Football is not a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. That's an old joke, but one I've always loved. It is completely true. Football is a tough, physical and brutal game. Powerful men hit each other with tremendous force, over and over. It is a beautiful thing to behold.
The 2013 Eagles haven't had a full contact practice yet. That will start Sunday. The first hit will be great. It puts an electricity in the air. Anyone who has been to camp before knows what I'm talking about. Live hitting takes things up a notch. The coaches sense it. The players know it. The fans love it.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis made the remark on Thursday that the evaluation process will speed up once the team starts hitting. This is when you separate the men from the boys. Some players thrive in a non-contact setting. Other players come alive when the pads pop. As Brian Dawkins might say, those players "have some dog in them." There is a primal element to football, and some players respond to that. The Eagles need to find some of those guys. The team lacked tough guys over the last couple of years. One of the worst things you can call a team is soft. The Eagles were way too passive. That must change, and it needs to start Sunday when the hitting begins.
I'm not calling for Chip Kelly to run brutal practices like Dick Vermeil and Buddy Ryan did. Those days are long gone. The NFL limits how much hitting can go on. I don't even know that you need a ton of contact. The coaches do need to find players that like it. They need to find players who not only can hit, but players who want to hit.
When we talk about physical players, it is easy to conjure memories of Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters blowing up receivers that crossed the middle. That was a good thing, but it isn't exactly what this Eagles team needs. Kelly needs to find physical players all over, not just big hitters for the defense.
Think about the offensive line. During the Andy Reid , the Eagles were a passing team. No more. Kelly wants to run the ball. That means offensive linemen must be physical run blockers. This is what most of them want to do anyway, but there are some exceptions. Last year, King Dunlap struggled as a run blocker. He would have no shot to play for Kelly. All of the projected starters and key backups have a good history as run blockers, but the coaches want to see that with their own eyes. They want to see which players have a nasty streak.
Skill players need to be physical. Run-after-catch yards are going to be a critical element if the Eagles throw a lot of short passes. That means receivers need to be aggressive when they have the ball. Just going for the sideline or going to the ground when defenders get near you should no longer be acceptable.
Runners and receivers also need to be better blockers. The running backs must improve at pass protection. Most of this is just technique, but the coaches will also want to see who is aggressive when it comes to picking up a blitzing linebacker. Receivers are in for a real culture shock. Blocking is now a key skill. Oregon's receivers were among the best in the nation at blocking. That helped the Ducks turn short passes and runs into big plays and long touchdowns. Kelly teaches receivers that if they don't block, they don't catch passes.
The defense must be much more physical than it was in 2012. Personnel changes took care of a lot of those issues, but the coaches still want to see how the players perform. Last year the defensive linemen were taught to attack gaps. There will be some of that this year, but those defensive linemen will also need to be able to shed blocks. Running around blockers will no longer be part of the scheme. Defenders must defeat blocks. Linebackers must be more physical, and tackling needs to improve.
Defensive backs are under more of a microscope than any other unit. The secondary was frighteningly soft in 2012. The worst offenders are gone, so that should help quite a bit. Also, the scheme will put less pressure on the safeties this year, making their jobs a lot easier. Part of being a physical player is being aggressive. You can't do that when you're on your heels due to confusion. Aggressive players are on their toes and coming forward. That allows them to attack. The Eagles brought in physical players through free agency and the draft. The secondary should look worlds different this season.
There won't be live special teams hitting until the preseason games start. Special teams plays are too dangerous to run live in practice. You would have 22 of your own players running full speed at each other, rep after rep. The risk isn't worth the reward.
Physical teams win. Think back to the 2004 Eagles. They didn't just go to the Super Bowl because Terrell Owens was catching touchdowns from Donovan McNabb. That team could be tough and physical. Brian Westbrook was an outstanding pass protector. Freddie Mitchell is a joke now, but he was actually a solid blocker down the field. Jon Runyan was a force as a run blocker. Jeremiah Trotter was a sledgehammer of a middle linebacker. He could blow up offensive linemen or runners. Brian Dawkins was as physical a safety as you could find in the league. Sheldon Brown was as physical a corner as you could find in the league. Remember Jason Short? He was a linebacker that played on special teams. He threw his body around as if every play was his last. That team could hit, tackle and block.
The 2013 Eagles will be more physical than the 2012 team, but that's not enough. The Eagles need to become one of the toughest teams in the league. Kelly is the right coach to help make that happen. Some people think of him as a finesse coach since Oregon scored a lot of points, but nothing could be further from the truth. Kelly loves to run the ball. He wants his offensive line to pound on the defense and wear it down. Oregon ran the ball more than 60 percent of the time last year.
Kelly is also fond of saying that he wants size on his team because big guys beat up little guys. Does that sound remotely finesse? Heck no. Kelly wants his defense to be big and tough. He wants players who can control the line of scrimmage and stop the run.
Starting on Sunday, the coaches need to find the right players so that the Eagles can get back to being a tough, physical team. We want opponents to wake up on Monday sore from getting their butts kicked all over the field by the guys wearing midnight green.