Philly's Inferno

A sports fan’s opinion through the lens of Philadelphia’s seventh circle of hell.

Month: February, 2013

Thin-Slicing the NFL Scouting Combine

For many college football players and NFL hopefuls, the NFL Scouting Combine is the ultimate job interview.  It represents the last chance before the Draft to improve their relative worth on each team’s respective draft board.  Players are poked and prodded mentally and physically as elements from their game day forms are dissected, segmented, and measured.  To many fans and analysts it’s fascinating.  To them, the combine is a necessary element in supplying the information needed for teams to make the best decisions on draft day.  To others, the combine is akin to measuring a sample of trees to determine the breadth of a forest.  They measure the circumference of the trunk, the length of the branches, count the number of rings, the number of leaves, and then take a sample of DNA back to the lab for analysis.  These trees are exceptional.  This forest is in excellent health.  NFL scouts, directors of personnel, coaches, and general managers have already seen countless hours of player film before the combine, and even Howie Roseman declared that combine results won’t have much effect on the Eagles’ draft board.  So just because the combine exists, does that make it necessary?

There is a concept in Psychology called “thin-slicing”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink.  Gladwell defines thin-slicing as “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and people based on very narrow ‘slices’ of experience.”  In essence, thin-slicing is a form of intuition; it’s making quick decisions with relatively little information.  Gladwell presents several examples and every-day applications, ranging from love at first sight to decisions made on the field of battle.  And it’s fair to say that the best NFL quarterbacks thin-slice the field after every snap (something at which Michael Vick may not be the best).  But there is one example in particular that can shed some light on the relevance of the NFL Combine.  Gladwell speaks of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital (the hospital that inspired the television show ER).  In the 1990s, Cook County Hospital, one of the busiest hospitals in the nation, was struggling to find beds for patients being admitted through the Emergency Department for chest pain.  Technicians, nurses, and doctors asked questions: do you smoke, drink, do you exercise, have diabetes, etc.  They listened to the heart and lungs and took ECGs to determine if the patient is having a heart attack, a difficult diagnosis to make.  In an effort to make the best determination, doctors collected as much information as possible by dozens of means and many times, if there was any semblance of doubt, erred on the side of caution.  The issue with Cook County Hospital was not only the lack of space, but also the cost of a room for the many un- or under-insured patients, $2,000 a night.  In 1996 Brendan Reilly was appointed as chairman of the Department of Medicine and realized that the hospital was spending more and more money every year on patients that weren’t actually having a heart attack.  He turned to the help of a cardiologist, Lee Goldman, who, after working with a group of mathematicians, developed an algorithm for diagnosing and treating chest pain that relied on just four intake elements.  Over time, Reilly developed a decision tree based on these elements that could be used in clinical practice, and then challenged his staff.  For the next few months, Reilly’s doctors would diagnose chest pain just as they always had, then they would use the algorithm, and the outcomes of the two methods would be compared.  After two years of data collection, Goldman’s algorithm, a formula that relied on much less information than typically collected (that is, it relied on information sliced thinly), outperformed traditional methods of evaluation by an incredible 70 percent.

For many NFL teams and coaches, the NFL Scouting Combine is much like pre-1996 Cook County Hospital.  It’s information overload.  It has no effect, or poor effect, on evaluations that result from watching a player on game day, or on game film.  And many times a handshake and a hello can carry more weight than documented combine results. In fact there are studies in which the first fifteen seconds of a job interview are reviewed and results, hired or not hired, are predicted with a high level of accuracy.  Fortunately, player interviews are a part of the Combine process.  Perhaps then, this is the value of the Combine, especially from the player perspective.  Those fifteen seconds are the moments during which NFL hopefuls need to succeed.

In an age where technology has allowed for the evolution of athletic performance analysis with incredible detail (see, Money Ball), it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, to twist them and turn them in a manner that can support our own biases.  And while thin-slicing theory can still contribute to this statistical revolution (and is not without its own inherent biases), it also reminds us that there is a unique human element that can never be overlooked… that feeling in your gut when you know something just feels right.  Those intuitions are more important than “40” times or bench press repetitions. It’s interesting, though, how thin-slicing, this ability to unconsciously find patterns with not a lot of information, helps us discern the best NFL talent from the rest of those really cool looking trees.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend). 

