The NFL has come a long way. So has Alec Halaby.
When the Eagles first hired Halaby as an intern in 2007, analytics were in their infancy stage in the football world. But over the past decade and a half, the use of this data has become more common as the Harvard graduate has climbed the Eagles’ ladder.
Halaby’s most recent promotion came last year when he got the title of assistant general manager. He’s one of two assistant GMs under Howie Roseman and it might not be long before he’s a GM himself.
In his years in the NFL, Halaby has seen the use of analytics become way more accepted in previously old-school football circles.
“Yeah, definitely,” Halaby said in a rare interview with Eagles beat reporters on Friday morning. “I think it’s followed the trajectory probably in the outer world that you see in business and other sports as well. Baseball and basketball were certainly ahead of us in a lot of this stuff. But, yes, there’s definitely been more acceptance over time.
“But I would say that football coaches, by nature, are very empirical. They have always broken down tendencies, they have always analyzed opponents, they may not call it analytics but it’s always been a part of the process for coaches for literally 50 years if you look at guys in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. I think perception here is that it’s really followed the trajectory in baseball and basketball. As the data gets bigger, as it gets more informative, as it gets more granular, then people understand it can help them and it’s not trying to displace anything. You’re trying to help yourself make better decisions.”
As one of the Eagles’ assistant general managers — the others is former VP of football operations and compliance Jon Ferrari — Halaby’s responsibilities extend beyond analytics. He works with pro and college scouts, with the salary cap department, sports performance, a bunch of different areas. But his bread and butter has always been analytics and he still does a ton of his work in that department.
Halaby admits he encountered a bit of resistance early in his Eagles career when it came to the use analytics. That was to be expected. While Halaby played football at the high school level, he didn’t play in college, didn’t play in the pros and so he came from an unusual background.
The good news for Halaby is that Roseman, years before him, came from an unusual background too, before climbing the ladder all the way to the GM job. And he gave Halaby, who said he emailed his resume to all 32 teams, a chance.
It also helps that it’s not just Roseman who has backed Halaby in his years in the NFL. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has always been eager for the Eagles to be forward-thinking. He wants his organization to be on the cutting edge of everything. So it was a natural marriage.
“Yeah, I think there are probably buildings where (analytics) people feel less heard,” Halaby said. “But the way Howie and Jeffrey operate, they’re data-driven people. They’ve instilled the culture here. This is a place where people, regardless of your perspective, whether you’re really analytical or purely not, I think people feel heard here.”
The resistance Halaby found early didn’t always follow a pattern; it wasn’t just the young guys liked the data and the older guys didn’t. Basically, Halaby’s mission early on — and still today — is to help in the evaluation process and show how this data can help. On the flip side, he said some of the best analytical inquiries have come from coaching staffs and not just head coaches.
While there were reports a couple years ago about friction between Halaby and former head coach Doug Pederson, Halaby insisted on Friday that it was a “productive relationship” between the two.
Halaby isn’t just a numbers guy. He grinds game tape too and credits former offensive and defensive line coaches Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn for helping him feel at home early in his time in the NFL. For Halaby, it’s important to get all the data possible and marry the numbers with what the Eagles are seeing on film.
Early on in his career, his job was the bridge the gap between the tape and the numbers. For the most part, the Eagles are now functioning at a higher level with those two sides working together. But the rest of the league is catching up.
And as other NFL teams use analytics more and more, the search to gain an edge continues. It’s not just on Halaby, but he’s one of the people in the Eagles’ front office leading the charge.
“It is just a continuous process of looking for the next edge,” he said. “That’s true in business, that’s true in baseball, that’s true in basketball. I don’t know if it’s more or less challenging. It gets more interesting. And some of the low-hanging fruit that was there 15 years ago when we started isn’t there anymore. Everyone has jumped to that frontier. But it’s more of an intellectual challenge.”
One area Halaby pinpointed as a possible growth area of analytics? Player tracking data.
That data is just 5 or 6 years old in the NFL and based on the trajectory from baseball and basketball, Halaby explained it can take some time to “develop really specific, finely-tuned metrics” to use with that data.
“I think every team is trying to do it,” Halaby said. “But I think our understanding of the game will continue to grow as we spend more time with that data.”
The Eagles spend a ton of time with data and they have for years. Halaby is a big reason why.