The 2015 Eagles were underachievers. The hype of last summer faded quickly and the team went 7-9. There are a variety of reasons the team didn't fare as well as expected. One of the key issues is that Chip Kelly and his coaching staff simply could not push the right buttons.
Think about the previous two seasons for a minute. Nick Foles posted amazing numbers in 2013. The offensive line was great that year, playing as well as any Eagles offensive line in a long time. DeSean Jackson had a career year in 2013. Jeremy Maclin had a career year in 2014. Mychal Kendricks had his best season in 2014. So did Connor Barwin. Darren Sproles had an amazing season in 2014.
There weren't many career-best seasons in 2015. It was just the opposite, in fact. DeMarco Murray had a miserable season just a year after leading the NFL in rushing. Kiko Alonso was expected to thrive in his reunion with Kelly, but instead proved to be a major disappointment. Byron Maxwell was brought in to be the team's best cornerback. He played better than many give him credit for, but still was disappointing. Center Jason Kelce had an up and down season. First-round pick Nelson Agholor did not play up to expectations.
If the 2016 Eagles are going to have a good year and improve on last season, Doug Pederson and his coaching staff need to figure out how to push the right buttons.
Coaches do this in a variety of ways. They can make a scheme change that fits certain players better. They could move players from one position to another, hoping to put them in a better position to succeed. The coaches could find that simply communicating with the players brings out the best in some guys. Motivation could also be an issue. Players are people. Sometimes they need a coach to motivate them. It is up to the coaches to figure out how to bring out the best in the players.
Don't overlook the importance of scheme and style. Brian Dawkins was a solid young player when Andy Reid took over in 1999. Jim Johnson became the defensive coordinator and saw a player with enormous potential. Jim Johnson made Dawkins a crucial part of his scheme and that changed the lives of both men. Dawkins became a star and Johnson, who had already been coaching for decades, instantly became a guru.
Jeremiah Trotter barely played as a rookie. He was very talented, but an awkward fit in the Ray Rhodes-Emmitt Thomas scheme. Jim Johnson knew just how to use Trotter and turned Trotter into his sledgehammer middle linebacker. Trotter left to play in Washington for a couple of years, but was a disappointment there. They used him differently than Johnson and the results weren't good.
Let's talk about some individuals. Lane Johnson is a good player. The Eagles spent the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft on him because they thought Johnson had the potential to be a great player. He has shown moments of greatness, but hasn't played at that level consistently. Johnson was not a fan of the up-tempo attack Kelly used. It could be that simply switching tempo helps him to play better. Pederson and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland need to figure out what else they can do for Johnson.
Agholor had a disappointing rookie season and is determined to play much better this year. The coaches don't need to to worry about motivating him. They do need to figure out the best way to use him on the field. Greg Lewis, the former player, is now the Eagles' wide receivers coach. He is doing everything he can to build Agholor's confidence, while also working on the details of the position. Route-running will be a bigger part of this offense. Agholor can do that so this scheme may be a better fit for him.
We're all waiting for Marcus Smith to show the ability that made him a first-round pick in 2014. Scheme change could help him quite a bit. Smith had the physical ability to play linebacker, but for some reason he struggled. The new defense has him playing defensive end. He can just attack at the snap of the ball. There will be less thinking and he can be more instinctive.
Kendricks is another defensive player on the move. He goes from inside to outside linebacker. Instead of reading plays and flowing to the ball, he will be attacking a single gap. Kendricks got to play this role some in 2012, so it won't be completely new to him. I'm looking forward to seeing how he plays this season.
Josh Huff is entering his third season. The coaches will likely be putting pressure on him to step up. In 27 career games, he has 35 catches and three touchdowns. That's not good enough for a player with his potential. I don't know how the schematic changes will affect Huff. He played in the Kelly offense in college so that's what he was used to. It didn't bring out the best in him in the NFL. The Eagles like Huff and will do everything they can to get a breakout season from him.
Vinny Curry was completely miscast in the 3-4 defense. The Eagles primarily used him in subpackages. The new scheme turns him from key role player to one of the spotlight players on defense. Curry is going to play more snaps and will have a great opportunity. The Eagles showed a lot of confidence in him and gave Curry a new deal to keep him around. Now he gets to keep playing for the team he's loved since he was a kid and he is finally in a scheme that suits his abilities and should let him thrive.
Pederson has set the right tone for his team by preaching the importance of competition. He's brought in players at key positions to encourage that competition. Pederson has put in schemes that fit the Eagles' personnel well. This allows the team to retool on the fly. They don't have to make drastic changes to find the right players for the new schemes.
As a former player, Pederson has shown a good feel for how to deal with players in a way that is fair to them and their teammates. No one is above the team, but at the same time, it isn't realistic to say you are treating all 90 guys the same.
Pederson saw Andy Reid do well as a first-year coach with the Eagles in 1999 and with the Chiefs in 2013. You can bet that Pederson learned some good lessons in how to take over a team and get the best from them through X's and O's, communication, motivation and leadership. It is now up to Pederson and his staff to push the right buttons and get the Eagles to start playing up to their ability.
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