Chip Kelly’s Eagles are surprising people — after disappointing them — after startling them, like a date with too many tattoos and no job who proves nicer and more respectful than you or your parents imagined.
The Birds evened their record at 3-3 and stayed apace with Dallas with a solid, if not spectacular, win against Tampa Bay, 31-20. The Buccaneers are winless at 0-5, but that record is misleading. The team has one of the toughest defenses in the league and three of those losses were very close, by a combined total of six points (18-17, 16-14 and 13-10). Starting quarterback Michael Vick was out with a hamstring pull, and three other players were in and out with shoulder injuries (Jason Peters, Patrick Chung and Chris Polk).
So what happened? On the first play, Foles threw a screen to LeSean McCoy for 44 yards. Seven plays later, at the Buccaneers four-yard line, Foles faked a handoff and ran into the endzone untouched (except by the Eagles’ standout guard Evan Mathis, who inexplicably rolled over the top of Foles out of exuberance after he scored).
It was a brilliant play call by Kelly, and very Chippish. DeSean Jackson had caught a pass for first-and-goal at the four, and the Eagles went for a hurry-up, off-kilter run that caught Tampa Bay unawares. Such bits of timing and swagger have been all too rare this year, resulting in the Birds’ terrible red zone conversion rate, and it was great to see Kelly get his old Oregon rhythm back.
Vick won this quarterback competition squarely in the preseason, and I think he’s been great this year, but give Foles credit — he was tremendous last week. In fact, he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his play against Tampa Bay. As Tommy Lawlor noted in his detailed game report, Foles was 22-of-31 for 296 yards, with 3 TDs and no INTs. This wasn’t a game where everything came easily to Foles. The Bucs were 8th in scoring defense and 13th in yards against going into the contest. In fact, as Lawlor notes, the Bucs have already faced Drew Brees and Tom Brady this year, and Foles had a better game than either of them. Brees was 26-of-46 for 322 yards, with 1 TD and 2 INTs against Tampa Bay — the Saints won by only two — and Brady was 25-36-225, for 2 TDs and 1 INT.
Three other facets of Foles’ game were equally important. He finally demonstrated that he could throw long, with touchdowns of 47 yards (to Riley Cooper) and 36 (to DeSean Jackson). True, the former was underthrown and Cooper had to use his size to command the ball, but it was still a great strike.
Foles threw long frequently in college, notably against Oregon, but he has picked up a reputation as a short order cook in Philadelphia. In fact, some writers criticized Kelly (at Oregon) for not having a vertical game, but I think this was due to a lack of top level receivers. The Ducks are passing long a lot this year, as Josh Huff and Bralon Addison have emerged as top notch WRs, and — among the top 10 NFL teams in passing — the Eagles have the third highest percentage of passes over 20 yards. Kelly finally has the players to go long, and he’s grabbing the opportunity.
Also, at the end of the game, Foles managed a slow drive beautifully. He took 5:29 to cover 45 yards, with 12 straight running plays. Interestingly, 11 of those 12 featured an unbalanced line, with both tackles on one side of the center, and a tight end taking the tackle’s spot on the other side.
Best of all, Foles was great in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on two of three visits, to improve on Philadelphia’s only major offensive weakness. After the game, Kelly said that this was due to improved play-calling, and Vick would have had the same results. It’s hard to say, of course.
One piece of evidence supporting this argument is that the Eagles have been great on third down, mostly by running in short yardage situations more than other NFL teams. Kelly has gotten away from the red zone run, and it seems to be hurting the team. The counter-argument is that Foles is better at throwing where receivers will be, but aren’t yet; that’s a key NFL red zone play.
Not surprisingly, Foles’ great game kicked the quarterback controversy into high gear, and Chip was notably less vocal about saying Vick is the starter going forward. The quick-footed veteran is clearly still hurt, so Chip doesn’t have to decide yet this week. And he shouldn’t make any long-term decisions based on this one game.
There are a couple of reasons Foles may have been unusually successful against the Buccaneers. First, Tampa Bay played zone defense against the pass. Opponents have been giving the Eagles trouble with man coverage, which seems to work better against Chip Kelly’s offense. And secondly, Foles just does well against this defense. Last year, Tampa Bay was the only team Foles beat in his six games as a starter.
