Chip Kelly Update: Eagles, Ducks and Chemistry

George Pankewytch - katdaned eagleduck

The NFL off season is completely different than college football’s in one significant way: the NFL team gets to pick its players through the draft, the trade and free agency, and fans get to speculate endlessly over who they should or shouldn’t choose.  For a college team, it’s more like being an old-fashioned high school girl at a dance, trying to look pretty and hoping the hot guy picks you.

So we argue over freakishly athletic, undersized players, ‘tweeners and the upside of raw Division III guys.  Or who sucks and should be cut.  None of our endless talk probably changes anything in real life, but neither does arguing about politics and that never seems to stop anybody.

The last two weeks have been ridiculously eventful for Philadelphia Eagles fans, between the NFL Combine and a chunk of re-signings that went down at the end of February.  Chip Kelly isn’t saying much, but he’s in the thick of his first full off season and taking a crucial step forward in building his NFL team.

People in Philadelphia have certainly noticed that Chip has brought in a lot of ex-Ducks, from off-season “camp bodies” such as Isaac Remington to free agent safety Patrick Chung and bottom-of-the-roster survivors such as Jeff Maehl and Casey Matthews.

Results have been mixed.  Matthews is unfairly despised by Eagles fans because previous coach Andy Reid (who drafted him) unwisely chose to start Casey his rookie year, and he just didn’t pan out.  He is a valuable special teams player though, an area Chip emphasizes, and, for example, Matthews recovered a fumble in Game 2 against the Chargers.

No ambiguity with safety Patrick Chung: he was terrible last year and will be cut.  Not only did he give up a lot of big plays in the backfield, he twice knocked other Eagle DBs off of receivers.  Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona scored an easy touchdown on 3rd-and-20 after Chung tackled the Eagles’ young star CB Brandon Boykin off of him.

Colt Lyerla vs Nicholls

Kevin Cline

Colt Lyerla vs Nicholls

At the Combine, attention was focused on Colt Lyerla, the very athletic — and very troubled — ex-Duck tight end.  I see other Ducks who would help the Eagles a lot more, including Josh Huff, who would fit in nicely as a slot receiver, and DeAnthony Thomas, who could reprise his TAZR role for Chip.  DAT’s combine scores were not strong, but Chip knows exactly what he can do, and that poor showing should make him a better bargain for the Birds.

Some people are in love with Lyerla’s potential.  I’m not one of them, as I expressed in a recent, controversial column (390 comments so far).  I’m done with this guy.

Bottom line: he never really produced at Oregon (43 total yards his final year in college?), and then he walked away from the team for no good reason.  His output has actually declined steadily since his junior year in high school (which was spectacular — 39 touchdowns, 1,500 yards rushing and another 850 receiving).

But since then, he’s been coasting on his size and talent, and that’s not going to fly in the NFL.  6-foot-4 is not big for a pro tight end — he would only be the third biggest TE on the Eagles, after starters Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.  As I wrote in that column, there were 22 tight ends at the Combine, and Lyerla was only bigger than six of them.

At the next level, he’s a fast, slightly undersized TE who can jump well — but has horrible work habits and attitude, and more red flags than the old Soviet Union.  People act like players are fixed and mechanical tools, drill bits you can pop into your Makita and put away when you don’t need them, so there’s “no risk” in trying a messed up guy if you can get him as an UDFA.

I disagree.  Teams are more dynamic and alive than that, like a motorcycle gang that rides together.  You can’t wait for a guy to catch up, or worry that he won’t be around to watch your back.

These are very young guys, so constantly growing and maturing is part of the job description.  They’re coming into their own amid very intense competition, which is what creates that team bond, and they all help each other develop — off field as well as on.  If someone’s not keeping up, they don’t just fail alone; they’re not contributing their share of that mutual reinforcement, and the team suffers.

Jason Kelce, the right kind of lineman

Jeffrey Beall

Jason Kelce, the right kind of lineman.

The Richie Incognito fiasco should have made that clear.  It’s not just that he bragged about “breaking” a young player who had issues with depression.  Incognito was the veteran and leader on that offensive line.  Why the heck wasn’t he helping a young rookie get better?

