jared Goff, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. There’s reason to believe a healthy Wentz will improve on last year’s performance.
Outside of the quarterback position, a big problem with the 2018 offense is that it just wasn’t very explosive. The Eagles didn’t have a legitimate field-stretcher. They fixed that by acquiring DeSean Jackson. The Eagles’ backfield wasn’t inspiring at all and their two leading rushers from last year aren’t even on the team anymore. The Eagles made an effort to get more dynamic at running back by drafting Miles Sanders in the second-round. I’m sure losing both Reich and Flip didn’t help matters but the lack of explosion was also an issue.
5) What kind of game do you expect this to be and what do you think will be the critical factors in determining the outcome? If you were HC of the Redskins, how would you gameplan for this matchup and what would you exploit on the Eagles?
There’s a reason the Eagles are favored by double-digits in this game and I’m guessing it might have to do with Case Keenum. It’s safe to say he’s the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, right? That’s a big obstacle to overcome, especially playing on the road. Add in the fact he’s being “protected” by Donald Penn and Ereck Flowers on the left side of the offensive line and that creates even more concern.
I think Washington has some nice pieces. Ryan Kerrigan is an absolute Eagles killer and now Montez Sweat could cause even more problems for Philly. Derrius Guice, if healthy, could be a beast. Josh Norman’s actually done a good job in his matchups with Alshon Jeffery since the former signed the Eagles. I think Jay Gruden isn’t a bad coach.
With all that said, I think the Eagles are the superior team and they have home field advantage so I’m fully expecting them to win on Sunday. I’ll say the score is 28-17.
If I was game planning to make that prediction wrong in Washington’s favor, I’d be looking to test the Eagles’ secondary. Starting cornerback Ronald Darby is coming off an ACL injury he suffered last November. Starting safety Rodney McLeod is also coming off a 2018 knee injury. Sidney Jones has had some nice moments during the offseason but he’s hardly a proven commodity in regular season action. Rasul Douglas has been burned in the past. Avonte Maddox struggled against Allen Robinson in the playoffs last year.
I don’t think Washington can beat the Eagles playing it safe or scared. They need to be aggressive and try to attack them. I’d be trying to have Keenum air it out to Paul Richardson Jr. Go big or go home.
Defensively, well, I’d be counting on Kerrigan to wreck the Eagles like he always does. I’d also be doing everything I could to prevent DeSean Jackson from beating the defense over the top.
Thanks again to Brandon Lee Gowton for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Eagles.