Chip Kelly Update: A Great Start

Mark Saltveit Editorials

Preseason games mean nothing — we all know that.

And yet … the Philadelphia Eagles stomped on the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, and it was hard not to be excited by the way the team played. Even if you ignore the final score — 36-10, not that it mattered — there were a lot of individual performances that were highly encouraging.

Indianapolis is tabbed by many as the AFC’s most likely Super Bowl contestant this year, but they didn’t show much depth or savvy against Philadelphia. Colts linebacker D’Qwwell Jackson said:

“Guys can’t wait for Chicago to come in and get back to a conventional style of football. You have to give Philly credit. They have a lot of weapons and they keep you on your heels.”

In the short stretches where the first teams played against each other, Philadelphia completely shut down the Colts’ run game, as nose tackle Bennie Logan had three tackles despite playing only nine snaps. Starting RB Zurlon (“Not a Synthetic Fabric”) Tipton had just 10 yards on his first seven carries.

To be fair, the Birds didn’t have much luck shutting down QB Andrew Luck‘s passing game, especially over the middle (CBs were OK), and the Birds’ offense didn’t really come alive until the subs were in. But starter Sam Bradford didn’t play at all, nor did any of the Eagles’ three excellent inside linebackers, Kiko Alonso (recovering from a concussion), DeMeco Ryans (Achilles heel) or Mychal Kendricks (“load balance” issues, most likely readings on sports science monitors that advise he was pushing himself too hard).

Ed Reynolds' first interception on Bryan Bennett

Ed Reynolds’ first interception of Bryan Bennett.

Several previously quiet players popped, including 2014 5th round pick Ed Reynolds, a safety out of Stanford who barely made it to the practice squad last year. Reynolds had two interceptions against ex-Duck Bryan Bennett, and broke up another pass. CB Eric Rowe and DE Taylor Hart each forced a fumble, and safety Chris Prosinski recovered one of them.

Last year’s first round pick Marcus Smith, a major bust in his rookie year, had one series where he broke up a pass, stopped a run and pressured the QB on consecutive plays.

UDFA tight end Eric Tomlinson (6-foot-6) was actually the team’s leading receiver with 61 yards on five receptions, while first round pick Nelson Agholor had a great 34-yard catch-and-run from the flat and showed his explosiveness and route-running.

ST ace and depth-safety Bryan Braman had the play of the game, first strip-sacking Bennett, then body-slamming him with a reverse, over-the-head suplex that belongs in an art museum. It was so beautiful that it made grown men cry, and sparked talk of a WWE career, which is probably inevitable with Braman anyway.

Ex-Duck Kenjon Barner was both a workhorse RB (six carries for 29 yards and a TD) and a kickass returner, taking a punt back 93 yards with a combination of physicality, jukes and speed. He’s pushing hard for a 4th RB slot, and followed up his great game with a slick move on Ravens ILB Arthur Brown in practice Wednesday.

Was there bad news? Sure, a little. Cody Parkey missed a field goal (34 yards) and an extra point (now from the 23-yard line). That’s twice in the last three games that he’s missed two kicks: he cost the Birds the second game against Washington last year with his two shanks. Wednesday in practice he missed another PAT and was only 7-10 on field goals, all inside the 50. Chip Kelly says he’s not worried — yet. I am.

The only new injury was little-known depth LB Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo; the team injury-waived him after he suffered a high-ankle sprain. Safety Earl Wolff did not play, as his injured knee has not really healed despite “mini-micro-fracture surgery” last year.

His days with the Eagles are almost certainly ending soon, which is a shame as he had real talent. I interviewed him on the second day of training camp, and while he talked a brave game, his body language betrayed a lack of confidence in his health. Kelly is not sentimental. Wolff has until September 1 to get on the field and show the team that they need him. Right now, it’s the longest of long shots.

The Eagles’ worst position group Sunday was the quarterbacks. “Throw-Semitty Sam” Bradford sat out on Kelly’s orders, which was probably smart — the Eagles started two marginally talented guards new to the offensive line, and a potential franchise QB recovering from two consecutive ACL tears would have been a bad guinea pig to test their ability on.

The starter, backup Mark Sanchez, was simply bad. He was two-of-seven for 52 yards, and his two completions were hospital throws, so high they forced the receivers to present a deliciously arched back in midair to the DBs. Jordan Matthews delivered as much pain as he received on his catch, while Agholor’s CB whiffed entirely, allowing the rookie to race in for a touchdown. That was lucky, though, and doesn’t change the fact that both passes were badly aimed and dangerous.

Matt Barkley had the best game of his NFL career, but since his only two regular season appearances were turnover-laden disasters, that’s not saying much. His numbers looked pretty good (12-of-20 for 192 yards, no TDs, 1 INT) and he dropped in two perfectly targeted passes to Matthews and Miles Austin right away, for 26 and 39 yards, respectively. He even had a good little run to evade a sack, which ended with a perfect slide.

The problem is that his passes remain super soft and floaty. Any decent cornerback would intercept them easily, and if they had been even two feet off target, even the Colts DBs (remember Eagles’ safety Colt Anderson?!) could have grabbed them. Watching those puffballs drop in was nerve-wracking, like watching your grandma land a blimp on a busy wartime aircraft carrier.

Tim Tebow Touchdown! (TTT)

Tim Tebow Touchdown! (TTT)

Tim Tebow, on the other hand, was better than his numbers suggested, because the Eagles third string offensive line was super ragged. Kevin Graf in particular allowed a number of pressures, and Tebow never got comfortable. He did run in for a seven yard TD on a read-option play though, and threw some good passes.

A tough competition for third-string QB has just begun; against the Ravens Saturday, Tebow is likely to have the better OL and Barkley the scrubs, so their relative strengths will be easier to compare. I’m betting that Chip goes for Tebow’s higher ceiling and value in certain situations (personal protector on punts, running QB near the goal line).

These are relatively small complaints, though. Does it really matter who the third QB is? Kelly’s vision is really coming together in an impressive way for this team. Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner are now penciled in as starters at guard, and both did well against Indianapolis. Ex-Duck Walter Thurmond has fit in well at safety, and Nolan Carroll looks solid at the No. 2 CB opposite free agent Byron Maxwell.

Bradford has been fantastic in practice, effortlessly showing (with his passing) why Kelly decided to trade Nick Foles (who struggled Monday night against the Raiders, especially when pressured). Once this team decides on a slot CB to replace the injured JaCorey Shepherd, they have a squad that’s solid across the board and very deep. Then the fun begins.

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