Chip Kelly’s first season in the NFL ended with a field goal – kicked by the New Orleans Saints as time expired in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
It was a rough ending to a great season, and very likely Michael Vick’s last game as an Eagle. No one is happy about the loss, close as it was, but this was a great season and there are lots of reasons to be excited about the future of this team.
It feels very much like Philadelphia has opened a “window” as they say — that is, a window of opportunity, during which this team could plausibly contend for a Super Bowl. We have no idea if this window will last 5 or 10 years, but the Birds have a great owner and an outstanding coach who is youngish (50), has fun at his job and is only in his 5th year as a head coach, so he’s unlikely to burn out any time soon.
Most importantly, they have a great core of talented young players who fit this coach and scheme — an entire defensive line under age 26, the NFL’s leading rusher (25), two excellent receivers (26 and 27), and a second-year quarterback who led the NFL in passer rating and made the Hall of Fame — and just turned 24.
The oldest part of the team is its strong offensive line, which is 30-ish aside from rookie Lane Johnson, and this will need some attention. Then again, offensive linemen have the longest football careers outside of kickers and long snappers.
The “Chippah’s” first playoff game was tough and closely fought — an amazing chess match between he and Sean Payton, one of the few coaches who is clearly ahead of him in brains and experience — but the rookie is on his way up, so look out. Each team knocked the other out of its comfort zone in a tense first half. The score was tied at zero after a quarter, and the Eagles led just 7-6 at halftime.
New Orleans is a dominating pass team, but the Eagles picked off superstar quarterback Drew Brees twice in the first half alone — the same number of interceptions Nick Foles threw all year. Then again, Foles had 27 touchdowns to go with those two INTs, and Drew Brees only got one on Saturday.
Each quarterback went roughly 20 for 30; Brees got more yards (249 to 176) and Foles was sacked for 18 yards to Brees’ one, but those two interceptions thrown by Brees were a huge part of Philadelphia’s success. By the way, how can you be sacked twice for a total loss of one yard? If you doubt Brees’ mastery of the quarterback position even on one of his worst days, just think on that statistic for a while.
So the Eagles set out to stop the Saints’ strength — future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees and his bevy of targets, not just superstar tight end Jimmy Graham but a huge roster of receiving talent. The Saints targeted 10 receivers Saturday, and 9 of them caught passes, but Graham was held to 44 yards, and he led the team. So Philly’s defensive coordinator Billy Davis did a great job at his main objective, just as he has against many of the NFL’s top receivers.
That’s ironic because, by all accounts, the Eagles’ secondary is the weakest spot of their defense. For the year, the Birds had the NFL’s 10th best rushing defense, but the 32nd — and last – rated pass D.
And yet, the squad shut down or at least contained half of the league’s top receivers — Megatron, the Bear’s Ashlon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, the Cowboy’s Dez Bryant, etc. Even in the blowout loss to Denver, no receiver pulled in more than 100 yards receiving, though the top three (Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, and Wes Welker) combined for 250.
The Eagles have a weird paradox — they do well against direct challenges and opponents’ strengths, but show surprising weakness toward their opponents’ soft spots and injury-riddled positions. New Orleans beat Philadelphia with an unheralded running attack, depleted by an injury to top RB Pierre Thomas.
Philadelphia’s previous loss was to Minnesota — after their two best runners went out with injuries and QB Matt Cassell beat the Birds with his rarely-lauded arm. The Eagles hung on to beat Dallas in the year’s final game, but backup quarterback Kyle Orton and Dallas’ woeful defense pushed them to the limit.
I’m dwelling on this a bit because it’s a fascinating paradox that may illustrate the limits and potential of this team. DC Billy Davis has overachieved by anyone’s standards, especially working against the pass with a much-maligned secondary.
My best explanation for this vulnerability to weakness is that Davis has done a great job of scheming against opponents — too great a job. He figured out how to manipulate all of the limited resources at his disposal and stop the league’s top passing combos — but in doing so, he left himself open to counterattacks that have been very effective.
Davis and Chip Kelly are learning the depth of the NFL’s parity. The college level of ball has a lot of teams which really don’t pose a threat (I know, I covered the Oregon — Nicholls game this year). The NFL doesn’t have that. The margin between the best and worst is not large, so overcommitting to a team’s strength means you might well lose to their weakness.
At the start of this season, the athleticism of linebacker Mychal Kendricks — which led singer Rihanna to develop a crush on him — also led him to overpursue ball carriers and miss a shocking number of tackles. Over the year, he corrected that flaw and ended the year strong.
My hope is that Davis and Kelly learn to more effectively apply their schemes next year and achieve a similar balance. If I’m right, they’ve got the best kind of problem to have this coming year.
In 2014, with another offseason to patch the squad’s deficiencies, the Eagles will moderate from a streaky team that mixes brilliant explosion plays with stomach-dropping failures, to a more smoothly suffocating juggernaut. Or, at least they’ll pick up good safeties and a dominant pass rusher.
Down at the half, New Orleans came back to open a 20-7 lead by the end of the third period. In yet another greatly encouraging sign of his potential, second-year man Nick Foles hung tough against Drew Brees and led a comeback. He walked off the field for the last time with 5 minutes left and the Eagles leading by a point.
Yes, the Saints came back and won because the Eagles couldn’t stop their second-string run game. But it took an 11-6 team, with a great coach and one of the game’s best QBs – everything they had — to hold off the first edition of Chip Kelly’s NFL team. And all indications point to the continuous improvement that Kelly works so hard to achieve.
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