In five short days, the euphoria of Chip Kelly’s stunning NFL debut win over the Redskins has been wiped out by an icy blast of reality as cold as the Gatorade bath Andy Reid got last night. Two quick losses in close games have put Kelly under the worst pressure of his coaching career, encouraging doubters and raising questions about how well his theories apply to the NFL.
Worse yet, they’ve encouraged hackneyed comparisons to Steve Spurrier, who won an exciting first NFL game before losing the next two — and ended up 7-9 after his first season in 2002. The comparison is still off-base, but 7-9 is a very likely final record for this rebuilding team.
Games 2 and 3 played out very differently, but the end result was the same. Against San Diego, penalties and weak defense killed the Eagles. In game 3, it was turnovers, erratic special teams and weak offense — all of which were strengths in the first two games. The Birds are now 1-2, with a very tough game against Denver coming up. The odds are very good that they will be 1-3 in 10 days.
Here’s how bad the NFC East is — it’s possible that Philadelphia will still be tied for the conference lead at 1-2. The Giants and Redskins are 0-2 heading into this weekend, and only a home victory against St. Louis by the Cowboys (currently 1-1) can knock Philadelphia out of the lead. Dallas is only a 3.5 point favorite, the same as the Eagles were against KC.
So how responsible is Chip Kelly for this poor start? Certainly, individual play has been a big factor in both the successes and failures of this team.
Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson were studs in Game 2, while Mychal Kendricks and the entire secondary looked shoddy. In Game 3, Vick looked erratic at best, with a great long pass to DeSean and 95 yards on some very Mariota-like runs up the middle that were offset by two interceptions, a fumble and a stubborn insistence on throwing to Riley Cooper, no matter how well covered he was. DeSean was covered tightly by Kansas City’s excellent secondary, and less of a factor with 3 catches for 62 yards.
On the other hand, the defense looked great, even the defensive backs in many cases (with Bradley Fletcher back from injury, and Nate Allen looking sharp after two terrible games). Only Mychal Kendricks was consistent, sucking even worse than in Game 2. He may lead the league in missed tackles at this point; he led the Eagles in 2012 with 14, and had five after just the first two games this year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Center Jason Kelce injured his thumb in Game 2, and made two terrible snaps in game 3, one for a lost fumble, and another high snap that Vick dove on for a loss. Kicker Alex Henery, one of the most reliable in the NFL, missed a 40-something yard FG in each game – is there something about Chip or his system that ruins kickers? Missed field goals cost him his three biggest losses at Oregon (to Auburn, Stanford and USC).
Turnovers killed Philadelphia in Game 3, but this is also Kansas City’s strength. They were second in the NFL after two games, with a +4 turnover margin.
Kelly and his staff have certainly made some questionable decisions, though, which have been a big part of the problem. I don’t criticize them for trying a two-point conversion out of the swinging gate in Game 3, but Vinny Curry wasn’t even on the active roster for Games 1 and 2, before showing his disruptive pass rush in Game 3. Kelly misunderstood the rules on official injury timeouts, failing to use a regular timeout to get Vick back into the game on the crucial 4th-quarter drive in Game 2. As a result, that drive ended with a FG instead of a TD in a three-point loss.
Chip admitted that his clock management at the end of Game 2 was poor, and this allowed the Chargers to drive for the winning field goal. The Eagles had the ball on the Chargers’ 14 with two and a half minutes left, but Kelly kept pushing the hurry up offense with pass calls, leading to three incompletes and San Diego getting the ball back with 1:44. The Eagles should have been able to run another minute off the clock AND eat up San Diego’s time outs, making that final drive much more difficult.
Kelly has made other questionable calls. He has relied very heavily on LeSean McCoy, who has been outstanding — he leads the NFL in rushing. But Bryce Brown has had few snaps, and Chris Polk none. Shady left Game 3 just before halftime with an ankle injury, which turned out to be minor, but 20-30 predictable runs up the middle is begging for McCoy to be injured. In contrast, Kelly has called very few plays for his large stable of tight ends after featuring them heavily in the preseason.
Worst of all, Kelly is losing with a conservative, often conventional attack unlike anything seen in Oregon for years. After wowing football fans with his Oregon-style attack in Game 1, Kelly showed a much more typical NFL offense in Game 2. That was fine, since the offense was still very successful (30 points and 511 yards). After two games, Shady led the league in rushing, DeSean was the receiving leader, and Vick was 3rd in QB passer rating (behind only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning).
It’s hard to see even now how anyone has “figured out” Chip’s offense; the Eagles have 1,385 yards of total offense after three games, the most in team history. As far as I could see, Kansas City did not have a strategy that led to those turnovers or the failed pass blocking by the Eagles’ offensive line. It was more a question of players getting beat, one-on-one.
But in Game 3, Philadelphia stayed conservative and struggled to score (despite racking up 431 yards of total offense) due to weaker offensive line play, erratic decision making by Vick, five sacks and five turnovers. And the conservatism is the most worrisome part. In three games, the Eagles have now punted 13 times and attempted 7 field goals (making 5), while going for it on fourth down only once outside of end-of-game desperation. It was nice to see them try the Swinging Gate today, which failed due to a missed block by rookie Lane Johnson, but the worst failure of all would be to see Chip Kelly lose faith in his approach, and lapse into standard, dull NFL mediocrity. Even if he wins.
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, at Powells Books, at the Multnomah Athletic Club M-Porium in Portland, various bookstores in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/