Chip Kelly got his first win, 14-9 against Carolina Friday, and answered a lot of the questions surrounding his radical makeover of the Eagles. Anxiety among fans and sportswriters turned into swelling excitement as the offense moved into high gear, showing a stout front line against the Panther’s powerful rush and demonstrating some of the deceptively simple flex-plays that Chip will run in the NFL.
The news on defense was even better, as the fresh-poured cement in this team’s foundation started to harden. The Eagles shut down the Panther run game and repeatedly pressured Cam Newton (who ran for only 5 yards) while the secondary looked at least competent, a major improvement from last year. A nasty pass rush can cover up a lot of soft coverage, and with this team, they’ll need it to.
Overall, the Panthers were 4 for 14 on third down and didn’t score up a TD in 2 red zone visits. If the defense had forced some turnovers — none yet in two games, though Brandon Boykin dropped one he should have had — and the offense didn’t give up two of them in scoring position, the Eagles would have won by a lot more than five points.
Three days later, the coach confirmed what everyone had already seen on the field: that Michael Vick was the Eagles’ starting quarterback. Nick Foles has been very impressive through training camp, completing 78% of passes and moving Kelly’s no-huddle offense efficiently, but Vick is even better — 86% completion rate, good reads of the defense, and smart choices on QB runs. The surprise is that Vick’s biggest advantage over Foles — besides leadership — has been taking care of the ball better. After two terrible years with more TOs than TDs, Vick only gave up one INT, on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half. Foles had three turnovers, though he consistently was able to break off runs
Kelly’s QB competition, which baffled so many reporters, worked perfectly. The Eagles now have two quarterbacks not only playing at a high level, but already adapted to the Eagles’ new offense. Vick has adapted better than anyone imagined to this new system; a guy who completed 60% of his preseason passes only once in ten years is pushing 90% under Chip, and he’s protecting the ball very well. Foles, in only his second year, knows he can run the fast-paced offense despite his lack of running speed. He also knows that Vick has played all 16 games only once in his career, and is 32; he is the heir apparent by 2015 at the latest, and possibly as soon as the first time Vick refuses to slide at the end of a keeper.
There is a lot of work left to do. The defense in particular seems to fade as you move back from the line of scrimmage: the line looks strong, with third round pick Bennie Logan especially impressive at multiple positions, possibly even challenging Isaac Sopoaga for the starting nose tackle job. Linebackers are more hit or miss, especially on the outside, and the secondary looks about as solid as Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety. It might work, but ….
This is a team in a massive overhaul racing to pull it all together by September 9th. The leaps forward they took against Carolina are very encouraging in all three phases of the game — special teams even more than offense and defense, though kicker Alex Henery has looked suddenly erratic both in games and practice, which is odd for the guy who has made 87.9% of his 58 NFL FG attempts, and holds the NFL Rookie record for accuracy.
In a couple of cases, we simply don’t know if there is an issue of bad attitude, or players are just coasting through the preseason. In Cary (“Sconce Boy”) Williams’ first game under Chip, he played off his receivers and gave up a number of completions. And while everyone from sportswriters to Chip has been raving DeSean “Superball” Jackson’s new attitude and dedication to weight-lifting, I saw some disturbing signs in the Carolina tape.
Far from looking for downfield blocks when his number wasn’t called, Jackson didn’t even run out his routes at full speed consistently. When he trots through his paces, this lets linebackers shift to the middle and safeties pull in. Jackson is such a deep threat that he can really stretch a defense vertically, often pulling both a cornerback and a safety away from the play, but only if he runs out his patterns with full intensity. On another play, a screen on 2nd-and-14, Jason Avant would have picked up the first down had Jackson held his block on Josh Thomas, who broke free and undercut Avant after ten yards.
Similarly, on a first and ten with 9:40 remaining in the first, Riley Cooper finished his route and then casually trotted toward the run, where Chris Polk had burst through the first level and was pressing for a first down. I don’t know if Cooper could have reached CB Drayton Florence in time to block his initial contact, but it was certainly worth a try, and Polk might well have cut back around his approaching teammate to make it work. Cooper definitely could have prevented Panther safety Godfrey Charles (#30) from slamming Polk right at the end of the play, if he hadn’t been just standing there, watching and actually backing away from the scrum.
These are things that can be fixed — with effective coaching and desire to change by the players. I’m confident the Eagles will have the first of these. If they get both, this will be a very dangerous team.
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In my book, The Tao of Chip Kelly, I quoted Charles Fischer on how Darron Thomas demonstrated the power of Chip Kelly’s offense. (That interview led to me writing this column for FishDuck, as it turns out.) FishDuck’s point was that Thomas led the Ducks to the national championship game in his first season starting, and a Rose Bowl victory his second, despite not having enough talent to make an NFL roster after he went pro early. (He joined the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League last year — but only on the practice squad.)
Well, DT has finally made the roster of a pro football team: the Lincoln Haymakers of the Champions Professional Indoor Football League. (It’s never a good sign when you have to put the word Professional in your league’s name, just to make sure that everyone is clear about that.)
Thomas hopes to help the Haymakers compete against league powerhouses including the Sioux City Bandits, the Salina Bombers and the Omaha Beef. (Quick — what state is Salina in? I wasn’t sure either.) He shouldn’t get too comfortable though. The team’s press release makes it clear that “Thomas will compete in camp this winter to earn the starting job,” in true Chip Kelly fashion.
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/