As the flash blizzard relentlessly pounded Lincoln Financial Field and strong winds blew snowflakes sideways to the point that visibility was all but eliminated, one of the enduring images of the Snow Bowl is a bundled Chip Kelly on the sidelines trying to coach through the most extreme weather conditions of his career.
The man who has never once seemed fazed by the transition from college to the pros was not about to let inclement weather be a convenient excuse for him or his team to underperform.
"You have to deal with it," Kelly said. "It's the same for both teams, so it was just who could try not to shoot themselves in the foot as much, and I think we did a really good job – except for (quarterback Nick Foles' interception) – with ball security, and I think that was one of the differences in the game. They put the ball on the ground, I think we recovered three (fumbles), but I think it was on the ground seven times. We didn't make those unforced errors ourselves, a bad snap, things like that – we were a lot more underneath the center than we normally are. The one shotgun snap earlier in the second quarter that came flying back a little hot, Nick didn't handle it real well and that was the biggest concern for us."
While it appeared to observers that Kelly adjusted the play calling on offense to emphasize a more downhill rushing attack as the game went along, he refuted the notion. The play calling did not change, just the types of formations out of which the plays were run, starting with, as Kelly alluded to, Foles taking snaps from under center.
"The only real adjustment we made is we put in a little 'pop' pass with (tight end) Brent (Celek) at the end," Kelly said, referring to the fourth-and-12 pass conversion that enabled the Eagles to run out the rest of the clock. "We had talked about doing that and that was just a deal with Brent and Nick. All the other adjustments were just some formation things to get us some surfaces to run at and get some better double teams, but it wasn't anything out of the ordinary."
Even if it was only the formations that changed, it was obvious that something clicked in the second half for the Eagles on the ground. There were a bunch of plays during the first half in which the Eagles tried to run laterally, but that quickly proved counterproductive because of both the lack of traction for the offense and the dogged pursuit by the Lions defense. Running back LeSean McCoy had been able to churn out some solid gains, carrying the ball 18 times for 69 yards, through the first three quarters, but it was not until the fourth quarter that the seas parted and gaping holes straight up the middle presented themselves consistently.
"You need to attack defenses kind of across the front," Kelly said, defending the plays that called for East-West running. "You can't just always run the ball inside. We've got a back who can get outside and that's one of his strengths. We also have some athletic linemen. When you see the statistics on our sweep plays, getting Jason Kelce and Jason Peters out in space and running on (defensive backs) is a good plan. But I think, for the most part, going laterally in that game wasn't really the game plan you needed to run. We tried a couple things early laterally and you just weren't going anywhere, so it was more of just a downhill game.
"I didn't think we were going to score 34 points, but I thought we could at least establish some things. It was very difficult for the (defensive) linemen to get their feet in the ground a little bit, so we could create some movement up there and I thought our guys did a good job, especially with the double teams."
The offensive line kept plugging away and chipping away at that previously impenetrable Lions defensive front. As soon as the fourth quarter began, the line broke through and started pushing notoriously difficult-to-move defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley off their spots. The whole line worked in concert as a mauling run-blocking unit, with the help from tight ends and wide receivers downfield. Everyone did their part, and the results were bountiful.
"(Jason Peters), (Lane Johnson), (Jason Kelce), (Todd Herremans), (Evan Mathis), (Brent Celek), we got some guys who can block and we have a very, very talented running back," Kelly said. "There are a lot of things you have philosophically that you'd like to do, but you still have to have the players execute it. I've said this all along, this whole deal is a personnel-driven thing, and we've got some really talented guys on the offensive line and a really talented tight end when it comes to blocking. Our receivers had an outstanding game. One of the unsung heroes of yesterday, I don't think he even had one pass thrown to him, was Jason Avant. You watch the block he threw on LeSean's play where he took the safety back into a (second defender)."
What really seemed to open up the run game to hit on explosive gains, however, was Kelly's willingness to brush off the elements and call for passing plays that attacked the Lions secondary downfield. Foles' long, 44-yard completion to wide receiver Riley Cooper on the Eagles' first scoring drive late in the third quarter felt like the turning point, and the offense was unstoppable from that point on.
"I think we're balanced," Kelly said. "One of the things that opened up our running game yesterday and has opened up our running game this season is our ability to throw the ball over the top because I think the easy answer is if you're running the ball really well, (the opponent) has to get another man down in the box. If you do get a safety down in the box, then you're leaving (wide receivers) DeSean (Jackson) and Riley (Cooper) one-on-one outside. People will continue to do that if DeSean and Riley don't hurt them."
Still, the Eagles were much more conservative earlier in the game and seemed unwilling to take shots on offense, even as the Lions did so with some success. So what changed? Cornerback Cary Williams, knowing from experience that the defensive backs were actually at a disadvantage because of the field conditions, offered some advice to his head coach – let it rip and go deep.
"I have a lot of players come up and suggest a lot of things to me," Kelly said. "It's just you have to be smart enough to know who to listen to …. Cary's one of the guys on this team who's all football. He's a student of the game. You watch how detail-oriented he is in practice. He doesn't talk very much, but when he talks, you should listen to him. He's got a great football mind, he understands the game, and he made a really valid point (that) we could run by these guys because they can't transition – he said he couldn't transition."
During a five-game stretch in which the Eagles have come together as a team and exhibited both remarkable chemistry and a special trust in one another, it is fitting that the offensively innovative head coach would accept play-calling suggestions from his top cornerback in the midst of a unique game where a bleak outcome seemed inevitable – and that it would completely change the final result. Chalk it up as just another chapter in what has rapidly become a storybook season.
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