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Using Chaos Theory to Simulate the 2013 NFL Draft

Mocking the NFL Draft accurately is an impossible task. There are an infinite number of variables to consider, including the many unknown human elements involved in the actual draft day decision making process.  After all, who can know exactly what is happening inside the Chip Kelly/Howie Roseman/Tom Gamble collective?  In essence, the NFL Draft can be mathematically defined as “chaotic” and therefore subjected to explanation by Chaos Theory.

Oddly, the mathematic definition of chaos is not entirely explicit.  According to Tabor (1989), a chaotic system is one “whose outcomes are very sensitive to initial conditions.”  And according to Rashband (1990), “We often say observations are chaotic when there is no discernible regularity or order.”  There are indeed initial conditions that affect the outcomes of the Draft, like team needs, college stats, combine results, etc., and these initial conditions help our attempts at prediction.  However, there is no semblance of order, no predictive algorithm that aids prediction when the Draft system is active.  Quite the contrary, it is utter chaos.  Just ask Mike Tice.  Unfortunately, Chaos Theory can’t help predict Draft outcomes either.  It can however, help explain them.

Let’s assume for a moment that there are two primary decisions that fuel a team’s draft pick.  The first is to make a decision based on team need, the second is based on the best player available.  If we assume that the rate of change (or error) between these two decisions is relatively small, and we were to graph what that would look like from the start of the draft to the end, it might appear to be something like this:

PI1

At the beginning of the draft there is more variance, and as time increases, the variation between the two possible decision points decreases.  This could be because there are less players to choose from as the draft progresses and thus less room for error.  However, if we increase the rate of change (error) just a little bit, the graph of the Draft as time goes on will look like this:

PI2

In this scenario there is less variance at the beginning of the draft, but that variation increases more quickly with time.  However, the differences between drafting based on need and best available is still consistent.  In other words, there does not exist a lot of chaos.  These two scenarios represent close-to-ideal circumstances, and even then, accurate prediction is not possible without error.  More representative of what actually occurs in the draft is illustrated if we push the rate of error to its upper limit:

PI3

What you get is the equivalent of white noise.  Some picks have low variation, others have large, but it is utterly unpredictable. There are some hits, some misses.  Once you think you identify a pattern, there is an element that throws you off.  And that is the essence of Chaos Theory.  Small differences in initial conditions (and each successive pick in the Draft can be defined as a point of initial condition) create huge differences in outcomes (the butterfly effect).  There is no mathematical formula that can tell us what any one pick (x) can be at any specific time (t).  But… that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Rather than mock the Draft, we can try running a simulation (or multiple simulations) using the principles of Chaos Theory (and mocking the simulation is still obligatory).  The simulation is relatively basic (relative when compared to real life… it was rather difficult to make work).  Each team’s decision at each pick is based on two primary, random variables: picking based on draft need, or picking based on the best player available.  That decision will be a result of two random numbers.  If the first random number is greater than the second, then the team will pick based on need, otherwise they will pick the best player available.  In any given draft simulation, there will be an aggregate variance between the total number of picks based on need and the total number of picks based on the best available, but if the simulations were run infinitely, that ratio would reach a 50/50 limit.  Also, in order for the simulations to work, they required an overall prospect ranking (courtesy of CBSSports.com) and a ranking of each team’s need by position (gleaned and modified from Walterfootball.com).  In this regard, the results are still somewhat subjective.  Regardless, using these parameters I ran five draft simulations simultaneously in Excel and came up with these first round results (five simulations because the formulas involved are either volatile or use up a bit of processing power):

PI4

According to these results, Kansas City’s first pick of the draft four out of five times is based on the best (top) player available, and only once did they select based on their primary draft need (DE).  The Philadelphia Eagles selections are based on need three out of five times, when they are able to take Dee Milliner.  Otherwise their selection was Damontre Moore.  Here are the complete simulation results for the Eagles:

PI5

Even though the top five picks across each of the five simulations are relatively consistent, I should note that there is even further variation when the simulations are run ten, fifteen, twenty times and so on.  For example, some additional simulations have the Eagles selecting Chance Warmack, Bjoern Werner, and Luke Joekel, depending on the “decisions” made by teams before them.  Further variations can be made when the prospect rankings and team need priorities are adjusted, but these make the results no less interesting to look at.

