Chip Kelly Update: Quarterback Resistant

Mark Sanchez in charge

The Philadelphia Eagles won again, beating Houston 31-21, and have the second best record in the NFL at 6-2.  They also lost three more key starters to injury and continue to play poorly in many respects, leading to lots of crazy statistics. For example, the Eagles have the second lowest red zone efficiency in the league, yet they are the fourth-highest in per-game scoring. This is probably the craziest:

That’s right, the Birds are giving away a steady two to three possessions a game, dealing with erratic quarterback play and a crippled offensive line, and still dominating opponents. Maybe Chip Kelly’s college boy system will work in the NFL after all.

J.J. Watt

by Jeffrey Beall

J.J. Watt & his bad-ass arm straps

Houston’s most fearsome weapons are a ragged field that eats knees and a brutal pass rush led by the league’s best defensive player, J.J. Watt, and his underrated fellow linebacker Whitney Mercilus. (Yes, that’s his real and very descriptive name. His parents, immigrants from Haiti, are Yvrose and Wilner Mercilus.)

Against the Eagles, Mercilus had nine tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits and one cracked collarbone, which belongs to Nick Foles. The Eagles’ starting QB will be out for at least two months and perhaps the rest of the year, if his backup, Mark Sanchez, continues to play well. Sanchez went 15-22 for 202 yards and two touchdowns coming in cold off the bench, including a 52-yard bomb to Jeremy Maclin on Sanchez’ very first play since 2012. (Maclin won the NFL Offensive Player of the Week award.)

The Eagles also lost another starting offensive lineman, right guard Todd Herremans, and the quarterback of their defense, veteran inside linebacker Demeco Ryans, both for the rest of the year. Ryans had actually intercepted a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass when he tore his right Achilles tendon untouched — likely because of that threadbare field — and fumbled the ball back to Houston. Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard noted an eerie fact about the injury:

Four years ago Ryans ruptured his left Achilles tendon on nearly the same spot on the same field while playing for the Texans, the team that drafted him in 2006.

And yet, there is not a lot of worry about the Eagles crumbling despite this triple disaster, even as the Cowboys appear to be collapsing with injuries to QB Tony Romo and linebacker Justin Durant (out for the season). Why? Because Coach Kelly plans for injuries.

As Oregon fans know, he insists on rotating in bench players (especially on defense) and gives everyone significant snaps in practice, precisely so they’ll be ready to come in. He makes a point of having two solid quarterbacks on his roster, noting correctly that it’s almost statistically certain that your starter will miss one or more games each year.

Houston's ragged, knee-munching field

from video (NFL Rewind)

Houston’s ragged, knee-munching field

The Eagles didn’t make any splashy draft picks or free agent signings last spring, but they quietly built up their depth and now it’s paying off. The offseason signing of Mark Sanchez launched a thousand Buttfumble jokes, but it’s looking brilliant in November — especially compared to the rival Cowboys, who signed Brandon Weeden and drove off solid backup Kyle Orton, now winning games as the starter in Buffalo.

Center David Molk and tackle Andrew Gardner bolstered the OL depth, and either Gardner or second-year guard/tackle Matt Tobin is expected to replace Herremans going forward. (Luckily, starting center Jason Kelce just came back from injury, and All-Pro guard Evan Mathis returns for Monday’s game.)

Less noticed but just as important was the acquisition of cornerback Nolan Carroll, who has made a dime package (with six defensive backs) possible on passing downs. Last year the Eagles were vulnerable to runs when their nickel package was in, and they arguably lost the playoff game against New Orleans as a result. Carroll has been great at run stuffing, and is morphing into a sort of hybrid slot CB/linebacker. Expect to see a lot more dime with Ryans out.

DeMeco Ryans' interception

from video (NFL Rewind)

DeMeco Ryans’ interception

Losing him is a serious blow, for his leadership as much as his play. (He’s great against the run, but his declining speed really hurts him on passing downs.) Ryans wore the headphone to receive plays from the sideline, and passed them on to his teammates. Coach Kelly put it this way:

He’s the true leader. We talk about it all the time. He’s Mufasa, you know, he’s our guy.