The Eagles’ front line is the opposite of that dysfunctional Miami OL: an accomplished, close-knit group that performs well, teaches each other, and moves its blocking downfield at an astonishing rate.  They have a rare chemistry, and the Eagles just recognized that by signing Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters and gifted young center Jason Kelce to multiyear extensions (Evan Mathis, Lane Johnson and Todd Herremans are already signed through 2016 at least).

Smart move.  Chip has now built a rock solid core for the team, with strong offensive and defensive lines.  These are hard-working guys with good attitudes, who love what Chip is doing for the team.  On February 27th, right after the extensions were signed, half of these guys were in the Eagles’ weight room together working out.  Drama might sell newspapers, but this kind of no-drama chemistry wins Super Bowls.

The next step is wide receivers.  This is an interesting year, with one of the deepest classes of big, fast WRs to come out of college, ever.  Star DeSean Jackson and underperforming slot receiver Jason Avant are signed up, but breakout star Riley Cooper and No. 2 WR Jeremy Maclin — who missed last year with an ACL tear — are free agents. [Ed. note: Cooper has since been resigned to a multi-year contract.]

Maclin is small and speedy — basically another DeSean Jackson who’s not quite as good.  One knock on him is a lack of toughness after the catch; some call him “self-tackling.”  Forgive the sacrilege, Duck fans, but I think OSU’s Brandin Cooks would do everything Maclin does, with much better toughness and yards after catch, plus he returns kicks which the Eagles also need (Maclin doesn’t).

Riley Cooper vs. Washington

Mr. Schultz

Riley Cooper vs. Washington

It might be tough for the Eagles to get Cooks though, unless they splurge with their first round pick (No. 22 overall).  After his excellent combine — including the fastest 40-yard dash — there’s not much chance he’ll be available at the end of Round 2.  So unless Philadelphia trades back for two lesser picks, that might only be a daydream.

Riley Cooper, on the other hand, is a must for Philadelphia as I wrote recently.  He’s not much to look at on paper — slow, tall, and not great at separation — but he and QB Nick Foles have chemistry for some unexplained reason, and you can’t throw that away when it falls into your lap.

Riley Cooper, standing tall

Matthew Straubmuller

Riley Cooper, standing tall.

Cooper is outstanding in the red zone — eight touchdowns last year — and consistently efficient.  If you look at his 2013 numbers, Cooper will get his three to four receptions every single game, and usually on five, or seven, or even three targets.  That’s exactly what you want from a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver.

His connection with Foles was clearest in the Detroit “Snow Bowl” game last year.  The Eagles had nothing on offense through most of three quarters, until Nick decided to trust Riley.  He basically just launched a 44-yard bomb into a raging blizzard, and somehow Cooper found it, coming out of the snowflakes like a plane landing in the fog. That play turned around the entire game; the Eagles were down 14-0 one moment, then scored 34 points in the last 20 minutes to win.

The Snow Bowl

from video

The Snow Bowl

I like Mike Vick a lot, but Nick Foles has a special thing, especially with Cooper.  Foles can throw it into an area where Cooper might appear, but isn’t yet, and somehow he does this while maintaining one of the lowest interception rates in NFL history.  A fast WR can be stopped by a faster DB, but how do you stop a mystical WR?

In that Riley Cooper column, I compared this Eagles team to the 1989-1992 Portland Trailblazers.  There’s something special about a group of unheralded, humble, hard-working players — Kersey, Porter, Drexler — coming into their own together on a team. The Blazers called that their “core” that they built around, and it grew into an intuitively-connected, spontaneous unit that was awesome and fun to watch.

Chip Kelly is building just such a core in Philadelphia — and I can’t wait to see how it develops.

Top Photo by George Pankewytch and katdaned

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Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit is a writer, skimboarder and dad who runs the website Taoish.org. He is the author of, "The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons from America's Most Successful Coach" (2013) and has written for Bleeding Green Nation (an Eagles blog), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Oregonian, Harvard Magazine, and Warp Weft and Way, an academic blog of Chinese philosophy. Mark is a Portland native, a professional standup comedian and the World Palindrome Champion.

  • MarcolaDuck

    Soooo… you “like Mike Vick a lot” and have authored 2 “I hate Colt Lyerla” articles? You sir, need to get a clue. Hate on a selfish troubled kid and like an injury prone, animal torturing, narcissistic, turn over machine? Laughable.

