It’s Go Time. The Eagles’ final roster is set, their carefully concealed offensive plays and defensive looks are being practiced in secret, and a much-hyped season opener will finally arrive Monday, September 9th, at 4 pm against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. (I’ll be at the McMenamin’s Backstage Bar, behind the Baghdad Theater in Southeast Portland, as part of a special screening of the big game. Join us!)
“How will Chip Kelly’s offense adapt to the NFL’s blah, blah, blah . . . ” STOP! The time for talk is over. In a few dozen hours we’ll know if Mike Vick can really get the ball out quickly enough and learn to slide, or whether a rusty and presumably slow RG3 gets reinjured by the Eagles’ pass rush, which is by far the strongest part of this very shaky defense.
I’m not being unkind — defensive coordinator Billy Davis is making no excuses, either. ”I am very anxious for the Redskins to show us who we are and where we are. I don’t know what’s coming. The truth will be at the end of that game, we’ll know defensively how far along we are.” As Sheil Kapadia noted, Davis is comfortable being completely honest about the challenges of this major defensive overhaul, with “no hint of confidence or bravado.” I admire the directness, as long as he doesn’t get comfortable with the defensive flaws themselves.
“Hopefully we’ll come out Monday night and play to the techniques that we’ve worked the whole off season on. But no matter what I wish for or what I want, it doesn’t matter. The game shows who we are.”
Of course, none of that stops diehard fans from filling their remaining hours before Monday’s game with wheel-spinning speculation. If you’re one of them, at least try to make it new and interesting. If someone starts talking about whether Chip Kelly is the new Steve Spurrier, tell them you think he’s the new Greasy Neale.
Who? Ray Didinger, the most respected sportswriter in Philadelphia, wrote a detailed article, which I can’t recommend highly enough, explaining the parallels of the Neale-Kelly phenomenon.
Neale was the highly innovative coach of the Eagles from 1941, when he came straight to the NFL from college, to 1950. After a couple of rough years (uh-oh), he won two championships and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Neale’s innovations led to the 4-3 defense, the shotgun formation, and the play action pass among other things. From 1944 to 1949, Greasy’s Eagles were 51-17.
Two overblown controversies filled Philadelphia fans’ well-known needs for pessimism and chippiness in the days before Game 1 of the Chip Kelly Era. Wide receiver Riley Cooper scrapped with hothead cornerback Cary Williams in practice Thursday, and fans got irate over Kelly’s choices for the bottom of the roster.
The Cooper-Williams fight — seen here on video — is the more worrisome of the two. They were one on one in practice, Williams playing tight and breaking up a pass. As they both went down, Williams fell on Cooper.
Maybe Cary dug a knee into Cooper’s kidney or some such, but to my eye it just looked like Cooper came up slapping and tussling after a very normal play.
Williams got very hot, and even after they were separated, he came back for more. Michael Vick stepped in, and Williams got angry at HIM. Even after practice, Williams wouldn’t speak to reporters because he was so angry, while Cooper laughed it off as typical NFL football practice.
Everyone naturally wondered if Cooper’s racial incident over the summer was a factor, but there was no indication of that. Lip readers report that Williams was saying “I’m not someone you can f**k with, and he has quite a history of tussles. In just the last year, he was kicked out of a practice with New England for fighting, shoved a referee in the Super Bowl, fought DeSean Jackson in a game last year, and got body slammed by Steve Smith.
The real problem here is that the Eagles are supermodel-thin at cornerback already, and if Williams gets kicked out of a game this year, it may well cost the Eagles a win. At this point it appears that we wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one or two ejections, – something this secondary doesn’t need any additional problems.
The other dustup involved the final 53-man roster cuts, with many fans arguing that Chip Kelly is favoring former Ducks. Two moves in particular upset the Twitter-verse and even some of the established Philly sports writers: keeping Jeff Maehl (a late addition) over WRs Greg Salas and Russell Shepard, and picking ILB Casey Matthews over Emmanuel Acho and Chris McCoy (who plays OLB, a position where the Eagles are especially thin due to the transition to a 3-4 defense).
Chip has made it clear that bottom of the roster decisions were based on special teams play, which was horrible for the Eagles last year. Chip has pushed very hard to improve them, some say too hard.
Fans’ ire was focused on Casey Matthews, who played poorly in the final preseason game against the Jets but did well earlier in camp. Andy Reid started him two years ago as a rookie, but Matthews did not rise to the occasion; fans still resent his washout. Matthews has never shown the power or play-making of his brother Clay, though he did strip Cam Newton for a key fumble in Oregon’s National Championship Game against Auburn. But Kelly has made it clear that he doesn’t care about the past – good or bad. What matters is what a player brings to the team now.
The team’s final linebacker won’t see many snaps in the regular defense, but if he’s good on specials teams he’ll make a difference every game. Last year, Matthews was second on the Eagles in ST tackles with 14, and yards denied or picked up on kicks count just as much as those on plays from scrimmage. He has reportedly become more physical, too.
Chris McCoy played well in the preseason at OLB but wasn’t especially physical; in the third preseason game, he was pushed around by a wide receiver, which is not a great sign.
Acho, who led the Eagles in preseason tackles, actually made the initial 53-man roster but was waived after the Eagles picked up Najee Goode on waivers from Tampa Bay. Goode had nearly the same number of preseason tackles — and a pick-six in his final game — for the Buccaneers. Acho looked strong against other subs and wannabes in the preseason, but — like Salas — was passed over on waivers by every other team.
It’s fun for talk radio blowhards and loudmouth fans to yell about Kelly favoring former Ducks but there isn’t much evidence. Only 3 of the final 53 played under Kelly at Oregon (plus two on the practice squad), and no one disputes the value of Patrick Chung. He’s the Eagles’ only decent safety; thank God Kelly brought him in. Previous coach Andy Reid picked Casey Matthews. And Maehl — who plays ST, slot and wide receiver — makes a lot of sense as the fifth receiver.
Salas made several spectacular one-handed catches in the preseason, but he’s one dimensional – too slow to play outside and he’s not a ST contributor. Shepard, an undrafted rookie, worked very hard and was great on special teams but didn’t catch passes very well, which is kind of important for a receiver. (The Eagles have been plagued by dropped passes by nearly all of their WRs and TEs this preseason.) Maehl caught 8 passes for 61 yards in his one preseason game.
In any case, the decision is made and the time for talk is over. Let’s play.
Mark Saltveit’s best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at the Oregon Ducks Stores in Portland, Eugene and Bend, at Powell’s Books, at the Multnomah Athletic Club M-Porium in Portland, various bookstores in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/
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