Demeco Ryans, Philadelphia's Mufasa

Ganesh Raghunathan (Flickr)

Demeco Ryans, Philadelphia’s Mufasa

In football terms, Ryans’ loss should be easier to weather than Mychal Kendricks’ absence earlier this year. Chip Kelly has been very blunt in noting that the two remaining backup ILBs, Emmanuel Acho and ex-Duck Casey Matthews, are weaker against the pass. In his October 2nd press conference, he said:

They are obviously a lot better in the run game, and we have gotten into some more nickel and dime sets in passing situations to get them off the field.

Kendricks is the perfect ILB in those dime packages, and with his return, Matthews and Acho — who have been improving weekly already — should be much more effective replacing Ryans on running downs. Ryans’ leadership simply can’t be replaced, though. When he went down, both benches emptied as teammates (and his former Texan colleagues) gathered around to pay respect.

There has been a lot of talk this week about whether Chip Kelly’s offense is “quarterback-proof.” Clearly it is not. Matt Barkley and, to some degree, Mike Vick did notably less well last year, and frankly Foles himself has been mediocre at best this year. I think it’s fair to say though that Kelly’s system is quarterback-resistant. It doesn’t depend on a hero QB to make things happen. As Sanchez told reporters this week,

“It feels like a fastbreak in basketball – you’re the point guard, just dish it to the open guy. Don’t hang on to it too long, try not to get hit.”

For a guy nicknamed “Big Balls Chip,” Kelly spends a lot of time reducing risk — drafting versatile, big and fast players with good attitudes, reducing dependence on any one player, and relentlessly practicing his bench to be ready to fill in. A great QB would be worth every penny the team would pay, but Kelly’s system is designed to get by OK without one.

Casey Matthews, back on the field

by Matthew Straubmuller

Casey Matthews, back on the field

He also tailors his offense to the players available. On Monday, he said:

“I don’t have an offense — I’ve said that since day one. Our offense is directed around our quarterback. So tell me who is playing quarterback and I’ll tell you what our offense is going to be …”

That might be a bit overstated, but history backs him up. Kelly revamped his offense when Foles took over from Mike Vick, as he did when Oregon’s dual threat QB Jeremiah Masoli gave way to pocket passer Darron Thomas — and again when another running QB named Marcus Mariota succeeded Thomas.

Kelly simply builds a team with a strong offensive line and a lot of weapons, to give every QB a lot of different ways to succeed. The essential skill for the quarterback is reading the defense and making quick decisions. A strong arm or the ability to run is a great bonus, but it’s not necessary as long as the QB is “fleet of mind,” decisive and accurate. Sanchez was all of these things in training camp, and he had a great start Sunday. Being a better runner than Foles can’t hurt.

Huff powers ahead  (he got this first down)

from video (NFL Rewind)

Huff powers ahead. (He got this first down.)

If the preseason was an accurate guide, expect rookie WR Jordan Matthews and TE Zach Ertz to do more with Sanchez. Despite dropping a pass that Houston intercepted, Josh Huff continued to show that potent mix of speed, elusiveness, and physicality that he was drafted for, fighting for a couple of first downs by putting his shoulder into defenders.

And the Eagles’ running game should explode over the next few games with a mostly healthy front line and the return of RBs Darren Sproles and Chris Polk, who pummeled his way to 50 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries. Backup ILBs Acho and Matthews and OG/OT Tobin are much stronger on runs, and obviously a run game is a great boost for any quarterback, much less a much-mocked substitute rebuilding his confidence.

And so this crazy season continues. The Birds suck, and they’re great, and now they’re clearly a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Despite the three new big injuries, the various NFL power rankings almost unanimously rate this team as the fourth best in the league. And they haven’t even played well yet.

Featured photo by Bobak Ha’Eri (Creative Commons Attribution license 3.0)

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Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit's newest book is "Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly's Football Revolution" (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of "The Tao of Chip Kelly" (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.