2013 is a different season for the Eagles. The team has a new coach for the first time since 1999. That affects the outlook for the team. In recent years, the Eagles were either Super Bowl contenders or even the Super Bowl favorites. Expectations were sky high.
This year? Most of the national media had the Eagles out of the playoffs. The Philly media is all over the place, but no one had the team pegged as some juggernaut. Fans have wildly differing expectations. Some see a highly flawed team that needs lots of help. Others thought Chip Kelly was getting a talented roster and could work some magic right away.
I was somewhere in the middle. Part of that was due to belief in the talent on the roster. I was optimistic because of Kelly. The last-place schedule and the lack of a clear favorite in the NFC East also played a factor. Also, the Eagles had things go nightmarishly wrong in 2012. The odds are that all of those issues won't pop up again.
Eagles wins usually make me sky-high, while losses are soul-crushing. This year is different. The team isn't a Super Bowl favorite. This isn't late in the Andy Reid era when I was desperate for him to win a title. This is the beginning of the Kelly era. I'm curious to see what he and the team will do. I still go nuts during the games. We all do that. The difference is that after a game, I'm able to take a deep breath and relax. I didn't buy into the hype after the opening win and I'm not feeling the gloom and doom of the last two weeks. I think I'll go back to being that way in future years, when the Eagles get back to being an elite team.
What about Kelly and the players? Kelly's goal is to win as many games as possible this year. But he also understands that a team in transition is rarely an instant contender. A coaching change happens for a variety of reasons. First, the team usually is coming off a bad season. The Eagles were 4-12 last year. The coaching change usually happens because the team lacks talent, underachieves and makes too many mistakes. You can certainly use those terms to describe the 2012 Eagles.
The new coach has to install his systems. He has to acquire the talent to fit his systems. He has to evaluate the current roster and see which players must go and which ones are fixable. The new coach also has to eliminate old mistakes and get the players to play smarter. Sometimes this happens in one year. Other times it can take three or four.
I think personnel is the trickiest part. In 1995, new offensive coordinator Jon Gruden inherited Randall Cunningham, Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. That group had been the heart of a talented passing attack for five years. Gruden installed his West Coast offense, hoping that the players natural talents would allow them to thrive. Oops. Cunningham was benched after four starts. Barnett and Williams played the whole year. They combined for 111 catches and seven touchdowns. It was clear they had to go.
The Eagles brought in Irving Fryar and put Chris T. Jones into the lineup in 1996. Both players were tough, muscular and at least six-feet and 200 pounds. Fryar looked more like a boxer than a receiver. Jones and Fryar were a great fit and combined for 158 catches and 16 touchdowns. Rodney Peete and Ty Detmer were the quarterbacks throwing them the ball. They weren't more talented than Cunningham, but were a much better fit and that showed with the results. Coaches must have the right talent for their systems.
While Kelly is trying to win games, he is also finding out who is part of the long-term plan and who isn't. Each game helps Kelly figure out which players he can keep and build around and which guys need to be upgraded or simply changed for a better fit. There aren't a lot of hard answers right now, but there are some clues. Let's look back at the Chiefs game.
I knew LeSean McCoy would play well this year, but he is currently on pace to set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season. I did not expect that. He's clearly a player you build your offense around. He had 20 carries for 158 yards. What makes him so dangerous is that he can take the ball and hit the hole for a big gain (like his 41-yard touchdown run) or he can make defenders miss with dynamic cuts and moves. He can turn sure losses into short gains. With no fullback to protect him, McCoy does have to deal with defenders in the backfield at times. He's just the man you want to do that because he's so elusive.
DeSean Jackson has been a better fit than I ever imagined. The Chiefs took him out of the game for the most part, but he still caught three passes for 62 yards. Jackson is on pace to have the best season of his career. Kelly challenged him to be more than just a deep threat and Jackson has responded in a big way. He can stretch the defense, but also make plays on short throws and crossing routes. He's even blocking pretty well so far.
Riley Cooper has been a terrific blocker, but he only has six catches. Cooper struggled in the Chiefs game. He's got to show that he can be a reliable threat across from Jackson. It could be that Cooper is simply meant to be a role player and that having him start is just too much. Jason Avant is a player I had my doubts about in terms of fitting into Kelly's offense. Avant had a great summer and is having a good year. He is still playing well in the slot. You know he can get open. You know he can catch the ball. Avant led the team with five catches for 87 yards against the Chiefs. He made an nice touchdown catch and also tipped a ball to himself for an impressive catch in the fourth quarter. Kelly admitted on Friday that Avant has really impressed him and is one of the reasons the Eagles aren't using more two and three-tight end sets.
Brent Celek has also impressed Kelly, as a blocker and receiver. He only has four catches, but is averaging 18.5 yards per catch. Amazingly, Zach Ertz has the same exact stats. The Kelly offense doesn't require the tight ends to catch tons of passes, but they do need big plays from those guys. Ertz and Celek are delivering in that sense. Ertz is coming along slowly, but the coaches love his potential. Expect his role to grow as the year goes along. James Casey hasn't been used much at all. Give credit to him for being very good on special teams. Casey is making an impact in the way he can. Casey will become more involved in the offense as it evolves during the year.
Michael Vick had his worst game of the year against the Chiefs. Kelly was quick to point out that Vick didn't get good protection and that had a significant impact on his performance. Vick has shown that he has the physical skills to be a good quarterback in this system, but I don't know if he's going to be a long-term fit. His contract is up at the end of the season. I think he'll need to have a great year for Kelly to keep him. Vick did have some great moments in the Chiefs game. He broke loose for a 61-yard run. He threw a touchdown to Avant and took a big hit on that play, but focused on getting the ball out and not the linebacker flying at him. Unfortunately, a couple of bad interceptions overshadowed the good plays.