Granted, there are more variables at play than a mathematical coin flip can determine.  Ultimately though, Chaos Theory demonstrates that the NFL Draft cannot be predicted.  The Draft is simply too chaotic a mathematical system that relies too much on uncertainty (in fact, that’s a principle).  But this isn’t anything new.  Thousands still try to predict outcomes and fail to varying degrees, but hell, that doesn’t mean it ain’t fun.

**If you would like to play around with the simulation, here you go: 2013 NFL Draft Simulation.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).  Jerome’s Friend is not a mathematician, just an Eagles fan.

The [Mis-]Re-Education of Michael Vick

It is a phrase often overused in football, but in this case it’s appropriate. According to Jerome, Randall Cunningham “has damn eyes in the back of his damn head.” How else to explain what he did to Bruce Smith and the Buffalo Bills on a cold and bright sunny day in December twenty-two years ago? The 80,000 Buffalo fans at Rich Stadium were deafening. The Eagles faced a third-and-fourteen from their own five yard line, and Smith smelled blood. As Cunningham took the ball from center, Smith sprinted from his end position, Cunningham’s blind side, and was forced eight yards deep in the endzone. But from there he had a clear shot at an unsuspecting Cunningham, who was forced by surrounding pressure to sit in the pocket. Smith quickly circled around, and like a heat-seeking missile targeted Cunningham’s lower back… he had him, a sure safety. Then he didn’t! Cunningham’s six-feet-four-inch frame suddenly became three-feet-two as he leaned forward and ducked down with surprising quickness. Smith’s left arm grazed Cunningham’s flattened back as Smith’s momentum carried him past the quarterback. Just as quickly did Cunningham recompose, set his feet below his tall, gangly frame and sprint left. He found enough space to recoil his right arm and launch a 60-yard bomb against the wind to an ill-covered Fred Barnett who caught the ball and raced forty-five yards for the touchdown. Cunningham could not have seen the rush from Smith behind him, could not have heard any warning. It was an amazing play, and seldom has a Hall-of-Famer such as Smith been victimized so thoroughly.
***
It’s probably understated that Chip Kelly has a challenge ahead of him. Yes he’s the brand new head coach of a billion dollar franchise with as demanding and passionate a fan base as exists on Earth (his new car smell still lingers). Yet he also inherited this Michael Vick guy, a player who, by Kelly’s own definition, does not seem to fit his offense. But Kelly and Roseman did the right thing. They needed to restructure Vick’s contract to keep him in town for just a bit longer. It would be incredibly foolish of Kelly to release Vick so quickly without even catching a glimpse of what he can do in a Kelly-style offense (whatever that may be). But as maddening as Vick’s play can be, there is no denying the talent. For Kelly, there exists opportunity to harness that talent, to focus it, to teach him and to succeed where others before him have failed. Because others before him have indeed failed.

Vick had struggled to learn the NFL game. After he was drafted by Atlanta, head coach Dan Reeves recognized that Vick struggled to call plays in the huddle. According to Reeves, “It’s kind of like getting an A in Spanish, and then you go to Spain and realize you don’t know anything.” But like Buddy Ryan did with Cunningham, the tendency was to let Vick play his game, to let his athleticism and electricity take over. A tendency that carried through to Jim Mora’s years as head coach. Then, after Vick’s incarceration, he came to Philadelphia. Andy Reid was determined to teach Vick how to play within the system. Is it a coincidence then, given Vick’s NFL history, that his level of play decreased as his exposure to the system increased? Vick’s first year as a starter in Philadelphia was more representative of Vick’s raw athletic, un-caged talent, while subsequent seasons revealed Vick’s flaws as a quarterback who is required to work within a structured offense.

