Last week, the Commanders added Eugene Shen as the team’s senior vice president of football strategy. He will be in charge of all analytics for the team’s football operations. For those of us who have been lobbying the team for years to increase its investment in the space, Shen’s addition was welcome news as Washington had been considered one of the least analytically advanced teams in the NFL.
Oh nice the new @SethWalder ESPN analytics analyst survey is out! Time to ctrl+f my favorite team and see how they... oh. Great. #Titans— Tucker Karnes (@WTKarnes) December 6, 2022
I think @RobertMays or @byKevinClark noted how Jon Robinson once quipped, "You want to meet our analytics staff? You're looking at it." pic.twitter.com/Vqqn28hP91
Shen has worked for several NFL teams in the past, both on the coaching and personnel analytics sides of the house, including Baltimore, Miami, and Jacksonville. He started out with the Ravens, focused on “coaching” analytics, essentially helping to make decisions about fourth down plays, 2-point conversions, and challenge decisions, among other things.
In Miami, he focused on “personnel” analytics, assessing college players as potential draft picks and evaluating free agent options for the team, as well as contract structuring. In Jacksonville, as in Washington, he was charged with overseeing all football analytics operations. Shen was in global finance before making the shift to football analytics full time in 2014.
Even before that, though, Shen was getting his feet wet in sports analytics. In the video clip below, he talks about a paper on “Positive and negative synergies in basketball” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics in 2012. The discussion of position “synergies” also raises some interesting thoughts about Washington’s latest activity at the trade deadline:
But what are Shen’s thoughts on football, specifically? Two years ago, he spoke with students at Florida Atlantic’s business school about his experiences. The full video of that presentation can be found here, but for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to extract some highlights.
Shen starts his conversation with several scenarios that he asks students to weigh in on, including whether to punt or kick a field goal at the end of the game under specific conditions, or when to go for two.
Here are some summary points from the rest of presentation:
- He doesn’t watch a lot of film, because that’s not his area of expertise. Relies on scouts to be his “eyes.”
- There generally is an analytics guy in the booth for teams during the game (for the Ravens, it was Daniel Stern). That person has to be decisive and fast, obviously.
- In general, older coaches don’t buy in to analytics, and the younger coaches do.
- Analytics models are determined pre-game, and at least at the time of this presentation, they lacked the ability to modify the models in-game, based on injury, etc.
- Shen created a 4th down model for the Ravens that they were still using after he left.
- In baseball, analytics is running most teams. Basketball is probably next in terms of analytics sophistication, and then football.
- Do running backs matter? He essentially repeats this piece verbatim.
- Go on 4th down? He essentially repeats this piece verbatim, even mentioning the same high school coach I reference in the piece.
- Trading down? He essentially repeats this piece verbatim, that I wrote before Chase Young was selected.
At one point, he gets a good question from one of the students about “market inefficiencies in terms of positional value.” He gives the response in the clip below:
He explains how he thinks tight ends are “incredibly undervalued” with the best TEs getting contracts that are around half those of the best wide receivers. Some online commentators have taken this to be advocacy for using top draft capital on tight ends, which I don’t think it is, but I do think that Shen would be in favor of compensating a high end tight end well, in terms of cap utilization.
Overall, I’m very impressed with Shen’s approach to analytics’ and his ability to easily turn it into lay terms for the public and, presumably, for coaches. I’ve been pleased to hear he was involved in the decisions to move Montez Sweat and Chase Young, and I look forward to seeing how he collaborates with the new management team in the future.
Do you think adding Eugene Shen was a smart move by the Commanders?
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Would you like to see Washington run a more analytically-driven operation?
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I’m told Ron already watches the analytics.