In Super Bowl LII, the never-before-Super-Bowl-Champion, Philadelphia Eagles faced the dreaded New England Patriots. The Patriots have won five Super Bowls with Coach Bill Belichick and all-star quarterback Tom Brady. The Eagles were a blue-collar underdog to the supermodel-marrying Patriots.
Final Score: Philadelphia Eagles 41 – New England Patriots 33
How did the underdog Eagles defeat the well-oiled machine that was the New England Patriots, without their starting quarterback no less?
Well, the Eagles have one of the youngest General Managers in the National Football League, Howie Roseman. He has been the GM since 2010 with a year or two break in the middle of the Chip Kelly experiment. Obviously, the Eagles are a team and no one person is responsible for their success. But as GM for most of this decade, Roseman is the architect of this team and it’s culture.
He recently did an interview with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that you can watch on YouTube.
Thinking in Bets
Listening to this discussion, I was reminded of a good book I had read recently – Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by poker champion Annie Duke.
I wrote a review of it here.
As a champion poker player, she had honed her decision making skills. In poker, unlike chess, much of the information that is useful is hidden. In chess, you have complete knowledge of your opponents position and capabilities. In poker, many of the cards are hidden and even at the end of the game the cards are not all revealed. In poker, you cannot know if you won with luck or skill for certain in any given hand.
Poker is more like real life decision making.
In making decisions where there is significant uncertainty, like poker or NFL player projections, you cannot just judge your decision based on the outcome because there is uncertainty as to whether luck or skill drove the outcome. You have to focus on process and outcomes over time, not any one set of outcomes.
You have to “think in bets” or think probabilistically. The big key is to focus on making a series of good bets that over time should work.
This interview covered a lot of ground so I will try and summarize some of the ideas.
Use Analysis and Logic to Drive Decisions
He uses traditional scouting but in conjunction with advanced analytics. They have researched quite carefully what is value relative to salary caps. They have researched which positions to invest cap dollars in and which to not.
They are investing heavily in wearable tracking and data analysis. The players wear trackers in practice that measure all the spatial movements. By doing this, they can track player performance from practice to practice. They can see small changes and trends in behavior to proactively address injuries and fatigue. They can optimize practice schedules based on data not tradition.
He also emphasizes having parallel paths of data and analysis to reduce the influence of bias in his decision making.
Roseman is clear that his job is to make good bets that over time will lead to good outcomes. He uses data mixed with traditional football information to drive those good bets.
There is a lot of analysis to suggest that trading away a lot of draft picks to trade up and take a player is a bad bet. Yet the Eagles under Roseman did just that in drafting Carson Wentz at quarterback. Why would they do that?
Well, they know that having a high level quarterback is pretty much a prerequisite for championship level success in the pass heavy NFL. Also, quarterbacks are the leaders of a team. They touch the ball on every offensive play. They make critical decisions over and over again on the field. The reason they drafted Carson Wentz is that he checked every culture box on work ethic and personal responsibility at the most important position the whole team.
You Can’t Just Be a Logical, Data-driven Machine, Relationships Matter
Roseman is clearly very data-driven yet he went out of his way to build relationships within his organization. Roseman has been with the Eagles for many years and he has worked at developing a culture not just a data center.
When he was a young staff member, he knew Head Coach Andy Reid liked good food. So he went out of his way to bring Reid great pizza to develop a relationship with Reid at a higher level than most junior staff.
He would also take on less glamorous duties just to build relationships. When assistant coaches go scouting they may need to be driven around. Roseman would volunteer to chauffeur assistant coaches around just to pick their brains and develop rapport.
All of his efforts paid off with a great win over a vaunted opponent on sports’ biggest stage in dramatic fashion.
But I bet he is not focused on that outcome. I bet he is still focused on process and making good bets.
This story is more good evidence that success requires a blend of logical decision-making and solid interpersonal skills.