Historian and educator Carter G. Wilson wrote in 1933 that, “old men talk of what they have done, young men of what they are doing, and fools of what they expect to do.” This quote applies quite appropriately to Vick. Too often does Vick talk of what he is expected to do and not often enough does he actually do it. Case in point, those ribs of his. At this stage of his career, they must be sewn, stitched, and duct-taped to his chest plate When he rolls out of bed, they crack and crimp as he pushes this one back over here, that one back over there. It’s admirable that his tolerance for pain must rival that of Wolverine’s (coincidence… this is my second X-Men reference), but his ribs are a product of his fearless style of play. Well, fearless for some; stupid for others. Too many times has Vick been told to slide. He’s been told by teammates, by coaches, by the President of the United States. Vick has been told many things.

In many ways, Michael Vick is Randall Cunningham. When Marion Campbell was coach of the Eagles, he hired a consultant, Sid Gillman, to work with Cunningham on learning the game. According to Merrill Reese, “Sid once gave Randall a film with a piece of paper in the film about a quarter of the way through it. The next day Randall brought the film back. Sid asked if he watched it, and Randall told him that he did and that he learned from it. Sid took the film and saw the paper in the exact same spot.” Similarly, when Vick was with Atlanta, Jim Mora would send Vick home with DVDs of game film. Vick admitted in a 2010 interview with Mora that, “The DVDs would pile up in my car.” Both Cunningham and Vick are athletic, electrifying, human highlight reels capable of beating teams with their feet. Both are atop the career quarterback rushing list, both have similar QB ratings, and sack percentages. And both have never won a Super Bowl.

It’s not so much that Vick has been mis-educated, but more that he has been re-educated too often, ineffectively. Vick is kind of like a computer with conflicting layers of subroutines, each one trying to correct the errors of the one before. On one level, it’s understandable. There is no single way to play football, no single way to learn an offense, no single way to read a defense. Each coach, each team, each philosophy, each play is as unique as the captain commanding the line of scrimmage. And Vick has had many coaches. During his six years in Atlanta, Vick had five combinations of head coaches and offensive coordinators, all of which came during his first four years in the league. In eleven seasons, Vick will have seven different pairs of head coaches and offensive coordinators. So as he embarks on yet another chapter, he needs to delete what he has learned previously, not merely set aside for later recollection.

Chip Kelly considers himself and his staff good teachers. If this is the case then Vick can serve as a great reward, that is, if he can be re-educated effectively. If Michael Vick is going to remain an Eagle, Kelly needs to balance delicately Vick’s inherent desire to be unleashed with the need for Vick to play within a structured system. It’s possible that Kelly is the right man for the job. For Vick’s sake, he better be. With the Eagles’ signing of QB Dennis Dixon and Vick’s restructured contract, Vick will not only be vying for a starting spot, he could be playing for a roster spot. As this process plays out, Kelly needs to recognize that Philadelphia doesn’t want another Randall Cunningham, a player capable of incredible individual performances. No, instead Philadelphia wants a Super Bowl.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).

In Billy Davis, Chip Kelly Hires his Jim Johnson

Cameras often caught Jim Johnson on the sideline peering at his defense, smacking those lips.  After making his call, he had an emotionless poker face, but also a subconscious tell.  Those smacking lips meant that he had a full house, aces over queens, that he was all in and the house was a’comin’.   A linebacker in the gap, a safety on the wing, a cornerback in hiding, all could chase at once, and those smacking lips let you know it.  Jim Johnson had a reputation for chasing the quarterback.  He knew that if you applied enough consistent pressure, the guy receiving the ball from the center will be forced to make mistakes.  He knew this because he was a defensive convert, a quarterback himself and a damn good one for the University of Missouri.  How many times did I eat dirt or toss a duck because of pressure, he thought.  Most quarterbacks respond negatively to pressure, so Johnson was going to salivate at the opportunity, smack those lips, and bring it.  Of course with the Eagles, he became one of the most revered defensive coordinators in the league and a coach the team still has not replaced with any semblance of success.  However, with news that Chip Kelly has hired Browns linebacker coach Billy Davis as defensive coordinator, the Eagles may be able to fill that void.

