Over the first 7 games of the season, while Chip Kelly occasionally made the sort of decisions that one would expect a first-year coach from the college ranks to make, there was plenty of blame and praise to go around each contest. Sunday’s 8-point loss to the Giants at Lincoln Financial Field, unless there was something unknown to fans and viewers, should be placed solely on the shoulders of Chip Kelly. It is the head coach’s job to prepare and field a healthy team on the field and put together a competitive gameplan. Kelly came up embarrassingly short in all three, among other, areas of preparation as the one-win Giants came into Philadelphia and left with a victory.
When it was made clear that Nick Foles (concussion) would not be on the active roster against New York, one could come to the conclusion that Michael Vick was healthy enough to play close to the level that he demonstrated at the start of the season. After the Eagles defense forced a three-and-out on the Giants opening possession, Vick would have a chance to answer that question. After a short completion to LeSean McCoy, Vick’s second pass of the game gave a look into just how healthy the quarterback was. Antrel Rolle intercepted the pass and it would have been humiliating for him if he was unable to do so. Vick’s pass was nowhere near the intended receiver and immediately the Eagles gave the Giants momentum.
From that point, over the next four drives the two teams followed a pattern: Giants kick a field goal, and the Eagles punt the ball. After four field goals and several possessions led by a more and more hobbled Vick, the Eagles saw themselves down 12-nothing with no indication of any progress. Kelly decided to remove the injured Vick from the game in favor of rookie Matt Barkley. Judging from how Vick looked in his 1 1/2 quarters of action, there was very little reason to think he was prepared for NFL action.
Barkley’s opening drive was one of the high points of the afternoon up until the last play. The young signal-caller appeared poised and composed as he helped lead the team down into Giants territory. The good feelings were short-lived however, as the inexperienced Barkley was unable to sense backside pressure and fumbled the ball while being sacked giving the ball back to the Giants and squandering the offenses best opportunity at putting points on the board.
The opening drive of the 2nd half showed similar promise for the Eagles. A steady dose of LeSean McCoy and a couple of short passes moved the Eagles back into Giant territory once more. Once again, negative plays doomed the Eagles, as a 3rd down sack and a failed 4th down conversion ended yet another drive. To go for it on 4th and 10 yards from the 32 yards was one of several puzzling decisions by Kelly. If a head coach does not trust his kicker to make a field goal from 50 yards out a week after having him attempt a 60+ yard try, it is either an indictment on the coach or the kicker, neither of which is a good thing.
From there, the Eagles offense showed almost no creativity or energy. Barkley looked all the part of a rookie and the team constantly put the defense back on the field. The lone highlight for the Eagles came midway through the 4th quarter, when the Giants were attempting a punt deep in their own territory. The long-snapper fired it over Steve Weatherford’s head and Najee Goode picked it up and score the team’s only touchdown of the game. The Giants would go on to run out the clock and win the game 15-7, all after a questionable decision to try an onsides kick with over four minutes remaining. With the loss, the Eagles extended their home losing streak to 10 games and allowed the Giants to end a 9-game skid on the road.
Before discussing the issues with Kelly, it is worth noting that the Eagles defense played exactly the way they have to in order to win games. No one is pretending that the Eagles defense has the capability to force three-and-outs every possession. That being said, for an offense that is supposed to be able to score in bunches, it is not as important to cut the opponents possessions short as much as it is to limit the damage. While the Eagles once again allowed their opponent to move the ball fairly effectively (325 yards), they did not give up any touchdowns. The Giants had multiple opportunities to deliver a knockout blow and were unable to do so, from a score standpoint, throughout the entire contest. Very rarely did you see too many Eagles defenders out of position and it was difficult to try to point out anyone who struggled throughout the game. It’s hard to believe that the defense, from an effort standpoint at least, is ahead of the offense through 8 weeks of the season.
