A Harvard graduate, Alec Halaby has long had a passion for football. He was a high school quarterback growing up in Madison, Wisc. who happened to have a passion for numbers, data, analytics. Halaby was in on the ground floor of interest, following metrics legends like Bill James and John Hollinger.
With the explosion in analytics in sports over the course of the last several years, Hallaby gnawed at Eagles general manager Howie Roseman's elbow with a persistent flurry of emails and phone calls and a determined pitch: He wanted a shot to show that he could provide enough information to the Eagles that came from non-traditional avenues that they would consider bringing him on board.
"He didn't give up," said Roseman. "You see that somebody from Harvard is interested in working for you, in paying dues, and you take notice. Alec is a very impressive guy with a bright future. He wanted to pay his dues and start from the ground up."
An intern for two seasons, Halaby is now a special assistant to Roseman, having earned full-time status in 2012. His job description is to assist and advise Roseman on decisions pertaining to football operations, including player evaluation and roster management.
What that means is that Halaby has an open forum to give his data to Roseman and the rest of the scouting department and the football operations staff for them to consider. He is sent to work on projects and he is free to deliver his own data. Halaby is also learning the game and the personnel side of things by watching film, and he has grand plans in this great sport, but with the wave of analytics sweeping the sports world, Halaby has more than a cool niche going.
He's on the cutting edge in a sport that hasn't fully explored analytics as much as, say, baseball and basketball have.
"Football is a very complex system. It's 11 on 11, so it's a hard thing to analyze," said Halaby. "Naturally, the game is a little more resistant to the analytical approaches. There isn't as much one-on-one interaction as there is when you have a pitcher versus a batter. In football, you're dealing with so many moving parts. It's like any complex problem. It evolves over time.
"One of the exciting things is that a lot of it is still evolving. If you look at baseball, it's really mature. Almost every team is doing it and there are some established baselines. Football is not that mature in terms of the analytical angle, and the quantitative measures. There's a runway there. There's some room to grow."
The Eagles have suddenly become as technology savvy as any team in the league, what with the hiring of Chip Kelly and his ways as the head coach, but the truth is that Roseman has been looking for any edge he can find for years. That's why Halaby is here, and why he has the ear of every evaluator and decision maker.
There is "magic bullet," says Halaby, to determine a player's value. They have those values in baseball (WAR -- Wins Above Replacement) and in basketball (Player Efficiency Rating) but not yet in the NFL. That's why a handful of teams employ bright minds like Halaby, to integrate today's world of numbers with the tried-and-true method of player evaluation.
"It's a way to try to make you better," said Tom Donahoe, the team's senior football advisor who has been in the NFL for decades and who was the director of football operations in Pittsburgh from 1991-99 and then the the general manager in Bufffalo from 2001-2005. "Now, Alec is at a whole other level intellectually from me and I can't talk about a lot of what he's doing, but I know a lot of teams are going to that. It's really another metric, it's another measurement, it's another way to try to get better.
"It's like Coach Kelly with some of the scientific stuff that he does. It's another way to try to make you better, so how could you not embrace that and how could you not feel that we can try this. If you can get better using metrics or using technology or using science, why wouldn't you look at it? We would be stupid not to do that.
Roseman sees how analytics is taking greater control over not just the world of sports, but business around the globe. Information gathering is the key to success in all aspects of life and the NFL is no different.
Halaby, then, has earned the respect of those around him, even if those around him are used to writing on paper with pencils.
"If we're looking at signing a player or if we are looking at any sort of big decision, I'll just tell him about the decision making we're looking into and then I'll just let him come out with all of the information he can give us," said Roseman. "He's incredibly smart, he's got an incredible work ethic and he's got a good feel for the game. It's a big resource for us as a staff who's not sitting there saying, 'I just really loved the kid when I interviewed him.' Alex is really a safeguard for all of us."