It’s easy to forget, but when Johnson was hired by Andy Reid to command his defense, Johnson’s resume was far from pretty.  It was indeed rather ugly.  As defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, his 1996 unit ranked 18th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed (28th in sacks, 26th in takeaways), and his ’97 squad ranked 27th in points allowed (22nd in sacks, 24th in takeaways).  After being fired following that 1997 campaign, he became linebacker coach for the Seahawks, where his 1998 Seattle defense ranked 27th in total yards allowed.  Johnson became available to Reid only because he was let go from Seattle’s coaching staff after Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren took over the team.  His hire in Philadelphia wasn’t extremely popular (not surprising, given his results), and eerily, much of the same reaction heard then you can apply now to Chip Kelly’s hiring of Billy Davis.

In a January 23, 1999 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Phil Sheridan wrote after Reid’s hire of Johnson that a few patterns emerged regarding Reid’s staff: “First, it is clear that Philadelphia is not the NFL’s No. 1 hot spot these days. Second, Reid has hired solid and hard-working coaches with reputations as decent guys. They may not be as glamorous or well-known to fans as other candidates, but they are well-respected.”  Sheridan added, “While the exact order of Reid’s wish list for various positions isn’t known, there are signs he has had to settle for second and third choices. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t gotten good coaches, just that the process has been more difficult.”  However, Andy Reid’s comments on Johnson at the time served as an accurate allusion, “The Seahawks actually hired Jim last year for his expertise with the fire-zone principles.  That’s part of the package I’m talking about.  He’s able to combine fire-zone concepts with base concepts, with blitzes, with two-gap and penetration techniques up front.  He’s able to take that whole package and make it work.”  Make it work, did he ever.

It’s interesting though, the comparisons that can be drawn between Davis and Johnson.  Davis is also a former quarterback (University of Cincinnati), a defensive convert who has come to the Eagles as a linebacker coach (Cleveland) by way of defensive coordinator (Arizona and San Francisco) with an unimpressive resume.  As defensive coordinator in San Francisco, Davis’ units ranked no better than 26th in yards allowed.  In Arizona, they ranked no better than 15th in points allowed.  But as Cleveland’s linebacker coach in 2011, he helped develop a top ten unit (5th in points allowed, 10th in yards allowed).  It’s fair to say, however, that Davis’ teams have not always been the most talented, or that results have been circumstantial at best, belittled by politics or riddled by injury.  What needs to be clear is that Kelly did not settle for Davis any more than Reid settled for Johnson.  It’s easy to imagine Chip Kelly hiring a well-known, more glamorous A-lister: a Lovie Smith, a Monte Kiffin, or a Bud Carson back from the dead.  But too often in the NFL does success on one team not translate to another.  And too often does a lack of success on one team reap future success on another.  Each decision is a calculated gamble based on the hand dealt.  What’s important is ensuring the decision is the right one.  Billy Davis is not yet Jim Johnson, but Davis has been an NFL grinder, a football lifer, a hard-working, well-respected coach with experience teaching both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses.  In Davis, Kelly has hired someone to facilitate his vision, just as Reid’s hire of Johnson did the same.

On a Sunday afternoon in South Philadelphia, Davis will have his chance to peer at his defense from the Eagles sideline and call his play.  It could be a play based on what he learned when he, like Johnson, was a quarterback.  That quarterback will never be able to read this defense, he might think.  It’s unknown yet whether he is a lip smacker, a mad scientist, or an Eagles-legend-to-be, but if Kelly is correct and history gives any indication, Davis should be a decent poker player who is charged with shuffling the deck.  It would help if the Eagles could also stack it.  That way, if Davis possesses a tell like Johnson’s, it too won’t matter.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).

Chip Kelly Supplies the Nails for Michael Vick’s Coffin

“If you are going to stand for something, it is not what you say it is. It is what people see in your actions. People should be able to come, observe you, and in five minutes know what you stand for.” ~Chip Kelly

If you have not yet read Chip Kelly’s white paper “Efficient Use of Practice Time”, you must. It provides incredible insight into the mind of the Eagles head coach. Ironically, the paper itself, published in July 2012 and based on his Oregon Ducks team, is less efficient than the title suggests (it includes more than just his thoughts on practice), but it is to the reader’s benefit. In it, Kelly also explains the role the quarterback plays in his offense. Since it appears Kelly and Howie Roseman are going to maximize their time with Michael Vick, at least through March 12th, it might be interesting to apply Kelly’s own words in order to examine Vick’s situation and potential outcome…

“Play fast, play hard, and finish.”