    • Mark Saltveit

      I don’t hate Colt Lyerla, I just think he’s not ready emotionally to hit the NFL. He’s young and has great athletic skills, but really seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. Moving away from everyone he knows, to an intense, rootless life of money, fame and temptation just doesn’t seem likely to help him out. What if his locker ends up next to someone like Richie Incognito? Can you imagine how many people in nightclubs will offer him coke?

      If I was advising him personally, I’d say he should take a year off to get his head straight, and see if Chip or someone else in the league will let him work out with their trainer and offer him some advice.

      Bizarrely, Mike Vick’s time in prison seems to have helped him a great deal. It got him out of the NFL pressure cooker, let his body heal, and gave him a lot of time to think about his actions and turn his life around. That seems to be exactly what he has done, by all accounts.

      • MarcolaDuck

        Yes he has stopped torturing dogs so he wont have to go back to prison. He is still the kind of person who enjoys torturing dogs. You are bashing a kid because of his lack of character, and touting the value of a adult sadist in the same article, and I’m sorry if you don’t see it but that is silly.

        • Mark Saltveit

          I’m all for giving people second chances, but they need to turn their live around and demonstrate that they’ve changed. Michael Vick grew up in a cultural tradition that encouraged dogfighting; it’s not like he was the oddball kid who tortured frogs.

          Not only has Vick kept his nose clean, he has been giving talks to people to work against that culture, and has been a good citizen on the field, in the locker room and off the field. Look how gracefully he accepted Foles taking over his job; he still gives his competitor tips and advice.

          What we have not seen from Colt is any sign that he has matured or changed his life around. It’s only 2 months since his conviction, and he’s still moving around, breaking ties with any structure in his life (agents, trainers, etc.)

          That doesn’t prove he’s doing anything wrong, but it also doesn’t give the Eagles (or any other team) a reason to take a risk by picking him.

          You’re suggesting that Vick is faking his redemption. Maybe, though I doubt it, but if so he’s been faking it for 5 years at least. If you fake it long enough, it becomes real.

  • Duck out of Water

    Buck Williams was the key for the Portland Trailblazers. Joining the team in 1989, he made many things, such as rebounding work well.

    • Mark Saltveit

      True, he was a vital piece. But on the fast break, Kersey Porter and Drexler were a marvel. If they had found a center as good as Buck WIlliams was a power forward, they’d have picked up a couple of rings.

      • hokieduck

        One word: Sabonis. Had he come over earlier, rings.

        • Mark Saltveit

          If you mean, earlier before he was injured, absolutely. He was phenomenal. By the time he cam to the US, not so much.

          • hokieduck

            Well, Sabonis originally injured his Achilles in 1985. The Blazers drafted him in 1986 (and the Blazer surgeons operated on his Achilles) but he didn’t play for them until 1996. In the interim he led the 1988 Soviet team to an Olympic victory over the US. Apparently, he attributes his later injury issues to the Soviets playing him into the ground even while he was rehabbing from the achilles injury. So even injured, Sabonis was a dominant force in international basketball. Had he come to the US when the Blazers drafted him in ’86, he would not have been better phyusically for a longer period of time and the Blazers would have most likely won several championships. At the very least, they would have beaten the Bulls in 1992 had Sabonis been with the team.

  • Dan

    Looks like this article was written before the Maciln signing.

    • Quantified Conclusions, inc

      Looks like it’s time to go toe to toe, heads up. Do you really want to bring the line coaches into this?? Haha, that’s all I’m saying…

      Not that it has to be bad but, def opening Pandora’s box and even the spotify box with that take, omg. Do you want to fight right now? Ok, hippie, I will be waiting at w18th and Oakpatch if you wanna be man enough to drive over and get kicked in the cheeks. Dan, it’s been a while. Just know that you may have got the beat of me back in HS, I have been training 60+ hrs a week since and am totally ready for a rematch anytime, if you know what I mean. This ain’t no more living on the edge or whatever you now consider that to be, not me—- which raises more questions right there.

    • Mark Saltveit

      Yes. It was written even before the Riley Cooper signing, which happened in the 10 hours between when I turned in the column and when it went live. Luckily the editor caught it and made a note. But if you wondered why I was arguing so much for Cooper to stay, that’s why.