Because of this, one has to start to look at Chip Kelly with an intensified scrutiny. Kelly came up miserably short as both a head coach and a playcaller against the Giants and it could have been worse had his defense not performed so admirably. For one, the Giants were the first team Kelly was going to have a chance to play twice as a head coach. Before Vick was injured in the previous matchup, the Giants appeared to expose a few weaknesses in the Eagles shotgun-heavy run attack. Obviously having a 100% Vick would have made a difference in Sunday’s contest, but for McCoy to only have 48 yards on 15 carries tells me that the Eagles tried to do what they did in the prior contest and, when met with resistance, gave up on it.
Which brings me to Vick. As a first year head coach, if one plays his cards right he can earn somewhat of a Mulligan as long as he handles personnel decisions correctly. It is not Chip Kelly’s fault that the team he was hired by did not have a quarterback capable of running his offense as he wishes. One cannot ask more of a head coach to play the players on his roster while trying to implement a scheme change, regardless of the results. However, when a coach decides to put players on the field who are clearly not in a position to do so, that is when one can question a coach’s mindset. If a coach starts making a habit of rushing back players who are not fully recovered from injury, it can have a detrimental effect to his rapport with his roster. Vick holds such an important leadership role on the team, and to see him first struggle on the field to make the simplest plays and then wallow on the bench while Barkley took his lumps could not have been good for team morale. If I were to compare the talent levels of the offense and defense on the Eagles, I would go a significant nod to the offense. However, as far as effort and cohesiveness goes, it would appear that the defensive unit has surged ahead of the puttering offense. Chip Kelly has a job to constantly adjust his offense to the way that opponents respond to it, attempting to remain a step ahead while others catch up. Regardless of the injuries over the last couple of weeks, Kelly’s offense has looked stale and unimaginative as they have now gone two straight weeks being shut out in the 1st half.
Finally, Kelly’s in-game gaffes are starting to rear themselves more and more. It did not take a doctor to realize that Vick could not be an effective player after the Eagles first drive. Rather than make a quick switch to Barkley, or for that matter give the rookie an entire week to prepare, he waited until the Eagles were down 12-0 before finally pulling the trigger. Not only did he put his team in a major hole by fielding a hobbled quarterback for almost half a game, but he put a rookie quarterback’s confidence in serious jeopardy for the 2nd straight week asking him to lead a comeback over a division opponent. His attempt to go for it on 4th and down was an embarrassing moment for the young Barkley, as he fumbled for the 2nd time in the game trying to find a way to pick up the conversion. Last, but not least, after the Eagles somehow put themselves in a position to win, Kelly decided to risk the entire game by kicking an onsides kick with over four minutes remaining. It is up to the coach to make the sort of decisions and adjustments during a game to cater to one’s personnel and position his team for a chance to win the game. Against the Giants, a team who has found ways to lose all season, Kelly made too many decisions that could have worked out well for the Giants. If he felt that the Eagles roster was short on talent and could not make the type of plays to win the game, he should have erred on the conservative side in situations like the 4th-and-10 or the onsides kick and put the onus on his defense. Eight games into his tenure, it is very difficult to tell if Kelly has a pulse of his roster.
At 0-4 in his first four games at home, Kelly will have a chance to get far away from Lincoln Financial Field for next week’s game against the Oakland Raiders. Maybe a return to the west coast will get Kelly to ramp up the preparation again, but with so much uncertainty at the quarterback position it is tough to imagine the season getting better before it gets worse. The strides by the defense continues to be impressive, as they have allowed less than 13 points a game over their last 4 contests.
I am curious to see whether the Eagles will be active at the upcoming trade deadline. I can’t imagine the team adding any pieces in exchange for what are becoming more and more valuable draft picks, however I would not be surprised if the front office decides to quietly increase their aggressiveness as sellers to see if they can’t compile a few more picks. With the Cowboys losing in comical fashion to the Lions, the Eagles are still right in the mix in the NFC East race, so it is an easy, albeit shallow, sell to say they are contenders at this point. I imagine Matt Barkley will be named the starter going into next week. It will be interesting to see if he performs better with a full week of preparation. Otherwise, it is becoming more and more difficult to follow storylines for this struggling team.