This is Kelly’s overarching philosophy. Michael Vick can indeed play fast and play hard. He plays with a warrior’s heart, with a reckless abandon, with the attitude of a repentant sinner fulfilling his penance as if each bone-crushing hit, each gut-rearranging blow he receives is deserved, leaving an impression on his soul. And therein lies the problem: that finishing part. The road to redemption is paved with good intentions, but Vick’s destination is not always reached. Too many times does he finish the play on his back, on his stomach, or on his side behind the line of scrimmage. This type of result violates a primary Kelly tenet, expounded multiple times in his paper:

“Every sack is the quarterback’s fault. It is not a sack if the quarterback throws the ball away. Nobody ever lost a game on an incomplete pass. Throw the ball away, and give us another opportunity to make a first down.”… “The job of a quarterback is simple. He has to ‘let it happen, and not make it happen.’ We want to move forward. That is a concept you have to make your team understand. The cardinal sin at our place is the quarterback sack. We want the ball out of the quarterback’s hands in 1.5 seconds. That does not mean holding the ball until 2.5, waiting for someone to get open.”…” The fastest time run at the NFL Scouting Combine for a 10-yard dash is between 1.5 to 1.7 seconds. That is without pads. My quarterback can get rid of the ball in that amount of time and complete a pass.”

In 2012, Vick was sacked 28 times through ten games, an increase in rate over 2011 when he was sacked 23 times through thirteen games. Granted, many of those sacks were a result of an injury-plagued and porous offensive line. But as Nick Foles showed later in the season, it was still possible to drop back and release in rhythm with essentially the same protection. Vick’s proclivity to extend the play and force something to happen may be the tipping point. Combine his interceptions and fumbles lost during the 2011-2012 seasons and Vick has turned over the ball 33 times in 23 games. These results have cost the Eagles opportunities for first downs and touch downs (see turnovers, red zone) and disagree vigorously with Kelly’s philosophy (in comparison, Oregon quarterbacks have thrown for a total of 32 interceptions in four seasons from 2009-2012). Many of Vick’s turnovers are caused by his desire to run, either behind the line of scrimmage or beyond it, but Kelly may not necessarily share that same desire:

“In a quarterback, I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw. I want the quarterback who can beat you with his arm. If the defense forces him to run, he can do it effectively.”

Aside from a few dazzling performances during the 2010 season, Vick can never be attributed with the ability to beat a team with his arm. He may certainly be capable, but his legs, speed, and quickness are his primary weapons. Now that Vick is 33 years-old, those primary weapons are in the decline. Regardless, Vick may better represent Kelly’s “running back who can throw” rather than his “quarterback who can run.” If Andy Reid, the Developer of Quarterbacks, was unable to develop the quarterbacking skills of Vick, then it’s doubtable Chip Kelly can. But there is one final nail Kelly provides for Michael Vick’s coffin, and it’s what he said during his introductory press conference:

“One of the best qualities in a quarterback is durability.”

Michael Vick’s lack of durability caused by selfless play has become the stuff of legend. Given that he has played 16 games a season once (2006), missed nine games in the last two seasons, and suffered a severe concussion (and thus will be more likely to suffer another), he clearly should not be a comfortable choice for Coach Kelly. So aside from Kelly’s choice of defensive coordinator, his decision to keep Vick on the roster will be a defining one. He has already endeared himself to fans by serving as the refreshing breeze in an otherwise intolerable evening. However, by his own admission Kelly is not a personnel guy, though in reality he will provide Roseman with a fair degree of influence. Now we will find out how his actions reveal to us the kind of man he is, more so than any words typed on white paper. Will Kelly play the unpredictable, hypocritical nut, or the man of stern conviction? The choice seems clear enough… so endear the fans further.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).