But if Foles does well this week in the big showdown with the Cowboys, it may be hard to bench him in favor of a returning Vick. Remember that last year Vick got injured and Foles kept the starting job after his recovery. At the same time, the Eagles kept losing under Foles last year, too. In the short term, Chip Kelly is in a great position, with two quality quarterbacks (when many teams have none). This gives him insurance against injury and a chance to explore his new offense with different looks.
For now, Vick has been all class, defusing the controversy by saying that he’s more injured than he thought, that he and Foles are friends and support each other, etc. After practice Thursday, the two appeared together for the press, all buddies, and there was a bittersweet sense of Vick passing the baton to a friend. Asked what he learned from Vick, Foles quipped “I try to emulate his moves a little bit, which causes injuries sometimes” and said he copied the veteran on his touchdown run.
At 33, with both avid supporters and avid critics, time is not on Vick’s side and he appears to understand that. Vick knows he’s unlikely to be re-signed by the Eagles, with Chip’s preference for young and tall players (such as Foles) and a lot of good quarterbacks available in the draft next spring.
In the long run, the best case scenario for both team and player may be for Vick to show he can be a team player, heal quickly, and get traded before the October 31st deadline to one of the teams desperate for a quarterback (Buffalo, Houston, Minnesota). This would get the Eagles another draft pick (or maybe a safety) and give Vick enough time to establish himself in a new city. If he plays well this year, he could hopefully discourage his new team from drafting a QB next year, or at least convince them to start Vick next year and let the rookie come along more slowly behind him.
As for Sunday, the Vegas line favors the Eagles at home against the Cowboys, an odd team. Their skill players e are great, with Tony Romo playing lights out — 3rd in the NFL in TDs, completion percentage and QB rating — throwing to tight end Jason Witten and two good, long WRs with the emergence of Terrance Williams alongside star Dez Bryant.
At the same time, Dallas has a weak offensive line, a bad secondary and a defensive front decimated by injuries, with 5 of 6 lineman out injured (notably DeMarcus Ware). Solid running back Demarco Murray will be out with an injury, too, and the lack of Demarci should tip the game to Philadelphia. It should be a crazy shootout with lots of turnovers, hopefully all by Dallas. The Eagles have only one turnover in their last two games — a rare fumble by LeSean McCoy after he was flipped over in midair during a tackle. Both games were wins, which is not a coincidence.
The Eagles slowly continue to improve, even on defense. The cornerbacks have proven to be surprisingly good; Bradley Fletcher has 10 pass deflections already this year.
Cedric Thornton, an undrafted free agent in 2011, has emerged as the team’s best defensive lineman, replacing aging veteran Isaac Sopoaga as the 3-4 defense’s main weapon at the crucial nose tackle position. He’s not much of a pass rusher yet but does a great job as a 2-gap run defender.
And the Eagles changed the nickel front from 3 down lineman to four, which has punched up the pass rush. This change gives Vinny Curry, the team’s best rusher, more snaps and lets Brandon Boykin stay in coverage (where he’s great) instead of blitzing (where he has been worthless).
Plenty of problems remain. The safeties and middle linebackers are terrible in pass coverage, and will get worse as Patrick Chung is hobbled by a “unique” nerve injury to his shoulder. Opponents are able to run slant passes across the middle at will, which they often use to convert even very long 3rd-down plays. In fact, the Eagles do better defending 3rd-and-short than on passing downs, because their run defense is better. Chip told reporters that the Cowboys are letting Romo call more plays at the line of scrimmage, which is a worry for the Eagles. Both Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers were able to read the Eagles defense like a tweet, and used audibles to slice through this D.
Across the line of scrimmage, Chip’s offense continues to astonish. They’re the 7th-best in NFL history for yards after six games, with at least 425 in each game so far and 30 or more points in four of their six games.
Kelly has been throwing a wild array of looks at the teams opposing him — unbalanced lines with both tackles on one side, WR DeSean Jackson as a running back who goes in motion, package plays with run, pass, screen, and QB run options all in one play.
The amazing thing is that he might just be getting warmed up. Former Duck Jeff Maehl, who snuck onto the team at the end of training camp, told the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane that Chip “had an idea coming in here what he had to change, what he had to shift to be successful.” As of Game 6, he said, “You’re starting to see it.” Starting to? That’s a scary thought for Dallas, and for the rest of the NFL.
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/