It will be three months until real regular season football games begin, but the Philadelphia Eagles are at least doing something again. Phase 3 of the off-season program — the organized team activities or OTAs — began last week, with actual offense-against-defense drills and all the famous Chip Kelly practice twists: blaring music, extreme speed and innovative, often goofy practice devices.
Only a couple of the practices are open to the public, and even those are mostly closed to photography, but I’ve arranged to get artist’s depictions of the best parts, courtesy of Philly.com reporter Jimmy “Bama” Kempski. Let’s start with the inventive devices Chip Kelly uses to work out players.
I recently wrote about the radio-controlled cars used in Phase 2 workouts, and they’ve also been using footballs with bungie cords attached; a running back holds on tight while another player tries to pull the ball out from his grasp. The newest device is a stack of three garbage cans, with the top one slanted forward; quarterbacks try to throw into the slanted one from 30 yards away, though apparently few, if any, actually pulled it off Monday when the press was allowed to watch. Here Jimmy Bama’s view:
The other new device is a sort of red metal “doorway” that running backs had to crouch down and run through, to simulate running into a small hole. Kempski actually got some video of this one, but as you can see from this screenshot, the video is even lower resolution than his sketches:
It turns out that this device isn’t so new at all; offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland used something similar back in 2011 with his linemen at Alabama, as you can see in this YouTube video.
Kelly is always experimenting with new ways to help train players. Last year in training camp, I described the giant orange foam “football players” the Eagles used to practice tackling.
Even more striking were the bug men, which date back to Kelly’s Oregon days. In early practices, when rushers aren’t allowed in 7-on-7 drills, QBs can develop the bad habit of throwing too low, since no lineman is there to knock the ball down. So Kelly invented (and has refined) backpacks for assistants to wear, with a single giant fly’s wing extending above their heads to the approximate height of rushers’ raised arms. Last year Michael Vick hit the bug wings several times, which foreshadowed difficulties he later had in throwing over linemen.
In Year 2 of Chip’s system — and we really need to find a catchy name for it like “Air Raid” or “Gang Green” — the players are much more comfortable, and practices are flying along at the fastest tempo yet. Kelly told reporters, ”We’re going faster. We’re getting more reps off, more plays off because the guys have a better understanding of the mechanics of it. But the basic structure of how we’re doing things is the same.”
Last year’s Eagles had the NFL’s fastest tempo, with 32.1 seconds between plays, by ESPN’s count — the fastest yet recorded (Dallas was more than nine seconds per play slower, at 41.3). In practice this spring, however, the Birds’ offense is ripping off plays less than 10 seconds after the previous one ended.
It took the team half a year to adapt to the new program, as I predicted last summer on Angleo Cataldi’s radio show, but the second-half Eagles of 2013 were a powerhouse — 7-1, with a stingy defense and a potent, mistake-free scoring punch. It looks like this team is picking up where it left off, and last year’s improvement was not a fluke.
No contact is allowed in OTAs, though the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round pick Zach Martin got excited and blocked their best remaining defender — linebacker Sean Lee — to the ground. Lee tore his ACL and is gone for the season, which should lead to big fun for Chip Kelly’s offense against its bitter rival to the southwest, who already lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to salary cap woes.
The Eagles had their own scare when Jeremy Maclin, the receiver intended to replace DeSean Jackson, got hit on a play and stayed down, holding his left knee. Maclin is coming back from tearing his right ACL last year, but there were no apparent long-term effects.
Some fans of the Washington Redskins, who nabbed DeSean after the Eagles tossed him aside, quickly posted taunts on Reddit and Bleeding Green Nation, asking “How do you feel about releasing Jackson NOW?” Jackson himself told the NFL Network that he was humbled by the Eagles releasing him, but that he’s thirsting for some payback against the Birds (I guess the meaning of “humble” has changed since I was a kid. Look out for karma, bruh.).
I’m guessing that the Eagles feel pretty good about releasing DJax, in fact. Not only is the team playing with more purpose and cohesion in his absence, but DeSean himself then promptly pulled a hamstring muscle in practice. The team dismissed it last Thursday when he came up limping, but this week he has been skipping about half of his workouts to coddle the injury. Healing time is expected to be weeks.
Meanwhile, second-round pick Jordan Matthews — the leading receiver in SEC history — has been out-hustling everyone in workouts and is expected to start at slot receiver, with Oregon’s Josh Huff coming off the bench behind him.
No one was wowed by the Eagles’ draft; Matthews will probably the only starter this year. But the team quietly built depth on both sides of the ball, which — given the reality of NFL injuries — wins games. Last year, the dire thinness of the secondary was exposed with injuries to rookie safety Earl Wolff and cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin. Subs Patrick Chung and Roc Carmichael were scorched by opponents, including in the playoff loss to New Orleans.
The top pick, OLB Marcus Smith, is one of the quietest additions. Most reporters assumed that he would be groomed to replace veteran Trent Cole — a 31-year old, 4-3 DE, playing the “Predator” (pass rushing) OLB position in Billy Davis’s 3-4 defense, whose salary will double from $5 million to $10 million in 2015. In practices, though, Smith has been backing up Connor Barwin at the “Jack” (of all trades) OLB, dropping into coverage as often as rushing.
In the long run, who knows? Davis likes players who can play more than one position. Cole had eight sacks last year, but when he’s on the field, he’s going to rush, period. It looks like the Eagles might use Smith as the Jack and slide Barwin over to Cole’s position on the right side.
The odd man out may be Brandon Graham, another good 4-3 pass rusher who has had trouble adjusting to Davis’s scheme. Odds are good that the Eagles will try to trade him before the season starts, as he doesn’t seem to be improving much from last year (unlike Cole, who had no sacks in the first eight games last year, then eight in the second half).
A reporter asked Chip if Brandon Graham was the ideal size for an outside linebacker in his scheme. Chip replied that, “Ideally I would want someone 6’11” that weighs 400 pounds. So he’s a little bit under that.” Here is Kempski’s sketch of Chip’s OLB lineup:
One acquisition who is not doing so well is Carey “Murderleg” Spear, the hard-hitting kicker (that’s not a typo). We love his punishing tackles, but it’s pretty important to make field goals, too, and Spear shanked an easy 30-yarder in practice, missing wide left by nearly that distance (well, more like 10, but that’s still a lot). That means that the Eagles will likely be stuck with Alex “Noodleleg” Henery for another year. And Chip Kelly’s Achilles heel — his kicker — stays vulnerable.
Cover photo courtesy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com; from video of 5/29/14 press conference.