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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Reflections on the Philadelphia Eagles' Season

Going into the season, fans were skeptical.

Things happen in threes, and for owner Jeffrey Lurie, he had jettisoned his longstanding president, Joe Banner, his coach, Andy Reid, and then his wife, Christina, trading all of them in for younger (and perhaps more innovative) models.

On the hotseat were Lurie, who, while having succeed, still hadn't won a Super Bowl, and GM Howie Rosenman, who had never played football and drew the criticism (sometimes scathing) from critics (had his name been Joe Smith, I wonder if he would have draw the bludgeoning he did so frequently and fervently).  But Rosenman and Lurie persisted in finding Reid's successor, remembering well the Human Resources adage that if you're going to replace someone good, you had better find someone who is better.  Well, Reid was good, it's just that most gave up on the fact that he could be great and win a Super Bowl.  The list of fired coaches looking for work was vast, but the Eagles persisted after being turned down originally and landed a four-year college head coach, then 49 year-old Chip Kelly, an offensive innovator from Oregon.  And they got their man.

And, of course, the skeptics came out again.  Would he just be "Joe College?"  Would he be able to adapt to the NFL, where the head coach is more of a benevolent dictator than the absolute strongman that he can make himself in college (who gets a scholarship, who gets the scholarship renewed, etc.).  Would his "Oregon" offense work in the NFL, without getting the quarterback (Michael Vick, he of many injuries) killed?  Would it work with a slow-footed Nick Foles, who presumably was not made for the Kelly offense?

Sure, the offensive line looked promising, the receiving corps solid and the starting running back a second coming of Barry Sanders.  But the defense was about as comforting as the thought of having Liechtenstein's national guard trying to prevent Tiger tanks from getting into eastern France, with the defensive backfield looking to be as effective as the Swiss Navy.  It's one thing to worry about your players' sleeping and eating habits, but regardless of all that, unless they can play, you're just creating higher-performing marginal players.  And then Kelly hired Billy Davis, a position coach from Cleveland, kind of a last man standing given media reports that others had turned him down.  Davis is no spring chicken, and Cleveland's defense did not evoke comparisons to the Steel Curtain or Purple People Eaters.  Sorry, but the legend of Jim Johnson still casts a big shadow, even if the first person anointed to succeed him (Sean McDermott) is now thriving in Carolina.

Going into the season, most fans thought that Kelly would run his system and fail because he didn't have the players to run it.  Oh, the Birds would go 6-10, re-load through new year's draft, and the move forward at an appropriate pace.  All conceded that Kelly would get a free pass this year -- as would any new coach.  All thought that the roster was so lacking that the Birds would struggle.  Few thought that this was a playoff team, although there were those who sized up the poor quality of divisional opponents with a favorable schedule could lead the Eagles on a path to eke out a division title.  But those people were in a distinct minority, kind of like the kind that votes for the Libertarian candidate in a Presidential election.

So what happened?

1.  Kelly refused to give the team an excuse to fail.  Some coaches would have taken the free pass, installed their system and struggled mightily because they didn't have the players.  But Kelly did not.  He knows full well that a strategy is flawed from the get go if you don't have the personnel to run it.  So, he made subtle changes on offense, that is, until Vick went down and he had to play Foles.  Foles is not a read-option QB in the pure sense, he's a pocket passer.  So Kelly morphed his offense to play to Foles' strengths, among them a) precision passing and b) good decision-making, as this QB is not a high-stakes gambler.  What resulted was a 27-2 TD-interceptions ratio that is the league's best ever and that gave Foles one of the top four QB ratings in league history.  That's the sign not only of an innovator, but, as importantly, a perceptive talent evaluator.  Sure, the fans knew that Foles couldn't run the Oregon offense, but Kelly had to admit it, change it up, and he excelled.

2.  Chemistry and leadership.  As to the former, the Birds had a crisis before the season started when a video went viral showing WR Riley Cooper using racial slurs at a security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert.  Immediately, that video divided the clubhouse.  How could it not have?  What Cooper said was awful.  But, pretty quickly, the Eagles' brass got on top of the crisis, Cooper apologize, and in an act of great leadership, Michael Vick spoke to the press (and presumably the team before that) and publicly forgave Foles, acknowledging that he himself had made mistakes, too.  Many thought that this crisis would mar the Eagles' season; instead, the team's ability to get past it helped galvanize the squad.

As for chemistry, Sal Palaontonio on ESPN reported a few weeks ago about the team's togetherness.  Apparently, many teams get Tuesday's off, but the Eagles go in for treatment in the morning and then, instead of going home, they watch film together.  Last year, the team seems off-kilter.  Reid, presumably, had his family distractions, and then he had a series of assistant coaching miscues dating back to the year before and ended up with at least one malcontented grizzled veteran, Jim Washburn.  The defense backs were expensive and lacking, including self-promoting high-priced corner Nmadi Asoumgha, who, in fairness, wasn't always deployed correctly, either.  Put simply, it was a mess.

This year, things seem to be calmer.  Talk radio isn't filled with people casting aspersions on Andy Reid, and the chorus of doubters about Howie Rosenman has diminished.  Weeks ago, the worries were more that Kelly would bolt for Texas to replace Mack Brown, although the debate as to whether Foles is a championship QB has persisted.  To Vick's credit, he has taken his demotion very well, grateful for the second chance that the Eagles gave him and confident that next year someone will want him as a starter.  He has more than deserved that chance.

3.  Everyone has calmed down.  It was time for the Reid era to end in Philadelphia.  He had become the Cradle of Liberty's Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill but never getting there.  He had his blind spots -- normally regarding good linebackers, but also regarding special teams, depth at certain positions and even defensive tackles (undersized and, at times, underachieving).  Once Reid departed and a GM took over part of his role, the conversations changed, but the first draft under Rosenman has proved to be pretty good, free agent signings a plus, and the Kelly signing a grand slam.  The team won the division, made the playoffs, got a home game, battled a future Hall of Fame QB (Drew Brees) and an outstanding coach (Sean Payton) almost to a draw, losing on a last-second field goal.  Yes, the Saints outplayed the Eagles, but the Eagles almost pulled the game out.

The fans have a lot to look forward to, especially when compared to those of any other team in the NFC East and perhaps all of those fans combined.  The skill positions are set, the offensive line good if slightly aging.  The defense needs work, as evidenced last night by poor play against the run.  The secondary held out this year, but next year they need to improve.  Ditto the entire defense (which played much better as the season moved along) and special teams.  One would figure that with a free agent signing or two and another draft, the Eagles will fortify themselves and further honor the vision that Chip Kelly has.  And, make no mistake, this coach has a vision.

Great season for the Eagles and their fans, made all the more special because of the degree to which they exceeded expectations.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Eagles also benefited a bit from playing the customary schedule of a team that finished 4-12 during the previous NFL season.

That being said, they played it well. Upgrade a couple key positions and they can win the East again.

Is there any chance Steve Spagnuolo would be willing to rejoin the Birds as DC?

10:16 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Agree on the schedule. That said, as the guys on ESPN say, "you play who you play." When they were 3-3, the teams that they beat had a combined record of 1-15, or something like that. Then, I wondered whether they were any good at all. As the season progressed, they got better, and the playoff game demonstrated that they are on the rise. Philly.com had an interesting article on where they need to upgrade, and you might want to check it out. As for DC, I doubt they'll make any changes to the coaching staff at this point.

5:00 AM  

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