With the Eagles’ season opener against Washington barely more than a week away, fans are anxious after a puzzling game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gus Bradley’s team seemed to baffle Philadelphia with their slants and stunts on defense, while Chad Henne (the backup quarterback of this 2-14 team) dissected the Eagles on an opening drive as the Birds gave up a long, far-too-easy touchdown run for the second time this preseason.
As Tommy Lawlor wrote in his epic, 8,000-word detailed game review, it was an
“uneven performance that left you both encouraged and worried. There was a point in the game when it felt like 2012 all over again. Vick was making some bad mistakes. Bryce Brown fumbled. Damaris Johnson fumbled. The defense had breakdowns that led to TDs. Offensive drives stalled in the Red Zone. Crucial penalties wiped out a couple of big plays. Ugh.”
Chip Kelly, the mastermind play caller, kept going back to an Andy Reid-style drop-back pass again and again, like a rock-paper-scissors player calling Rock 20 times in a row. Kelly used Bart Simpson on a play card, to the consternation of too-serious sportswriters everywhere, but in this case Bart is not right: rock does not beat everything. At halftime, the Eagles trailed 17-16 and, even worse for Chip, led in time of possession; only two late drives by backup quarterback Nick Foles pulled out the victory.
So the question on every fans’ mind is: Was this strange game plan more Oregon trickeration by Chip, hiding his real plans for the regular season? Or do the Eagles just suck?
There is a lot of evidence for each answer.
The Eagles closed practices to the press last week, not long before roster cuts began, and the retro play calling led to the natural conclusion that Kelly didn’t want to hand his playbook to players just about to head out of the building (and didn’t want to give any extra videotape study materials to Washington and other regular season opponents).
Philadelphia did show a lot of the Doublestack play, a sort of “slot single stack” and some four-tight-end looks in his first two games. Then again, Kelly is devious enough to plant a play as film bait for opponents to focus on, especially if the concepts and moves can be used in other contexts. He used the Doublestack many times at Oregon, but he also went seasons without using it, too. Bottom line: who knows? But don’t think that what you’ve seen so far will enable you to predict what the Eagles will do on offense this year.
There are also reasons to think that Philadelphia’s struggles against Jacksonville reflected just being a bad team. The fumbleitis and red zone ineffectiveness of last year’s Eagles returned, causing PTSD symptoms to break out among diehard fans.
The defense was even scarier. Kelly had a serious of superb defensive backs at Oregon, from Jairus Byrd to Cliff Harris (in his one brilliant season) and now Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. (Start learning how to say Ifo’s name now, NFL pundits.) Chip may not realize how crucial that has been to his success — not so much in preventing long passes, given the limits of college passing games, as in limiting long runs and yards-after-catch. In the NFL, you need run pluggers AND you face the world’s best passers. Already, the Iggles have given up numerous 8-10 yard runs and two embarrassingly long touchdowns: LeGarrette Blount cutting back twice in slow motion for 51 yards, and Jordan Todman (who?) skittering 63 yards right through the center of the defense. When actual starting quarterbacks are playing, and able to carve this defense up for long and medium passes, it could get very ugly, very quickly.
So, Oregon trickeration or Eagles’ suckage? The sad fact is, the answer might be both.
The good news is that the Eagles showed an ability to correct mistakes during the game, as Lawlor noted, which Oregon fans will recall as a Chip Kelly trademark. It was not rare for the Ducks to come out flat for a quarter or even the first half, especially in 2010, but halftime adjustments always worked in Oregon’s favor. Star rookie tackle Lane Johnson, in particular, got beat early but absorbed those lessons even by the second quarter; his football intelligence is extremely encouraging.
Special teams play continues to be excellent and drastically improved, despite a peculiar fumble by Damaris Johnson on one punt return.
Johnson was outstanding otherwise; in the second quarter alone, he ran back a kickoff 61 yards and had a 37-yard punt return that might have gone to the house, except that the punter grabbed his face mask (through a block) in desperation. Both plays led to field goals.
There’s improvement on the other side, too. Kelly nabbed Donnie Jones, a free agent who had the NFL’s 11th-best punt average last year; he’s third in the NFL so far this year in net average (4 or more punts). Kelly also taught veteran kicker Alex Henery how to quicken his stride, with the result that he’s now booting kickoffs deep into the end zone and stifling most runbacks. Under Andy Reid, special teams work came after the “regular” practice ended; Kelly brought ST work back into the heart of practices and emphasizes it.
Finally, Nick Foles’ two fourth-quarter scoring drives against Jacksonville were precise and masterful, nailing down the meaningless win and leaving fans very excited. The pace of these drives was very interesting. The first started with 12:21 left in the fourth quarter and the Eagles down by 8 points; they ran a fast no-huddle and scored a touchdown in 1:44. The second drive was different though. The Eagles had momentum and felt confident, though they started at their own one-yard line. They ran the no-huddle again but made no effort to hurry or stop the clock. Quite the contrary; this was a no-huddle, clock-killing drive.
There’s a misconception that the no-huddle is all about scoring quickly but that’s true only in the two-minute drill (the only time most teams run it.) The real goal of the no-huddle is to put pressure on the defense; force them to react quickly and stick to vanilla defenses, while staying with the same players whenever possible to prevent defensive substitutions. By the time the Eagles ran in a 2-point conversion, only 2:12 was left for the Jaguars to attempt a winning drive. Chip did this at Oregon too, famously against Cal in 2010; the Bears punted with 9:25 left in the fourth quarter, down by two, and Oregon’s slow drive had only reached the Cal 15 when time expired.
The Eagles made their first round of roster cuts on Sunday, a couple of days early, and there were no real surprises. The biggest name was Kenny Phillips, the once-great safety who just showed nothing throughout training camp. In fact, he rarely even made it onto the field. It’s sad that his injuries took so much out of him, but when a player of his talent can’t make it past the first cut on a team as desperate for backfield help as the Eagles are, he’s done.
Being weekly, this column can only give an overview of the Eagles, and deadlines can be difficult. (For example, this piece was due before the final preseason game against the Jets, though it will only appear after the game is done.) If you want more up-to-the-minute coverage, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@Taoish). Also, I wrote two in-depth pieces recently for different Eagles blogs that drill down into specific areas. The first, at IgglesBlitz.com, looks at the differences between Chip Kelly’s practices in Oregon and Philadelphia; the second, for Bleeding Green Nation, breaks down the Time of Possession issue.
Mark Saltveit’s best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at the Oregon Ducks Stores in Portland, Eugene and Bend, the Multnomah Athletic Club M-Porium in Portland, various bookstores in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/
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Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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