The offensive line had a poor game, but they've mostly played very well this season. I think of the Chiefs game as more of an anomaly. Jason Peters had his worst game as an Eagle. I don't think anyone sees him as a bad player. Peters just had an off-night. Going against Tamba Hali was part of that problem. Hali played really well. Lane Johnson struggled with Justin Houston. Johnson has all the physical ability in the world. He just needs experience. Part of learning is getting beat by good players and seeing what your weaknesses are. There is no question that Johnson remains a key player for the future (as well as the present). Jason Kelce had one bad snap and one "confused" snap (he thought Vick was right behind him). He also had some terrific blocks against Dontari Poe that opened big holes for McCoy. Kelce is the key to the middle of the line. Evan Mathis also had some key blocks for McCoy. He is playing at a high level so far.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
The defense has been all over the place this year. They were better in the Chiefs game, but not good enough. Fletcher Cox played his best game of the year and continues to get more comfortable in the 3-4. He regularly beat right tackle Eric Fisher. While Cox is learning the new system, you can still see his rare physical ability. He has had multiple plays this year where he chased quarterbacks and forced them out of bounds. Guys that weigh 300 pounds aren't supposed to have that kind of speed. Cox had one sack on Thursday and just missed on a couple of other plays.
Cedric Thornton had six solo tackles and an active game. He's played well this year. I think the coaches love the fact that Thornton can play end or nose tackle in the 3-4. He's willing to do the dirty work if that's what is needed. The coaches use Isaac Sopoaga differently than a standard nose tackle. They have him move laterally and do some slanting as well. He's not just eating up double teams.
Bennie Logan was somewhat quiet in the Chiefs game, but the coaches do like him. Logan lines up all over. The coaches will play him in critical situations. He is a guy they're comfortable with. Logan is just learning on the fly. I'm still not sure about his long-term spot. There are times when he looks good at nose tackle. Other times he seems more natural at end. Clifton Geathers is tougher for me to get a read on. He made a couple of nice plays in the Chiefs game. He chased Jamaal Charles downfield and tackled him after a run that covered about 20 yards. That's great hustle for a big man. I think Geathers needs to be more consistent.
Rookie Damion Square sat out and was replaced by Vinny Curry, which made a lot of people happy. Curry made a lot of plays this summer and fans were excited to see him play. Curry was great against the Chiefs. He had a sack. He almost forced an interception. He exploded into the backfield and affected several other plays. Curry was used primarily as a pass rusher, something he does really well. If he can show that he can be a reliable run defender, Curry could see his snaps go way up.
Outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are solid veterans. They each had some good moments in the Chiefs game. They've each made plays this year. The 3-4 requires linebackers who are impact players. It does feel good to see Cole playing better than he did last year. Brandon Graham hasn't played as much as I hoped, but he did get his first sack in the Chiefs game. Graham is still trying to show that he can be more than just a situational rusher. The transition to linebacker has been a huge challenge for him.
The inside linebackers did not have a good night against the Chiefs. DeMeco Ryans played well the previous two weeks, but had a sloppy game on Thursday. He made some poor reads. He got stuck on blocks at times. He also missed a couple of tackles. Mychal Kendricks was highly erratic. He looked great at times. His early tackle-for-loss was very impressive. It looked like he was shot out of a cannon. But Kendricks missed way too many tackles. I think he is one of the toughest players on the team to evaluate. Kendricks has big-time ability. This system should be a good fit for him. You have to decide if these are simply growing pains (only a second-year player and dealing with a new system). You really do need to see a full body of work to get a true evaluation. Kendricks should be the kind of player that you see as a key to the future.
The safety position has not been good this year. Nate Allen has drawn a lot of criticism. He responded by playing his best game of the season against the Chiefs. Allen had a sack, broke up a pass and tackled well. He was more physical and aggressive than I've seen him in a long time. It would be great if the light went on for him and he could help this defense. We'll see if the Chiefs game was an anomaly or maybe the start of Allen turning things around. He does have NFL ability. That's what makes his erratic play so frustrating.
I am encouraged by Earl Wolff. He is a natural safety. He tackles well and is a physical player. The thing I like best is that Wolff is that he's decisive and aggressive. If he sees the ball, he attacks it. Some safeties sit back and need things to be obvious to them before they break on the ball. Wolff trusts his eyes and his instincts. Those are crucial traits for a good safety.
The corners played fairly well in the Chiefs game. Donnie Avery burned the defense, but that was against zone coverage. Aside from him, wide receivers caught just two passes. Give some credit to Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin for that.
The Eagles do need some kind of impact player in the secondary. That player simply isn't on the roster right now. Offenses don't fear any of the defensive backs. I think if you added someone like this it would have a big impact on the other players and would help them to be better than they are. It could be a safety or corner. There just needs to be someone with big time talent and some playmaking ability.
Even with a 1-2 start, the Eagles could still be in first place in the NFC East by the end of the weekend. The Rams need to beat the Cowboys on Sunday. If that happens, the best record will be 1-2. This means the Eagles will have a shot at the postseason if they can stay around .500 for the year. I'm not predicting that 7-9 will win the division (as Seattle did a few years back), but I don't think the Eagles need to win 11 or 12 games this year.
Staying in the race for the division will make the season fun for fans and it will bring out the best in the players. They don't want to hear about long-term plans. Those guys are competitive. They want to win now. Kelly will push them and try to get this team into the playoffs. The NFC East is wide open. Enjoy the 2013 season. There are still lots of areas for Kelly and his staff to address, but this is a talented team with some firepower. There should be some fun games to watch. Maybe Kelly can push enough of the right buttons to contend for a playoff spot in late December. No matter what your expectations are for this season, sit back and enjoy the ride.