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Can The Eagles Take The Next Step?

Posted Jul 19, 2014

It didn’t take long for the Eagles to turn things around and regain their perch atop the NFC East division. In Chip Kelly’s first season as the head coach, the Eagles roared down the stretch in 2013, winning seven of their final eight games in the regular season, to win the division and reach the postseason for the first time since 2010.

The season ended too quickly, with a last-second loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round, and now the Eagles are back for more. They approached the offseason aggressively and continued to improve the roster and now enter 2014 as the defending division champs and one of the league’s rising young teams.

“Last year was a taste for this team of having some success and getting back to the playoffs,” said tight end Brent Celek, who is entering his eighth season with the team. “It felt good after a couple of tough years. We know how much work it takes to get there. Now we want to do more once we get there.”

To do so, the Eagles must navigate through a first-place schedule based on their finish last year, and they must win the battle against an improved NFC East. The challenge is there for Kelly and his team, and everyone is ready to, as Kelly preaches “complete the mission.”

“It’s a matter of improving every day, working together and then going out each week and playing our best football,” said quarterback Nick Foles. “It’s not supposed to be easy. The NFL is a great test each and every week.”

Foles is a big reason the Eagles are so optimistic that the team is heading in the right direction for the long haul. Foles, in only his second NFL season, never looked back after becoming the starting quarterback and finished the regular season with a remarkable 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions. His passer rating of 119.2 led the entire league. And the way Foles guided the Eagles down the stretch and into the playoffs belied his relative inexperience. He was calm, cool and outstanding the entire way.

“It was a great experience for me and for the entire football team and it hurt for a long time to lose in the playoffs because we wanted to keep playing,” said Foles. “But we have a great group of guys here and great coaching and we’re all excited about what’s ahead. We’re playing for each other and for our fans and it’s a fun time.”

It sure is for an offense that looks to build upon last season’s success, when the Eagles led the NFL in rushing yards and explosive plays of 20 or more yards. Running back LeSean McCoy paced the league in ground yards and in yards from scrimmage and he set franchise single-season records in both categories. It was a sensational, All-Pro season for McCoy, who is fourth in Eagles history in rushing yards and moving up with a bullet.

McCoy is the perfect fit for Kelly’s spread-it-out offense. With his ability to make tacklers miss in the open field, combined with the excellent blocking from a strong offensive line and a passing game that gains yardage in gulps, McCoy rose to the top of the NFL charts at age 25. His brilliance, though, is just one part of a varied and versatile offensive attack.

The Eagles go three deep with experience at tight end with Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey, all of whom can flex to various positions in the formation. At wide receiver, the Eagles welcome back Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury, and he teams with Riley Cooper, Brad Smith and rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff as the Eagles go larger outside in the passing game. Cooper’s breakout 2013 performance – he ranked third in the NFL with a 17.8 yard-per-catch average on 47 receptions – was huge for the Eagles, as his dual-threat abilities – Cooper is also a standout blocker in the running game – allow the Eagles to open things up even more offensively.

What helped take the Eagles to a new level on offense in 2013 was the play of the offensive line. Left tackle Jason Peters regained his All-Pro form after missing the 2012 campaign with an Achilles tendon injury, and center Jason Kelce returned after losing out on most of ’12 with a knee injury. Veteran guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans played fine football, with Mathis earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods. First-round draft pick Lane Johnson solidified the right tackle spot. The Eagles have some depth, led by veteran Allen Barbre, who subbed in nicely for Peters last season in a key road win at Green Bay.

The defensive overhaul continued during an offseason in which the Eagles added safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll II in free agency and used five of their seven draft picks on defensive players. Bill Davis’ group improved dramatically during the course of last year, and with another year in the scheme, the anticipated improvement of a young core and those additions made in free agency and in the draft, the Eagles expect to improve even more in 2014.

Special teams were vital to the Eagles’ success a year ago, and by adding players like Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, the coverage groups expect to be even more attacking and smothering. Punter Donnie Jones had a terrific first season with the team and signed on for three more years in free agency, and placekicker Alex Henery owns two of the four most accurate seasons in franchise history kicking field goals.

The task ahead is a challenging one for the Eagles, who take to the road against teams like Indianapolis, San Francisco, Arizona and Green Bay, with tough home dates against the likes of Seattle, Carolina and a much-improved St. Louis team.

But that’s what it’s all about, right? The Eagles have to beat the best to be the best, something they began in earnest last season. The next step awaits, and the level of anticipation is incredibly high.

“Everybody feels it,” said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. “We’re building here, and it’s a matter of continuing to work toward that common goal and taking it one step at a time.”

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