Chip Kelly Update: The Quarterback Whisperer?

Mark Sanchez after first TD toss

Mark Sanchez started his first game in two years Monday night, leading the Philadelphia Eagles to a 45-21 win that was far more dominating than the score suggests.

This is the same Mark Sanchez who was run out of New York as a failure, who went from leading the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons to having Tim Tebow and Geno Smith brought in as competitors, then getting injured and eventually cut. The guy who came to Philadelphia known best for his “Butt Fumble.”

Sanchez was by no means perfect at home against the Carolina Panthers. On his first possession, having been handed the ball on Carolina’s 22 yard line after a fumble, he drove the Eagles for zero yards on three plays and settled for a field goal. Several of his passes were off-target. He made wrong calls on zone-read plays, and threw one dumb interception that luckily was ruled out of bounds.

Cary Williams' INT on Panthers' 3rd play from scrimmage

from video (NFL Rewind)

Cary Williams’ INT on Panthers’ 3rd play from scrimmage

Overall, though, he was excellent — 20/37 for 332 yards with two TDs, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 102.5. Sanchez ran the tempo offense better than Nick Foles has this year, hitting open receivers and getting the ball out much faster (an average of 2.42 seconds vs. 2.73 for Foles).

Most importantly, he avoided the two biggest problems the Eagles have had under Foles this year — turnovers and red zone failures. Before the Houston game, the Birds were last in red zone TD percentage at 34.8%, and only 1 of 11 on red zone third downs. Since Sanchez took over, the Eagles are a perfect 7 for 7 in the red zone.

Why? “Turnovers,” Chip Kelly said bluntly after the Arizona game. “I think the turnovers are really the biggest part that’s killing us in the red zone right now.” Philadelphia had 17 turnovers in its first 7 games, including nine Foles interceptions (vs. two for all of last year). Sanchez threw two more after coming in for Foles in Houston (who excels in takeaways).

But against Carolina, the Birds had no giveaways while forcing five: two forced fumbles and three interceptions, one a pick six. Philadelphia set the tone with two takeaways on the Panthers’ first three plays, starting with a fumble punched out by Casey Matthews (who did the same thing for Chip Kelly against Carolina’s Cam Newton — then at Auburn — back in the 2010 season’s National Championship Game).

Eagles recover fumble that Casey Matthews forced on 2nd play from scrimmage

from video (NFL Rewind)

Eagles recover fumble that Casey Matthews forced on second play from scrimmage.

Carolina did its best to put pressure on Sanchez, too. They sold out to stop the run, packing the box and switching to man coverage with a single high safety. The idea was to force a rusty Sanchez to beat them with his arm, and he did — wielding a cartoonish pump fake and smoothly avoiding pressure by moving up in the pocket.

It’s a mystery why Nick Foles has been so much worse this year, but one obvious factor is that he has been uncomfortable behind the Eagles’ tattered offensive line. He seems to have lost his nerve, routinely backpedaling in the face of any pressure and throwing off his back foot.

Sanchez has some lucky timing here — starting left guard Evan Mathis returned for his first start, and center Jason Kelce (still inaccurate on some snaps) came back one game earlier. But it takes a lot of guts for anyone to stand tall against NFL pass rushers, and Sanchez’ experience — 68 games, as coach Kelly pointed out — paid off. As star left tackle Jason Peters told Sheil Kapadia,

They were taking away the run and playing man, so we were running man-beater routes. We started getting the pass going, and they couldn’t stop it.

During the preseason, Sanchez loved throwing to rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews, and that continued Monday. Sanchez threw to him four times on a single drive culminating in a 13-yard touchdown, and Matthews finished the day 7-9 for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

Sanchez to Matthews, first TD

from video (NFL Rewind)

Sanchez to Matthews, first TD

This is not the first time Chip Kelly has made the most of a quarterback no one else valued. Duck fans may remember his first year as offensive coordinator, 2007, when the team went through four quarterbacks due to injury (Dennis Dixon, Brady Leaf, Cody Kempt and Justin Roper). Though the team dropped from its No. 2 ranking after Dixon’s injury, it won the Sun Bowl in an upset as Roper threw four touchdowns.

After Kelly’s first year as head coach (2009), he kicked starting QB Jeremiah Masoli off the team after his second arrest of the off-season and handed the reins to a converted sophomore wide receiver named Darron Thomas. Thomas had none of Masoli’s dual-threat ability, and his post-college pro career peaked at Arena League substitute. But Kelly rebuilt his offense around him and took the team to the previously mentioned National Championship Game.

Clearly, Kelly has skill at bringing the most out of undervalued players (Darren Sproles, anyone?) and this is most evident with quarterbacks. Nick Foles was a marginal backup last year, a guy who was 1-5 as a starter during his rookie year and clearly lost a QB competition against 33-year-old Mike Vick. After Vick’s injury, Foles had a spectacular year with the third highest quarterback rating in NFL history.

But Kelly does not transform quarterbacks. He transforms his flexible offense to fit their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. As long as they are good at reading defenses and choose among their many options quickly and decisively, it doesn’t matter if they are fast or slow, rocket-armed or marginal.

Kelly has emphatically rejected the idea that his offense can be run by anyone, correctly noting that this disrespects the skill and athleticism needed to play in the NFL. But he has developed a program that can adapt to a wider range of skill sets than most offenses, and does not require the most highly valued (and hard to find) skills.

Darren Sproles' 65-yard punt return, touchdown Philadelphia

from video (NFL Rewind)

Darren Sproles’ 65-yard punt return, touchdown Philadelphia

He’s also building a team that can win in many different ways, belying his reputation as a coach who only cares about offense and play calling. Last August, no one would have predicted that this Eagles team would struggle offensively and be saved by superior defensive and special teams play, but that is exactly what has happened. Philadelphia started its first two drives on Carolina’s 22 and 43 after turnovers, and picked up touchdowns on a punt return and an interception later in the first half.

The Eagles’ pass rush continues to improve at a frightening pace, racking up nine sacks against Carolina on top of the three interceptions. It’s tempting to think that Chip got revenge against Newton for that NCG loss, leaving him limping, but that would imply that the team didn’t try as hard in other games. And that’s ridiculous.

Brandon Graham, sack #9 on Cam Newton

from video (NFL Rewind)

Brandon Graham, sack #9 on Cam Newton

Connor Barwin spied Cam Newton to take away his scrambling ability, and still got 3.5 sacks. Clearly defensive coordinator Billy Davis learned from the San Francisco game, where Colin Kaepernick burned the Eagles again and again running on passing downs.

Philadelphia is going to need every bit of that pass rush (and containment) in its big showdown at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field Sunday, which may be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. Hall of Fame shoo-in Aaron Rodgers has found another, yet higher level to play at in his last two games, and unless he is pressured up front, he is likely to pick the Birds apart.

It should be a classic game, starting at 1:30pm Pacific time. Fox will not carry it locally so you’ll need to hit a watering hole such as J.B. O’Brien’s in Tigard, the Silver Dollar in Portland or Rennie’s in Eugene. But you won’t want to miss it.

Featured photo: from video (NFL Rewind)

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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.